“Souvenirs” get a bad rap, thanks to all the cheesy shops that insist on selling t-shirts, shot-glasses, and other generic items as meaningless reminders of all the places we go.
Show me your travel keepsakes and I’ll tell you if you’re a traveler or a tourist. Each has its pros and cons, but there’s really no excuse for another “I Love NYC” t-shirt in the world.
As someone embarking towards a life-changing plan to live for five years around the world, it’s safe to say I’ll be selling a lot of what I own over the coming months as I work towards my goal of being a true globetrotter. When I come back, I’ll be consciously “starting over” in a new life as a new person who’s shattered all her preconceptions of the world. My goal is to assemble much of that “starting over” as pieces I collect one country at a time.
Little moments of time and places
Some travelers will tell you how all these little moments in time and places in the world have left an indelible mark on the person they became. How a moment in a crowded market in India, faced with happy-but-poor pestering children helped transform how they saw the world, and so when they see the shawl they bought that day, they don’t see a shawl but rather an epiphany that occurred to teach them what’s truly important in life and how little is needed for happiness.
Or they’ll tell me about a few tiles they brought back that were handmade, painted by some artisan on a beach in Mexico, and how the tiles remind them of one euphoric night they spent sitting on a beach until sunrise, talking and sipping tequila with wonderful people.
Instead of bringing back unoriginal gift-store tchotchkes, buy meaningful items to transform your home. Here are some ideas:
So many regions have their own style of making ceramic tiles. Whether it’s the vivid blues, yellows, and whites you’ll find used on Mediterranean tiles, or the glazed terracotta found in places all around the world, or something funky you picked up in Africa, you can always use a smaller sample of creative tiles to break up a wall of understated tiles somewhere in your home.
Or get creative and do something like making a little tea tray, resurfacing a small side table, or just use them as drink coasters on your patio in the summer like I do.
Textiles, skins, & leather
This is another page from my playbook. I have a beautiful 1840s antique chair I plan to upholster in leather when my world travels are over, and I specifically want to buy the leather in Istanbul. I can see myself at age 70 still loving that chair after a quarter century, the leather soft and creased from decades of wearing it in, while fondly remembering my time exploring the exotic markets that Istanbul is famous for.
You can buy all kinds of interesting scarves, batik cloths, tapestries, animal skins, and leathers that are specific to where you’re traveling. Think of a simple room-dividing curtain, or small elaborate embroidery pieces that can become throw-pillow cases.
Consider leathers or fabrics you can upholster dining room chairs in, or turn into a table runner for a splash of color. Use a gorgeous scarf on a same-sized table and cover with cut-to-size tempered glass for a unique surface. There are all kinds of ways to have impact in large and small ways through textiles.
Rugs & Wall Coverings
In many places you can find great handwoven rugs and wall coverings that depict scenery or lively happenings native to where you’re visiting. Take as an example a 4×5 weaving that depicts coffee-pickers on a mountain you stayed on during a trip to Colombia, but now imagine it as a dramatic centerpiece on your wall in your dining room, and imagine the years of conversations it’ll start, where you relive your trip time and again, telling guests about all your adbentures there.
The same is true of gorgeous rugs. 2.5×5-foot hallway runner won’t be a huge burden to bring home after a trip, but it’s something you can enjoy for the next 20 or 40 years of your life, if you choose well. (Beware of designated “antique” rugs in places like Turkey and Italy where laws may prohibit you from exporting antiques.)
Art and Photography
Paintings and photography are terrific keepsakes, if not an obvious one. Whether you purchase it locally or you make it yourself, it’s a way to keep a very literal visual of your journey. I love photography and it’s easier to do well than it’s ever been, thanks to all kinds of new technical advances with digital photography and the brilliance of recent smartphone cameras.
You can get enlargements up to 16×20” out of a lot of phone cameras these days, something that blows my mind. I’ve gotten 20×30” canvases printed off iPhone 5 photos, and the iPhone 6 resolution blows its predecessor away!
Save your money on your knickknacks, and blow some prints up instead.
Masks, Natural Pieces, & Other Aboriginal Art
A lot of places have great woodcarvers working in local styles, whether they’re making walking sticks or ornamental masks. If you find a form you love, these are the kinds of items that are really worth collecting. Take masks, for example. They may be wildly divergent in style when you look at a New Zealand Maori mask versus a Canadian West Coast Haida Gwaii mask and even masks of, say, the Bakongo tribe from Africa’s Congo, but the fascinating thing is how well they all group together in the same space, because they share a form, if not a look.
Collecting masks and other genuine aboriginal art can be a really great way to support threatened tribes, pay respect to their culture, while making a good investment in something that may increase in value as the years progress. Even if not “antiques,” these items will increase in value if you’re purchasing with a keen eye for quality.
Dishes, cookware, and more
Whether it’s an 1920s French saucer or a modern tea set, or a handmade salad bowl, ceramics and porcelain tend to have very different styles all around the world. What about a Turkish coffee pot? A Greek olive jar? A French cheese-serving set? A Japanese ceremonial tea set? The famous blue-rimmed handblown glasses of Mexico? Some Raku earthenware from a hippie commune in New Mexico?
For my entire childhood, every time we ate on our Mexican plates and drank from our blue-rimmed glasses (long before they were in every decorating magazine), I remembered our wonderful Disneyland trip and its cross-border shopping trip in Tijuana when I was 6.
Go ahead and combine all kinds of dishes and glasses to reflect your travels and rekindle memories for decades. Matchy-matchy is a thing of the past, instead, collect what you like and celebrate diversity.
Wherever you went, there you are
Those who’ve never travelled far don’t understand how much it changes us. You don’t need a lot of keepsakes from your travels, just one or two meaningful items that make you smile with a good memory. Surrounding yourself with these will help you remember all the steps you’ve taken while crafting a worldview and life of experiences that are unique to you — and look fabulous in your home for years to come.