From teacups to puppets, authentic treasures can be found wherever you travel ever since Marco Polo returned from China with silks and spices, travelers have carried home keepsakes to remind them of where they’ve been.
The perfect memento is unique to the place it comes from–although nowadays “you can buy almost everything anywhere,” says Durant Imboden, who runs the Europe for Visitors Web site at about.com. “Years ago, you could get a little Italian espresso pot only in Europe, or possibly New York City. Today you can find one in Dubuque. But it really doesn’t matter. The fact is, if you bought it in Italy, you think of Italy whenever you use it.”
Precious souvenirs can be found wherever you travel, in the United States or abroad–from Hawaii (salad bowls of koa wood) to Miami Beach (Bakelite jewelry in mellow retro colors); from Amsterdam (tiny dried flowers from the floating flower market) to London (whimsical tea cozies from Harrod’s department store).
The souvenirs described below were inexpensive–some costing only a few dollars–except in a few cases.
Jo Yarrington from Norwalk, Connecticut, began buying nineteenth century Irish spongeware on her first trip to Ireland in 1994. Browsing in a County Clare antiques shop, she came upon a jug that “seemed to capture the slightly untamed quality the rough edges, of the country I was coming to know.” Created by daubing day forms with a glaze-dipped sponge, the designs often depict birds and flowers native to the area. “It makes me think of Ireland,” says Yarrington, who has accumulated a dozen plates, bowls, and jugs on several visits since.
When she goes to visit her sister near Santa Fe, New Mexico, Yarrington, an artist and teacher, seeks out nineteenth century retablos–native painted scenes on metal given as offerings in church. Yarrington finds them in antiques stores and has paid as much as $500 for one. “You feel the passion of the person who did it and the handiwork that went into it,” she says.
In San Francisco’s Chinatown Donna Hodax found a pair of red silk pajamas with a mandarin collar for her 14-year-old daughter, Amanda. Hodax, who lives with her family in Phoenix, also collects demitasse cups and saucers in her travels. “I look in our breakfront and remember, Oh, I got that one in New Orleans, and that good bone china in England–and one I really like I got at Disneyland!”
A wardrobe of handmade silk saris–found in shops in Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur–was Susan Zises Green’s souvenir of a three-week visit to India. “Now I know why Indian women walk with such grace,” she says. “You feel very regal in saris.”
When Sue McDonald worked for Swissair, she foraged in local crafts markets all over the world for colorful handmade dolls and puppets. Marionettes from Prague and shadow puppets from Indonesia hang on the walls of her Chicago home. McDonald, who now works as a meeting planner but still travels a lot, buys silver charms wherever she goes. She has started charm bracelets for her four nieces, ages three to 13. “Some charms are obvious,” she says, “like the Eiffel Tower. But others are more unique, like cute enameled slippers from Istanbul.”
Michele Tomasik of Montclair, New Jersey, is careful to buy only locally made objects when she travels. “Always look at labels,” she cautions. “You can turn over a quilt in Maine and find it says MADE IN TAIWAN.” On a recent trip to Bar Harbor, she bought a rustic little birdhouse in a shop selling exclusively made-in-Maine items. In London, Tomasik snatched up a very English white eyelet camisole for her daughter at the Portobello Road market.
DeTraci Regula of San Diego is a frequent visitor to Greece. In the northern town of Yanina, she found “a wonderful shop near the old city walls selling incredibly beautiful, quality jewelry at a fraction Of the price you’d expect to pay.” (A silver amethyst ring can be had for less than $10.) The stones are different from those we see in the States, she says, with silver content higher than sterling, and excellent craftsmanship. She also favors inexpensive woven rugs from Greece with images of dolphins and mermaids (they make great bath mats, as well as cushioning for breakable items on the trip home).
Judy Taylor of Point Pleasant, Pennsylvania, started collecting snow domes as a child and resumed about 15 years ago when she found herself waiting in an airport for a delayed flight. A recent trip to New York City yielded one featuring Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral-shaped Guggenheim Museum by day and by night. “I get to be goofy and silly with my snow globes, which I’m not in other ways,” she says.
Coffee mugs used to be Steven Daniel’s souvenir of choice, but he found them “extremely heavy” to carry. So he switched to Christmas ornaments. Daniel, who lives in Chicago, has a Santa Claus from Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, dressed as Uncle Sam, hand-blown glass ornaments from Poland, woolen ornaments from Alaska made by native Americans, and a vintage blue glass chapel from France. “Every time I put up the tree,” he says, “it tells a story of where I’ve been.”