The Art Of The Souvenir

Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Travel Writer

The best souvenir I ever heard of was a giant wheel of cheese that my friend Era smuggled out of her native Albania.

This was not just any cheese. It was 20 pounds of stinky, sheep-milk kashkaval, the hard cheese found throughout the Balkans. And of course, such an item is virtually guaranteed to be on the U.S. Customs no-no list for importation; had they searched her luggage and found the wheel, it could have been quite the scene. But they didn’t, and Era was eating Albanian sheep cheese all year.

“I’ve heard of a taste of home, but this is ridiculous,” I joked.

Travel souvenirs are a tricky business. It’s the rare tourist who can resist the lure of returning home with a little piece of paradise, but choosing a good souvenir is actually a bit of an art.

There are so many ways to get it wrong. Take clothing: That batik dress that seemed tropical and carefree on the island might look ridiculous back on Park Avenue. Inexpensive wine from your vineyard tour of Argentina can get expensive quickly with import duties. Hand-painted Italian pottery can crumble in transit; that aboriginal sculpture may send your luggage into expensive, overweight territory.

Or you can try to sneak in food, and end up like my husband, who arrived in the U.S. from Europe for the first time with a suitcase full of meat. The dogs were all over that luggage. Sausages spilled across the floor at JFK. Unamused, the customs officer informed my husband that foreign meat is prohibited, and unceremoniously tossed it all in a bin.

“I never thought you couldn’t travel with meat,” he still says with surprise.

In theory, food and drink make terrific souvenirs because they won’t gather dust on a shelf somewhere. Traveling within the U.S. is no problem. But importing food from overseas can get you in a sticky situation, as my husband found out, and more than a bottle or two of shiraz will land you in import taxes.

Clothing and shoes (which I always buy in Spain, Italy and Argentina) are not only fun reminders of where you’ve been, but practical. Every time I wear my Madrid leather boots or my Italian linen dress, I’m reminded of strolling down the Gran Via or the Ponte Vecchio.

My biggest shopping coup was a fabulous black cashmere coat with fur trim, bought in Spain in the 1990s, when the dollar was ridiculously strong against the peseta. I think I paid about $50, and for that kind of bargain, I was willing to sweat in that coat during the entire journey home — in August. It was a souvenir, not just of Spain, but of an era when the dollar was strong, Europe was cheap and handcrafted garments were worth crossing the pond for.

Sometimes souvenir-buying is shaped by dramatic events. My grandparents made their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Israel in 1973, and my grandmother headed straight for the jewelry shops her first day in Jerusalem, buying all the gold necklaces she could find. I’m still not sure what inspired her. But it was a good thing she got her shopping in early, because the very next day the Yom Kippur War broke out — and shops were closed, with the country in a state of emergency. It was an exciting and terrifying time to be a tourist in Israel, and those gold necklaces remain the only physical vestiges of that trip.

A friend of mine once snuck a huge emerald ring, which would have doubtless incurred heavy duties, out of Columbia with a very crafty trick. Observing that local women wore crosses on chains around their necks, my friend (whose name I’ll avoid for obvious reasons) hung the ring on a simple gold chain dangling under her shirt. She’s Jewish, but the sight was so common that it failed to arouse the notice of the customs officer.

I don’t recommend evading duty tax, of course. And in some parts of the world, be careful with items that could be considered national treasures (and therefore subject to confiscation at borders): pre-Columbian gold artifacts in Central America, icons in Eastern Orthodox Europe, even the yield of an archaeological dig.

Contraband aside, jewelry does make for an excellent souvenir; it’s lightweight, useful (if you like to wear it) and easy to pack. On my first trip to Venice, I brought back Murano glass pendants as gifts and never had to expand my suitcase.

If you’ve got more luggage space, home accents are a fun way to bring your vacation into the living room. A wall hanging, decorative plate or bookend can be a good conversation piece. My mother swears her chai tea tastes better out of the Gaudi mugs I brought her from Barcelona.

Long-haul shipping has never been easier, and many merchants around the world are happy to arrange for your Turkish rug to fly home separately. More and more, I use the post office abroad to mail home boxes of things I’ve bought — rather than schlep them on my back.

His souvenir weighed a bit more, but it’s tough to top what my friend Daniel brought home from Italy. Her name is Elena, and they’ve been married nearly 10 years.

And for the rest of us, there are always the photos.

A souvenir shop in Prague. Bringing make mementos isn’t as easy as you might think.

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