We all do it. Every tourist, every abroad student — we buy things as souvenirs we would never buy in our own country.
Consider a postcard… In America, you see a postcard of the Statue of Liberty or the Liberty Bell, and you think, “Ha, why would I pay a dollar for a picture I could take myself? Obviously, no one mails postcards… what is this, the stone age?” Postcards, despite being clearly made obsolete by various technological channels of communication, are still made because they are cheap and because they are the ultimate tourist trap.
I feel pretty confident in saying this because I, too, am a giddy, interested, stupid tourist whenever I see postcards abroad. I currently have a postcard from just about every city I have traveled to this semester. Postcards of Big Ben in London, the Duomo in Florence, the majestic Danube River, and the state building in Budapest, to name a few. I don’t know what it is, but when we see a postcard from a new place, it suddenly takes on a whole new meaning — from a floppy piece of cardboard in our hand to a portal that reminds us of an experience that we treasure and enjoy. It triggers the memory in the back of our brain and makes us feel like we are there, remembering the experience, just as excited as ever.
In addition to postcards, we will willingly overpay for anything that makes us feel like we are part of the home culture. Recently, I bought an Italian soccer jersey in Milan, as well as 2 Italian soccer scarves, because to me, they were inherently Italian. Uniqueness is a big thing for souvenir buyers, as we find that anything we could not readily purchase in our home country is something we must buy immediately (Haven’t any of us heard of the internet?). Everything from watches in Switzerland, to fish and chips in London… anything we see that we identify as being unique to where we are visiting, we go crazy for. (You should have seen how much stuff I bought at the Guinness Factory in Dublin. My bank account trembles just thinking about it).
The real reason that we tourists spend money, however, is that everyone wants to feel as though they connected with the culture that they experienced. It comes in different degrees, based on the length of your journey, obviously, but in some way, a true tourist or world traveler wants to do something that identifies them with the country at least once while they are there. Whether that is eat at an authentic cultural restaurant, buy authentic cultural attire, or attend an authentic cultural event, we search for an experience we have never had before in a place we have never been. After all, we do always covet things we have never had.
The next fun souvenir topic, and probably the most important, is mastering the souvenir gift. This can be tricky, and I have already had some trouble with this myself. The truth is, we generally have a lot of souvenirs to buy, in order to avoid the classic reaction of “Why did she get one, but I didn’t?” This also means that we can’t buy something too expensive for everyone, or we won’t be able to pay for dinner at the authentic cultural restaurant we already made reservations for a month and a half in advance. (We tend to get very prematurely excited about our trips.)
So how do you find something that is unique to the place you’re visiting, unique to the person you are giving it to, not too expensive, and is something they might actually want? … It’s almost impossible, and I feel like that last criteria gets overlooked most of the time. While hopefully the trend of t-shirts and other things saying “My (fill in generic family member title here) came all the way to (fill in place you are traveling here) and all I got was this lousy (fill in name of useless item here)” is dead and gone, there are still plenty of worthless souvenirs to go around.
While for a normal gift, our biggest concern in getting something is “Do I think they will like it?,” that seems to be the farthest concern from the mind of a souvenir gift buyer. Realistically, how many of us have gotten souvenir gifts and never looked at them again? Probably 90 percent of us. But it isn’t even the souvenir buyer’s fault– it is the system’s fault. We are obligated to buy gifts, and the stuff we have to choose from is stuff no one would ever want! It is inevitable that these gifts will be presented to less-than-thrilled family members. But it is the thought that counts, right? So remember, as you go to purchase that Swedish snow globe, or if you are receiving a“I heart Madrid” keychain — giving a bad souvenir gift is still always 100 percent better than giving no gift at all.
So as we all waste our money on these items of uselessness, let us remember that:
1. We are stimulating the economy of the country that is so graciously hosting us, and
2. To embrace this practice, as it is simply part of being a tourist. Enjoy your junk! I know I will.