Souvenirs, Seeking a Better Shoppertunity

I've been back from Europe for a few weeks, taking a breather, enjoying time with my sons and unpacking my bags from Spring touring season. What a mess my bag was at the the end! Stinky clothes, crumpled tickets and receipts, grimy toiletries ready for the garbage. Unpacking can be kind of gross. Sorry to disappoint, but even goddesses of packing light have bags in disarray after 7 weeks of constant movement. Yuck! It isn't all bad though, because I've got treats hidden in there, my souvenirs.Yep, you heard me right. I'm a professional traveler and I still buy souvenirs. I don't have much reason, I'm going to places I've been and will surely go back to. The motive isn't the same as it was years ago. I mean, do you buy souvenirs while at your job? But, boy, do my little trinkets and treats make me happy. It's like finding little nuggets of gold buried amongst the ruins of my grimy belongings. That's what I think about when I buy things, it's a good incentive to get you unpacking!I'd bet that in every light-packing, Backdoor-loving heart, that there's a secret love of souvenirs too. I know it because I'm asked all the time about what to buy. So let's talk about that dirtiest of travel industry words: shopping.Mainstream Tour ShoppingYou may wonder why I say that shopping is a dirty word. It's pretty simple. Shopping is the money maker for big, mainstream tour companies and guides. Guides are usually paid little but make big money by taking people to buy things like diamonds and leather jackets. As a guide for a company focused on the experience of the travelers, we are all opposed to forced shopping. It makes my skin crawl to see big groups being fed into factory tours with lots of free liquor and no obvious exits. I know it works like this, I've experienced it.For that reason, shopping has become something something I don't like to talk about.  If people ask for suggestions for the perfect leather purse, I give vague answers. Shopping is personal in any case. But the thing is, everyone does it. And you know why? Because it's fun. Bringing something cool and unique back from a foreign land is something that adds to an experience and provides something to tie our memories to.I've thought a lot about tourism and how to be a good, responsible traveler. How to be a person that benefits the places visited. Adding to the economy by shopping can do that, when done the right way.Everywhere you go, shoppertunities abound. You can't sneeze around Notre Dame without hitting a guy with Eiffel Tower keychains. Pink plastic Venus replicas, Big Ben clocks, aprons with David's naughty bits printed on them...you name it, I've seen it. If you love that stuff, that's cool. I have a corner in my heart for kitsch. My only issue is that most of the fun ticky-tacky stuff you find in tourist markets tends to be pretty generic, made in China.I'd like to suggest looking at souvenir shopping in a different way. Buying from locals, unique things made where you are visiting, preferably from the producer. Buying things that you can actually use, not just put on a shelf to collect dust. I've got a few ideas on items to consider.Handmade ClothingI was in Pisa recently and saw this....Miles and miles, as far as the eye could see, a sea of ugly t-shirts, knock off handbags and leaning coffee mugs. Ok, I admit the mugs were kind of cool. In the middle of all of this I saw this sweet girl and her very earnest little kiosk, called Luxury Spaghetti.I'm a knitter and her hand printed logo of a knitted tower caught my eye. As it turned out, she was the only one in the souvenir area of Pisa that was selling something handmade. Along with t-shirts she specialized in making jewelry out of spaghetti, carefully engraved with a name or design. I've seen that done on rice, but spaghetti is a cute idea. She also sold watercolors of the tower. This little kiosk was like a drink of water in a hot desert of plastic tackiness, I couldn't help but buy something and support her cause. If only all of the kiosks at the Leaning Tower were handmade crafts!There are many shops these days selling handmade or hand decorated clothing items. I like this as a souvenir because you will actually use what you are bringing back. I tend to anticipate buying a new dress abroad when I pack and leave a little room in my bag.I've noticed shops in beach locations like Athens that sell sandals, custom made for your foot while you wait. Some shops sell locally designed and made clothing, like a chain in Rome I shop at called Chopin. If you look and ask around, you'll see many choices for locally made items.JewelryMy favorite souvenir is jewelry. Jewelry is light and packs easily. I'm not talking about expensive things, though, I'm thinking about costume jewelry. I seek out necklaces that are handmade and unique, with bonus points for a design that says something about where I bought it. I wear a different necklace every day while on tour because they are all interesting and are good conversation starters.As an example, one of my favorite shops that I continue to go back to is Rialto 79 in Venice. There is no lack of glass jewelry in Venice, but the place that I go has some of the most interesting beads, all made in the Lagoon. If you look carefully at the cheap stuff, you'll see it probably wasn't made in Italy.The owners of Rialto 79 are very kind and always patient with customers. The beads are their own design, made nearby in Murano. The jewelry isn't expensive, most things $10-$40. If I can't find what I'm looking for, Luisa opens the drawers of colorful beads and lets me design what I want, putting it together while I watch. Chain isn't long enough? No problem. She pulls out a new chain, measures me and uses pliers to make it fit perfectly. Not only do I enjoy their jewelry, but I like supporting real Venetian artisans, taking pride in their family craft.FoodThe biggest crowd pleaser for souvenirs is food. If I'm buying for someone else, it's always food. I don't see much point in giving a memento of my trip to someone who didn't go, but bringing back a piece of what I enjoyed is priceless.Wine is an easy choice, but it's a little heavy and cumbersome the lug around. If it's for me to drink, I'll bring back the wine. Otherwise, it's not worth the effort. Candy is always a hit, no matter who you're shopping for. It's getting harder to find things that are not available in the US, but you'll find them if you look. Cheese is a good souvenir, and it's allowed back in the US under some conditions. Aged, vacuum-packed cheeses are just fine. No Camebert or gooey cheeses. Olive oil is also a great item to bring back as the quality abroad can be much better that what you find at home and at a better price.I have a deep love of foreign grocery stores. I think you can learn so much about a foreign culture by their grocery stores--what is sold in greatest abundance, what they sell that we don't. I've recently brought back some fun grocery items for myself- chestnut paste and chestnut flour, rabbit pâté, Bavarian mustard, salmon paste in a tube. Grocery items are inexpensive but make fun gifts.Keep in mind your customs restrictions when buying food. No fresh fruit or veggies, no meats like salami, only 2 bottles of wine.Funky JunkMany cities have lovely markets on the weekends. I like to look up the flea market dates and times from tourist information and plan my day around a market visit. I'm not talking about touristic markets like the San Lorenzo Market in Florence, but funkier garage sale markets. I look for vintage jewelry, postcards and magazines from the past. My kids collect cat figurines, so I comb the tables to find them a treat. You can find just about anything, and often the hunt can be part of the fun.Arts and CraftsThis is a category that seems pretty obvious, but I find it surprising how hard it can be to find something artsy that doesn't cost a small fortune. Original paintings or prints are pricey, even from street vendors. Even so, if the piece is striking to you it may be well worth the price tag. I prefer to bring a sketchbook and do it myself. It might not be professional quality, but something I drew myself connects powerfully to the memory of the moment I drew it.Other kinds of arts and crafts can be found. I knit, so I look for yarn shops selling locally made yarn. Consider your hobbies and find shops that sell tools or materials for those hobbies.Pottery is popular in many parts of Europe. I found these adorable handmade tiles in the Cinque Terre that you can assemble like a mosaic village. Clever idea. Only challenge with pottery is weight and getting it home in one piece. It can be done, and I suggest packing it well and carrying it on the plane rather than shipping. Which leads me to...Getting Your Stuff HomeI never ship. Shipping is super expensive and takes forever. Depending on the country, you may never see your purchase again. I recommend bringing a fold-up duffle bag with a zipper. Don't go cheap here, get a nice one, made with good fabric and tough handles. Trust me. I've shredded a bunch of these!  There are big duffle bags and smaller totes available. Use that as your carry-on luggage and check your main bag on the flight home. Who cares if that bag gets lost, it only means that the airline will bring your stinky laundry to you.Pack your goodies in your carry-on and pad them with clothes. Wine, olive oil and other liquids have to go into your checked luggage, pad them well also and wrap them in plastic bags in case of breakage.To Buy or Not to BuyAs a final thought, I'm always asked advice about what, when or if something should be bought. Should you buy that scarf? Yes. You should. And here's why. You may never be in that location again. You won't have time to go back, most likely. I suggest you risk having buyer's remorse rather than buyer's regret. I see travelers every day that hesitate and later wish they'd just bought that cool mug or pair of earrings. If you buy something and later realize that you don't like, give it to someone for Christmas. You know someone who would be thrilled with that thing. That's a much better feeling than lamenting a missed opportunity.Not a shopper at all but kind of wishing you were? Think about something cheap or free that would be fun to collect in each city. Pins or patches for your bag, bus tickets, toiletries from the hotel. I collected matchbooks as a kid. You can't do that today of course, but I still have my collection from 30 years ago.Have ideas on good souvenir items? Please comment here or share your ideas on my FB page!Happy shopping, er....traveling! ;)