Inevitably, the time arrived during our family vacations when my wife would announce, “Today is the day that we are going souvenir shopping.” Her proclamation usually came at a point when the enthusiasm my two young daughters initially showed during our trip began to wane after multiple days of being dragged to museums, restaurants, and historical sites. Instead, we now headed into shops with endless shelves lined with snow-globes, playing cards, t-shirts, and other mass-produced items trying to pass themselves off as “local.”
My daughters took on the task of finding just-the-right souvenir with seriousness and urgency, as if their decision determined the future of an empire. We traveled from shop to shop in an attempt to find that one item that could encapsulate their experience of the trip and provide entertainment or fascination beyond its singular moment of purchase.
If the twenty-four replicas of the Empire State building carefully lined up on the shelves were not enough to demonstrate that there was nothing inherently special about these objects, the movement from shop to shop equally revealed that there was nothing special about the stores themselves. The diverse storefronts made it seem as though one might hold that unique object that could strike a daughter’s fancy, but this hope quickly dissolved in the ubiquity of objects that appeared in store after store.
Did my daughters really need another item made of plastic sitting on and in their dressers? I would often have fantasies of taking a shovel and a large garbage bag into their rooms to eliminate the clutter. As we shopped, I knew that the object we were working so hard to find would end up buried in a drawer among all the other treasures accumulated from birthday parties, Christmas stockings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and other travels.
A souvenir destination.
I would like to think that the souvenir shops that line resort towns and city streets are emblematic of U.S. consumerism, except that the same phenomenon occurs in other countries. While on our honeymoon in Spain, my wife and I went from store to store looking for something that we could afford to take back with us as a signifier of our trip. Our guidebook had suggestions for locally-made, quintessentially-Spanish objects to take home, but silver was too expensive and capes were too eccentric to take seriously. Everything else fell into that derided category of mass-produced object that failed to represent local craftsmanship, culture, or history. We ended up coming home with two Miró t-shirts and a small tile plate. We must have looked at hundreds of similar plates, because they were everywhere. Ours, however, had a Star of David on it, which for us represented the blend of Moorish and Jewish influence on Spanish architecture and culture that we found so fascinating. Out of relief that we actually found something meaningful to take back with us after hunting through so many souvenir shops, I commented to the woman ringing up our purchase that we really liked her store. She looked at me like I was crazy, probably because she knew that her store was like all the others.
Even though I despised the thought of bringing more pieces of plastic into my house and would grow tired of going from shop to shop while one daughter weighed whether she wanted to buy the figurine at this store or the one she eyed a while back—can we even remember the shop where we saw it?—I secretly liked souvenir shopping. I would often muse how my culturally aware friends would be horrified to learn that I actually enjoy spending precious vacation time in stores full of essentially useless items that are mostly made in China. But I love the hunt and the expectation of suddenly finding that singular object that will capture and lock away the essence of our trip until my eyes alight on it sitting on a shelf at home, the memory of the vacation with my family is released, and I am immediately transported back to a different time and place.