In hindsight I should have written this blog before the summer holidays. However, it took the holiday season for me to consolidate my thoughts. Believe it or not, these thoughts have been developing since 2016. Intricately linked to interiors, these thoughts have been about souvenirs. Yet another word I constantly struggle to spell, but one that has an ancient Latin origin of 'subenire', so is unlikely to change for my benefit!.
One key aspect of having a sustainable home is being free from the interior fashion cycle. A unique home that shows depth, thoughtfulness and individuality is vital to this. In terms of decoration and accessories, this essentially is achieved by having items in your home that provoke memories or meaning that are closely linked to you and your family. One of the most popular and obvious ways of achieving this is having keepsakes or mementos from your travels, serving as a reminder of your adventure. That's exactly what the ancient Italians meant by "subenire" which means 'to come to mind',
Several experiences, over the last few years, has made me question how buying souvenirs can create an unique space when there is so many mass produced, poor quality souvenirs around? How can you bring treasures back into your home that are of a good quality, are meaningful, thoughtful and ethical. Firstly let me share with you two experiences, before I make suggestions on how to go about it.
In 2016 I was lucky enough to go to Vietnam. "Go to the markets they're amazing" I was told. I visited quite a few markets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and was seriously, seriously disappointed. Don't get me wrong, They're impressive. They're massive. They're crammed full. The food is amazing. But when it came to finding souvenirs, that were interesting, unique or useful, it was nothing short of depressing. I had the same experience with the night markets, even though they were beautifully decorated and smelt amazing. These markets are full of small stalls, the vast majority of which are selling the same items. You can tell by the sheer volume and repetition in product detail, that these are mass produced. Many of the items I picked up in the markets of Vietnam where Made in China, or Fabrique en Chine. Regardless, these markets were full of tourists bartering on what was essentially lowest denominator souvenirs, or as I like to call it "tourist tat". Due to tight schedules, or the lack of knowing where else to go, tourists default to these markets for shopping. What ever your thoughts are on this, surely there's something fundamentally wrong buying a souvenir which hasn't actually been made in the country you are visiting and, more importantly, supporting its people and economy.
This doesn't just occur overseas. I recently took English relatives to look around Melbourne city and buy a few keepsakes. Naturally we gravitated to Queen Victoria Market, because everyone wants to go to QVM. Taking them there, as an unofficial tour guide, left me reeling with anger and embarrassment. Melbourne is a hot bed of design, creativity and individuality. There's a huge handmade movement going on, with hundreds of people making all sorts of beautiful, unique items. But you'd be hard pressed to find anything of the sort in QVM. On a normal market day, the sheds along the back are providing a similar experience to the one I had in Vietnam. Lots of different market stalls selling the same items, that are made en mass and mostly overseas. Many of the items are cheap, pointless and of poor quality. With thousands of tourists accessing QVM on a daily basis, what does this experience say about our beautiful city. Depressing beyond words. Lets move on....
There are many more stories like this I could share. Having travelled extensively since the age of 16, my experiences with souvenirs is considerable. However the way I go about finding souvenirs has changed dramatically over the years and it's this I wish to share. Forget markets, there are many other ways of procuring keepsakes on your travels and find meaning mementos or practical souvenirs. With the internet, it is now fairly easy to find alternative options, you just need to know what to look for and where.
Imagery - Photographic imagery is really en trend at the moment. But it's nothing new. The issue I have with the trend is its relevance to the home dwellers. Why put images up of landscapes or places you have never been to or of portraits of people you have never met. Holidaying is the perfect opportunity to get some great imagery of people and places that have meaning. Making them relevant and often unique. Clearly, you can either take it yourself or buy it there. I recently worked with a client who had the most amazing photographs of her travels across Asia. We carefully chose three shots that worked well together, held great memories and had stories to tell. Enlarged and beautifully framed, these photos are now hanging along her hallway. Stunning. Original. Relevant. And due to this, timeless.
Artwork - Another great way to remember your adventure, and also an opportunity to support a budding artist, is to purchase original artwork. Where you go will depend on your budget (and your taste), but the first step is to stay away from the tourist markets and keep your eyes peeled as you go about your tourist duties. Cafes, ethical shops (see below), promenades, art societies & clubs, pop up and boutique galleries to full scale professional art galleries all sell art. The ultimate experience is to see the artist in action painting, with their pieces for sale at their side, where you can see their style (and that it's theirs). Something that really can't be planned. Wherever you go, be mind full of reproductions, so it's worth doing research on local artists and styles beforehand. Platforms such as Instagram are a great way to start this research. You can also ask the locals when your there. You can access local art on a very tight budget and make it look great. Achieved simply by framing up a beautiful art card or postcard from an art gallery, and placing them in a vignette.
Do as the Romans do - As you go about your travels you will see how local people live, eat and play. There's thousands of ways that their lives will be different to yours and many will be related to an item or activity. Taking one of those pieces home can serve as a great reminder. It might be a certain item of clothing, a utensil, an accessory or a new game you have never seen before. These items will be found in local shops. So you need to go about it like a local. If it's a piece of clothing go to a clothing store. If it's a game, then try a toy shop. If it's a kitchen utensil then go to a kitchen shop. Shop in local shops to buy everyday items. You'll probably make a local traders' day too.
Literature - Books, magazines and newspapers. Yes OK, they might be in a language you can't read, but many classic stories will be translated into English. What better way to learn about another culture than by reading its classics. You could buy magazines and newspapers and use them to decorate items or wrap presents when you return home. One of my favourite items is an old box I covered in a Thai newspaper and covered in PVA glue. I have also seen drawers and small spaces lined with such items and it's a lovely touch.
Forage - Seek out junk shops, flea markets, antique stores and recycled stores. You will find all manner of interesting articles and pieces. These are often really off the beaten track so you will be seeing real areas of your destination.
Food - Food is a huge part of your travel experience. So why not buy some and bring it home. Having been less than complimentary on markets so far, I have to confess that these are great places to go to for food purchases. Tea. Coffee. Noodles. Herbs. Spices. Biscuits. Chocolate. Sauce packets. Chips. Need I go on. Just make sure you check the regulations with the Australian Customs beforehand. Alternatively you could purchase a locally produced cookbook or ask for recipes as you travel around and try your hand at reproducing what you have been eating. I've nearly nailed Pho!
Fairtrade - One of the underlying issues I have with tourist markets is the danger of contributing to unethical practices, both here and overseas. When overseas, one way to overcome this is to look out for ethical or fairtrade shops. These shops create a link between the rural men and women who have traditional skills or crafts and the people who want to buy them. The supply chain is shorter, so there is accountability and certification in place. These shops sell clothing, tableware, kitchenware, cards, prints among other things. I found several in Vietnam and I bought the ultimate souvenir from one. Yes. Ultimate. Bold statement, but oh so true.....
Whilst in Ho Chi Min City I searched for fairtrade shops on the internet. The search took me to a rather delightful, alternative area of the city. An area of which I probably wouldn't have visited otherwise. With many beautiful items, I wanted to get something that really ticked as many boxes as possible in terms of sustainability. I finally bought four large grocery shopping bags made out of old rice sacks, sewn together by locals living up in the hills behind the city near the Cambodian border. They weren't cheap, but I loved them. Two years on, I am still placing my entire weekly shop into these beauties. I've saved the need for loads of plastic bags through their ownership and, coincidentally, received many compliments about my sturdy but beautiful bags. Every time I used them I'm reminded about our trip.
The word souvenir no longer drums up images of authentic, handmade, beautiful keepsakes. A victim of mass production, they have become cheap, nasty and pointless tat. So if these are not the sort of souvenirs you are after, maybe the word you should be using for authentic, handmade, beautiful keepsakes is 'mementos'. These can be responsibly bought as suggested above, but they can also be found. My six year old boy, at the time, bought back a paper coaster from a cafe and a rubber band ball (he made from found elastic bands) from his travels around Vietnam. Both of which are still in use!