Lucky cats, bits of tat and cowboy hats: The importance of souvenirs

As a general rule, the 'Shopping' sections of our travel guides are the least used. Whereas the 'Eating' and 'Drinking' chapters are thoroughly dog-eared by the end of a trip, the pages on posh boutiques and where to find bargains remain in Like New condition.

We don't go on holiday to shop, but that doesn't mean we don't appreciate a good souvenir.

To my mind, a souvenir must fulfil its most basic function - to anchor specific memories. Anyone who struggled through French at school knows that the verb 'souvenir' means 'to remember'. I prefer the Latin original though: 'subvenire' means 'to occur to the mind', which is less succinct but more appropriate when it comes to discussing souvenirs.

If we actively pause to think, we can all remember our holidays. Some details may be more hazy than others, depending on the amount of raki/ouzo/sake/insert-local-beverage-here we have consumed (more on that later). Remembering is often a conscious choice. But the best souvenirs don't give us this choice. Even years later, when they have become part of the fabric of our homes, no matter how much dust they have accumulated, just seeing some objects will send us headlong into reminiscence.

Here are some of my favourite souvenirs along with their locations in our house. Some are what you might expect but some are more unusual. Some cost a bit of money whereas others were things we just picked up for free. All of them mean a lot to us in some way or another (even if one of them almost caused me to have a nervous breakdown).



Hello kitty

This solar-powered plastic cat (a maneki-niko, or 'beckoning cat') sits proudly on our lounge windowsill. Yes it's approaching straw donkey levels of kitsch but I don't care. I would definitely try to save it in a house fire. When my 18 month old niece was around recently I ended up hiding it and giving her other things to play with/wantonly destroy. I can see why she made a bee-line to it: it's just so welcoming. In fact, she understood something which many grown up westerners (who have learned western body language) don't: it's not waving but beckoning. Beckoning cats are ubiquitous in Japan (where they originate) and also parts of China. Businesses will usually have at least one, and often several, prominently displayed on the premises. Good luck is supposed to ensue as a result. Whereas I'm far too boring a rationalist to buy into this (I'm firmly in the Han Solo "in my experience there's no such thing as luck" camp) I was determined to get my hands on one on our first trip to Japan. They sold them everywhere but we picked ours up in the grounds of Senso-ji, Tokyo's oldest temple. I can still recall the shop we bought it from (one of many selling traditional items). This souvenir anchors another specific memory as well: just down the road we ate okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancakes) for the first time. We made sure to revisit the same restaurant on our next trip to Tokyo and found the pancakes just as sublime as the first time. We didn't pick up a second maneki-neko though. One is enough for any house.


Local lore

Books make the best souvenirs, especially reference books which you return to repeatedly. Although we only spent a little over 48 hours in New Orleans (kicking off our honeymoon), we picked up a lot of books in this time, including two books on the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau from the appropriately bizarre House of Voodoo and 'In Exile', a history of America's first gay bar which you can buy from the bar's rainbow-emblazoned gift shop. Our most returned to tome from this time is a reprint of a book originally published in the 1937: 'Famous New Orleans Drinks & How To Mix 'Em' by Stanley Clisby Arthur. The title and name of the author alone evoke a bygone age but it also helps that it's a facsimile, therefore reproducing the font styles and layout of the original book. Vintage it may be, but the drink recipes stand up - although some are so strong you might need a sit down after. Of all the books in our kitchen it is by far the most used, with assorted drink stains on most of the pages to prove it.

Before any trip I always immerse myself in the literature of the place. Those I don't get through before the trip I take with me. Occasionally these become souvenirs later on, when we've returned home. The best example is the New Orleans-set A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I could barely get past the first chapter before we went to New Orleans itself. I just didn't 'get' it. After having stayed three nights on Bourbon Street the novel made complete sense and became one of my favourites. Whenever I see it on the floating bookshelf in the guest bedroom I recall the 'colourful' characters and settings we encountered - a match for the imagination of any novelist.


A picture paints a thousand words

A deep-dive into local literature isn't for everyone. For some it might sound like holiday hell. What we can all agree on though is the importance of photographs. Despite what you might think from our social media accounts, we don't spend all of our trips photographing everything: only the things which stand out. One of the things that truly stood out from our trip to St Augustine, Florida, was dressing up as cowboys. Yes, you read that correctly. We went to the oldest city in the USA, founded in 1565 on the East Coast, and had our photographs taken as if we'd just stepped out of the Wild West of 1865, three hundred years later. And yet, for some reason, this photograph helps me recall everything we did in St Augustine, including visiting the Fountain of Youth (I don't think it did what it was supposed to do) and a brilliant pirate museum. Perhaps it's because this photograph resides on our bedroom wall. I see it every morning and every evening. It's become part of the fixtures, as much as part of the room as the nineteenth-century style ceiling light it took me ages to find on eBay. In an age when we stick our photographs on social media, how many do we get around to sticking on the wall as daily reminders of the places we've been, the experiences we've had?


Mystic music box

Distinctly Lost Ark of the Covenant-like in its appearance, this music box opens up to a melody composed by Danny Elfman (if you've wound it up). The box is actually a tie-in to the Mystic Manor attraction at Hong Kong Disneyland. For once, we both saw a bit of Disney merchandise and immediately thought 'we have to have that'. It wasn't just because it was our favourite attraction at that park, but because it's actually pretty cool to look at in its own right. And it plays a Danny Elfman melody. It sits on the top of our bedroom chest of drawers, keeping safe our cuff-links, badges and tiny keepsakes, including some bits and pieces from our wedding day. The wedding rings stay alongside, sitting on the antlers of a stag of all things, although perhaps they would be better off inside the music box. It's not like one of them would go missing for six months or anything, WOULD IT ANTONY? (That's a story for another time)


Disposable pleasures

So we're in New York, and because I've never been to a musical on Broadway we decide this has to be rectified. Hamilton is out of the question (unless we fancy selling off an organ or two). The traditional favourites (Phantom, etc) all sound like cliches to me. Just around from our hotel there's this show on called 'Waitress'. Sara Bareilles is responsible for the songs and we like some of her earlier stuff. We decide to give it a whirl. And we're glad we did, because we immediately start humming the songs and we've not stopped since. It's a regular fixture in both of our Spotify playlists. We are eagerly awaiting it transferring to London at some point. In the meantime, we're glad we held on to the plastic cups. Originally, they contained cocktails themed to the show. They had punny titles. One was called I Wanna Play Doctor, the other was Old Joe's Horny Past. They tasted better than they sounded. Back home, we use the cups they were poured into for everything, including receptacles for transporting our breakfast cereal to work in. As I chew my granola at the conference table most people are probably wondering why I am eating from a cup that says WAITRESS on it in 1950s-esque lettering. What they don't know is I'm silently humming show tunes to myself and remembering a time when we took a punt on something less predictable.


When you miss Mardi Gras but you get to keep the beads

I know I've already brought up New Orleans, but it would be remiss of me not to flag up these objet d'art that adorn the tree in our back garden. Working in a school you are beholden to school holidays and we just missed Mardi Gras. To be honest, Bourbon Street was plenty wild enough already for us so I don't think we missed out. But there were still the signs of the bacchanalian orgy everywhere, including beads like these around most lamposts. I don't know why we thought they would look good in a back garden but they've been there three years so it looks like these Southern Comfort promotional items are there to stay. Who says souvenirs need to be tasteful?




Oversized luggage

It's time for the BIG one. This photo doesn't really do it justice. The Spaceship Earth playset is huge. The box it came in was massive. And somehow we were meant to get this back from Florida to the UK despite the fact that we were already pushing the upper limit of the maximum luggage allowance. To cut a long story short, Antony and I had just completed the EPCOT tradition of 'Drinking Around The World', the bacchanalian (that word again, there's a recurring theme here) feat of drinking 11 indigenous drinks from 11 different countries. The exercise has a frisson of naughtiness because you're doing it on property owned by the Disney Company. Perhaps it was in this spirit of mild transgression that Antony somehow persuaded me to buy him a plastic replica of his Favourite Place On Earth. In our surprisingly stable but merry state my usual pragmatism had refused to kick in. Luggage allowances were the furthest thing from my mind. All I wanted to do was go to bed and wake up the next morning not feeling like death.

Miraculously, both of us were fine. Going to bed at 8pm helped. It was only in the morning, when I looked over to the end of the bed, and saw it - SPACESHIP EARTH - that my heart started to race. We were due to fly home the next day. That means I had a whole 24 hours to worry about getting the plastic monstrosity on the plane. I was more than half tempted to just leave it there, but I knew Antony actually loved it. He had already picked out pride of place for it in our book room upstairs.

At the airport, we went through all the usual checks acting as if nothing was awry. I'm sure my execrable performance led them to believe I was smuggling drugs inside the playset, based on my nervous manhandling of it through security. When we eventually boarded the plane I explained the situation to the cabin crew. Yes, they agreed it was far too big for the overhead bins. I thought they were going to berate us for not checking it into the hold as oversized baggaed. But behold: another miracle! The flight was actually under capacity! There was one free seat - and it was in the row over from ours! The flight attendant took the massive box out of my hands, placed it carefully into a seat by itself and even strapped the restraint around it as if it was a small child.

What was that I was saying about not believing in luck?

Years later, why have I grown to love this giant Spaceship Earth? Why does it make me smile every time I dust it? Well, it's a lesson in letting go of control - something I have never found easy. Wherever you travel, you have to accept that not everything is going to go to plan, whether through your own actions or because of things completely beyond your control. You might miss a plane, or a train, or your luggage might end up in Bahrain... Whatever happens, it will work out in the end.

Most of us keep souvenirs to help us remember the good times. Not many people keep souvenirs from truly terrible times. Out of sight, out of mind. But what about those times where you thought things were going to turn out badly, but they didn't, at least not in the end? They're perhaps worth remembering most of all.