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Heirloom or Junk?

“No more tacky souvenirs for me!” exclaimed the woman in front of me as we waited for the tender to motor us to our ship.

There was a time in my life or several times when I thought this way, too. Usually, those epiphanies occurred when cleaning up the attic, a basement, or overflowing drawers in the guest bedroom. I’d realize how I should become more minimalist in my interior design. I’d ponder how I enjoy going to my friends’ homes where they have essential furniture, the right amount of framed pictures on the walls, and no tacky coasters or silly lacey, foreign antimacassars littering their living space.


As they say nowadays, “You be you,” so…

“Souvenir” in French is the infinitive for the verb “remember.” A souvenir is a keepsake, a memento, a reminder of something you thought worth recalling afterwards. Some folks call them knick-knacks if they are expensive like Hummels or Lladros figurines. Some folks call a souvenir a “tchotchke” if it’s cheaper and not artistic. Some call whatnots clutter. Junk.

Junk is stuff Marie Kondo would say to discard because it no longer gives you joy.

Yet, as I go to wash my dishes and pick up a tea towel picturing two storks and a baby stork with the word “Strasbourg” underneath, I recall driving down a long boulevard lined with trees containing huge stork nests. Hanging on my rack next to the French remembrance is a plainer towel with words in red print saying “Lamy’s Diner,” and immediately I’m transported to the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit we toured when we visited our grown daughter and her family. Over to the side of my stove is the green towel I used last night with pictures of the Stowe Gardens, Cliveden, Waddesdon Manor, and other historical sights of the Chilterns, a keepsake from my trip to Oxford University with an alumni program to learn about the Egyptian treasures the British display in museums and now debate returning.

Would these memories so efficiently and quickly return to me without these reminders?

I have tee shirts, which say “Laissez le Bontemps Rouler” from New Orleans, “Carpe Diem Manana” from Albuquerque, and “Born in the USA- a long time ago” from my days of volunteering at my kids’ schools to teach the US Presidents so that each kid knew at least the name of each man wearing that title. In my dining room are tiles from Sicily, placemats with the Austrian Sacher Torte recipe, and mosaic tiles from Turkey. Not all my collectibles are trinkets. I was plied with Turkish wine in Kusadasi, and I have a Persian rug bought there – proof of my inability to hold my liquor. Totes abound with names of cruise ships or names of tourist sights. Same is true of my keychains, which I use. I have a picture frame labeled Cape Town; in it, my husband and I are smiling with a huge Ferris Wheel in the background.

What is it we visit on our exotic trips if not memorials, cairns, landmarks to remind nations of their heroes, their historical events, or their religious philosophies? Is not the Washington Monument a cenotaph, which is a special structure built to remind people of a dead person buried somewhere else? Did we not recently visit relics in Sicily and see where bones of saints like Saint Andrew are kept? In a way aren’t historical sites, like the excavated Herculaneum, a memorial to the ancient BC civilization in Italy?

So, whether you purchase an objet d’art from a local artist of the place you’re touring or buy an inexpensive trinket on the street from a sidewalk merchant or a bibelot like a cameo in Sorrentino, realize that it will elicit moments of joy throughout your life whenever you handle it. It might be only a small soap container, shaped like a bathtub with painted flowers on the side that you picked up in Budapest, but it will create “déjà vu” each time you reach for the lemon soap you picked up in Positano, Italy.

What are awards, accolades, distinctions, even honorariums but souvenirs of something you accomplished? You want to relive that moment in the spotlight, that taste of success, that feeling of being appreciated. Whether it be a piece of whimsy pottery or a frilly dress adorned with images of lemons, these are conversation pieces that can become as important as those Little League trophies of your kids you proudly display in a curio case.

We, humans, are sentient beings. It’s why we give favors at parties, weddings, and other important life events. We want to recollect the moments of our lives long after they have passed. What is a diamond engagement ring if not a souvenir of love?

So, ignore those who discourage you from collecting your doodads. Take a trip. Return with the “booty.” Then, don’t tuck it away! Each night, use those placemats depicting squirrelfish, seahorses, and blue marlin. As you munch on your tuna fish casserole, you won’t feel the grind of mundane life; instead, you’ll find yourself luxuriously snorkeling in the blue Bahamas, at one with the universe. All for the price of a plastic placemat!


  1. Loved your article! Well written with your sense of humor! Like you, I have traveled extensively and often buy a souvenir / trinket/ dust collector from each country! Someday, most of them will end up in an estate sale, Good Will or even the trashcan! Until then , I will enjoy the memories that they spark!

  2. The key here is to actually use the “stuff” we collect during our travels and other life experiences! Love the encouragement to do so.

  3. Currently I’m in the midst of a downsizing cleanse of my studio, so this hits home. Thirty years of materials I thought I’d “use some day” have been passed along to the local HS art program. I’m sharing, not purging; simplifying, not restricting; giving, not hording. Now, as to accumulations of two and three-dimensional art, crafts and all matter of handmade things – they make our house our home. This family’s individuality is on the walls, under foot, in the cupboards and on the front lawn. As I appreciate every person who buys a painting or commissions a portrait from me, I am happy to provide income and satisfaction to another creative person. Long live the collectibles!

  4. I was one of the teachers that benefited from your teaching about presidents. What a fun time the first graders had learning about history.
    Thank you for your interest in history and making it fun for the younger generations.

  5. There is so much to ponder in this article. I am trying to let go of things, but it is hard! I do occasionally open a draw and see a bag or t shirt or magnet and it is a memory. The process can be both uplifting and a little sad.

  6. Ahhhh, kindred spirits of collectibles and tchotchke, it’s good to know you’re out there!

  7. I second your exhortation to use and display those keepsakes bought on trips. Like you, I love tea towels with the name of the town or historical site that I have visited. I pull out my Portugal towel to dry my dishes and smile at the memories it invokes – usually enjoying wine and eating olives as we cruise along the sun-drenched Duoro River.

  8. Appreciate hearing how others buy knickknacks to remind them of places gone and/or friends visited. I purchased a Christmas ornament and dish towel years ago when I traveled east with my mom to visit my cousin and Uncle — each time I hang the ornament or use the towel I am reminded of the many laughs and the good time spent. Some of the best “doodads” I ever purchased! This writer is able to capture the rewards of venturing into a tourist trap and leaving with a treasure.

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