I have a collection of souvenirs that remind me of the far-off places I’ve seen and the life-changing moments I’ve experienced on the road.
I have a tin of fish spices from Kaohsiung that reminds me of my first trip to Asia, during which the rituals and temples were so unfamiliar that it felt euphoric. I have a hand-carved Pinocchio puppet from my trip to Venice that reminds me of the long days I spent exploring the city, skipping the rest of Italy and learning the value of slowing down. I have wooden giraffes from Johannesburg and pottery from Fayoum filling my bookshelves to remind me of other distant lands I’ve explored. But I hardly have anything to remind me of where I grew up, of where I went to school and spent most of my life. Because who collects souvenirs of home and old, familiar places?
We collect mementos when we travel. And when we’re in a familiar city, we sink into routine and often can’t comment on anything remarkable about our surroundings. But lately, I’ve been thinking that the familiar places are the ones I want to remember most.
I spent most of my childhood in Arizona, where beige rows of houses lined the bases of mountain ranges and desert. I spent years as a teenager wishing I lived in London, which I imagined was filled with punks and the loud music I loved. It took years of travel, and later leaving Arizona for good, to appreciate my home state and to see it with new eyes. But now, I don’t have much to remind me of the years I spent there. I wanted to change that.
To replace the few postcards I have of the Grand Canyon, I found a hand-embroidered state pillow that perfectly captures Arizona’s quirky towns and deserts. It was handmade by fellow travel junkies Carmel and Terrell Swan, and features a maze of visuals that capture the wide-open and varied landscapes of Arizona — from its surprising blue lakes to its bohemian towns. It also brings back a rush of memories. The red and yellow stripes of the state flag give me a sense of home — they always greeted me at the state line, signaling the end of long road trips. And there’s the blue water of Lake Havasu that reminds me of the town’s historic bridge and high-end boutiques — a reminder that Arizona is far more than cowboys and cactuses. It’s a state that, perhaps because of its vast deserts and chameleon landscapes, has always inspired artists.
After I left Arizona in my teens, I headed west, drawn by the Pacific Ocean and visions of making it on my own, going to university, and proving myself in California. It was a bold step toward independence and my first time away from family. I spent years growing up, failing, and learning, all against the backdrop of the Pacific. But after I graduated, I left the state with only a few keepsakes besides a UC Berkeley sweatshirt. I was looking forward to the next chapter of my life and not looking back.
Wanting to hold onto my time there, I tracked down a Sea of Love artisanal print. It reminds me of my California years, and especially of the sea lions at La Jolla Cove in San Diego.
Items like the artisanal print and embroidered pillow bring back memories of the places that shaped me. They remind me that it’s not just exotic travel that deserves to be remembered with keepsakes.
So, how can we plan on bringing more mementos into our homes to remind us of old stomping grounds and the places we grew up?
Skip the souvenirs — Look beyond the stereotypes and invest in less-obvious pieces that remind you of a specific place, but are not necessarily that city’s best-selling keepsakes.
Invest in handmade pieces — When you pass on “Made in China” keepsakes, you’re not only buying something that’s more unique and personal, but you’re also supporting local artists and craftsmen.
Check out flea markets, antique shops, and arts festivals — These can often be gold mines for unique pieces that come directly from the community.
Make your own keepsakes — Get your photos printed, gather flowers or leaves to press and frame, collect rocks and seashells, or paint a watercolor. If the place you want to remember isn’t very photogenic, then zoom in and photograph a few of its beautiful details.
Hit the grocery stores — These are often neglected, but full of spices and delicacies that serve as great mementos.
Get practical — Buy local household items that you’ll actually use. Throws, pillow cases, kitchen items, or toiletries work well. They may not last forever, but at least they won’t collect dust on the shelf.
While we never forget to gather keepsakes from far-away travels, the more familiar places in our lives should be memorialized as well.