I really love souvenirs. I try to pick up something meaningful and traditional from wherever I go, which usually results in me carrying a backpack full of highly breakable ceramics.
Aside from a few pieces of jewelry, I have essentially amassed the contents of my dream kitchen. (I realize this is a strange aspiration for someone who lives out of a backpack and doesn't actually have a kitchen, but mark my words- someday I will be a marginally thinner Ina Garten.)
Here are my favorite souvenirs I've collected from Europe and South America that might give you ideas on what to pick up yourself.
Maté (mah-tay) – Argentina or Uruguay
While I was studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina I noticed everyone drank mate; the teenagers at the beach, the portly bus drivers… even my teacher brought it to class and passed it around. (Side rant- for people who think you are going to catch pneumonia from walking around the house barefoot they were sure comfortable with swapping spit via dried out gourd. Just sayin'.)
Mate is essentially dried yerba mate leaves steeped in hot water inside of a dried-out gourd. You traditionally drink it out of a metal straw (not pictured) and it is said to be good for digestion. It possesses a petrified lawn clippings flavor that strangely grows on you.
The picture below is of a couple dancing tango at the Feria de San Telmo, my favorite antique market in Buenos Aires. Please go there and tell me about it.
Pottery and Port – Portugal
If you are ever in Porto, Portugal and you have a particular weakness for glazed bowls, make sure to pick up some hand-crafted blue and white pottery.
I went to Porto with my little brother when he was 15 and I was 17 while we were on a three-week backpacking trip across Spain and Portugal. (Note- we have very trusting parents.) The city itself is great; it's grungy and artsy and covered in tiles. It is also where port originated so be sure to enjoy a tasting or two. Not that we did, of course.
Claddagh Ring – Ireland
I had always wanted to wear a Claddagh ring but I wouldn't allow myself to buy one until I was in Ireland (read- I'm extremely lame). When I finally made it there one summer I immediately took a bus from Dublin to Galway to see the west coast.
Galway is a rowdy student town with a great live music scene and fascinating Spanish sailor history. After a few days there I took a ferry to Inishmore, the largest island in the barren but beautiful Aran Islands. It is a remote island with a population of 800 people who still speak Irish.
While riding a bike around the island, I stumbled upon a wraith tee-shirt filled souvenir shop. There were also Claddagh rings so naturally I purchased one.
Claddagh rings originate in a small town near Galway so it's a good area to pick one up.
Amber – the Baltic (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania)
While I was in Tallinn, Estonia, I saw silver and amber shops on every corner (nearby Poland is Europe's largest producer of silver, and 80% of the world's amber comes from the Baltic). This is a silver necklace I bought there two years ago that I still wear almost every day. Tallinn is the best preserved medieval city in Europe because of its extremely cold climate, and 26 intact towers line the old city walls.
One regret- I didn't buy any amber so I suppose I will have to return to the Baltic.
Shortbread Pan – Scotland
This is the shortbread pan I bought in St. Andrews, Scotland while visiting a friend who goes to St. Andrews (where Will and Kate went, FYI). Shortbread is a Scottish sweet so I wanted to buy a traditional pan with thistles.
Bistro Cookware – France
I picked up these inexpensive but sturdy gratin dishes at the Place d'Aligre market, a flea market in Paris. Interestingly enough, gratin dishes were recovered in perfect condition from the Titanic. I will someday roast whole fish in mine.
The tablecloth underneath I bought in Perpignan, the biggest city in French Catalunya. I bought the cloths at a Catalan fabric store, Maison Quinta, that sells extremely high-quality and traditional Catalan linens. There is now a Maison Quinta store in NYC that I've been dying to visit.
Olive wood- Mediterranean
I have a huge obsession with olive wood. It's easy to pick up all over the Mediterranean but I bought most of mine in Spain and Greece. Another great reason to buy it- it's much cheaper abroad than it is at Crate and Barrel.
This honey stick ? I bought in Greece after tasting the delicious honey there. I soon realized why the Greek gods subsisted solely off of nectar.
Evil eye pendant – Greece or Turkey
Another souvenir from Greece- the evil eye. I saw them hanging everywhere. I wanted one because the Greek girls I met said that their grandmothers use them and that they actually do ward off negative energy.