Grace Lower | Feb 21, 2018
True confession time: one of the most daunting parts of my study abroad experience was picking out souvenirs. I’m not kidding. I tend to be a cautious shopper—I try to go for quality over quantity, and “spree” isn’t part of my shopping vocabulary. So when I went shopping abroad, either for myself or for family and friends, I was left feeling stressed, frustrated, and uninspired. I knew I wanted more than a commemorative key chain, but I was nervous about splurging on anything leather- or jewelry-related. I ended up buying souvenirs out of a sense of obligation, rather than a sense of purpose.
After reflecting on my own purchases (some of which were great, while others were truly regrettable), talking to friends about their study abroad buyer’s remorse, and getting inspiration from articles like this and this, I’ve come away with a few basic guidelines. Here are my favorite tips for stress-free souvenir shopping:
When you’re shopping for clothing abroad, there might be a temptation to pick up something ornate and traditional from your host country. If you aren’t careful, though, there’s a risk that your fashion statement will either 1) blow your budget, 2) never be worn, or 3) offend someone from that culture. To avoid those outcomes, I recommend investing in something you’ll actually wear for years to come. Treat yourself to a good-quality jacket, a pair of leather shoes, a thick piece of knitwear, or jewelry. While your budget is certainly important, it’s okay to spend a little extra on something you know you’ll use often. This kind of purchase will not only hold memories from your trip, but when someone asks where you got it, you can tell them about your time abroad without sounding like this
Unfortunately, handmade trinkets and intricate artwork can have trouble surviving the trip home (especially if you don’t pack them carefully). Make sure to buy yourself something that will last long after your study abroad trip is complete. A hand-bound journal, a wool blanket, or a thick ceramic bowl can survive countless uses and keep your study abroad memories alive.
Whether it’s a wall-sized tapestry or a knick-knack for your bedside table, treat yourself to a piece of home decor to brighten your living space. This kind of souvenir is especially helpful as you begin the transition from dorm-style living to your first “grown-up home.” What might have begun as a study abroad trinket could be the start of a collection, or in some cases, a future heirloom.
During my first month in my host city, I noticed a young man on an old-fashioned typewriter in the city’s main square. Over his makeshift workspace, he had posted a sign reading “Poemas Gratis” (Free Poems). I plucked up the courage to ask him what he was working on, and the two of us fell into an enthusiastic conversation on writing—lamenting the frustrations of writer’s block and the joy of finding the perfect phrase. After thanking the aspiring poet for his patience with my mediocre Spanish, I accepted one of his poems and headed on my way. I still have that poem tucked away on one of my bookshelves today. It remains one of my most cherished souvenirs from my time abroad. The takeaway? You don’t always have to spend money for a souvenir to have value.
People love to be fed, and fortunately, international food is a serious people-pleaser. Before your flight home, pick up an assortment of goodies. International candies or snacks, teas, and spices are all affordable and suitcase-friendly—just be sure to read up on the latest U.S. Customs, TSA, and airline regulations before taking them on a plane. General guidelines on declaring food items can be found here.
Accessories are one of the easiest souvenirs to find when you’re abroad, and they make great, low-cost gifts for family and friends. The next time you’re at a local arts festival or market, pick up lightweight items like scarves, coin purses, bracelets, or socks. Just make sure to avoid obvious tourist traps—skip the plastic key chains and support a local artisan instead!
One of the benefits of studying abroad is the ability to engage with ideas worth spreading. When deciding on gifts for your family or friends, consider purchasing a book on your host country’s religion or philosophy. Buy a pencil-sketch of a famous building or a piece of pottery crafted using traditional methods. Be sure to learn about the historical and cultural relevance of the souvenirs you choose, then share it with your loved ones. The added context will make the gift all the richer.
Maybe you found a souvenir that reminded you of an inside joke with one of your friends. Or perhaps you bought a hand-painted tile because it was your mom’s favorite color. Sometimes, there doesn’t have to be an elaborate decision-making process
behind the gifts you give. As wonderful as your souvenirs might be, for your loved ones, the greatest gift is having you back home.
Grace Lower is a recent college graduate with a love for writing and an incurable case of wanderlust. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.