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Finding Unlikely Souvenirs

Onion holder purchased in Rome.

Photo: Davies + Starr

When I first started traveling, I was delighted by refrigerator magnets, T-shirts, embroidered patches, and snow globes—all the usual gift-shop kitsch. At some point, however, it struck me as a shortcut, celebrating a destination’s clichés rather than the place itself. So I moved up to items that were unavailable on every other corner and, ideally, handmade. I felt good about supporting craftspeople, and the objects had more personal resonance. Though when I got them home, many of them turned into dust-catching clutter—one-of-a-kind clutter, but still. Moreover, I questioned their authenticity. I make every effort to eat at restaurants frequented by locals. Why would I shop for souvenirs in stores where residents never tread?

Now, I hunt for what I call “unsouvenirs.” The word souvenir is Middle French for “remembering,” and unsouvenirs, despite the prefix, must also be able to trigger a memory. But they’re different from souvenirs in that they capture the essence of a place not simply because they were purchased there, but because—this is the important part—locals actually use them. That’s the best definition for cultural authenticity that I can come up with. While I prefer that my unsouvenirs originate in the destination (“made in China” is only appealing if you’re in China), I don’t mind if they come from a factory. Few of us can claim that we incorporate many handmade items into our day-to-day lives.

I just visited Rome for the first time—ridiculous, I know—and I was surprised by how rife with kitsch the historic center is. Rare is the block that doesn’t have a store selling I ♥ Rome T-shirts. My customs form, in contrast, looked as if I had run errands on a Saturday afternoon. I bought a plastic container designed to hold the unsliced part of an onion, premixed Campari and soda in Art Deco bottles, a package of assorted paper from an art-supply shop, Elmex toothpaste, and a lip balm called HerpeSun. They’ll remind me of Rome every time I use them (though I haven’t yet been brave enough to whip out the lip balm in public).

Certain kinds of stores are more reliable for unsouvenirs. Supermarkets and pharmacies are always interesting. Cookware purveyors are also a consistently rich source: you might score Bialetti espresso pots from coffee-crazy Italy or elegant woven place mats from understated Sweden. At a Japanese hardware store you could come upon a miniature scythe-style weeder; or you might spot a cowbell and collar in northern Italy. (Part of the fun is repurposing: that bell could be a doorbell.) Stationery shops, whether you’re in Greece or Indonesia, tend to have schoolkids’ notebooks, which make for quirky journals back home. Also worth a look are stores that sell hobby or restaurant supplies, sporting goods, garden equipment, bike gear….

“You have to get off the map,” agrees the queen of unsouvenirs, Alisa Grifo, co-owner of Kiosk, a store in New York’s SoHo that stocks workaday objects from around the world (usually one country at a time, displayed in four-to-six-month “exhibitions”), all acquired during Grifo’s peripatetic travels. Highlights from Germany included egg cups, a pencil sharpener, and a doorstop; from Hong Kong, a mailbox, green twine, and a calculator. Individually, the items are idiosyncratic and well designed; gathered together, they convey the spirit of a country, in both their utility and their aesthetics. (To see what I mean, visit kioskkiosk.com.)

I assumed that Grifo had the same wander-and-hope strategy that I do, but she and her husband and co-owner Marco Romeny actually do a ton of prep work. They research each destination, reading up on the history, culture, museums, food, crafts, anything. And they network like mad: “We ask ourselves, ‘Who do we know from there? Who has relatives there?’” Most important, they’re usually in a country for two to six weeks, which means they stay—and shop—in residential neighborhoods. Just as the ideal unsouvenir reflects locals’ daily existence, the best way to shop for unsouvenirs is by practicing a bit of cultural immersion—in other words, when in Rome, shop as the Romans do.

As Grifo and I chatted, I bragged about my onion container, which I consider a symbol of my victory in tourist-clogged Rome. If any other American traveler brought home a plastic onion his year, I’ll eat mine—washed down with more than one bottle of Campari Soda.

Grifo’s eyes lit up. “That’s brilliant,” she said. “How does it open? Can you send me a photo?” Maybe someday Kiosk will tackle Italy, and my little onion holder will be part of the exhibition. That would be fantastic—as long as we all remember who found it first.

Erik Torkells is an editor at tripadvisor.com and the founder of tribecacitizen.com.

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