Why do we bring them home—the knickknacks, tchotchkes, and sentimental mementos of our travels—and why do they mean so much?
© moodboard / Alamy
| Credit: © moodboard / Alamy

Once, in a fever of souvenir obsession, I carried home some blue-and-white china from Moscow’s Hotel National, teapot included. I was absolutely sure Lenin himself had used it, possibly just after he spoke from the hotel balcony. This was my first and most memorable trip to the Soviet Union. It was 1988, and the whole world was changing.

The china was used in a long-forgotten upstairs bar with shag carpeting on the walls, and I traded the bartender some James Taylor cassettes and panty hose for the set. The plates and cups and teapot were forbidden fruit that I smuggled to New York along with a Soviet army watch, a Gorby matryoshka, and six jars of caviar, all wrapped in my underwear.

Fast-forward 20 years. I’m watching a news report on television. A very poor peasant family in one of the Stans is eating a meal in their hut. They are using my blue-and-white china. And suddenly I know: the plates are probably for sale at the Stan version of Walmart.

But it didn’t matter. A great souvenir is a singular tangible memory keeper, an almost metaphysical object in which you’ve invested the essence of a journey, and which, seen or touched in repose, can instantly bring it back. Unlike the standard souvenir junk—the dish towels, pot holders, fake musical instruments, and T-shirts—a real souvenir is yours alone, and has real meaning.

My friend Alice has her lacquered box from St. Petersburg, Russia; my London pal Verity, her enormous Australian hand-painted water carrier and the Art Deco porcelain hands from France. An extreme take-no-prisoners shopper, Verity’s motto is “No kiosk too small.”

On the shelf above my desk, I still keep a fake gold coconut from a long-ago Mardi Gras in New Orleans; from Bosnia, a scribbled political cartoon; from Ethiopia, some little glass water jugs the shopkeeper swore to me had been used at Haile Selassie’s palace. I have things that are more beautiful—an engraved silver menorah from Florence; old glass flowers from France—but my weird curios are, in a sense, even more potent. I look at the water jug and I am in Addis Ababa, a city ravishing, evocative, desperately poor.

And when I eat my cereal from one of the Russian bowls, as Proust with his tea-soaked madeleine, I’m in the Moscow of the late 1980’s, that astonishing time when the world was looking new, everything up for grabs, as glasnost took hold—free speech, democracy, cooperative restaurants, public discourse, fun, rock and roll—and every journalist in hot pursuit.

For years, since those heady days in Moscow, I’ve had a taste for Commie kitsch—for my Trotsky plate, my Lenin plate (with its motto “He who does not work shall not eat”), my Gorby nesting dolls, my light-up Mao mirror that plays “The East Is Red,” my East German alarm clock, a little carving of Tito’s head.

But why, I ask myself, is Lenin okay, but not Stalin? Mao but not Hitler? When does a piece of commemorative political junk become collectible kitsch and when is it unacceptable? Is it okay that I took a stone from Auschwitz when I visited; is it all right that I keep it on display on a shelf in my hall near the toy tin tractor from Ukraine?

Is there some sort of moral pass on a souvenir if it makes you chuckle—and makes you think? The answer is I don’t know; the answer is also: this is one of the reasons you travel. It makes you think. And bringing home little fragments of the trip makes you remember.

Before there were ever journalists on the road, in pursuit of truth, news, or a good story, there was another kind of acquisitive pilgrim. Religious travelers came home with holy water and rosaries from Lourdes and other sacred sites. They were symbols of a larger truth, and my souvenirs are, too.

Some of my most prized mementos are gold charms on a bracelet. They come from everywhere—there’s an Eiffel Tower, a Roman Colosseum, a little Swiss chalet that pops open to reveal a couple in bed. I have a diamond earring from Jaipur (I lost its mate), a medallion from the Orient-Express (I went on it with a pal for her birthday), a Native American basket from Santa Fe, a wagon wheel from Montana. Others come from far back into the reaches of childhood.

Perhaps my very favorite collection of souvenirs, though, is at New York’s Ellis Island Immigration Museum. In one room are objects so evocative, so melancholy in some way, that they always make me cry. These items, donated to the museum by people long dead now, are things they brought with them as they made that incredible journey to America.

Here is the copper pot for making gefilte fish that a woman brought with her from Poland; here is a baptismal bonnet and gown from Sicily; there is a coconut carried by a fellow from Guyana who brought it to remind him of home.

I am tempted to contribute the silver wine cup my mother brought from Winnipeg, where her father was a rabbi. Then I find I can’t do it. I never knew my grandfather, and this is the only tangible memory of him I have, the kind of souvenir in which whole histories are invested.