COVID-19 and travel: Why our souvenirs have taken on new meaning during the pandemic

The bottle opener was kind of a joke. It's not beautiful, and it has no sentimental value. It's a caricature of a Kazakh child in traditional dress, its mouth wide open, wide enough to fit over the top of a beer or soft drink and lever off the lid.

Underneath it just says: "Kazakhstan".

It's the kind of souvenir you buy at the last minute when you realise you were supposed to bring something home for your partner and haven't. It's an admission of failure. It's something to laugh at. My partner stuck it to the side of the fridge and we barely looked at it for a couple of years.

Now, however, the strangest thing has happened. I love that bottle opener. It has value to me. It sits there stuck to the fridge, recently moved to a position of glory on the front of the door, smiling down with its huge toothy grin, and it reminds me of another world. It reminds me of the world.

Have you looked around your house lately to see what's there? Have you touched trinkets that made their way from across oceans? Have you gazed at artworks created by foreign hands? Have you thought about where some of your favourite stuff came from, what it makes you think of, where it transports you?

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed a whole new light on my souvenirs. Suddenly, I love all of them. I value all of them.

Our wood-block art prints, bought in a gallery in Tokyo. The ceramic salt box picked up in Lisbon. The weird Chinese figurines from a market in Luang Prabang. The tile I haggled for in Esfahan. The carpet I bought from a tricky salesman in Baku. The brass vase I lugged home from a bazaar in Tunis.

These are little pieces of the world in my house. Little pieces of Laos and China and Portugal and Japan that I can reach out and touch. Minute shards of adventures and mishaps. Tangible reminders of people and places.

Some are beautiful and some are not but they all hold the same meaning, the same significance. That used to be a minor attraction but now it's everything.


I was a late starter to the souvenir collecting game. For probably the first 10 years of my travel career I basically didn't buy anything. I didn't want to spend my travels looking for reminders of another time. I just wanted to enjoy myself. Plus, I was broke.

After a while, however, that changed. I started getting more money to spend, and actual homes to put things in. Suddenly I could see value in bringing back something beautiful. I also wanted something to show for all of these amazing places I'd been, items I could use to decorate my house, things that would look nice and also celebrate the world.

And then I discovered that once you give yourself license to buy nice things, you also start to buy silly things. Tacky things. Ridiculous things.

Then all of a sudden you're a sucker for a keyring and a fridge magnet. All of a sudden a giant mariachi hat you have to carry for weeks through Mexico even though it won't fit in any bag you own seems like a good idea. The only way to get it from place to place is to wear it. Locals think you're an idiot. They're right.

And the even stranger thing is that those items, the keyrings, the magnets, the hats, have taken on new meaning for me in the last year or so. In fact, maybe more so than the beautiful souvenirs.

Why is that? Do they remind me of the joy and the silliness of carefree travel? Do they take me back to times when I banded together with bunches of fellow travellers and roamed markets seeing who could find the absolute worst souvenir for the best price?

That might be it. So yes, I do care for my Japanese wood-block prints. But I've also developed a renewed passion for my "caganer", a traditional Catalan Christmas figurine captured in the moment of doing a poo. It's actually a pretty authentic souvenir when you think about it, though my caganer is made to look like FC Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, Ballon d'Or in hand, pants around ankles, mid-defecation. My partner only lets me bring it out at Christmas time.

I love my collection of strange and wonderful hats from around the world too, from the towering woollen headwear of Azerbaijan to the dashing beret-like txapela of the Basque Country, even though I can't get away with actually wearing any of it out onto the street. Fancy-dress parties only.

I love my weird wooden head with the piece of string coming out of the back that makes the tongue poke out. I can't even remember where I got it. I love my Roman carbonara fridge magnet. I love my Dutch clog keyring.

And, of course, I love my Kazakh kid who can open bottles of beer with his or her mouth. It reminds me of the open-mouthed incredulity with which I greeted so much of my actual experience in Kazakhstan. It reminds me of the joy and the wonder of international travel.

It reminds me that one day I'll do it again. And when I do, I'll buy souvenirs.

Have you come to cherish your souvenirs during the pandemic? What are your favourites? Any you regret not buying now?



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