The evolution of the travel souvenir

Hands up anyone who has been to Paris and not bought a miniature Eiffel Tower as a souvenir. Who hasn't desperately trawled the airport duty-free souvenir shop looking for last-minute guilt-induced presents for those left at home baby-sitting the house or walking the dog? Who can't help adding to their collection of Delft china, snow globes, T-shirts or kitchen magnets on every trip?

That's everyone, then. At some stage of our travelling lives, we have all succumbed to the potent lure of the souvenir. It's as if we need to bring back proof that we were there, because being there was not enough. Perhaps it's bragging rights, to show off how well-travelled we are, or it's a part of our culture, like Japan's "omiyage", the mandatory gifts of food offered as an appeasement for being absent.

The souvenir is probably a hang-over from the days when travel was rare and trips were long and arduous. You returned after months away with tales of high adventure, cases of exotica and little teaspoons engraved with the famous landmarks you had ticked off your list.

As travel has become easier and more accessible, new forms of souvenirs have evolved. Some people upgrade from buying plastic kitsch to investing in exquisite Murano glass from Venice, or Shikki lacquerware from Japan. Others bring home souvenirs in the form of their own hand-written journals of people met and places explored, or (sad!) business cards collected.

The best souvenirs don't come from souvenir shops any more. They are those things, large or small, that instantly evoke where you were, who you were with, and what you were doing when you bought it.  For me, that's the sweet little brown jug from the market in Troyes, in northern France; the crazy little painting from a crazy little artist on the streets of New York late one night; or the little stone horse from Xi'an, China, who arrived back in Australia without his little stone tail.

These are true tokens of remembrance, or as the Italian term has it, "buon ricordi", good memories.  But souvenirs can also be incidental and even accidental. I have scarves from a dozen unseasonally chilly destinations, and an equal number of hats from unexpectedly sunny ones. I even have a pair of shoes bought as an emergency in Venice when my own heel became firmly wedged in the cobblestones of Piazza San Marco. They bring back memories and make me smile, just as much as any little Eiffel tower.

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