How to Share the Intriguing Origin Stories of Your Travel Souvenirs

Share the Post:
travel souvenirs from buenos aires

What are your favorite travel souvenirs?

Here are some of ours:

These coffee cups from Buenos Aires….

On a black clock woven with red and green stripes, and featuring images in gold thread of llamas and other Incan signs, are a number of travel souvenirs from Argentina and Chile, including paper coffee cups covered in handwriting, a white vase filled with bright pink flowers, small carved wooden llamas, and a mate and silver bombilla.
Note the All Saints coffee cups; the one with the engagement ring says, “Nancy Marry with Us!” To read the full story, jump to this part of the page.

This 45 from a Strasbourg flea market….

One of the author's travel souvenirs, this one a vintage 45 rpm record in its original sleeve, a black background featuring a black and white photo of young Jane Birkin. Lettering in gold says "je t'aime...moi non plus."
A vintage 45 from a Strasbourg flea market features a very young Jane Birkin. To read more, jump here.

And maybe most memorably, the grocery store receipts and the mask I wore in Peru for the 24 days we were stuck there, when the country closed the borders due to COVID in March of 2020.

A pile of receipts from the Peruvian grocery store Plaza Vea are arranged like a haphazard fan underneath a pale blue tie-on face mask, one of the author's favorite travel souvenirs.
For more about Peru, see my upcoming book “Up on the Roof,” available in 2022. Join our mailing list for updates.

Only one of the three, the Jane Birkin 45, cost me anything monetarily—and that didn’t cost much. But the stories they tell are, to use an advertising cliché, priceless.

In this post, we’ll cover the following:

Let’s plunge in.

Why the Stories of Your Favorite Travel Souvenirs Are Important

French in origin, “souvenir” is defined as “An item of sentimental value, to remember an event or location.” (source: Word Hippo)

That, to me, is a pretty bland definition. When I look up the word’s etymology, the scholars at etymonline pointed to how the first part of the word, sou, may be related to the prefix “sub,” as in under, which in turn may kick off words like “suggest” and “suspect.”

All of which is to get at, there’s something beneath the shiny surface of your travel souvenirs are layers of meaning that are frankly pretty cool.

Remembering the stories of your travel souvenirs, taking the time to write them down: Suddenly, it’s not just some weird thing of very questionable value that you insist on hanging onto, maybe even displaying someplace.

Your travel souvenirs are important aspects in the big story: The story of you. What matters to you, what makes you happy, what makes you nostalgic, what you want people to know even if you’re not there to tell it.

They can also do some pretty heavy lifting when it comes to telling the story of a particular travel.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of that now.

Virginia Woolf’s Travel Souvenir Story

“For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience. That bowl on the mantelpiece, for instance, was bought at Mantua on a windy day. We were leaving the shop when the sinister old woman plucked at our skirts and said she would find herself starving one of these days, but, ‘Take it!’ she cried, and thrust the blue and white china bowl into our hands as if she never wanted to be reminded of her quixotic generosity. So, guiltily, but suspecting nevertheless how badly we had been fleeced, we carried it back to the little hotel where, in the middle of the night, the innkeeper quarrelled so violently with his wife that we all leant out into the courtyard to look, and saw the vines laced about among the pillars and the stars white in the sky. The moment was stabilized, stamped like a coin indelibly among a million that slipped by imperceptibly.”

Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting: A London Adventure, 1930

(Thanks to writing teacher Jennifer Cognard-Black for pointing me to this example in her excellent course “Becoming a Great Essayist,” from The Great Courses.)

That quotation comes from the essay “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” which you can read at this link. In it, Woolf acquaints us with the safe, familiar environment that she wants to escape for a teeny bit. She invents the excuse of needing to buy a pencil, and then is off on one of her legendary saunters through London.

If you don’t know Woolf, this is a delightful introduction. And if you do know her, read it again. It’s like snuggling into a delicious, sumptuous bed with super high thread count linens, a toasty fire dancing in a nearby grate.

Let’s break down the brief travel souvenir story that she tells:

Virginia Woolf’s Travel Souvenir Story: A Closer Look

“…surrounded by objects which…express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.”

While the part about enforcing memories is pretty obvious, she gets at something we often forget: We’re all a little quirky when it comes to the stuff that speaks to us. One more reason why the story behind your souvenir is so intriguing.

“That bowl on the mantelpiece….the blue and white china bowl…”

The souvenir in question. Woolf doesn’t spend a lot of time describing it, though she could. But for the purposes of this story, we have an idea and can fill in the details—the pattern and shape of the bowl—with our own imaginations. Because the bowl is less important than what it evokes.

“…a windy day in Mantua.”

Not just where she acquired the bowl—Mantua—but the weather. A small, rich detail.

“…the sinister old woman….as if she never wanted to be reminded of her quixotic generosity.”

Concise character description; in just a few words, we see the shop, the woman who insisted they take the vase, and have a clue as to why, despite the fact that she clearly didn’t want it, Woolf keeps the vase long after the vacation is ended.

“So, guiltily…”

Not all souvenir stories are tales about quaint characters spreading joy. Woolf’s honesty about her guilt and suspicion of “how badly we had been fleeced”—apparently she paid for the vase, after all—gets at a larger truth about travel: Sometimes, all of us guilt-shop. And when we do, doubt nibbles at us and we’re not quite sure how we feel about what we spent our travel money on. But generally and often, maybe not so great.

“….in the middle of the night, the innkeeper quarrelled violently…”

What does this have to with the vase? Not much—other than showing that travel memories are tangled things. That’s part of what makes them wonderful.

“….the vines laced about among the pillars and the stars white in the sky.”

So simple. So gorgeous.

“The moment was stabilized, stamped like a coin indelibly among a million that slipped by imperceptibly.”

There’s no moral to Woolf’s story, not even a big way. Yet it leads into a meander through a particular evening on a journey that she’s never forgotten.

We remember what we remember, some of it with the crystalline gaze described here. We continue to see the edges cleanly etched, the colors and smells and feel of the air as if they are happening—or perhaps, tantalizingly, maddeningly, just out of reach.

We often don’t know why.

And….does the why matter? There is something wonderful in learning about an object to which someone is deeply attached. Maybe even more so when the reason isn’t obvious.

Travel Souvenir Stories: A Blueprint for Writing Your Own, a la Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s model provides answers to classic questions that make up a great story:

  • What: The bowl that sits on her mantelpiece
  • When: A windy day, sometime in the past
  • Where: Mantua, first a shop, then an inn
  • Who: “We”—presumably Woolf and her husband, Leonard—and the “sinister old woman,” and, later on, an angry couple
  • How: Stephen King has somewhat famously said that he hates adverbs. Well, don’t listen to him. Woolf proves that judicious use of adverbs—guiltily, badly, violently—can immediately (see what I did?) stir up those gut feelings we all know quite well. And how is not limited to Woolf’s feelings. She describes “the vines laced about the pillars, the stars white in the sky.” Nothing fancy, nothing a child wouldn’t understand. Simplicity = beauty.
  • Why: Finally, and as noted above, Woolf doesn’t worry about the “why.”

This isn’t to say “why” is a bad thing. Sometimes, our souvenir story can have a powerful why, something that has great meaning for the storyteller, and that can add a lot to the telling.

But you can also think of it this way: By leaving the “why” unspoken—either because you haven’t figured it out, you honestly don’t know the answer, or you want to keep it to yourself—you invite your audience to imagine the answer.

Travel Souvenir Stories: Our Free Worksheet

Do you like a little more structure for your brainstorming?

Check out our free Travel Souvenir Stories Worksheet. All you have to do to get is sign up for our newsletter. And by doing that, you’ll also find out when our latest tips and tricks for sharing your once and future travels with your friends, family, and community, however large, small, or virtual.

Free Worksheet

Enter your email to download our travel souvenir story brainstorming guide, and for all of our latest advice on spreading your travel joy.

    Here, a couple of examples as to why I care about these two particular souvenirs.

    The first is a single item.

    Travel Souvenirs: An Instagram Story

    The Instagram posts I like best are the ones with longer captions, that are basically microblogs. Here, a very brief story about the Jane Birkin 45:

    As you can read, there’s a quick where (Strasbourg flea market), a who (a gift for my daughter), and something of a why, which in this case was more important to me than the day—which was, honestly, just a day hanging out in Strasbourg at the flea market.

    Travel Souvenirs: Telling a Longer Story

    Often, a souvenir can encapsulate an aspect of your entire trip. I did a very short version of the coffee cup pic above for Instagram.

    But I wanted to offer a longer story. This one, just over 400 words, is a little more double the length of the Woolf excerpt.

    It’s simply a moment I wanted to capture and express. Maybe I’ll add it to a longer story at some point.

    In all truth, I just wanted to write down, in case someone ever wonders, why the hell I have all these crazy paper coffee cups in a place of honor, high on a shelf in my office.

    I’ve purposely not added the photo of the cups. I know it’s the photo/video age, but I believe in the power of words (just click the link above if you want to see it).

    Let me know what you think.

    And please post your travel souvenir story to our FB page.

    Travel Souvenirs: The All Saints Coffee Cups, and How I Got Them

    January-February, 2019.

    Every hot, steamy morning in the Buenos Aires winter, Steve and I squeezed onto the B train, en route from our cramped room in Villa Crespo to the Academy near the Casa Rosada. Sometime, we had to wait for 3 or even 4 cars to pass before we found one that two lean people could cram their way into.

    You didn’t need to hold onto a bar. The other passengers pressed so tightly around you that you simply didn’t budge, even when the subway rounded a tight corner.

    Why Line B, notorious for being one of the most miserable subway lines in Buenos Aires during rush hour?

    Because it let us out on Avenida Corrientes.

    And there, we’d head across the busy street to All Saints, an Argentine cafe with an English name, for our morning java fix.

    We’d push open the big glass door framed with black metal, over a black and cafe-au-lait-colored mosaic proclaiming “Anything Is Possible.” Awning to floor windows, tinted to filter the blazing summer light, lined the walls, as did a long, distressed wood bar over which Argentine hipsters crouched, ears tight to phones. A high gray ceiling arched gently overhead.

    By the middle of the first week, the staff knew our names; Viqui, Vivi, or Flori would write them on the cups, hand-stamped with the red All Saints logo, in black marker.

    By the middle of the second week, they all knew our order. Chapo, the barista, would fire up a latte for me, an Americano for Steve. Flori would pile a mountain of avocado onto freshly baked whole grain toast, stippling the top with black sesame seeds, one for each of us.

    They would speak Spanish to us in their rapid, rustling porteño accents. We wouldn’t understand. So Vivi and Flori switched to excellent English. Viqui and Chapo mimed. We all smiled, pretty much non-stop.

    The week before we left, Vivi started to supplement our names, which she always wrote on the cups in black marker with drawings. They became increasingly elaborate. “Nancy, Marry with Us!” begs one. “Please Adopt Me!” says another.

    We hugged it out at the end, a little teary. We sincerely promised to return the following year—a promise that COVID, alas, broke for us.

    Someday, we’ll go back. I don’t know if any of our friends will still be there.

    Fingers crossed.

    Meanwhile, I keep my coffee cups on a shelf in my office.

    And when I catch them out of the corner of my eye, I smile.

    Share your comments

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Related Posts

    Stay Informed—Sign up for the newsletter

    Get in touch...

    Join our newsletter to stay updated