On collecting souvenirs

Buy one meaningful thing

Words: Lee Tulloch

I’m an incorrigible scavenger. I’ve been known to climb into dump trucks because I’ve seen an interesting table leg sticking out of the rubbish. I’ve furnished whole apartments from things I’ve found on the street.

When I’m travelling, you can’t keep me away from the local flea market. Other people head for the famous sights or the boulevards lined with international brand stores. But I have absolutely no interest in that expensive handbag you can find in every city and airport in the world. What I’m looking for is the cracked alligator bag that still has a half-used 1950s-era lipstick in its inside pocket or the crocheted purse some crafty old woman has made from her grandchildren’s hair ribbons.

In other words, my souvenirs are not I Heart T-shirts or plastic snow globes (although I do have an affection for these) but things people have used, worn, hung on walls, written on or framed. I like the idea that I’ve taken away with me a little bit of a place’s spirit and history, not something that was made on a production line in China.

If I had my way, and the wherewithal, I’d send back containers full of the wonderful old things I’ve spotted at flea markets like Paris’s Clignancourt and Beijing’s Panjiayuan ‘Dirt’ market. But long ago, my more practical alter ego decided to restrict my purchases to one meaningful thing every trip. There’s only so much stuff you can have anyway.

Looking around my house, the few favourite things I’ve collected bring on a powerful rush of memories of places and people. There are the twin plaster ashtrays, shaped like an Arabian boy and girl, which I bought from a flea market stall in New York’s Lower East Side in 1986. I can’t remember what I saw on TV last night, but I can remember the coat I wore when I bought them. And all the houses the ashtrays have lived in since.

One of my treasures is a racy, typewritten memoir I found in a bin in New York.

Then there is the framed photograph of a young Chinese woman that I bought at Beijing’s Dirt Market in 2009, the 1920s blue velvet chi pao dress I found hanging in the back of a junk shop in Shanghai (I remember bargaining the old man down to $10 because that’s all the cash I had on me) and the 19th Century gypsy outfit I stumbled upon in the town square in Sighisoara, Romania, the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler.

From other trips to China I have a pair of ceramic parrots and a rusty claw-like glove from an ‘antique’ suit of armour that’s probably fake but, at least, if it were made in a factory in China like all those model Eiffel Towers, it has geographic authenticity.

I’m interested in old photographs and photo albums and rescuing other people’s cherished memories. One of my treasures is a racy, typewritten memoir I found in a bin in New York. I fantasise it’s the early work of a famous writer, although several attempts to try to find its creator have resulted in dead ends. It was written in Greenwich Village and is a more evocative souvenir of that place than any Allen Ginsberg tea towel.

I still regret not bringing home the bundle of old movie canisters, possibly containing rare celluloid film, which I found dumped at the back of an old cinema in a suburb in Santiago, Chile. Or the boxes of school exercise books I found in a barn in Maine. I did once return from Austria with a pair of deer antlers in my case (customs approved) but my ‘one thing’ policy generally saves me from excess baggage charges.  Nevertheless, my house does look like backstage at Les Mis.

I know my funny old ‘souvenirs’ are not typically what people take home. I know this because I only need visit the local Vinnies or Salvos thrift shop to find out what people do bring home and what happens to these items six months afterwards.

The stores are full of discarded purchases  – carved cowry shells, enamel teaspoons, woven place mates, seed bracelets, painted terracotta jugs, stubby holders, carved Hindu deities, coffee mugs promoting Fort Lauderdale the Venice of America, bamboo backscratchers and bobble-headed dolls of the Papal Swiss Guards.

So many trashed memories – most of them, I guess, gifts bought hastily for people who didn’t get to come along for the ride. They don’t need the memories. But we travellers do. Make them meaningful.




  1. love a scavenge too! One of my faves was with you in New York in my film industry days ..I still treasure a lidded Diamond cut chrystal large round dresser set from 20’s which is the crux of a collection and full of favourite rings and things

  2. by Rea Francis on September 22nd, 2014 at 5:04 pm

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