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Why We Buy Souvenirs

The trinkets, tchotchkes and T-shirts that say, 'I was there.'
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The Indiana Pacers cap I'm wearing might make you think I'm a fan of that long-suffering team. My bright-orange Ragin' Cajuns T-shirt hints at roots sunk deep in the bayou. And nobody would own a Multnomah Athletic Club hoodie if they hadn't at one point frequented that Portland, Ore., facility, right?

Well, no. I have no affiliation whatsoever with Indianapolis, southwestern Louisiana or the Pacific Northwest. I own those items only because I recently made business trips to those places. And whenever I travel on business, I can't help coming home with souvenirs.

Lately my travel schedule has been full enough that my little hobby is taking on epic proportions. My T-shirts fill an entire closet. I didn't duplicate a hat, another Little League father remarked, during my son's entire baseball season. Yet I can't stop buying: from a college bookstore here, a minor-league ballpark there, a colorful barbecue joint, even a generic sports bar.

The reason, I suspect, has to do with validating my travels. Being away from family and friends week after week can lead to feelings of displacement and loss. These are days I'll never get back. Even if I tweak my schedule to never miss a game or a recital, my boys will be a year older before I know it. And then another.

Buying up T-shirts can't change that. But it can provide a tangible benefit to travel--as well as tangible evidence that I've actually been someplace. If I don't come home from Milwaukee with at least a T-shirt, it's almost like I didn't go there at all.

When I asked friends and colleagues, I found that many share my need to justify their travels by accumulating ... something. Some hoard frequent-flier miles, using their rising balance to feel better about being absent so much. Others collect kitsch, tracking down a snow globe or a magnet in each city they visit.

All that matters is that it's not something easily available on the internet or in the local mall. (That's the problem with the branded souvenirs of big-time sports clubs. I can get a Michigan hat or a Celtics jersey without leaving my hometown, so why bother finding one in Ann Arbor or Boston?) There's an added benefit, too. Souvenir-buying provides a quest to be fulfilled amid the hotel breakfasts and meetings, a mandate to experience something of each city beyond its office buildings and departure lounges.

I'm partial to shirts and hats because (a) I can actually wear them and (b) they display the name of the place I visited. Often I'll get them for my sons, but since such mementos don't carry the same emotional weight for them, they prefer--sensibly enough--to wear the merchandise of teams they actually root for.

That rules out the Pacers. So during a recent visit to Indianapolis, I settled on a blue-and-yellow hat for myself. The clerk was excited to learn that a souvenir from his team was heading halfway across the country. "Pacers fan?" he asked.

I felt bad letting him down. "Actually, no," I said. "Just a way to remember that I was here."


Our suggestions for place-specific souvenirs

Among the most site-specific of foods, good local honey is available in gourmet shops and supermarkets. The best I've acquired came from Kangaroo Island, Australia; almost as memorable--and far easier to access--is Honey Gardens Apitherapy from Vermont. One important note: The TSA considers honey a liquid, so if you're not checking a bag, you'll need to ship it home.

Chocolate is a growth industry, which means new local companies pop up all the time. The quest to discover them before they go national justifies ongoing visits to candy stores and the gourmet sections of supermarkets, a nice fringe benefit. I used to bring back Theo bars from my trips to Seattle, but now they're available coast-to-coast, so I don't bother. But another longtime favorite, Euphoria, has resisted the urge to distribute beyond the Oregon border for three decades (though its products are sold on the internet).

One great way to experience life as a local is to seek out live music--bands on the rise that haven't attained prominence beyond their home base. Buying a CD at a concert can commemorate the experience and support the local arts scene. Plus, you can listen to it in the car or on your laptop during your trip.