Now that I’m busy decluttering my house, I regularly come across items that I dragged back from trips abroad. If I was ever any good at anything, it was the art of spending money in other countries…. You see, as far as I was concerned, a vacation consisted of a few fixed “parts.” There had to be at least one hotel with flashy reviews from the Lonely Planet guide; at least one museum that everyone-was-talking-about; at least one dinner in a restaurant that had been recommended by the locals; and, finally, gathering souvenirs to take home. Souvenirs that I would then gallantly hand out to my parents, my brother, the plant- and catsitter, and a few friends. I once worked in the editorial department of a magazine where it was pretty much expected that you bring something funny back for your work colleagues too. The bar was set high: a packet of biscuits hastily bought from the airport duty free shop was an absolute no-no.
Which was fine, as I was pretty good at souvenir shopping, if I do say so myself. I once bought my brother and sister-in-law a seal stamp with their names engraved in it in Chinese script. I bought tweed bags in Ireland, an antique candy dish in Sweden, a kettle in Marrakech, a hand-painted portrait of a woman in Cuba, and leather bracelets with friends’ names on them in Namibia. And a hundred other similar things, I’m afraid. Both to give away and to keep for myself. But at some point, I started to apply the same logic toward souvenirs as I did to holiday romances: If you take him / her / it out of its natural environment, it loses a lot of its magic. Take my Nepalese Thangka (which I look at every day) as the perfect example. This hand-painted picture really belongs in a house in Nepal and not, ahem, in a Dutch home.
Irene was always a little envious at the ease with which I collected some souvenir or other on our Flow trips. That seemed so nice to me, as she herself is much more practical. Until we were in Cape Town, that is. We were in a shop and I saw an object that had been handmade by a local artist; it consisted of pieces of wood that had been glued together, pasted with patterned paper, and sawn into the shape of the African continent. There was a hook on the back so that you could hang it up on your wall. I told Irene that I wanted to buy it. To which, she murmured: “Put it back. What are you going to do with it?” Being the mature adult that I am, this was just the kind of comment that led me to buy the object immediately. But she was right. When I got back home, my partner looked at it dubiously, and my son said, rather bluntly: “Wow, that’s ugly.” Personally, I had already started to doubt my need to have this item by the time I had reached my hotel room in Cape Town. And so, last week, I had no qualms about banishing my African thing to the garbage bag.
And now to the point. The solution for the declutterer with a weakness for souvenirs comes from my colleague Caroline, and it’s advice I followed last year: Don’t get your souvenirs from a shop; get them from nature. Caroline always takes shells, nicely shaped stones, a twig she finds during a walk, some flowers to dry and press. It’s saved me so much on time, money and accumulation of “stuff;” particularly the money and stuff side of things. It really has. Last summer, on the beach in Wales, I found a beautiful stone in the shape of a heart. A brilliant holiday souvenir.
There’s also a good tip from Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo. She explains that the word “souvenir” is French for: memory. A memory of a time when you felt happiness. The idea that you have to throw the souvenir away often brings up a fear that, in doing so, you are also throwing away the precious memory that comes with it. Which in fact, says Marie, is not true. So when I throw my Nepalese thing away, I won’t be throwing the whole Nepalese break away. I knew that already, but it’s still nice that Marie has made it official: souvenirs can be thrown away.
Astrid, together with Irene, is the founder of Flow Magazine. She lives with her partner and two children. Each Tuesday, she writes about the sense—and nonsense—of decluttering.
“Week 30 De-Souvenir-ing”