Da, I'm buying a hotel on the Arbat: Russian Monopoly is just one of the unusual gifts you can find in specialist outlets. Julie Aschkenasy does a global survey

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The Independent Online
GENUINE treasures can be found among the ethnic goods littered throughout high street shops at this time of year. But you are most likely to find a really unusual or amusing present in one that specialises in goods from a particular country. Some outlets, such as Muji (Japan) or Ikea (Sweden), stock mass- produced lines; others, such as the Russian Shop, go for unique pieces that would never find their way on to mainstream shelves.


The Russian Shop is small but its elaborate interior is designed to look like a huge Faberge egg. All types of traditional matrioshkas (nesting dolls) are joined on the shelves, thanks to glasnost, by nesting Russian politicians, some of which are now collectors' items. Prices start at pounds 5.50 for sets of three dolls and rise to nests of 18 for pounds 280. Icons are displayed beside Russian versions of traditional Western games. In real life, it is difficult to buy property in Moscow, but with the Russian Monopoly ( pounds 29.95) you can buy whole streets with fistfuls of roubles; and it's a good gift for students of the language.

For novelty value, framed pre-Revolution share certificates, from the beginning of the century (production ceased in 1917), are available from pounds 181, a nice, if costly, present for anyone doing business with the new Russia. And redundant spies can maintain old animosities on the chessboard: games that pit the Old Guard against the New Guard, or East against West, cost pounds 190.

On a less combative note, pretty laquered boxes, elaborately decorated by artists from the Russian villages of Fedoskino, Palekh, Mstera, Kholui and Agidel, are priced from pounds 80. Miniature boxes - if you can believe the old story - are painted with a single wolf's hair, and their gold backgrounds with a wolf's tooth. They depict scenes from local fairy tales and legends, and would make pretty jewellery boxes.


Hidden away in west Soho, the Greek Shop offers a slightly more familiar reminder of Greek holidays. It concentrates on mythological figures, religious icons, ornaments and trinkets, all with a typical - for my taste, rather too typical - flavour of Greece.

The reproductions of Cycladic artifacts from the Athens Museum, however, look suprisingly modern, with their white stone heads and clean lines (from pounds 7.75 to pounds 55). The originals date from about 4200BC to 2200BC. Other reproductions of busts in Greek museums come in 'brass resin', such as the Griffin, the mythological beast with the hindparts of a lion and foreparts of an eagle ( pounds 34.75); or the winged sphinx of Naxos, reproduced from the original in the Museum of Delphi ( pounds 35). These artefacts are tailor-made for lovers of Gothic art, Tolkien and heavy metal.

For children the shop offers a range of plastic Greek soldiers, ancient and modern, and some racing chariots. Boxes of five to 12 soldiers cost from pounds 8.60 to pounds 15.


Closer to home but still with a rich cultural heritage of its own, Ireland displays some of its finest craftsmanship in the Irish Shop. Waterford Crystal, Irish music tapes, linens, compressed-turf carvings, celtic symbolism and woollen knitwear abound.

A wide range of luxury Aran hand knits, go from baby cardigans (20in and 22in for pounds 23) up to large adult size. Prices vary, but they average pounds 75 for an adult sweater and a little more for cardigans. Baby booties with leather soles cost pounds 11.50 (without leather, pounds 6.95). Woollen mitts, in three or four natural colours as well as dyed knits, are priced from pounds 4.25. The shop is especially promoting Waterford crystal: a free Waterford clock (usual price, pounds 57) is being offered with all purchases of more than pounds 120.

Down the price scale, there is a good range of Irish music tapes and CDs. New Age teenagers and refugees from Glastonbury would love the small statues and jewellery depicting Celtic figures, made of compressed turf. Prices start at about pounds 6.90 for a brooch. And your search for small treats may end with the traditional Barm Brack tea bread at pounds 2.30 and 'emerald' toffee for 50p.


The Swedish furnishing giant Ikea is not just responsible for well-priced home furnishings; it also houses a bargain selection of potential Christmas presents ranging from cuddly toys to stationery, and taking in Swedish foodstuffs along the way.

For children, an appealing Scandinavian moose-calf cuddly toy has an pounds 8.50 tag, a grown-up moose pounds 28, and a soft, large brown bear pounds 21.50. For tiny tots, a hippopotamus potty comes in red or white for pounds 4.90. Children love places to hide, and may well be delighted with a children's tent at pounds 11. An affordable ( pounds 11.90) large cardboard playhouse is big enough to hide in; or look out for the doll's house (also in cardboard) at pounds 9.70. And a set of wooden building blocks costs pounds 7.20 for 62 pieces.

If you need a gift for a homesick Swede, try the food department: gravadlax ( pounds 5.40), buckets of biscuits ( pounds 2.95 for 500g), hot Swedish mustard ( pounds 1.25) and milk chocolate ( pounds 1.70).


The strong clean lines apparent in Muji reflect the practicality of Japanese products. All its goods are unpretentious, displaying an economy of style that is modern and efficient.

Students will appreciate the plain cylindrical cardboard containers holding 36 coloured pencils ( pounds 7.95 small, pounds 12.50 large) or the wax crayons ( pounds 3.95 for 14). Also of good quality are the cotton plimsoll-style, slip-on elasticated slippers in black or white ( pounds 24.95). Men's briefs in California cotton come in black and white (tiny checked pattern), grey and white, or blue and white stripes ( pounds 7.95). A honeycomb-weave hooded dressing- gown, in white, costs pounds 95 and jersey pyjamas, in grey or cream, pounds 49.95. Snacks that would make unusual stocking fillers, include banana- or orange-flavoured gum (65p), deep-fried rice crackers (95p) and sweet potato crisps ( pounds 1.75). Or try a Christmas hamper, Muji style: a pack of storage boxes and drawers in strong cardboard (from pounds 1.95) or opaque plastic ( pounds 8.95), with your choice of accessories. A bath hamper could include a body brush ( pounds 9.95), shower brush ( pounds 10.95), Japanese toothpaste ( pounds 1.95), abrasive flannel ( pounds 4.95), and the usual shampoos and soaps. Or make up a Japanese stationery hamper; a strong cardboard box and shredded paper (usually pounds 10.95) comes free with purchases costing more than pounds 50.


The Egyptian House, stocked with traditional handicrafts and backed by the Egyptian government, which is trying to create overseas markets, is to open on Monday. Its exterior and interior are decorated with hand-made hieroglyphs.

The shop, which promises a robust flavour of the Egyptian bazaar, will sell bed covers from pounds 18.95, silver candlesticks at pounds 48.95 or brass at pounds 6.95, wooden goblets at pounds 8.95, and typical jewel-studded metal ashtrays at pounds 14.95.

Addresses: The Russian Shop, 99 The Strand, London WC2 (071-497 9104). The Greek Shop, 6 Newburgh Street, London W1 (071-437 1197). The Irish Shop, 14 King Street, London WC2 (071-379 3625) and 11 Duke Street, London W1 (071 935 1366). Ikea branches: Croydon 081-781 9003, Gateshead 091-461 0202, Brent Park 081-451 5566, Warrington 0925 55889, Birmingham 021-526 5232. Muji, 26 Great Marlborough Street, London W1 (071-494 1197); also at 39 Shelton Street, London WC2, and at 63/67 Queen Street, Glasgow G1. The Egyptian House, 77 Wigmore Street, London W1 (071-935 9839).

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