Sophie Lam: Which is more powerful, a tourist trinket or a memory?

 

Souvenir: "a memory", in French; or a thing that is kept as a reminder of a person, place or event. It comes from the Latin, subvenire: "occur to the mind".

It might mean bringing something home from a trip that will either elicit happy memories or, if it's for someone else, solicit wishful wanderlust.

On a recent trip to New York – a city which has great synergies with my home town, London – I had to think laterally about my souvenir sourcing. In the end, I went to CO Bigelow, an apothecary that opened in Greenwich Village in 1838 and whose covetable signature line of bath products is evocative of a Manhattan of yesteryear.

A cologne, lip salve and body balm later, I'd ticked all my present boxes; the recipients were all correspondingly delighted with their gifts on my return. So imagine my disappointment when I saw the CO Bigelow range all fragrantly lined up on the shelves of Liberty department store in London a few weeks later.

A similar thing happened in Paris. My mother and I had come across a particularly delicious blend of Earl Grey tea with blue flowers at the Fauchon food store on the Place de la Madeleine and I despatched a friend, who was there last Christmas, to hunt a tin down for me.

"Oh lovely, did you get this one in John Lewis?" my mother cooed as she unwrapped it on Christmas Day.

It's not just gift-souvenirs that are losing their shine. Travel isn't just about the tangible things; it's about the experiences, too – whether it's a conversation with a stranger or the unexpected flavours of something new, particular to a place and time.

Two New York restaurant landmarks, Shake Shack and Balthazar, have recently secured sites in London, and Mumbai's acclaimed seafood restaurant Trishna opened in the capital several years ago. Arzak, the San Sebastian-based pioneer of new Basque cuisine and number eight on the San Pellegrino list of the "World's 50 Best Restaurants", has just opened an outpost at the Halkin hotel in Belgravia. It replaces David Thompson's Nahm, the first Thai restaurant in Europe to be awarded a Michelin star. The singular tastes of our travels are following us home.

And now that we can Google Street View the places we haven't yet been to, read the experiences of other travellers online, or shop via worldwide web marketplaces for the things we can't get at home, do we actually need to travel at all? Memories are ready made right there at your computer.

I once had my camera stolen towards the end of a three-month trip in Central America, with a nearly used roll of film inside. There's a gap in my photo album that has been filled by memory and aided by props: bus tickets, a fridge magnet, sea shells ... each small object immediately transporting me back to a particular time and place.

So perhaps that's what souvenirs really are. They're not about the shopping or eating or making your friends back at home envious with exotic trinkets. They're a bookmark in a chapter of your life – somewhere, sometime, that can't be revisited, except in your mind.

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