Sunday, March 15, 2009

First Time Abroad: What to Purchase

Given the opportunity to take my parents to Italy this past November, and seeing the mingled looks of amazement, confusion, excitement and bewilderment on their faces when shopping, it made me think: what should you buy as a souvenir when abroad? When in a foreign country, everything can seem special, even something as simple as shampoo. Whether you are the type of person who wants to bring back only a few special items, or the type of person who wants to bring back a suitcase full, knowing that it might be a while before you fly overseas again, there are three types of souvenirs that I feel are integral to making sure you don't feel like you have any regrets.

1. The stupid.
The worst thing about buying this type of item is summoning up the courage to go into one of the tourist shops, especially if you are trying to blend in. But if you are coveting that three-inch tall plaster model of David, or that apron that lists the various types of pasta, or that gladiator helmet magnet, by all means, buy it. Generally these types of souvenirs will not break your budget and will allow you to smile and laugh every time you see it, and that should be worth it in and of itself.

2. The local specialty.
This could be a food item (such as chocolate in Belgium, or wine from France, or specialty
vinegars from Vienna), or it could be a craft. In Roatan, an island just off of the coast of Honduras, artisans specialize in crafting out of mahogany. In Murano, near Venice, the specialty is glass. Every country, region, or city you visit will have something that they would like to share with you, and you should bring it home and display it (or eat it) with pride.

3. The practical.
This third category is often overlooked, but one of the most important. Clothing, make-up, jewelry, writing utensils, music, books - these are the items that you will be able to use again and again, and where they might not say the city that you purchased them in, these items can easily remind you of your trip for a fraction of the cost. For example, charity shops such as Oxfam in England offer you the opportunity to bring home a piece of England at a fraction of the cost of a regular store, and also go to help people in need.

Whatever you decide to purchase when overseas, do research ahead of time. Look at sites like Virtual Tourist where world travelers have offered their recommendations on stores and specialty items. Visit the markets and enjoy the crowds full of people from all over the world. Make a list of birthdays and holiday gifts that are needed, and try to do some of your shopping ahead of time. Even if you don't want to buy for yourself, there are few people who wouldn't appreciate something special from a different country.

But however much or little you purchase, the worst experience is to arrive at customs and not be able to bring your souvenirs home. So make sure to check your country's import laws and regulations, otherwise your shopping may have been fun, but you'll end up empty-handed, and full of regret.

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