The word “souvenir” is a funny one. It’s French, and in noun form it means a “memory” or “recollection.” In its verb form, it means “to remember.” This, at face value, does not seem odd. We buy souvenirs to remember our trips. Right?
But wait: when we go on trips, we often buy “souvenirs” to bestow upon friends and family upon our return. We give these to people who weren’t actually ON the trip- so they don’t have memories to recollect. In this case, is the “souvenir” we experience of the acquaintances, then, rather than the object? Meaning, we remembered them while on our trip, thus we bought them something, as a token of our relationship? Bringing someone back a gift shows that you thought of them and care about them.
Or is that, in giving them our souvenir-object, we demand that THEY remember US? Think about it: those objects have no inherent meaning for your friends and relatives. Your Aunt Sue, who didn’t even go on the trip, most definitely does not need a plastic reproduction of Dutch windmills. But she will beam while looking at it, for years to come- because it will remind her of you, and your thoughtfulness. In this case, the souvenir-object aids Aunt Sue in recollecting just how wonderful her niece is.
Many souvenirs for sale are pretty silly when you really look at them. Do you really need a mini Eiffel Tower? A wallet with pictures of wooden shoes on it? A keychain your name on it from DisneyWorld? The answer is obviously no. But each time we look at these objects, we remember our trip. These souvenir-objects become much larger than themselves: they come to represent feelings and emotions and the experiences we’ve savored. We may write off a dinky plastic keychain as cheesy or overpriced, but the truth is, that keychain will make you smile for years to come.
As I’ve gotten older, my souvenir purchasing tactics have most certainly shifted. When I was younger, I wanted magnets and keychains. I also collected dolls from the different places I visited, dressed in attire that reflected local traditions and heritage. Those dolls still hold court on a bookshelf in the bedroom where I grew up. They no longer look as glamorous as I once thought they did- now, I notice the shoddy workmanship in their features and their crudely made clothes. But am I about to toss them out? No way! They represent that spirit I have fostered ever since I was young, of getting out to see the world, exploring local customs and analyzing what I saw. They may not be as “beautiful” as the Czech metal painting I bought off an artist on a bridge in Prague a couple years ago, and they may not be as “artsy” as the colorful beaded necklace I bought in Paris- but they represent the same general idea. They’re memories, in object form.