In Defense of Cheap Plastic Souvenirs

Recently, I was talking with my friend Mickela Mallozzi for my podcast. Mickela is the creator and host of the wildly entertaining show on PBS, Bare Feet. I’m paraphrasing, but Mickela made the point that rather than spending money on cheap little knick knacks, travelers would be better served putting their hard-earned dollars towards fun and memorable experiences.

Our conversation soon turned to another topic and I didn’t get a chance to revisit what she had said. And, I should point out, I agree with Mickela. For me, experiences are the most rewarding part of travel.

But, allow me to take a moment and speak up in support of disposable tchotchkes.

A Trip to Florence

Many years ago, on my first trip to Italy, we visited Florence. It’s a magnificent place, of course, and also one of my favorite cities for gelato. Next door to the little boutique hotel where we were staying was a little ceramic shop and studio. A very talented young lady made and sold beautifully decorated (and expensive) plates, cups, serving dishes and such.

The skyline of Florence (photo: Brent Petersen)

We loved her work and splurged on a couple of gorgeous pasta plates. The artist even packed and shipped the pieces.

A couple weeks after our return, the plates arrived, just as lovely as we remembered when we purchased them.

But, here’s the thing. We never twirled a single strand of spaghetti, never ate a ravioli, never consumed a gnocchi from those plates. Instead, we displayed them in our kitchen.

And, when we packed up and moved to Hawaii a couple of years ago, they went into storage with most of our other stuff, where they remain today.

Tacky Refrigerator Magnets

A few of our tacky refrigerator magnets (photo: Brent Petersen)

You know what we did take to Hawaii?

That’s right, our refrigerator magnets.

Oftentimes when we travel, we’ll pop into one of those tourist trap shops. You know, the ones with the racks of postcards outside. Maybe we’ll grab a drink or a snack, but I’m always on the prowl for some tacky keepsake.

Usually, this comes in the form of little refrigerator magnet. For a couple of bucks I’ll get a magnet with a guy delivering pizza in an Italian Ape truck or an Hawaiian shaka bottle opener, or one in the shape of a donut from Berlin saying “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I gave that one to my brother).


Notice all the holes in my t-shirt (photo: Brent Petersen)

Everyone makes fun of the t-shirt shops clustered in a city’s tourist hot spots. Yes, they’re often cheaply made with bad Dad Jokes on them. But, I always go inside. For ten bucks you can get a wearable souvenir from your trip.

We were in Scotland in 2017 and I bought a t-shirt in Edinburgh. On that same trip, we spent time in France. During a trip to Châteauneuf-du-Pape we splurged on some wine which we had shipped back to the states.

The wine, which literally was 100 times the cost of the t-shrit, was gone in a matter of weeks. But today, in the middle of 2020, I still wear the Scotland t-shirt to sleep in. Admittedly, the shirt is on its last legs, but I’m still reluctant to get rid of it.

Inexpensive Ceramics

Here’s the problem with cheap mementos. They’re often made in China. So, in effect, the couple of bucks you spend isn’t doing much to help the local economy. Sure, the shopkeeper might make a few cents, but it’s a pittance.

These days, I often look for a local artisan shop or studio. Most ceramics shops will have inexpensive little items you can get for $10-20. We’ve bought little bowls we use to serve olives or nuts (make sure they’re food safe). But, my favorite item is a spoon rest we got in Italy. We bought our spoon rest for the bargain price of eight Euros in a little shop in Sicily.

We use our spoon rest almost everyday (photo: Brent Petersen)

Of course, there were much more expensive items in the shop, but we’ve used our spoon rest daily since we got it four years ago. And that’s more use than we got from our pricey pasta plates in Florence.

About the Author

Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink, including in-depth eating and drinking guides to Lisbon, PortoSintraMonsaraz, and Evora in Portugal. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.

Author: Brent