Every souvenir tells a story — of a culture, a craft and a tradition. Historic and intrinsic to a country’s culture, they are unique in their own ways. Perched on your mantelpiece, they immediately transport you to the destination and are a treasure house of memories. While my home is filled with fridge magnets and bookmarks, the souvenirs that I look for are special signatures of the country that I visit. From mosaics to gemstones, from neckties to nutcrackers, let us look at some eclectic souvenirs from different destinations, and the stories
Nutcrackers & Smoking Men from Germany
There is something fascinating about toys and I went to the toy town of Seiffen tucked away in the Ore Mountains in Germany. While Seiffen comes alive during Christmas, the pretty and colourful toys can be seen virtually in every Christmas market in Germany. I was fascinated by the gaunt-faced tall man who was called the Nutcracker, and another charming gentleman who oozed attitude called the Smoking Man. Crafted in the 19th century by miners as toys for their children, toymaking soon became their livelihood when the mines had to be closed.
Most of these wooden toys had a Christmas connection. Traditionally, the nutcrackers were ‘utensils’ that were carved of local wood from the forests, but the craftsmen wanted to make them look like soldiers so that they could actually mock at these men of authority. Seiffen has a charming toy museum as well where you can assemble your own smoking man or nutcracker and take them home as souvenirs. I, of course, had to bring these gentlemen home.
Amber from Poland
Your next souvenir is a fossil and a precious stone that glows and glitters and yet, is not gold. I was in a charming port town called Gdansk in Poland and that is when I was introduced to Baltic amber, a fossil resin, deposits of which are found in abundance around the coast. Amber is virtually a native gemstone of Poland and you will find several shops all over the country selling over 80 different varieties of amber and jewellery and artefacts created out of them. Some of the names are fascinating — woolly, clouded, honey and flame, to name a few. I heard about them in the Amber Museum inside a 14th-century Gothic monument, where I am told that Gdansk, which was at the centre of amber trading route, has been home to craftsmen since the 15th century. Amber jewellery is believed to bring good luck as well, and I ended up taking home a lovely pair of earrings.
Cravats from Croatia
I was in the ‘City of Love’ — Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, where pretty red bleeding hearts called licitar are virtually the symbols of the city. But there is a much more charming story beyond these romantic souvenirs. I was walking around the quaint medieval St Marks Church. In a shop close by were pretty scarves with symbols of Croatia like Dalmatian dogs or the oldest Slavic alphabet from the Glagolithic script. And that was when I heard about the cravats.
Historically, the cravats can be traced to the 16th century when the Croatian military who fought alongside the French wore these scarves around their neck. The French were taken in by the scarves and made it a fashion accessory. But there is a romantic story as well. Although the cravats were worn by men, it was their girlfriends who had tied the scarves around their soldiers’ neck as a parting gift before sending them off for war. The Croats, however, are so proud of their contribution to fashion that they even have a National Cravat Day on October 18 to commemorate it. I could not help but buy one of these pretty scarves painted in the colours of the Dalmatian coastline.
Mosaic from Jordan
A little bit of the Romans, a story of the Bedouins, a journey into the Biblical era, a trip into the world of Nabataeans — Jordan, for me, had been a mosaic of unique experiences. The souvenirs told a similar story. From the magical mud of the Dead Sea to the sand art of Petra, my home is a museum of different memorabilia collected from the country. However, my most favourite souvenirs are the mosaics from Madaba.
Madaba is steeped in Biblical lore and mosaics in the form of maps marked with these sites were unearthed below many monuments here. Some of these original mosaics take you on a treasure hunt with clues to different sites mentioned in the Old Testament, including Jerusalem and Bethany among others.
While there were several shops selling mosaics, I visited an old workshop where artisans were creating handmade replicas of the original designs that were etched on the maps. Ancient symbols, monuments, trees, birds, scenes out of Biblical tales, scenery, geographic maps with rivers and mountains competed with contemporary designs. There was even a Marilyn Monroe staring at us from her mosaic tile. I picked up a few mosaics from here and my favourite is the tree of life.
Pewter from Malaysia
Standing on my table is a tiny elephant with pink feet leaning against a coconut tree with its feet up. Aptly titled ‘Rest and Relaxation’, this souvenir is over 25 years old and is one of the oldest mementoes in my collection from my travels. It had journeyed all the way from Royal Selangor in Malaysia, and is made out of an alloy of tin, aluminium and copper called pewter.
Although souvenirs made of pewter are available almost everywhere, I would recommend a visit to Royal Selangor. The largest manufacturer of pewter products, Royal Selangor’s tryst with the alloy goes back to the 19th century. You could pick your choice from photo frames to tea sets, from souvenirs to figurines. The range and variety of tankards here were amazing. I was told that Royal Selangor actually created the world’s largest tankard made of pewter which stood at a height of almost two metres, and has a capacity of more than 2.5 litres. Besides the baby elephant, I took home a simple mug and a beautifully carved plate with several vignettes of Malaysia.
There are many more unique souvenirs from different countries that decorate my home. Bohemian crystals, glass menagerie from Murano in Italy, Japanese dolls, puppets from Indonesia are some of my latest collections. There are also several spices, beverages, chocolates, cheese, wines and whiskies that I have brought home from other destinations. Souvenirs are more than just mementoes and gifts. To me, they are symbols of a city’s cultural mosaic and they take you down the path of history, traditions, folklore, and sometimes even the very identity of the city.