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In defense of souvenirs: For travel-lovers stuck at home, even the unlikeliest tchotchkes can spark joy

(Aya Kakeda/for The Washington Post)
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The vintage macramé kimono I bought on a trip to Tokyo in 2018 makes me think of hip-hop obsessed Japanese teenagers. I bought the kimono in a thrift shop with an outlandishly large selection of track suits. Five teenage boys were trying them on, recording micro rap performances on TikTok, and asking for one another's opinions — and then, in broken English, for mine. I gave them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down as they mock-strutted for me. They offered unanimous thumbs-up on my find. We high-fived our mutual victories.

I bought the cowboy-boot-shaped mugs on my desk at an antique shop in Cheyenne, Wyo. They remind me of a late night in a no-frills local joint, when a group of merry leather-clad motorcyclists broke out into a full-blown Garth Brooks hootenanny. One of the crooners bought a round for everyone in the place. We hoisted our bottles in unison.

In a time when Marie Kondo, the pundit of purging, is a veritable star, with her 2014 bestseller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” the 2019 Netflix series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” and subsequent appearances on daytime and late-night talk-show circuits, I should be ashamed to admit this, but I’m not: My name is Liza, and I’m addicted to souvenirs.

In our digital era, social media posts are fleeting; photos get lost in the cloud. Buying things cements experiences and puts them on display so I’ll always remember a place I fell for, person who intrigued me or drink I tried. If I can wear it, apply it to my body, write with it or on it, eat it or decorate my apartment with it, it becomes a tangible part of the narrative of my travels, my past, a Proustian distraction from the everyday.

Souvenir shopping? Swap T-shirts and snow globes for items that reflect a country’s culture.

These days, as a global pandemic cancels plans and renders the simple act of going to buy cereal a risk, we’re all on tenterhooks. But the simple act of holding an object — no matter how chintzy it might be — can revive sights and sounds of joyful moments. The word itself indicates that: Souvenir is French for “to remember.”

Remembrances shape identity. This is part of the philosophy advanced by Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You,” an investigation of how our belongings reveal our inner lives.

“One thing that’s interesting in terms of keepsakes, collections and travel objects is to look at their placement in your space. Snooping around houses, my research points to the reasons to have objects in our spaces. They’re identity claims — deliberate statements of goals, values and what’s important to us,” Gosling told me. “It’s a signal that says ‘this is who I am.’ People are happier, healthier and more productive when others see them as they see themselves.”

Other objects are displayed simply for personal consumption, in which case they’re what Gosling calls a feeling regulator. “They’re for us — they don’t serve a communicative function. They’re not about broadcasting a signal. They’re there to make you feel a certain way.”

My keepsakes do both: They zoom me back to a moment when I felt exhilaration or calm or joy. And they reflect my identity in part because they connect me to my paternal grandmother, a particularly gifted collector who kept neatly packed pouches of jewelry in a drawer, tidy piles of stylish Italian leather handbags in her closet, menageries of small ceramic animals and miniature furniture in her grand dining room breakfront. She had survived the Holocaust, and I often wonder if her passion for collecting and the delight she took in objects were an effort to reclaim all that she’d lost. I think about this when I buy something I know I can do without; even the basic act of collecting ties me to my grandmother and the pursuits that bind us.

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Too often, collecting is confused with hoarding. The two are not the same. Collecting is anything from a passing hobby to an active commitment. Hoarding, a pathological degree of accumulating, is a disorder. Historically, people who hoard have been looked upon as depraved. In Dante’s “Inferno,” an entire ring of Hell was reserved for hoarders and wasters, a condition resulting from greed.

In scientific and psychological analysis, hoarding was originally linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hoarding disorder only became its own distinct diagnostic entity in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, published in 2013.

“To meet criteria for hoarding disorder, a person needs to have an attachment to objects to the point that it causes anxiety to part with their possessions, but it also needs to involve an impairment in terms of social functioning, work functioning and ability to use rooms in one’s home for their intended purpose,” explains Carolyn Rodriguez, a psychiatrist and director of Stanford’s Hoarding Disorders Research Program.

How do you know whether you’re a collector or a hoarder? “Individuals who are collectors are attached to objects, but they collect items around specific themes, and they keep them in an organized way,” she says. People who hoard, on the other hand, might keep items that should be in the garage in the bathroom and items from the bathroom in the bedroom, she says. “Where a collector is proud to display a collection, people with hoarding disorders are embarrassed and don’t want to have people over. They possess objects like treasures, but they don’t have the sense of wanting to show them off.”

Thankfully, my collections — whiskies and gins from around the world, cookbooks from restaurants I’ve eaten at, bracelets galore — are orderly displayed in my apartment.

The act of collecting offers the rush of the chase, the thrill of the find. And in some cases, it serves a larger purpose. We would have little progress in the humanities or life sciences without the dedicated, some might say obsessive, pursuit that defines a collector. Consider the art aficionado who accumulates a world-class collection to lend to a museum, the scientist who gathers data for years to make a groundbreaking discovery, the record collector who fanatically seeks out rare jazz albums and unearths lost Coltrane sessions in the process, and the chef who stockpiles vintage cookbooks as a resource for his own world-class restaurant.

“During the 1700s and 1800s there were aristocratic collectors, the landed gentry, who roamed the world in search of fossils, shells, zoological specimens, works of art and books, Mark B. McKinley, a professor emeritus at Lorain County Community College in Ohio and author of the “Psychology of Collecting,” writes in a 2007 article in the National Psychologist. “The collected artifacts were then kept in special rooms (‘cabinets of curiosities’) for safekeeping and private viewing. A ‘cabinet’ was, in part, a symbolic display of the collector’s power and wealth. It was these collectors who established the first museums in Europe, and to a lesser extent in America.”

My collections of state magnets and bottles of whiskey and gin from distilleries around the world will never rise to that level. But they do pass Kondo’s test. Hold an object, she instructs, and ask yourself if it sparks joy. If it does, keep it. If not, get rid of it. I abide by that. That’s why I won’t get rid of the hard-shell wicker purse shaped like an aardvark, complete with ruby-sequin eyes, that I found in Goldie’s General, a vintage store in Saskatoon, Canada. Or the bangle bracelet made from strips of license plate metal that I bought from an artist in Anchorage.

Souvenir collections do more than spark joy and memories and reinforce our identity. They offer a sense of control that comes from organizing, arranging or classifying these beloved belongings. It’s a way to achieve a tiny degree of order in a turbulent world. And goodness knows we can all use that right now.

Weisstuch is a writer based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @livingtheproof.

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