Dashboard hula girls, cuckoo clocks, tribal war masks, stuffed kangaroos -- maybe there's a place in heaven for all the junk we bring back from trips. Until then, much of it ends up in the basement or Goodwill bin.
But in a charming antiques shop overlooking a Venetian canal, how do you stop yourself from buying that gorgeous Murano glass chandelier? It's expensive. It might look odd in your dining room. And you have no idea how you'll get it home. But there are traveler's checks rattling around in your wallet, and you've never seen anything like it.
There's no foolproof way of ensuring you'll cherish everything you buy on the road. Too often, things that seem wonderful in Turkey or Germany look like well-traveled kitsch after they pass through customs. On the other hand, the urge to find something special is strong and real.
A wise woman once told me that you don't regret the things you buy, even if they turn out to be useless; you regret the things you pass up. What, for instance, was I thinking when I failed to buy a Navajo rug at the Crown Point Auction last year in New Mexico?
When I first started traveling, I was too cheap to buy anything. Now I know that shopping is one of the great rewards of travel. So my advice is not to err on the side of caution. At the same time, there are certain principles to remember when it comes to travel shopping:
Uniqueness. Avoid mass-produced gewgaws, no matter how cute. They're impulse buys. The more you spend on them, the more holes in your travel budget. Instead, look for one or two slightly bigger-ticket items that would seem singularly beautiful or useful regardless of their origins.
If you must buy knickknacks, earmark them as presents for family and friends. That way the gifts will end up in someone else's basement.
Immediate usefulness. If there's something you need on the road, you will probably need it and use it later. I've had good luck buying things that way: a fisherman's sweater I still wear, purchased one chilly spring on a bike trip through County Clare, Ireland; a black carry-on bag I use all the time, acquired at a department store in Helsinki when the strap of my old one gave out.
Fearless buying. I admire people who have the nerve to make big purchases on the road. My sister bought a huge antique wooden chest in China and carpets in Turkey. She's successful because she shops with friends and colleagues who are experts on particular items or gets references from them about reliable shops that will ship her purchases home.
Getting big-ticket items back to the U.S. can be problematic. Common sense tells travelers to avoid mailing items in countries where a postcard sent to the U.S. takes a month arriving. But I had no qualms about sending a half-case of Riesling from a post office in Germany to relatives in Belgium. It reached Brussels intact in days.
Another approach to buying big, expensive items is to take a card from the shop instead of bagging something on the spot. Then you can decide once you get home if you really must have it.
Avoid buying anything you don't know in your heart you want. If you waffle, it's a sign. Better to leave the Venetian chandelier in the shop.
Research. There are things to buy wherever you go. Instead of falling under their spell, find out before you leave home what's worth buying.
A good travel buy is something you won't find elsewhere or the real thing that is knocked off in other places. That could mean silk pajamas in China, rugs in Morocco or quilted cotton bedspreads in Jaipur, India.
It also makes sense to think about the things you buy at home that come from other places. They may cost less in the country where they're produced. I made a list before I went to Germany last month and came home with a pair of German Finn Comfort shoes and Dr. Hauschka face cream for half the price charged in the U.S.
Décor. Your home reflects your fundamental taste. On the road, keep a picture of it in mind. If your house is mid-century modern, don't be seduced into buying a Duncan Phyfe table. I call the style of my home Foreign Service Eclectic, which means that just about everything fits in.
Gifts. I remind myself of whose birthday is coming up before I leave home, and I do my Christmas shopping all year on the road. Presents from far away are distinctive, and buying gifts is a good way to indulge your passion for shopping.
Simplicity. Some of the best things I ever brought home for myself or loved ones cost little or nothing. I love colorful Mexican matchboxes, soap from French grocery stores, greeting cards in foreign languages. After my recent visit to Sanibel Island in Florida, family and friends got shells I collected on the beach. At Lake Tahoe I gathered the huge pine cones I always put around my Christmas tree.
There will be fewer white elephants from faraway places in your closets if you follow these guidelines. Of course, there are always exceptions. I have a hula girl on the dashboard of my car. Every time I go over a bump, her pink grass skirt jiggles and I'm back under a palm tree in Maui.