EST. May 2000 (AD)


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From the Big House to Your House-Travel Gifts

By Pamela Miller

Whether your travels take you to Motown, London Town or Funky Town, there is one universal in the world of travel: Gift Shop. The same holds with train stations, museums, hospitals and prisons. That doesn't mean that every ceramic pig spray-painted and covered in elbow macaroni and glitter needs to take the journey from the Prisoner Gift Kiosk ("From the Big House to Your House") to your tasteful summer cottage. The availability of gifts has nothing to do with the quality of the gifts. And the quantity of the gifts is not an actual indicator that where you are is actually memorable. (Most of the world is covered in water. Think about it.) Anyone can order commemorative pencils, flashlights and key chains in bulk. Even visitors to your kitchen could be offered a souvenir coaster. (A Sharpie and a bottle of White-Out is all you'd need for monogramming-additional fee for cursive script.) Every beach town, every resort town, and every historical reenactment site sells the same variation on the same theme. The only thing that changes is the name on the sheriff's badge. It's sad, but it sells. The best travel gifts are never sold in stores.

See that prison trustee in the orange jumpsuit. He may look innocent, but he's just another salesperson. If he can't unload the leather crafts and coffee mugs, then he'll invite you to look at the Executive Collection. Instead of nonsense that smacks of "rehabilitation," he'll show you the shiv made out of a toothbrush, the plastic spoon that can take out an eye, and the combination clock/neck massager. (The neck massager's name is Victor. He's wearing a Timex.) If you have space in your trunk, then you've just made the bargain of the century.

There are places that are actually worth sharing with the world on a T-shirt. Those places can be counted on one hand. And isn't it sad to come home from an incredible trip to the Icelandic interior, only to discover that the fibers of your new shirt combust when in contact with fragrance-free fabric softener and color-safe bleach. If you want to make people jealous about your trip, then pick up something authentic, unique and sure to disgust: Icelandic Salt Licorice. You can share that it's their national candy, and natives pop it until their blood pressure is adversely affected. Allow your friends and relatives to try a piece. Then observe genteel mannered individuals unexpectedly spit the candy into the koi pond or on the bike messenger. Have your camera ready to capture the hilarity.

In terms of food-based gifts, most have a rather short lifespan. Are you really going to save that piece of buffalo jerky for future generations? Beignets from New Orleans turn into grease lumps by the time your plane arrives in Nantucket. The chocolate covered matvah from your trip to Israel is just a mistake. (There's a Secret Santa gift no one will admit to.) That coconut patty sold in the Miami International Airport has been sitting there since 1975. The owner of the gift mart was just waiting for a sucker, someone with the faulty belief that over-sweetened shredded coconut covered in a petroleum/chocolate glaze is a good gift and macular degeneration. That kind of gift, expired food, is grounds for invoking the Power of Attorney.

Postcards just remind people that you never learned how to operate a digital camera. Plastic spoons will never increase in value. Glowing objects cease to glow in an hour. Anything shaped like a dolphin, flamingo or penguin has no kitsch value in molded plastic. (Stuffed animals work, but plastic smacks of cold-hearted greed.) Puka shell necklaces are too mock retro to be cool and bring up unsettling memories of The Partridge Family.

Then there are the gifts that have maximum creativity and a negative value for the recipient. Anything made out of the Bimbo Bread wrapper meets the criteria for garbage. Great works of art should not be rendered in buttons. Hats are not supposed to be made out of Mexican soda cans and yarn. Panty hose should not be resold as soup strainers. Used asthma inhalers and dental floss do not make an attractive necklace. If the rendition of The Last Supper features one of the Seven Dwarfs, you require a professional intervention.

If you want to know the hallmarks of a good gift, ask a hardened criminal. Victor will tell you that smaller is better, especially if it needs to be covertly transported to the recipient. If the box reads: "Collect all 600," the box stays on the shelf. Never give alcohol to an alcoholic. That's just inconsiderate. Recent, unusual items and those with a high resale value are appreciated. And don't forget the impact of a romantic gesture. If you simply can't pick out a decent gift, say it with words.

Happy Travels.


Pamela Miller saves the world by day, writes by night, and wishes she could find a hotter place to live than Phoenix. The world is simply too cold.




Copyright © 2008 by Pamela Miller