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Don't Shop Till You Drop!
...finding creative gifts abroad

 

Evelyn Hannon

In my case, a small portion of every trip abroad is devoted to browsing the shops and markets. I'm always on the lookout for creative and inexpensive finds to share with my friends and family back home. Over the years, I seem to have honed my investigative techniques and learned to prepare properly so that now inventive gift shopping takes no effort at all. In fact, I actually find it relaxing. It's a great solo activity, the people-watching is wonderful and it always helps me to understand the local culture.

The following are my tried and tested "don't shop till you drop" Journeywoman hints. Perhaps some of them will be of help to you, too...

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Avoid the tourist shops...
It is hardly ever the tourist souvenir shops I find terribly exciting. Rather, it's the supermarkets, farmer's markets, museum boutiques, drug stores and specialty shops that offer up the creative treasure-trove of goodies.

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Record the hot spots...
When I find a shopping spot I really like, the address, telephone and fax number is noted in my journal. This way, I can return on my next trip, re-order specialties by mail if necessary and I can share my best finds with girlfriends when they go off travelling.

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Be prepared...
Always prepare for shopping. Even though I might only travel with a backpack or a small suitcase on wheels, I take along another foldable bag to be used as a carry-on for the trip home. Ditto for an extra small combination lock to keep your purchases safe in case they need to be stored along the way. Carrying some clear adhesive tape and scissors in one's backpack generally comes in hand,too.

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Strike while the iron is hot...
Many times I buy two or three of an object that really appeals to me. When I return, these are stored in my gift drawer ready for special occasions and holiday gift-giving. At the market in Hong Kong, for example, fabulous cloisonné style teaspoons were being offered at a ridiculously low price. I bought a dozen, paired them with interesting jars of jam at home and, presto, they became wonderful housewarming gifts.

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Ordinary gift wrap is boring...
To make presents even more interesting, wrap them before you come home. Instead of ordinary gift wrap, use the cartoon pages from foreign newspapers. Buy foreign gift cards as well. I sometimes ask an English-speaking clerk to help me make my selection. They love it and it makes the transaction so much more fun! Old postcards picked up for a song at flea markets work well as gift enclosures as do brand new ones from museum shops.

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Be an eco-friendly shopper...
Remember your eco-friendly string shopping bag or buy one at your destination. Some outdoor markets (Munich's Viktualienmarkt is a perfect example) expect the buyer to be prepared and most supermarkets in Europe generally charge for each plastic bag the customer needs.

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You can't put it in the car and take it home...
Shopping abroad is not like shopping at home. To be suitable, a good purchase must also be fairly light, portable and easily packable. It should fit effortlessly in your small suitcase or you should be able to mail it home without breaking the bank on postage. Small picture frames (everybody can use at least one more) are high on my list of suitable gifts. When in London, I always head for Habitat, a home furnishings shop where the prices are low but the styling is very, very high.(196 Tottenham Court Road).

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What you aren't used to is a novelty...
Soaps, shower gels and powders sold in your hometown drugstores are utilitarian and everybody you know has tried them. However, a stop at a chemist in the U.K. or a pharmacie in France, will yield moderately priced body-care products that become a novelty when you bring them home. Au Printemps, the renown Paris Department store has a fantastic assortment of soaps, lotions and creams -- probably the best in Paris. At Boots, in London, ask to see their offerings of inexpensive aromatherapy products. In Israel, a familiar type of toothpaste (i.e. Crest) with the brand name written in Hebrew can be matched with a new toothbrush and voila... a culturally-correct present for the young person on your "hard-to-buy-for" list.

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Fancy cookies under $2.00
The same applies to teas, biscuits and candies on sale in groceries. While I don't usually look for presents in my hometown supermarket, I'm never disappointed with a browse through foreign food shops. One trip, the corner store in Edinburgh yielded delicious shortbread cookies plus I discovered Stroopwafels (Dutch Tea cookies) and mouth watering Droste chocolate pastilles in Amsterdam. In Instanbul, I was directed to Koska Helvacisi,the shop that sells the best Turkish Delight and Halvah in the city. And, not one of these presents cost me more than $3.00.

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Spice up your purchases...
Foreign markets are always a delight. This is where one finds the perfect something for pals who love to cook. Walking through the Vegetable Market Clock Tower in Jodpur, India I came upon Shop 209-B. Here, the merchant who actually supplies Harrod's Department Store with their upscale curry powder and masala spices also plies his wares to the locals (at a fraction of the cost). While in Provence I discovered a herb mix for fish that I still dream about. Both amazing finds!

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Stamps cost pennies...
Pop into the post office any place you visit. For practically pennies, you can always bring back interesting, colorful stamps for the youngsters on your list.

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Bring back a bit of the culture...
Music shops around the world are a pleasure to explore and compact disks or cassettes are so easy to pack. In Dublin, I happily found the CD that all the Irish women were quick to recommend. "A Woman's Heart," is a compilation of their top female vocalists singing incredibly poignant love ballads. I definitely should have bought more of those!

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Little T's for little ones...
Finally, any toddlers to shop for? I usually head for the local university and seek out their mini t-shirts. Now the little ones in my extended family sport Harvard, Cambridge, Sorbonne and Oxford T's. The children are seldom impressed but their parents just love my choices.

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