Has this ever happened to you? You’re on vacation and you’d like to bring back something cool for your home. And there is cool stuff all around! Like a handcarved elephant mask or a bright painted bowl or a huge woven basket that would retail at Anthropologie for ten times the price. But when you go to the market, you’re overwhelmed. There are a million elephant masks, there is a veritable sea of handpainted bowls, so how could you choose and if there’s so many, then how special are they? And anyways how would you even get these things home? So you don’t bring anything home and when you see you basket for $300 at Anthro, you regret it.
I know there’s a certain type of defeat that can set in at a crowded foreign market but I’m here to urge you to forge ahead and buy the beautiful things that will look great in your home. Because while indeed the presence of hundreds of carved elephant heads (true story: In Luang Prabang, Laos) or a gazillion handpainted bowls (Morocco) does, in the moment, give the feeling that they are a dime a dozen, they are not. They are special.
Five tips to buying beautiful things for your home while you’re on vacation:
1. Have a Plan: What’s the place you’re traveling to known for? Blown glass? Copper lamps? Colorful art? Vibrant patternful fabrics? Having an idea of what you might like to buy can help you hone in on just one or two things and make your shopping more focused. (And you can research what you might expect to spend). If you didn’t do any research, then just look around you on vacation. In Zanzibar, I was taken with the colorful kangas that women wore in the streets and on the last day I bought a few to use as tablecloths or possibly for a wall covering in the future.
Artists including Picasso and Dali were inspired by the stunning landscape in Cadaqués Spain, so when I strolled into El Taller de Tanokov art gallery and saw a series of oil paintings by Elodie Loiseleur that so perfectly capture the light and colors of this place I was charmed and inspired by, I had to have it. I loved that painting our Jerusalem apartment, in our Morocco apartment, and in our Algiers house.
2. Don’t be limited by the confines of your suitcase. You do not get an austerity award for bringing only a carryon for your weeklong vacation. And honestly, points deducted if you bring just your carryon back home. Don’t allow “will it fit in my suitcase?” to keep you from buying something you love for your home. Many vendors ship (I know folks who have bought heavy concrete and zellige tile tables from Fez) but also some things are more packable than you might realize. For instance, the canvas from a stretched and framed piece of art can be rolled up. You’d be shocked at how tightly a rug can be bundled, and in Morocco rug sellers will even make a handle for your bundle and you check it as an extra bag. Something many of my visitors to Morocco did was buy a three-foot tall woven basket with a lid (laundry hamper size) and fill it up with goodies – pillow covers, a small stool, small rugs – put the lid on and wrapped the whole thing in a garbage bag and lots of packing tape. Voila, that’s a checked bag that’s worth way more than the extra bag fee. Adam and I were in Louisville in 2015 when we were taken with an American flag made of slats from an old bourbon barrel for sale at a hip home store. We brought that to Jerusalem with us on the plane, as a checked bag. True, we were so tired when we landed that we forgot about it on the baggage belt, but it found its way back to us eventually. Oh, and a friend visiting us in Madrid once brought back a vintage chair as a checked bag on her flight back to China. Anything can be a checked bag! (Some exceptions apply).
3. Follow Your First Instinct: Having lived for years in countries with beautiful rugs and having helped countless friends and families and coworkers pick out rugs, I know exactly how a rug shopping trip can go off the rails. Generally a person spots a rug that stops them dead in their tracks. Then, they want to check all the others just to make sure they’re making the right choice. A rug vendor unfolds dozens of rugs of different styles, an hour passes, and the person is left thinking “maybe I like that one more? Or this one more? I don’t know anymore!” In these moments, the one you should buy is almost always the one that made you gasp first. Go back to what drew you in.
4. Don’t worry if it will “go” with your home: A friend of mine lived in South Africa for a few years and all she bought from her time there was a set of wineglasses with elephants on the stems because she didn’t want to go overboard on the African design. Don’t worry. Your house is not going to look like an Arab souk, a Oaxacan market, or a Turkish rug shop just because you buy a few pretties on your overseas vacation. I’m a firm believer that if you buy things you love, you always find a place for them. And having pieces that mean something to you: That my friends is how you create a space with soul.
5. What’s it worth to you trumps whether you got the best deal in town. In Algeria, all the foreigners I knew were smitten with these handcarved rustic sidetables/chests called Berber coffres. Almost all of us made it a point to leave Algeria with one of these handmade beauties and they all — old or new — seemed to cost about $600. I felt like this was a wonderful price for a substantial and handmade piece of furniture. Most of my Algerian friends thought I’d overspent. But it was more than worth it to me. In Morocco, I felt good paying $150 for a not very large rug from the 1960s at an all-women’s carpet market because I know what I’d pay for such a thing in America (probably $350) and I tried not to let the knowledge that someone else probably could have talked the seller into parting with it for half the cost. Point is: If you bought a painted shelf in India for $75 and then found out that another tourist paid just $45 for the same shelf, try not to let that disparity ruin your memory or your feelings for the object. Hang it on your wall in Washington DC and when a friend says “What a cool shelf, where’s it from?” tell them your best India vacation story.