You wake to sun streaming through the window, not to your phone vibrating on the bedside table. Breakfast alfresco doesn’t mean a latte and muffin on the platform worrying if your train is late. You are on holiday and life is good. Why can’t real life be more like this, you wonder. Maybe if I buy a tablecloth like the one in the local taverna, my tomato salad will taste as it does in Spain? Perhaps I could upholster the sofa in deckchair stripes?
The urge to bring the holiday spirit home via the gift shop runs deep. One summer it is the school holidays and you are stuffing the little pockets of your shorts with shells and pebbles, the next thing you know you are buying a lighter in the shape of a matador for your student flat, and soon you’re all grown up and struggling home with a vintage garden parasol and a shell-decorated mirror.
From the desk where I am writing this, I can see a set of plastic flamingo-motif martini glasses that I bought in a car-boot sale in Florida, a wooden hippo that has wobbled in a corner since it lost a leg on the way home from Kenya 21 years ago, a blue-and-white Cornishware jug and no fewer than four snowglobes. I make a mental note to try to keep myself in check next time I’m wandering happily through a market after a long lunch.
Lucinda Chambers, the discerning eye behind online lifestyle store Collagerie, spent 25 years travelling the world as the fashion director of British Vogue. “I have definitely been that person who falls in love with every new place, and gets over-enthusiastic in what I buy,” she says, “so I have learned from that experience. On Collagerie, we say that shopping is about ‘one thing over everything’ – and that is a good rule on holiday. It helps to think hard about whether something will have a life in your home. Before you buy something, take a walk around your home in your mind and if you can’t see a place for the object, maybe that’s a sign that it’s not going to work.” But, she says, if you really, truly love something, you will be able to find a home for it, however unlikely. “I mean, I’ve got pom poms wrapped around my door handles.”
But how do you know if it’s a holiday crush or a forever piece? Only get your wallet out if you experience what Bec Astley Clarke, of online vintage and antique store the Italian Collector, calls “a full-body yes”. A visceral reaction, when your brain and the butterflies in your tummy agree that you can’t live without it. “No one needs more stuff,” she says. “Filter out everything except pieces that really sing to you.” And beware of recency bias. This summer’s holiday may feel full of emotional resonance right now, especially if it’s your first post-Covid escape, but in five years’ time you won’t want to live in a shrine to a hotel you once spent five days in. One gorgeous thing is plenty.
The joy of holiday shopping is that it doesn’t have to be about an extravagant spend. One of my treasures is a white jug with “Le Service du Bonheur” on it, which I bought in a brocante in south-west France in 2005. I paid €1 for it. Chambers, whose home is a glorious mix of antiques, designer pieces and cheap finds, agrees: “You should never be a snob about falling in love – whether it’s with people or with things.”
That doesn’t mean lowering your taste bar. Kitsch can be fun – I have a lot of love for a yellow tin New York taxi, have seriously flirted with Eiffel Tower bookends for my collection of fashion books, and go weak in the face of a snowglobe. But be wary of cliches. Lisa Lipscomb, an interior designer who rents out a chic cabin next door to her north Norfolk home, counsels against the obvious seaside references of wooden boats on windowsills and “Gone Fishing” signs. “The coastal look has been hijacked by tweeness. I prefer to dig around for pieces that have that sense of coastal magic but are a bit more original.”
Everyone agrees that vintage stores and flea markets make great hunting grounds. “The longer I live in Italy, the more I am convinced that the most beautiful things have already been created – it is a question of finding them,” Astley Clarke says over the phone from her study in Umbria, home to a 1960s drinks trolley found on a recent trip to Naples.
Chambers suggests looking for something “very typical of the region you are visiting, to make that muscle memory of your holiday a little bit stronger. Southern Spain has a strong tradition in ceramics, so I look out for those.” Choose pieces with utility: it is much easier to find a home for a blanket or a pair of salad servers than for a Murano glass gondola or an ornamental drum kit.
If luggage space is at a premium, buy fabric. I once stayed in a hotel room where four vintage embroidered napkins had been framed and hung on a wall, an idea I intend to copy one day. Lipscomb brought some pink-striped fabric home from Kenya and had cushion covers made. “Every time I walk into that room I remember that holiday. Fabric is easy to get home, and then you can figure out a use for it, whether to cover a headboard or make it into a robe to hang in the bathroom.”
The right piece keeps precious memories alive. But – spoiler alert – it’s probably not going to be a fridge magnet. And when you do find the perfect thing, pounce. In the summer of 2014, there was a ceramic pomegranate in Crete that I hovered over but decided against. I still think about it at least twice a month. Maybe it’s time for another holiday.
1 Don’t buy anything unless you are absolutely sure. You will never love that tea light holder or that herb planter more than when you are browsing in a market after a good lunch, so if you have any doubts, put it down.
2 But if you really, really love it, this is a great time to buy a piece that brings the good vibes home. “One of the first trips I ever did to India,” Chambers says, “was a shoot with Cindy Crawford to a remote spot where we all slept in tents. I bought a turquoise necklace and all these years later I still feel grateful that I have it.”
3 Functional is good. There is pleasure in beautiful things you use every day – pots and pans, salad bowls, coasters, matches, shopping baskets …
4 Avoid the obvious. A tea towel with a map on it says airport gift shop, not precious holiday memory. Look for vintage or quirky pieces.
5 “Be adventurous,” Lipscomb says. “Colours can be so evocative of places. The deep reds and greens and mustardy yellows you find in Morocco, for instance, work beautifully in our moody British seasons.”