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Gifts from Abroad They'll Actually Love

Monday, December 21, 2015
Forget the kitschy souvenirs! Here's how to shop for the best holiday gifts from abroad.

After my first time going abroad, I hauled countless kitschy souvenirs back for my friends and family: magnets, keychains, figurines, and enough shot glasses to nourish an entire fraternity. While the gesture itself may have counted for something, the truth is that nobody needs any extra junk. It's likely that many of those gaudy trinkets are tucked away and collecting dust, or perhaps they've made their way into storage or the hands of Goodwill.

Looking back, I wish I had spent my money more wisely and brought home gifts that could actually be put to good use. Since moving to Madrid, my new favorite holiday tradition is bringing back presents that I know people can actually utilize and enjoy. So when Annie of MontgomeryFest asked me to take part in her new series The Expat Holidays, I felt inspired to share this newfound tradition. Giving is the cornerstone of the holiday season, and living abroad offers a definite gift-giving advantage! For expats and world travelers alike, here's how to shop for the best Christmas gifts from abroad.


Can you ever go wrong with Italian wine?

A bottle of quality vino is my go-to holiday gift, because quite frankly, who doesn't love nice wine? (If you don't, I'm probably not friends with you... just kidding. Kind of.) One of the best parts about living in Europe is getting high quality wine for ridiculously cheap prices. Bottles that cost 8€ here in Spain may very well cost over $20 back in the USA. Above all, the selection back home pales in comparison. Spanish wine is having a moment right now, and I am dedicated to taking full advantage of that.

Packing Tip: Since the mere thought of a having a bottle break in my suitcase is enough to give me a full-on panic attack, I never travel without several WineSkins. (You can find these ingenious creations at Total Wine, specialty wine shops or select wineries.) It's also possible to make due with Ziplock bags, Scotch tape and an obscene amount of bubble wrap.

Local culinary delights

Cheese from Spain's Basque Country

As a self-proclaimed foodie, I tend to surround myself with fellow food-lovers. So unsurprisingly, most of the gifts I bring home tend to be edible. I try to seek out local specialties that you can't find elsewhere, or that would otherwise cost a small fortune. For example, good olive oil is exorbitantly priced in the States, but the good stuff here in Spain costs a mere fraction of the price. Quality Spanish olive oil is consistently one of the most popular gifts that I bring home. (And for me, it's also one of the most economical!)

Packing Tip: Due to the extreme pressure and temperature changes on an airplane, it's better to transport olive oil in tins as opposed to glass bottles. The only thing worse than a bottle of red wine exploding in your suitcase is a bottle of greasy olive oil...

A colorful assortment of German mustard

I've learned not to leave holiday shopping until the last minute, since some of the best gifts can come from earlier trips. For example, last month I took a spontaneous trip to Florence. While I was browsing through an upscale Italian supermarket to kill time before dinner, I realized that it would be the perfect spot to pick up some unique presents. As I stuffed my cart with everything from Limoncello to truffle salt, I felt like a true Italian Santa Claus.

Packing Tip: The USA has a strict ban against bringing in any sort of meat. Sadly, this means no Italian prosciutto or Spanish jamón and chorizo. You can try sneaking it in if you have the cojones, but be prepared to face a hefty fine if customs catches you.

A classic trio of Spanish treats: wine, extra virgin olive oil and saffron

Christmas ornaments

Ornaments at Heidelberg's Christmas market

No matter where they're from, travel themed Christmas ornaments make for great gifts. Decorating a Christmas tree with unique pieces can be a daunting (and not to mention, incredibly expensive) task, so ornaments with a story behind them always seem to be the most special. When picking up ornaments for friends and family members, I usually treat myself to one as well (even though I still don't have a tree of my own! Why not start the collection early...) 


Packing Tip: When packing glass ornaments, you can never use enough bubble wrap. I tend to wrap breakable ornaments two or three times around with bubble wrap, tape the ends together, and then wrap it in a bulky scarf or sweater. Better safe than sorry!


Chocolates from Germany

Need I say more? We've already deduced that edible treats make for the best presents, and sweet gifts truly take the cake. (See what I did there?) Rich German chocolates? Check. Spanish cookies made by nuns? Check. Traditional French candy? Check. Crumbly Spanish turrón? Check, check, and check.

Going beyond the traditional souvenir

Spanish pottery in Toledo

When you look past the gift shops catering to tourists, some of the most useful and enjoyable gifts can be found. I try to find local pottery, which is usually a big hit with moms, aunts and female relatives. I also look for locally made artisan soaps and candles that put their overpriced counterparts from Anthropologie to shame. When shopping for the fellas, Cuban cigars are my favorite thing to smuggle in. (I'm not sure if that's totally legal, but I have yet to get in trouble for it... knock on wood.) 

Packing Tip: You can find Cuban cigars at any Duty Free shop in the airport, but it's better to go to a specialty tobacco shop and hand pick them out. If you don't have a humidor, store them in a sealed Ziplock bag. Once your gift is given, make sure your cigar aficionado puts them in a humidor so they can freshen back up.

Some souvenirs sure are pretty, but how often will your friends actually use them?

If you look past the kitschy souvenirs and junky collectibles, you can easily find Christmas presents from abroad that are sure to impress. Not only can your loved ones actually utilize and enjoy your gifts, but they can also share in some of your incredible memories and experiences from abroad.

What are some of your favorite holiday traditions?
What gifts from abroad do you typically bring back for your family and friends?

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