I used to think that shopping is an unworthy pursuit shunned by the serious traveler, who’s busy seeking out the deep meaning of a place instead of looking for souvenirs. But I used to think a lot of things and now I know better. Now I know that what’s on sale in the market—gold earrings in Dubai or red hot chili peppers in Oaxaca—is at the heart of the sense of place, not to mention a way of never forgetting where I’ve been in my travels.
To quell my consumer guilt, I started devoting my travel shopping to Christmas gift-giving, even when the holidays were months away. From Helsinki to Bali I took home presents, stashed them away and then wrapped them up for Christmas. It’s always fun to watch the puzzled faces of my nearest and dearest when they rip off the paper to uncover a Vietnamese water puppet or the ceramic face of a satyr from the Italian island of Lipari.
I love the teeming craft market in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for silks and cunning carvings; the Marrakesh souk where I once bought a pair of antique Berber rugs; Malioboro Road in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta for batik and leather; Jaipur in Rajasthan, India, a center for printed cotton like the quilt on my bed; and Beijing’s Panjiayuan antiques market, full of Ming Dynasty knock-offs and genuine bric-a-brac from the Mao era.
Christmas markets generally disappoint me. I once took a Rhine River cruise calling at German Christmas markets in medieval town squares from Cologne to Nuremburg. All I could find was Third World junk that only looks good if you drink a lot of Gluhwein.
But then on a very jet-lagged weekend package trip to Brussels one December I found the Christmas market in the elegant Sablon near the Belgian Royal Palace where I bought a little ceramic figurine of three boy choristers, their mouths wide open sounding high notes in the French Christmas carol “Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle.“ I bought it for about 5 bucks, intending it for my sister’s stocking. But the more I looked at the white-robed singers, the more I knew I couldn‘t part with them. They‘re caroling on my desk as I write this. I call them Henri, Hubert and Etienne. Merry Christmas, guys.