After so many years living abroad in Spain, I can’t keep bringing my family and friends the same souvenirs. It would be easy enough to walk into any souvenir shop on calle Mayor—the main drag in Madrid which connects Puerta del Sol to Plaza Mayor—and pick up a couple of bull knick-knacks. Now, magnets, key chains, and mugs make fine souvenirs from a place you’ve only visited once. But let’s face it: we expats have to make a better effort. Every year I struggle to find gifts that are unique and that say something more authentic about my adopted country.
Spain being renowned for its cuisine, my gifts often revolve around food. That was easy enough before airlines introduced all those pesky liquid restrictions (yes, I’ve been here that long!). I would bring back bottles of my favorite wines and anisettes—the ones I love, but now I can never find in Duty Free. Everyone was delighted the year I brought home tiny bottles of my favorite olive oils. You just can’t find olive oil made from picual olives anywhere in the United States.But alas, those days are over. And, as we are unfortunately also restricted from taking cured jamón onto the plane, I have sometimes really had to rack my brains to come up with ideas. I have found that little boxes of Spanish saffron are always appreciated, especially by a friend of mine who loves cooking paella. This exotic—and expensive—spice is essential for so many Spanish dishes. Candy is always a big hit. They sell violet candies here that have a distinctive flavor I’ve never been able to find in any American candy. (If you know the ones I am talking about, and you’ve discovered an American equivalent, please leave a comment below!) Lenguas de gato, which are chocolates and cookies in the form of a cat’s tongue, also make fun presents.
I don’t only bring cuisine-related gifts back, though. One year, I purchased a handmade black Spanish fan (abanico in Spanish). The details of the flowers on it were stunning. The artist had also portrayed people in a field enjoying an outdoor party. The couple I bought it for had a special frame made to fit it perfectly, which curves around the edges of the fan exactly. They say it makes a great conversation piece.
On my search for more unique presents, I often find myself turning off calle Mayor and walking just a few blocks to some shops that sell lovely Spanish shawls and linens. The first shop I go to off the main drag is called Borca. They specialize in hand-embroidered goods. I bought a white tablecloth with lovely hand-embroidered flowers there for my friend. She still puts it out whenever guests come. Obviously, hand-embroidered tablecloths, bed linens, and table runners are an investment that you might want to make only for that special someone on your shopping list who you really want to splurge for.
Borca does offer more affordable gifts as well. We expats are searching for uniqueness, but of course, we have to mind our budgets, too! For the price of a t-shirt in a mainstream tourist shop, I’ve picked up several little hand-crocheted pouches there. If you are a fan of Spanish lace, they have charming lace placemats and napkins. Besides being reasonably priced, these gifts are light and easy to pack. I’ve also bought fantastic gifts there for my baby cousins: crocheted baby booties, dresses, hats, and bibs.
Just across from Borca, there is a great shop that sells handmade silk shawls and traditional costumes called D Pertiñez. I’ve purchased a few shawls (called mantones) there and everyone has always been delighted with them. A close friend of mine hangs hers on the wall, but my mother wears hers on special occasions. The shop also sells chulapo costumes, which are traditional clothes from old Madrid. One time I was there, I saw a young dancer getting measured for a flamenco dress. But the shawls make better gifts than these costumes, because they are one-size-fits-all. If you’re looking for smaller, simpler gifts there, you can pick up some castanets or ornamental combs.
What gifts do you bring back to your home country? I would love to hear your ideas and suggestions!
Sheila is a freelance translator, editor, writer, and serial blogger who has been in Madrid long enough to consider herself a permanent Madrileña.