Finding Kitsch: The Perfect Souvenir for Your Study Abroad

What do you do when you're traveling with your #girlsquad across three countries within ten days?  CiaoBella guest contributor and my intern Molly Dooling explores the United Kingdom and Ireland in search of the perfect souvenir.

kitsch [kɪt]ʃ noun :art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.

adjective: considered to be in poor taste but appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.

Traveling for eleven days can be amazing, stressful, inspiring and exhausting all at the same imagine that with eight girls adventuring through London, Edinburgh and Dublin, visiting museums, castles, and neighborhood bars. Before setting out on our Grand Tour, I was asked by my boss Erica to keep an eye out for souvenirs. But not just any old key chain or figurine; specifically kitsch souvenirs. Why? Erica has an odd obsession with funky souvenirs and was interested to see what I could find.  From #londoner pajamas to “paddidas” t-shirts, I saw it all while traveling throughout the UK.


Sunset in London

We planned our first four days to be in London.  And for Day One, my friends and I went on a Fat Tire Bike Tour throughout Royal London. Starting at Kensington Palace, we looped through the Royal Parks, rode past Westminster Abbey, and finished at Big Ben, all within the span of four hours. It was one of my favorite parts of the entire vacation because we got to see so much of a city (in this case, London) within one afternoon.

After riding on those tiny seats for about two hours, we stopped near Trafalgar Square in the center of Westminster for a quick bite to eat. In the center of the square is Nelson’s Column, a monument made to commemorate Admiral Nelson who perished in the Battle of Trafalgar. It’s guarded by four life size lion statues...rwar! I grabbed a trail mix at Pret Amanger, then my friends and I decided to check out the area. My eye was immediately drawn to a store that had random pajamas hanging outside up on a grate. It looked like a vertical version of my closet floor. The oddest for me were the nighties and footie pjs with the phrase, #londoner, printed across the chest. Even Paddington Bear was on the pjs, an old storybook character from English literature. I stopped in for a minute or two, and then I was back on my fabulous bike tour.

After four hours, the bike tour ended at the Fat Tire Shop and inside I found Queen’s Guards magnets at the choice price of £2. These same guards I had passed on the tour are practically synonymous with London. They stand in front of the palace wearing the classic red uniforms, never cracking a smile or speaking a peep. About three times a week, always at 11am sharp, is the Changing of the Guards spectacle. Tourists crowd around the palace gates as the trained soldiers march to a drum corps.  The magnets, although small, speak volumes to London’s history.

For the second day in London, we were all about the Tower of London and London Bridge. Both were incredible! After singing Fergie's “London Bridge” on repeat the entire day before, it felt like I owned the bridge as I strut across it. Afterwards we admired the gorgeous crowns and gowns from centuries past of royal rulers, tucked safely inside the The Tower of London. Outside the tower and down the street, I spied a shop with an unfortunate name; SAAD Souvenirs. I knew I had to get a closer look at what they were selling. The name was perfect. The size of a closet, the store only sold random baseball hats and t-shirts. Not quite what I was looking for.



Victoria Street, Edinburgh; Photo: Raphael Chekroun

When I told friends and family from my small hometown about our plans to visit Edinburgh, they were not quite sure why my friends and I wanted to travel there. What's there to see? What's there to do, I was asked?  To be honest, visiting Edinburgh just fit into our itinerary. But when I began to research Scotland, I knew I had to see Edinburgh's amazing castles.  And guess what? I was right. The small town charm made me fall in love with this ancient city. The boy’s accents weren’t terrible either.  Even though we only had two days in Edinburgh, it is one of my favorite places in the world I have ever of yet.

First stop was Edinburgh Castle. Mary Queen of Scots and King James IV were just some of the big names who lived inside the castle walls. Thanks to the free guided tour that comes with the ticket, we walked through the royal living quarters, the dungeon cells and cozy wooden beds, and even the cannons used to ward off enemies. St. Margaret’s Chapel, located on top of the castle hill, is the oldest standing building in Edinburgh. Afterwards we stopped by the castle’s on-site gift shop where I found an adorable onesie for a little prince. Hopefully some little man out there will find his princess wearing this getup!

Walking down Edinburgh’s High Street, we came across House of Edinburgh, the place for an authentic Scottish scarf. Prices ranged from £15 for a basic blend to £100 for a soft, cashmere scarf. In the back of the store they had an eclectic assortment of objects and knick knacks; from magnets and keychains to plaid flasks and bold hats. My friends and I had been challenged multiple times to “keep up” with the locals in the pubs, so I knew that Scots loved to drink! The plaid flasks were a fun spin on what it really means to be a Scot, and a perfect souvenir.

At the end of our last day, we were exhausted after trekking 250ft. up to King Arthur’s Seat. The seat got it’s royal name from Camelot, the legendary castle of British warrior King Arthur.  An incredible panoramic view of Edinburgh is found at the top, just wear comfy sneaks! We decided to celebrate our last night by grabbing a drink at a cozy pub near our hostel.

Hey, Harry Potter geeks out there, like me, Edinburgh is home to the Elephant Cafe. This local tea and coffee shop is where J.K. Rowling wrote many books in her acclaimed series, and Victoria Street is the inspiration for Diagon Alley.



Cliffs of Moher, Photo: Giuseppe Milo

Last stop: Dublin, where we dedicated four entire days to sightseeing. It was intense. We toured the Guinness and Jameson factories, meandered through the Dublin Castle, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Temple Bar area, and even squeezed in a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher and Galway. In the rainy fishing town of Galway, tourist shops lined the streets, and I waded through all of them until I found this awesome paddidas shirt, perhaps the perfect gift from the entire trip. By the end of our time in Dublin, I came to the conclusion that the beer and cider in the UK tastes so much better than anywhere else in the world! But I was ready to get home.

Eleven days, eight girls, three countries; you do the math. It’s hard to travel like this, but so worth it. Expect that everyday there will be some type of drama, whether it’s splitting checks (and getting paid back), managing friendships and moods, or missing the bus. Kitsch doesn't always have to be an object, it can be a state of mind-a little humor in the cliche of travel.

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Get a Break on a Budget?

Molly was all about minimizing spending while maxxing out on fun.  She booked stays at Generator Hostel in Kings Cross, London ($40 per night), Kick Ass Hostel, Edinburgh ($15 per night) and  Generator Hostel, Dublin ($45 per night).  From Rome to London to Edinburgh to Dublin, she opted to fly RyanAir (which I would never do because something always happens to me), spending only $35 for one ways to Edinburgh and Dublin, and $100 to London from Rome-FCO.  She flew back to Rome from Dublin on AerLingus ($120).  Getting around each city was easy.  In London, she saw the most of the must see sites on a group bike tour with Fat Tire (starting at $22/person), and purchased a refillable Tube pass- Oystercard- for everything else. In Edinburgh and for most of their trip in Dublin, Molly and friends put there best feet forward and walked everywhere.   Wild Rover Tours took them via coach bush on a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher and Galway ($54/person). 


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Molly Dooling

... is from a small town in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and is a Communications Studies major [concentration in Contemporary Media] at Temple University.  Studying in Rome this semester, she has traveled through Italy, Germany, Scotland, England and Ireland. Follow her adventures on Instagram.  And yes, even in extreme situations, she really has awesome hair.

Massimo Bottura Is On a Mission to Feed the Body and the Soul

Massimo Bottura. Photo by Simon Owen / Red Photographic.

The most amazing experience you can have in a restaurant is an emotional one, according to superchef Massimo Bottura, explaining a central idea behind Food for Soul, his global socio-culinary project. Fathom contributing editor Erica Firpo learns all about it.

Food. You need it. I need it. We all need it. Preferably in a calm moment, at a clean table. A meal is the world's common denominator, a full-body experience that nourishes body, heart, mind, and community — and that's exactly what superchef Massimo Bottura and his wife and partner Lara Gilmore thought when founding Food for Soul, a non-profit with community kitchens in Milan, Rio, and London.

Food for Soul is the umbrella for the ongoing sustainability project that began with Refettorio Ambrosiano, the now-permanent community kitchen that Bottura launched as a pop-up during Expo Milan 2015. The idea was simple but profound: Take surplus food that would otherwise have been considered waste (leftovers, stale bread, overripe produce) donated by restaurants and markets; use creative and sustainable cooking techniques to prepare it in clever, unexpected, and, above all, delicious ways; and invite celebrity and chef friends to participate and collaborate — and, in the end, feed people in need who are in some way disadvantaged, bringing dignity and a sense of welcome to the table. The success of Refettorio Ambrosiano inspired Bottura to launch Reffettorio Gastromotiva in Rio during the 2016 Olympics and Refettorio Felix in London during London Food Month in June 2017. Each refettorio (Italian for "refectory" or "dining hall") is targeted to its community and what it needs, which can be as simple as a good meal or as intrinsic as a safe place where people can relax and feel human. Menus change daily, depending on the surplus food available. The celebrity chefs not only brought attention to the project but also helped the community center staff cooks learn to create inspiring menus from that surplus food. The refetterios are not open to the general public, but people can volunteer to help with the project.

"It is not a pop-up but a spark — a way to make visible the invisible," Gilmore told me. More specifically, Refettorio Felix brings "light and attention to a center that has been working for 25 years and make it better, with better cooking, better dining facilities, and our know-how about hospitality."

Refettorio Felix under construction. Photo by Simon Owen / Red Photographic.

Refettorio Felix done and ready to be open. Photo by Simon Owen / Red Photographic.

Refettorio Felix done and ready to be open. Photo by Simon Owen / Red Photographic.

In fact, every Bottura project begins with a spark, an incendiary hankering for a taste — whether for an actual flavor or for a sense of nostalgia — that ignites a way of being, an all-encompassing combination of honed excellence, spontaneous creativity, and practicality, both in the kitchen and tableside. He infuses everything he does with a subtle Italianità, an Italian spirit instinctively inherited from generations of nonne who fervently adhere to two commandments: No food is wasted and everyone gets fed. And he relies on armies of artigiani, farmers, producers, makers, cooks, and artists who painstakingly practice perfection with every stitch. Food for Soul embodies 21st century, universal Italianità — inclusion, nutrition, and waste-not practices.

In the way that Bottura pushes the boundaries in food, Food for Soul intends to do so with a cultural focus aimed at enhancing the proverbial wheel, not re-inventing it. Doing more than serving food, it educates and puts into practice food efficiency with simple, tasty recipes, using surplus food and overripe produce that would otherwise have been discarded, while fostering a loving, welcoming atmosphere.

As in Rio, London is a team effort. Food for Soul partnered with The Felix Project, a local surplus food collection and delivery service, and St. Cuthbert's Centre, a drop-in home whose kitchen and dining area were refurbished by Studioisle with donations from Vitra, Artemide, Larusi, Lasco, and Angelo Po. Food provider giants Tesco, Whole Foods, Sainsbury, and Mash joined in to bring in food. And as in Rio and Milan, Refettorio Felix opened its doors with a stellar line-up of visiting chefs, including Brett Graham, Daniel Boulud, Jason Atherton, Michel Roux Jr., Sat Bains, and Giorgio Locatelli, who worked with the Centre's full-time chefs and volunteers, cooking with salvaged ingredients.

Massimo Bottura. Photo by Simon Owen / Red Photographic.

I sat down with Lara and Massimo to talk about Food for Soul, Refettorio Felix, and the social importance of food efficiency.

Food for Soul sounds less like a kitchen and more like a philosophy.

Massimo: Our project is a cultural project, not a charity project. We are trying to fight what people think is waste. We try to make visible the invisible. We find ways to show the world that an overripe banana, an overripe tomato, a bruised zucchini, and two-day-old bread are totally fine ingredients. The brown banana is much better than the green supermarket banana. Mexicans and Brazilians wait until the bananas are ripe to eat them. This is about culture and vision.

Being more efficient with food is very easy. You have to dedicate a little bit more time, maybe a half an hour every few days. You have to buy seasonally, the right amount — not too much, not too little — and cook for two or three days. Enjoy fresh foods, enjoy cooking, enjoy spending time in the kitchen, enjoy spending time in your home. You eat better, you save money, and you help the planet.

Lara: Guest chefs were invited from a list of friends and family. We wanted to share an idea, communicate a message, and help teach others how to work with salvaged ingredients to make healthy meals.

That sounds Italian.

Massimo: It is very Italian. Totally Italian. It is how my grandmother was raised; it's our approach to food. But you have to rebuild this kind of relationship with the butcher, the fruit seller, with everyone. When I travel, I eat where my friends are cooking for me, where they treat me like one of the family, because I know they want me there with them, to share with them. The last time I was with Daniel (Boulud), he asked me "what can I cook?" and once served me a classic duck caneton and another time fried chicken. It's about creating this kind of family experience that reminds you of your youth with simple food that touches your heart.

If you think about it, if you close your eyes into that kind of reflection, you arrive at your childhood and you start reminiscing about when your mom cooked, or even made a simple sandwich. I remember a time Lara cooked vegetables for our son Charlie. At the end of the meal, he got a piece of paper and wrote, "1+ to Mommy." It wasn't the perfect vegetable, but it was cooked by Lara. That is why the most amazing experience you can have in a restaurant is an emotional one.

Emotional elements open your heart and make you feel like a kid again. We do the same thing in London, Rio, and Milan. Even without all the "right" ingredients, we find the right combination and try to evolve tradition into something amazing. Much lighter, less expensive, and you stimulate your creativity. You eat better, even with an egg and a rind of parmesan, because it is you.

Food for Soul's mission is to fight food waste and encourage social inclusion. Has the current political climate impacted the direction of the project?

Lara: In Rio during the Olympics, the government was closing soup kitchens to keep the poor out of the city center. So we opened a soup kitchen to shed light on the problem and also provide a potential solution. In London, we think that it is very important and essential to break walls when walls are being built. Inclusion is part of the Food for Soul mission. And yes, with the political climate in USA, it is a perfect time to begin working there.

Massimo: At the moment, everyone is building walls to separate themselves from others. They believe they are much safer that way. I think we are breaking walls and including people. This project is inclusive. It's about the chefs, the community — the word is share. We are sharing ideas, sharing decisions, sharing dreams, sharing the future.

The project is heading to the United States. How can people get involved?

Lara: We received a Rockefeller Foundation grant specifically to expand Food for Soul into the United States with the goal of opening Refettorio projects in the next two years. We are in the planning stages, finding the right partners, for the Bronx and scoping out other potential cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Denver, New Orleans, Oakland, and Seattle.

Massimo: You have a sense of responsibility once you achieve everything in life to give back. We should do it, everybody should. If you want to do it, you can. If you don't, don't. We need more people involved. We don't need another soup kitchen, but we need people and places to build a better community. We need more places that break walls and help rebuild dignity.

London was the right moment, and now that we have done that, we want to do the unexpected in the United States. In my dream, Detroit, New Orleans, even the Bronx. It could be very interesting in Los Angeles. At a university. A campus could be incredible because the volunteers would be students. If we did in Rio, we can do it everywhere.

This article first appeared in Fathom in July 2017.