I’m reminded of Turkey early every day — when I shower, spray on perfume and brew my morning coffee. That’s because some of the staples of my daily life (olive oil shampoo, cotton socks, exfoliating kese mitts, Eyup Sabri Tuncer body sprays) traveled approximately 5,200 miles from Turkey to Washington. But instead of a cargo plane, they came in my suitcase.
It’s easier than ever to order digestive biscuits from Britain or skin-care products from South Korea online, but shipping costs and customs make it easier to tote objects home while traveling than to have them shipped across the world. And with the pandemic severely restricting travel the past couple of years — I’m still using products from 2019 — some travelers are nearing the end of their stashes and gearing up to get more.
For people who grew up elsewhere, using products from home evokes feelings of comfort. Yuki Sugiyama, 32, moved to D.C. from Kyoto in 2019 to work at the Japanese Embassy as a public affairs officer and hasn’t been able to go home since. Each morning, he sips dried green tea (ryokucha) out of tea cups with a cherry blossom pattern made in the Kyo-yaki pottery style, something Kyoto is famous for. He also uses a set of wooden chopsticks finished with lacquer (urushi).
“There’s a beautiful crafting culture in my city, and it’s a common gift in Japan,” he said. “They make me feel at home and make the food taste better.” This summer, when he returns, he’ll buy suits, stationery and skin-care products. And he’ll bring his friend a gift, a special-edition cherry blossom jersey with the name and number of Rui Hachimura, the Washington Wizards player who was one of Japan’s flag bearers at the Tokyo Olympics.
For others, using products from abroad is a way to feel closer to relatives far away. Nithya Pathalam, a 25-year-old law student in Philadelphia, spent summers in India as a child visiting her grandparents in the city of Tirunelveli. Every time she and her mother visit there now, they stock up on 25 bottles of richly pigmented Lakmé eyeliner. Pathalam, who “never leaves the house without eyeliner,” has recommended the brand to friends and loves that it works well with her skin tone. But it holds even more significance, because “it’s something from India that brings back all these memories of seeing people I care so deeply about.”
Quality is a separate consideration. Mimi Khawsam-ang, a 26-year-old graduate student who lives in New York, swears by skin-care products such as eye creams, serums and sunscreens from Shiseido and SK-II. The last time her mother visited from Bangkok, she brought Thai iced-tea powder, tom yum instant noodles, skin-care products and cosmetics (in a checked bag, because they’re mostly liquids).
Although many of the products are available at department stores in the United States, her family gets discounts in Thailand. Also, she’s loath to order products online because of quality issues. “A huge reason behind buying the Asian sunscreen is it doesn’t leave a white cast,” she said. “I trust Asian skin care, and especially with cosmetics, I feel in general, brands with more of an Asia focus are good about matching skin tones, and you might not always have that option with brands that are geared toward more Western markets.”
When May Huang’s mother flies from Hong Kong to visit her in Berkeley, Calif., she brings packages of thin panty liners. Uncomfortable with the thicker options she has found in the United States, Huang, who is 25 and works in communications, has a drawer in her room set aside for the pads and says they’re the only product she asks people to bring when they visit. “I don’t know if it’s a nostalgia thing, but I grew up there, and because I think menstrual products are a daily necessity for people around the world, that’s something I want to keep with me here,” she said. “It makes me feel safe and more secure.”
Discovering and bringing the goods home can be an adventure, too. When I spoke with Marlena Spieler, a 73-year-old food writer and consultant based in Hampshire, England, she showed me a pantry chock-full of culinary delights collected and “schlepped” from around Europe. An American who has lived in England since the 1980s, Spieler has a pantry that’s a wonderland of culinary specialties. Some of her favorite food finds are breads and pastries from France and Greece (she freezes them), porcini cubes from Italy and Hungarian pickles.
When Spieler was on a trip to Poland, some local women gifted her raspberries preserved in syrups, jams and honey. To get them home, Spieler didn’t let a full suitcase stand in her way. “When I find something so great food-wise, I’ll get rid of my clothes and shoes,” she said. “I thought, ‘What do I need: these old shoes or this old coat?’ Right there at the check-in, I just got rid of all my clothes and put in the food.” She’s honed her technique since an incident on a hot day in Los Angeles when the pungent odor of a suitcase filled with cheeses filled the airport terminal.
Useful products don’t sit on a shelf collecting dust like random trinkets. When Mike Wilkins, a 46–year-old marketing executive who lived in England for five years, traveled back there from his home in Ridgewood, N.J., in February, he went with a list: Cadbury Dairy Milks and Aero bars, because “you want to bring back the good chocolate”; Match Attax trading cards for him and his son to play with; and Berocca, “which is like a mix between Alka-Seltzer and Emergen-C, and the best hangover cure ever invented.” He also made room for a bag of spray deodorant for his 14-year-old son. “Getting a teenager to wear deodorant is a massive challenge as it is, and spray deodorant is dominant in Europe and much easier to get him to apply,” he said.
He recently started a new job that involves travel to London, and he’ll load up his suitcase next time with tea biscuits, “the superior alternative to graham crackers,” which didn’t make the cut last time, because he was afraid they would be crushed.
Then there are products that go the other direction. Sigridur Dogg Gudmundsdottir, head of Visit Iceland, spends much of her time on the road promoting tourism to her country. She marks her frequent trips abroad with a new tube of MAC faux satin lipstick in a range of colors; her latest tube is a soft pink she bought in Toronto. She keeps the rest of her makeup more subdued, so the lipstick is “a luxury I like to indulge in when I’m abroad.”
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.