by Kim Petyt
A few years ago, if you had run into me two or three days before my annual trip to Chicago, you would’ve found me stressed out and panic-stricken, desperately searching for souvenirs from Paris for my friends and family back home. You would have thought that, after having lived in France for over a decade, I’d have just about had the whole souvenir thing covered. To that I would have said, “Au contraire!” If anything, seeing the same friends and family members each year for 10 years had the complete opposite effect. Sure, it was easy the first few visit. I was able to get away with the typical Parisian tchotchkes found in even the “higher end” tchotchke shops. Who could say non to a reproduction Art Nouveau Paris Metro picture frame or a Monet’s Garden umbrella? Right around my third trip back, though, I started to notice the forced smiles and perfunctory “thanks” that greeted my annual gift giving, and realized it was time to up my Parisian souvenir game.
I started looking off the traditional path, and things went well for another few years. My friends have fairly wacky senses of humor as well as pretty eclectic interior design tastes, so I was able to get away with bringing back sets of vintage “Pschitt” gas station glasses or plastic Bibendum figurines (Bibendum is the name of the Michelin Man- who knew?), but that really only went so far. As the years passed, not only did globalization start taking its toll (no more French mini make-up kits with every mall in America now having a Sephora of their own), friends also started having children, which meant that I had to start looking for interesting (and affordable) presents for them as well.
As my own family was growing along with the cost of airfare, I started to feel a niggling of resentment when planning my annual trip home.
Since then I’ve been taking it easy on the souvenir front. I tend to drop in to my local Monoprix and stock up a few days before my flight, and have amassed a few “standards” that I rotate between friends and family members.All that changed a couple of years ago. I was wandering the aisles of a “luxury grocery “ store in Chicago, when I saw a small pyramid of fleur de sel boxes floating in a Lucite cube beneath a beam of halogen spotlights – and selling for 15 DOLLARS a box!
Fleur de sel is a type of sea salt that is completely standard in households in France. You can find it at any corner grocery store, and it typically sells for around 3€ a box. That’s when it hit me. I’d been spending countless hours (and euros) trying to come up with fancy French gifts to wow and impress my friends, when all along I was just steps away from a treasure-trove of inexpensive, unique and typiquement francais goodies that Americans go ga-ga over.
Here are some of my favorite souvenirs from Paris that never seem to go out of style:
Hot chocolate sticks, 4€/box: Available in 51% and 35% cocoa, swirl these “bâtonnets” of chocolate into a cup of steamed milk or a café au lait for an instant grown-up treat. Flavored Syrups: These mini bottles of syrups in flavors like Tarte Tatin and Peach Melba taste great over ice-cream or in sparkling water (added bonus- a set of 4 mini-bottles of syrop are less than 10€).
Aluminum Coca-Cola “friends” bottles with French names, 2€/can: Even classic American Coca-Cola tastes more European with names like Ophélie, Thibaud and Sébastien on them.
Fleur de sel: The exact brand that sells for $15 in luxury grocery shops in the U.S. is around 3,00€ at my local French grocery. Cassoulet, 3,50€/can: I’m not a big fan of canned cassoulet after having had my French mother-in-law’s home-made specialty, but with the brushed aluminum can, and French scripted font on parchment label, these make the perfect gift for the American food snob who want to show off her international pantry to guests.
Toss in a few fun extras like small tin boxes of flavored bonbons (3€) or guimauves (French marshmallows), arrange them in a sweet wicker basket and you’ve got a great, inexpensive souvenir (or French-themed welcome basket for out of town guests)!
The local grocery store in Paris is also great for souvenirs for kids. Here are some of my favorites:
Speculoos Spread, 4€: Speculoos is a type of light, spiced cookie that has a taste somewhere between a graham cracker and a vanilla wafer, with a dash of cinnamon added in for flavor. This speculoos spread is like an uptown version of Nutella, and tastes awesome on pretty much everything. (I actually bring this back for adults as well as kids…). Obélix candy dispenser, 5€: Filled with Pez-like candy, you pull a string at the back and Obélix goes racing across the table. The irresistible sidekick to Astérix (the Gaul), this is one of the most-loved comic book characters in France.
Max et Lili Sticker books 8€/ea: Max and Lili are brother and sister in a series of themed books. Each book deals with coping skills for a particular age (Max Wets His Bed, Lily Has a Crush on Hugo, Max Doesn’t Like School, etc.). These sticker books have no text, just fun scenarios that show a bit about life in France for modern French kids (i.e.: what French children do on Wednesdays since they don’t have school, etc.). Metal Goûter boxes, 3€/ea. (found in the kitchenware aisle): The 4:00 PM goûter (snack) is sacred for French kids, and what better way to share this tradition than with this funky metal box- perfect for kids to stash their personal horde of candy or cookies.
Mille Bornes game 20€ (found in the toy aisle): Since its creation in the 1950s, Mille Bornes is one of the most popular board games in France. Primarily a card game with not much reading or writing involved, it doesn’t matter if the person on the receiving end of this gift speaks French or not which is why I like to gift it to families with children in the States (I usually include a printout of the rules in English). Great for ages 6+
To create a fun, kid-friendly gift basket, you can toss in some typical French candy like Carambar or Haribo, maybe add a few more “traditional” souvenirs like pencil cases or charm bracelets- et voila! Inexpensive and unique gifts, direct from Paris!
is an award-winning, American wedding planner in Paris, a French Wedding style expert and the author of “The Paris Wedding” (Gibbs-smith, 2013), a full-color, idea-packed, go-to guide for globally minded trendsetters who are in love with the style and romance of Paris. More about Kim….