Doug Lansky knows what tickles the fancy of a traveler. For years, the Minnesotan who lives in Sweden has been collecting photos of silly signs from keen-eyed tourists around the world and publishing them on a website (www.signspotting.com) and in books. The fourth volume, "Signspotting 4: The Art of Miscommunication," was released last month. Now, he's turned his attention to another way tourists document their trip, along with their wry sense of humor: collecting tacky souvenirs. See the results of Lansky's latest efforts at www.crapsouvenirs.com, which is heavy on British royalty and prurient wares, but also offers photos of Brandenburg Gate-shaped pasta from Berlin and a shot glass with a cow inside that says "Wisconsin is moo-licious."
Q Of all the tacky souvenirs you've seen, which is your favorite?
A I have to say I have a certain fondess for the Popener. Maybe it's the name or the idea that the former pope is involved (albeit rather distantly) with your drinking. I love the incongruity of many souvenirs, like a big, expensive pirate item representing landlocked Tennessee.
Q What do the weirdest of souvenirs say about a place or its people?
A A lot of this stuff appears to be a symptom of a saturated merchandise market without much accountability. For example, there's this pink "princess" line of merchandise I saw at the airport in Chicago. Some sales rep likely sold the branding to a Chicago souvenir maker, who put the word "Chicago" on it. There are normal princess-y things aimed at 5-year-olds like pink purses and pink pencils and teddy bears (what any of this has to do with Chicago is another story). But then there's a pink princess coffee cup that looks out of place. And the kicker for me was the princess shot glass. Who gets their little girl a shot glass? Perhaps the same parents who give them coffee.
Q Have you ever seen a souvenir that made you want to drop everything and go to the locale?
A Once, there was a hula dancer made out of seashells glued together that ... no, I'm kidding. I have one souvenir: a stick that a fisherman used to press the limes in the Caipirinhas he made for me in northern Brazil. Whenever I use it, I feel like going back there, mostly because my Caipirinhas aren't nearly as good.
Q You're a Minnesotan living in Sweden, so you have the inside track there. Tell us what people should do in Stockholm.
A This is one of the biggest issues with tourism, don't you think? Assuming I had a secret place, as soon as I tell a lot of people, the charm is ruined. And the things that don't get ruined by getting loads of tourists showing up were probably pretty synthetic to begin with. This is why nearly all of Rick Steves' "back doors" have become tourist superhighways. The best thing travelers can do, I think, is take a look at their interests, then try to do those when they get there (no matter where "there" is). Here's an example: A friend of mine who came to visit in Stockholm likes ultimate frisbee. He looked up "ultimate frisbee" and "Stockholm" online and found an ultimate frisbee club, got in touch by e-mail, and was invited to join for practice. He went to practice, had a great time, joined them in the pub for beer afterwards and made loads of new friends. By following your interests, you'll do something you like, meet locals in an organic way and have a unique experience. Nearly 90 percent of all Swedes speak English, so getting in contact is easy.
Q If you could create a souvenir for Minnesota, what would it be?
A I assume you mean a tacky one ... maybe some sort of weird animal hybrid between a loon and a mosquito -- a Loonsquito! Then put a Viking hat and some Garrison Keillor glasses on it. When you pull the string in the back, Randy Moss' voice tells you to go jump in 10,000 lakes.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282