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Taking home that perfect useless gift

ONE of the nicest things about a holiday is that it breeds a sense of irresponsibility. Particularly if you are traveling overseas, because then you feel nobody is looking. Not only do you have an urge to let your hair down - metaphorically speaking - but you feel compelled to waste your money. This is done in a number of ways, all delightful, and all foolish. And probably the most foolish is buying presents for your friends at home. Presumably the English, of whom I am one, can, if they travel far enough afield, pick up a lot of very useful gifts such as kimonos, blowpipes, brass gongs, or totem poles, but if we stay in Europe, it is extremely difficult to find anything that cannot be bought equally well in England. Nevertheless, it is against the rules to return empty-handed from a holiday, and until gifts of some kind have been bought, it is almost impossible to concentrate on the Mona Lisa or the Parthenon.

Confronted with shop windows full of handkerchiefs, ties, scent, scarfs, lipsticks, etc., none of which look particularly indigenous to the country you are visiting, it is natural to seek something that is. It is at this point, when despair is breathing heavily over your shoulder, that you lose your head.

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Quite forgetting the characters, shapes, and environments of the intended recipients of your gifts, you invest in huge sombreros, in shirts printed in orange zigzags, in straw sandals, in earrings made from giant sea shells. You buy carved wooden dolls dressed in national costume and gaudy parasols - one of my vacations was almost wrecked by one of the latter, as it was three inches longer than any suitcase and had to be carried everywhere over the arm.

It is not until you get home and under those gray, damp English skies that you realize how inappropriate are most of your presents.

There are really very few days of the year when an Englishman will feel happy in a straw hat, and not many English matrons have time nowadays to open a parasol, however prettily printed in pineapples it may be. Few British homes can do with big glass balls culled off fishing nets in Portugal, or wicker birdcages from Malta.

Yet we never learn. Haunted by the knowledge that we must get a present for Elizabeth, something different, something special, we search the streets and alleyways. The first or last two days of our vacations are a dead loss, enjoyment-wise: Until the china figure of a toreador and the embroidered doilies are safely back in the hotel, it is impossible to focus on culture, or bathing, or whatever it is we have come for.

Of course, if we are wise, which is unlikely, we will buy presents for our friends before we set out on our journeys. England is full of Swiss handkerchiefs and French cheeses and Italian ties and Belgian chocolates and German delicatessen treats, and if you hand these over, apologizing for their banality, they are always gratefully accepted.

It is, after all, the thought that counts.

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