Sweet enough

May 24, 2010

One of the great failsafes of gift-giving is, as everyone knows, something sweet – a box of chocolates, candy or the like. And nothing wrong with that at all.

But I’d like to make a case for the other team: savoury treats. Or at least the non-sugary kind. For not everyone has a sweet tooth.  And a box of candy, especially if of a leading brand, can be both an ‘easy-out’ (“Gee, how much thought went into choosing that gift?”) and a cliche (“How original, a box of chocolate creams”).

A good friend of mine, for example, regularly hankers after salty, savoury snacks – which is why (note to self) I must buy her something yummy in this line for her next birthday.

Some other examples: a friend of mine once mentioned in passing that he is so crazy about the taste of passionfruit, he reckons he could eat dozens in a single sitting, given the opportunity. I sent him a kilo of the fruit for his next birthday.

And another friend, who had a penchant for grinding startling amounts of black pepper onto her meals (I’m serious – the woman was like a crop duster with the stuff) received an ‘in joke’ gift from me of a half kilo of black peppercorns, giftwrapped.

Other suggestions: caviar, pate, cheeses, olives, chutneys, pickles, pesto, beef jerky, fresh steaks from one of those gourmet meat delivery services, or fresh in-their-shell oysters from a similar service, edible snails for lovers of French food, tropical fruit baskets. Mmm – I’m getting hungry just writing this stuff! 

Take a stroll along the shelves of your local delicatessen and shop for some inspiration – and pay attention to the kind of food (rare treats especially) that your loved ones adore.

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May 21, 2010

Somethimes I think that gifts ought to come with explanatory notes, so you know what the giver had in mind.  (Indeed sometimes they do. I can’t be the first person who’s ever jotted inside a gift card: “I thought you might like this because…”)

I wish there had been such a note on a gift of children’s clothing I received about a year ago, passed on from a friend of a friend, whose children had outgrown the garments.

I was delighted at first, to receive a big box of kids’ clothes.  Yippee, some freebies for my daughter!  But as I began sorting through the items, I became increasingly appalled.  These were terrible clothes!  Although originally of good quality, many of them had stains, buttons missing sometimes, occasionally even rips.  “I’d never give away clothing like this,” I thought.  “Not even to charity.  I’d throw them out, or use them as rags!”

The small pile of “keepers” grew slowly at my side, while the towers of “rejects” loomed like fabric skyscrapers.  Uncharitable thoughts swirled in my head about this slovenly woman who clearly thought it was okay to pass on stained, damaged clothing.  What had she been thinking? 

And there’s the catch.  A year later, I know.

You see, my two year old daughter now attends playcentre three mornings a week.  It’s a messy business: there’s paint, a big sand pit, water play, playdough, baking, and much more.  Her clothes often get filthy.  You don’t want to send your kid to playcentre wearing her regular clothes, believe me.  They’d never look nice again.

That’s when I had that “Aha!” moment, when I realised that all along the clothes had surely been intended for use at daycare / kindergarten / playcentre / messy play at home.  I just didn’t know that at the time!  My daughter was still a baby when I was given the clothing, and wasn’t up to the kind of clothes-wrecking activities that she now delights in.   Now I would loooove to have that big box of third-best clothing, to dress Sammie in on playcentre mornings.

All I can do is make silent apologies for the mean thoughts I’d had a year ago about that anonymous giver.  But I do wish that she’d included a note that said: “This stuff is well used, and is ideal for messy playtimes.”

When ‘regifting’ becomes ‘offloading’

May 17, 2010

I think we’re all familiar with the practise of ‘regifting’ – passing along unwanted gifts to someone else, oftentimes without disclosing the fact that the item was once yours.

Regifting has its fans and detractors, but that’s a whole different debate. What I want to comment on today is the unsavoury practise of what I call ‘offloading’: where you take an unwanted gift and dump it on someone – almost anyone – else, just to be rid of the darn thing. I should know: I’ve offloaded (shameful hang of head) and have been offloaded onto (you can just tell).

The difference between a regular regift and an offloaded regift is twofold:

1. The offloaded item is not a very suitable gift for the recipient. But hey – it’s their birthday, you’ve got this thing you want rid of, and…it’ll do, right? Plus you won’t have to spend a cent or go out shopping or anything – hooray!

2. The offloader may refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer. For example: I’ve had clothes offloaded onto me, and despite my protestations that the garments really didn’t suit my style or colouring, or even my size, the ‘givers’ stridently overruled my protestations – they were so anxious to have the extra wardrobe space. In the end, it was easier to just accept the clothes than have an argument. (My passive revenge: I passed the items straight onto charity – which is where they should’ve gone in the first place, instead of being foisted onto someone who didn’t want them and passed off as a gift.)

A regifted item can still be a great gift – if it truly suits the recipient’s needs and taste. But if you’re offloading, to save yourself time, effort or money – and you know when you’re offloading, oh boy do you know – that’s no good at all.

Give good gratitude

May 14, 2010

It’s a simple premise: if you like the presents you receive, and would like to receive more on future occasions, let the giver know!

In recent years I’ve given up on sending gifts to two close friends, because they simply don’t bother to acknowledge them.   Maybe, months later, they’ll say in passing while on the telephone, “Oh!  I meant to say thank you for that birthday gift you sent!”  But it’s a pretty feeble effort, all things considered. 

It’s not that they’re not caring, warmhearted people, it’s just that somewhere along the line they lost sight of the fact that sending thanks (and ideally, feedback) about a gift is an important part of maintaining your relationship with the giver – ‘closing the loop’, as it were. 

Years ago I remember one of them receiving a big parcel from her family overseas.  It was full of the most divine new clothing, and we onlookers were all green with envy at the wonderful gifts she got.  She shrieked with pleasure as each new garment was pulled out of the box, and modelled them for our approval.  But months later, despite much nagging from her mother, this generous gift was still unacknowledged to the givers.  I always wondered: did they ever bother to send her anything further, after that episode?

I know you, dear readers, would never be so thoughtless as to let a gift go unacknowledged.  But I do think, when someone doesn’t respond to a gift, it’s a good time – especially if it’s not the first time that’s happened – for the giver to take stock.  Usually I will “take the hint” (whether it’s a hint or not), to switch to sending just a greeting card in future.  After all, what can the recipient do?  Phone to demand: “Where’s my present?”  And although that’s technically possible, you have the perfect response all ready and waiting:

“Well, I never heard from you about last year’s present, nor the one before, so I thought you mustn’t like my gifts, and had better stop sending them.”  Cue – one hopes – embarrassed silence.

Postscript: the above post assumes that the giver values and expects reciprocity or thanks with gift giving.  Generally this is part of the accepted etiquette in Western society.  However, at risk of sounding petty or grasping in my gift-giving habits, I would also mention that I often give gifts where I do not anticipate any form of thanks or reciprocity.  But with close friends and family, I generally do.

When it’s NOT a gift

May 11, 2010

I recently baked a lemon meringue pie for my in-laws.  While we were sitting down to eat it, the pie inspired a long-forgotten memory of theirs:

Many years ago, another family had borrowed their electric mixer.  It was not a fancy appliance, just a glorified egg-beater, really.  Two years went by, and the mixer was not returned. 

As time progressed they grew tired of always having to use a fork or manual egg-beater, while their mixer had apparently been adopted by their ‘friends’.  So eventually they asked for it back, and went around to collect it. 

The family who’d borrowed it were most definitely not happy to return it – nor even embarrased about the excessive length of time they’d borrowed it for.  Quite the opposite – they even made one last guilt trip as they handed the mixer over: “The family will miss their lemon meringue pies,” said the matriarch despondently.

I was spluttering with outrage when this was relayed to me.  These people had borrowed something for a huge length of time, hadn’t said thank-you for the use of it, and hadn’t given even a tiny thank-you gift?  (One of those lemon meringue pies, for example, would have been appropriate!)

It just goes to show.  Some people seem to think that a borrowed item is a gift – or at least wish it were so.  Not classy.

Gifts for the sole

May 8, 2010

Yes, sole.  I’m a big fan of foot-related gifts, partly because I have sensitive feet that can easily get cold or sore. 

Most of the gift-type products on the market seem to be luxury things like foot spas and pedicure sets.  On which note: I have no issue with foot spas (although I do notice how many near-new spas seem to end up in second-hand shops).

Here are some different gift ideas for friends and family, particularly those who are on their feet for most of the day:

  • Wool or fur insoles. Incredibly warm and luxurious, and ideal for those living in a cold climate.  I recommend Kozitoez’ sheepskin and possum fur insoles. (I’m not usually a fur wearer, but possums are an introduced pest in New Zealand, and cause massive damage to the natural wildlife.) Walking on lovely warm, fluffy insoles is a luxurious experience – the recipient will be singing your praises with every step s/he takes!
  • Padded or orthotic insoles.  In recent years these have become available in most pharmacies.  I’ve found orthotic insoles offer arch support that may be missing in shoes, meaning your foot hurts more and more as the day goes by.  Great for people who are on their feet all day.  Not a very glamorous gift, but would make a good ‘stocking filler’.
  • Foot massage voucher.  For those of us who love foot rubs, the idea of a half-hour foot massage is sheer bliss.  However, there are plenty of others who would run a mile at the thought. So be sure you know which camp your loved one is in!

The last unicorn

May 3, 2010

A popular piece of gift-giving advice is that collectables (such as charms for charm bracelets) make good gifts, with – in theory – giver and recipient enjoying many happy years of new additions to the collection. It’s a convenient solution, reducing the risk of an unwanted gift.

But what if the collector gets a bit tired of it all – or hadn’t in fact set out to form a collection in the first place? It happens. Case in point: my friend Esther once bought a little unicorn figurine she admired. Sometime later, a pretty unicorn painting came her way. Friends and family visiting her house noticed the two charming unicorns and made the connection: Esther likes unicorns.

And so it began. A trickle, then a deluge, of unicorns. At every birthday, Christmas and Mother’s Day: unicorns. People even started referring to her as “the unicorn lady”. But the thing is, Esther wasn’t really a unicorn nut at all. In the end, she had to politely ask her loved ones to cease and desist: it was getting out of hand and the house was filling up with unicorniana. Plus it was probably getting a bit boring and predictable for her, receiving yet another unicorn thingamajig each birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day etc.

So if you’re in a bit of a ‘giving habit’ (even a rut?) because “so-and-so likes [cats/ teapots/ orchids/ whatever]”, maybe check in every once in a while to see if they still feel the same way about it. They’ll appreciate your consideration. And likewise, if you’re “over” a perceived hobby or collectable, let it be known.

Prompt, not pretty

April 30, 2010

Earlier this week it was my friend Beth’s birthday.  I’d been trying to find a copy of a certain book for her, which I’d read and thought she’d enjoy too (Don’t look behind you by Peter Allison, an entertaining memoir about his work as a safari guide in Africa).  Beth grew up in Africa and loves its wildlife, so I thought she’d enjoy this particular book.

Four days before her birthday, I still hadn’t been able to track down a copy of it.  So when I found a copy of it last Saturday (her birthday was the Tuesday following), I quickly purchased it – complete with exchange card, just in case – then pondered my options.

If I took the book home to wrap, I wouldn’t be able to post it until Monday, the day before her birthday.  So it might not arrive on time.  Plus it would take a special trip to get it posted (I have a few health complications – nothing life-threatening, but it means I need to slow down a bit just now.)

Having weighed all this up, and the fact there was a post office just around the corner, open for business, I made my decision.  Five minutes later the book was packaged, addressed and in the postal system.  Okay, there was no card or pretty wrapping paper with it, but it was going to arrive on time.  I made a choice, and ‘prompt’ won the day over ‘pretty’.

When I got home I emailed Beth to let her know her birthday present was en route, but undressed.  Beth is in her early 50s – she can handle an unwrapped gift (and she’s very popular – I know she’ll get many more gifts all gussied up in their finest!) 

However, if I was sending a gift to a child, I would definitely have taken the book home and made sure it was wrapped – the pleasure of unwrapping an attractive gift is, for a child, a big thrill indeed.

Gift giving and ‘moving on’

April 26, 2010

When is it time to call a day, gift-giving-wise? 

Friendships can grow stale over the years, as we grow in different directions.  Yet it can be hard to know when – or how – to bring the gift-giving years to a close.  Will we be perceived as rude?  Heartless?  What if the other person sends a gift when we don’t?

Consider: are you still in touch with the person fairly frequently – say, more than three times a year?  Do you write or phone each other, or keep in touch via Facebook or other social networks, to share news?  If living locally, do you ever meet for coffee or a meal?  If the answer to these is ‘no’, then I think it’s reasonable to ‘downscale’ to a more modest gift or maybe just a greeting card.  If the gift-giving has become arduous rather than easy and joyful, that’s another clue that maybe it’s time to change.

If you’re still reasonably close to the person, and feel you can raise the matter of gifts for this Christmas, chances are they will be just as relieved as you if you agree to downscale or even cease the gift giving. 

With family friendships, what started out as a few cute gifts for a new baby  may become harder to sustain as the children grow in both age and number.  It can be a burden trying to purchase a gift for each child, particularly if you’re no longer as close to the family and are less familiar with their needs, wants and current possessions. 

My suggestion is to gradually move away from individual gifts, to one ‘family’ gift that everybody can enjoy, like a variety box of deluxe cookies, chocolates or a fabulous cake.  Perhaps a gift hamper, a family movie pass, or a board game that they can play together.  And in time, the family gift may itself become more modest in nature, and even move down to just a greeting card.

Biancheria intima – a tale of mistaken identity!

April 23, 2010

Here’s a cautionary tale about buying lingerie as a gift when in a foreign country – although I’m not sure exactly what the moral of the story is!

Alan, a 50-something former colleague of mine, went on honeymoon to Europe with his new bride.  While in Italy, he was taking a stroll when he noticed a lingerie boutique that had some rather lovely ensembles in the window. 

As a romantic gesture to his wife (who was not present with him at the time), he went into the shop and tried to purchase one of the garments.  Although his Italian was poor, he figured that the international language of money would suffice.  Surely all he had to do was point to the shop-window dummy that was displaying the item he wanted to buy (in my mind it’s a violet silk teddy, trimmed with beige lace), and indicate with his credit card that he’d like to purchase it?

Well, you would think so.  However, the shop staff put up strong objections, which Alan of course couldn’t understand.  Why on earth wouldn’t they just wrap up the damn garment for him?  Weren’t they in the business of selling lingerie, after all?  Eventually, the answer become clear.  What they were trying to say to Alan was: But Sir, it’ll NEVER FIT YOU!!!  (Alan was/is a portly gentleman.) 

Evidently the shop was frequented by transvestites, and the shop staff assumed that Alan wanted the outfit for his own use – thus were encouraging him to buy a much larger size than the one on the display dummy!

Alan was sufficiently amused by this episode to share it with his friends and colleagues when he returned to work.  All I can advise, by way of learning, is that if you are a male purchasing gift lingerie while abroad, perhaps also teach yourself the local words for “It’s for my wife”!