03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Buying Gifts In A Globalized World: The Value Of Distance

The holiday season is upon us and I find myself in the uncomfortable position of being an Italian in NYC: my American friends expect me to add some European flavor to their presents and my Italian friends (whom I will meet during Christmas vacation) would love something from the big apple.

But it's harder and harder to find gifts in a global world where Tiffany's opened stores throughout Italy and, on the other hand, local stores in NYC and online shopping centers across the world provide you with everything Italian: food, fashion, home decor, etc... I used to suggest my Italian-speaking American friends to pick up books and CDs at the Rizzoli store on 57th Street, but now there is an Italian online bookstore that ships globally. Is there anything I can give my friends on both sides of the pond?

This is a veritable global oppression: it forces upon your doorsteps products from all over the world without the bother to personally travel and pick them up, hence stripping them of the precious value of something that costs not only money but effort to get. I have an answer (and it is a banal one): go local. Do you want safe and environmentally friendly food? Buy at the local farmers' market. Do you want to buy gifts that were hard for the global market to ship around? Get something small, sometimes inexpensive but that carries the special value of distance: something that wasn't shipped by a carrier, but brought in a suitcase. So I picked up a couple of bars of I♥NY chocolate and some NYFD toy trucks for the kids I know, small design jewelry distributed locally in Brooklyn and Manhattan boutiques for my girlfriends and some hand-knitted scarves and hats for my male friends from the Union Square winter market. I will pack them in my suitcase and personally deliver them and for my Italian friends it will feel as if a piece of everyday NYC life reached them.

And from Italy? Same thing. I don't want to get a couple of packs of dried porcini or some other easy-to-find food (they actually sell them at the Chelsea market: even if at a much higher price, they are nonetheless available). So I will stop by local boutiques and pick up hand-made preserves from convents on the hills near my hometown, some local artists' products or clothing by Made in Italy small brands - too small to branch out. Sometimes, if I'm traveling around to visit my friends I stop at local markets and get (depending on where I am) lavender soap from Marseille or hand-embroidered items from Salento (they are much less expensive than you think, especially if you get them in small villages and second hand). I know, it is harder shopping this way than sitting in front of a computer and checking out with a credit card. But after all, we now live in a world where it's very easy to bump into an overpriced global coffee chain and very difficult to find a local, out of the way business.

I'm not telling you to boycott the big brands (well, actually I am), I'm just saying that the effort that takes going to a local store, picking up the hard-to-find-abroad gift, wrapping it, finding the space in your luggage, having it in there for the entire trip, passing custom, transporting it around till it is time to finally offer it, that is all worth it. It is the special value of distance and to me it's priceless.