The Pandora’s Box That Is My Suitcase

The key to taking only what you need is being realistic and preparing far in advance. Oh, and buying clothes you can hand-wash.

I decided to repost this previous piece from 2012 as a reminder to myself that this is one of my New Year’s resolutions: to pack less next trip! 

I’ve been gazing into the receptacle of hopes, wishes, dreams and anxiety that is my suitcase, and musing about overpacking.

You overpack when you take the wrong items of clothing, obviously, but the ‘why’ of overpacking goes much deeper than bad judgement.

I have a book I have stared at compulsively prior to preparing for any trip called The Packing Book by Judith Gilford, wherein her well-meaning rational and logical advice is to make a list of all the activities you’re likely to engage in on your trip, taking the weather into account.

While I appreciate the effort that went into creating the forms and boxes you’re supposed to fill out so as to gain some control over your innate desire to take everything you think you’ll need, I don’t have the personality that fits inside those boxes. The personality I do have overpacks.

I never used to be an overpacker. I grew up on planes. I grew up being the one in the family who could reliably be counted on to carry on my bag. Before being a carry-on traveler was fashionable, I was doing it, with one caveat. I was a kid. I needed very little. My mother’s mantra, which I thought I’d learned at the DNA level of existence, was “you buy it, you carry it,” meaning, if I bought something ridiculously unnecessary and oversized, I’d be stuck carrying it. It was a parental lesson in taking responsibility, of course—thanks parents—but the point is that I used to make fun of old ladies like me.

Now the shoe is on the other foot, and that foot has a tendency to swell in tight shoes, necessitating corn-removal pads, not to mention all the other pharmaceutical supplies one requires, even to visit an industrialised country. I say this tongue firmly in cheek, since the only real problem in staying in a country where you don’t understand the language is that you could be buying athlete’s foot ointment, when what you need is night cream. This requires bringing your own supplies. 

Another reason for overpacking occurs when you have too good an imagination. You can imagine all the 8,000 things you might do between now and when your visa runs out, because to travel is to cast your fate to the winds and indulge in a fair amount of wishful thinking. Whether you will actually do any of the things you’re imagining is almost irrelevant, since the purpose of an imagination is to visualise the clothes (and shoes!) you’re going to need for each specific activity that you might engage in. You never know.

Then there is guessing what the weather will be like, because there are infinite variables in temperature, each one guaranteed to make you feel uncomfortable if you’re not prepared for everything. In between guessing, you worry. It’s this insidious worrying that makes you pack things you will not need—but how can you know for sure? Once worry roots its way into your mind, it’s difficult to pull out. Worry is to your mind what dandelion roots are to your garden: deep and twisted and hard to eradicate completely.

Suitcases are receptacles of wishes and dreams, rather than clothes.

Packing reasonably sounds so easy on paper, but in practice, I am forced to do something I never have to do at home, which is, know ahead of time what the weather will be, and precisely what I might be doing for the next two months or so. Being home allows me to be fundamentally disorganized and unprepared. All I have to do to cope is go into my closet and take off that sweater that turned out to be too heavy for the sunny day we’re suddenly, unexpectedly having.

You learn to develop a small but useful travel wardrobe that fulfills certain very specific functions, largely out of a combination of acceptance and desperation. I began to accept that I truly did not need all the clothes I was packing—I just didn’t need them. I never wore them, and I can wash often enough. The other discomfort I had to get over was the boredom factor of having to wear the same clothes repeatedly. Now I only take clothes I really like, in colors I want to wear, and I’ve learned to buy the right fabrics and accept, deep in my bones, that I do not need the variety I think I do.

I have also learned to put all the pieces of clothing together ahead of time and see if they actually work together (a tedious task, but worth it, it turns out). The other thing I’ve begun doing is to make sure that long before I leave, I’ve worn every piece I think I want to pack, including all the shoes I think I want to take. This has eliminated all kinds of disastrous errors.

In Europe, I notice everyone carries a backpack, and I want one too.

There is a larger life lesson in all this preparation, which I’m sure I will write about another day, but mostly, I feel like I’m mobilising for Iwo Jima or preparing for the D-Day landing. Preparation is probably worth it, though, since before, I felt much more free-spirited prior to leaving, but much more weighed down during my trip. Packing has therefore become a process that takes months, requiring daily modifications to the canvas of the work of art that is my suitcase.

In real life, having the right travel wardrobe is very hard to pull off, because just think of all the things this pile of clothes has to be able to do all at once: they have to look nice (be appropriate and possibly pretty or feminine); they have to be mostly hand-washable; they have to be light (not weigh very much); their colors must coordinate; they have to be wearable under all circumstances (this is the ‘no matter what’ clause of the contract I make with my trip that causes the most anxiety). This is a lot to ask of any pile of clothes, let alone clothes you can’t wash properly for however long you’ll be gone.

The logical, rational, non-emotional answer, of course, is to become more organized and adaptable, and make do with less.

Okay, I’m working on those superhuman skills, I promise, even as I clutch my precious (heavy glass) jar of face goo, unwilling to do more than decant its contents into plastic. Meanwhile, my suitcase is packed and pretty much ready to go (since it and I are leaving in 10 days). It weighs less than in previous years, so I’m making progress. I accomplished this by refusing to take more than I can carry ever again. The older I get, the harder it is to drag stuffed bags around with me. This is the one thing traveling on your own will teach you, it seems: how to pack an amount you can actually carry, rather than some fraction of the U. S. gross national product.

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