Emotional baggage: why I pack too much on trips home

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Listen to Brenda tell the story

You might think a person who left their home country to live abroad would have figured out the luggage thing after a few decades of traveling to and fro. In this case, you’d be wrong.

It never fails to evoke smirks from He Who Shall Remain Nameless (ahem, dear husband) to see me pack for a visit to the U.S. Summers there are so much hotter than in Germany, so mostly tank tops, shorts and swimsuits are needed. Bulky sweaters, jackets, winter coats and boots stay at home, so that’s one excuse I had to strike off my list when trying to explain my bulging bags.

So why is my suitcase always so jam-packed that it takes several rearranging steps to a) tuck in loose straps from a summer dress that insist on spilling out, b) squash down an impacted tennis shoe whose sole is blocking the lid, and c) match up the misaligned top and bottom of an uncooperative hard-shell suitcase, like a 10-year-old with a severe overbite? This is one of the few problems that can be solved by sitting on it, but the question remains as to why I can’t act like a mature adult and just pack less.

To figure this out, I took inventory of my luggage after returning from my last trip. There were a few items that I wore non-stop, others only once, and yes – you knew this was coming – a few that never made it out of the suitcase.

Let’s pretend this is an employee evaluation and start with the positives.

The heavier items I truly needed for a week in Southwest Pennsylvania in the Appalachian Mountains. It never got that hot, so jeans, long-sleeved T-shirts and hoodies came in handy. Even the cotton scarf paid off on cooler mountain evenings. Granted, this weighs about 50 grams, but I see no reason not to enter it squarely onto the “I was so smart to pack that!” list.

Then there were dresses that I wore one time during my stay in New York. These were well worth taking along to be able to feel a part of that special New York Elysium. This is the place that seems to appear in 90% of all films ever made, where the fate of the free world is decided for better or worse, where things just happen. Of course, the right garb is a must.

But then I went out West, which is its own dusty, empty, sun-blazing world. Not only do the norms of the East not apply, they are proudly disdained. When I went to put on a dress for a party, my friend looked at me aghast. Visibly embarrassed on my behalf, she said in a low voice, “This is Colorado. We don’t wear dresses.” Back in the suitcase it went. I burrowed deeper and fished out jeans and a blouse. For the searing dry heat of 40°C during the day, it was shorts and strappy tank tops (the ones that I routinely save from the jaws of my suitcase).

But this only accounts for half of my luggage. Mulling over the remaining contents, it dawned on me that the other half represented my nostalgia for home. 

Each clothing item is associated with a person or an activity. This is the T-shirt I bought with my sister, here are the shorts my mother hated (I wear them proudly), this is the dress that I bought for one of the outdoor summer concerts that I miss so much. With each item I place in my suitcase, I place the hope that a new memory will be created while wearing it. The more items I pack, the longer, richer and more eventful my trip promises to be.

I also have a well-honed, selective power of analysis when it comes to weight and volume. Just like the golf fanatic who insists that 18 holes will only take an hour and a half or the hiking enthusiast who tells his wife, “Just around the bend, then we’re there” a full three hours before they actually reach the end of the trail, I mentally maximize the space that will be vacated by what I bring and minimize the space and weight of what I receive and buy.

On the trip over, it’s part of a bonding ritual to take gifts for family and friends, which I begin collecting months before I leave. This enables me to enjoy my trip before it even starts. A scented soap for a sister, a brother’s favorite orange chocolate, special fig jam with horseradish for a friend. With physical contact with loved ones back home limited to infrequent visits, these visits acquire special intensity, even reverence.

I will continue to overpack my suitcase. I’ll continue to stuff it with gifts, clothes imbued with memories past and future, and will continue to pack the empty space with gifts and souvenirs from the country I left behind but that still lives on in my heart. It’s a ritual act of renewal that nourishes my soul. If that means I need an hour to close my suitcase, it’s a small price to pay.

Brenda Arnold

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood at Pexels

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