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My Life in Luggage

<i> Sylviane Gold is a freelance writer who lives in New York</i>

It was time to buy a new travel bag, and I was having uncharacteristic trouble trying to figure out what to get. Months before our recent vacation, I was studying newspaper ads and catalog pages, hoisting display models in luggage stores, looking and pricing, thinking and rethinking. I had sort of decided more or less that I maybe wanted one of those rolling carry-ons. But I couldn’t find one I liked enough to buy. What was going on?

Clearly, there were age-related issues. A suitcase with wheels would be a kind of defeat, a public capitulation to an aging body. After all, for 30 years I’d been carrying my own bags--strong of back and sure of hand--and only occasionally succumbing to the temptation of a handy trolley at an airport or railway station. A bag with wheels? Would porters be next? And yes, there were money questions. The nice roomy duffel bags I’d been carrying for years were not big investments. Even cheap ones were good-looking and durable; even expensive ones didn’t really cost that much. The wheelies would be different: Cheap ones would obviously not work well, and expensive ones went for hundreds of dollars. So this change was going to cost me.

But something else had to be going on, considering the agonies of indecision I was suffering. So I began thinking back to how and when and why I’d bought the other suitcases of my life, and I realized that I could remember vividly every bag I’ve ever owned. That I could remember which bag I took along on every trip I’ve ever taken. The way other people date their lives by their cars, or their clothes, or their mates, my life was about a progression of suitcases.

The first piece of luggage I ever encountered I didn’t own.

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It came into my possession only recently, after the death of my mother, and it’s an extraordinary object, a big hard-edged suitcase of gleaming brushed aluminum with rusting hardware and a crumbling leather handle. I don’t know if she bought it, or if my father did, before they left Paris, but I do know it came with us when we crossed the Atlantic for our new home in New York.

Not that I remember the trip--I was a baby. But I do remember it filled with summer clothes when we packed for our annual vacations in then-distant Putnam County, N.Y. Eventually, it was relegated to a closet, but never thrown out: It just sat there, an old, silent memento of journeys past.

The first suitcase I could call my own was bought on a gloomy January day in 1970.

In those days, everything you needed for your first trip to Europe was around Rockefeller Center in Manhattan: the passport office, where you applied in person for that magical document; the Icelandic Airlines office, where a round-trip unrestricted ticket to Luxembourg cost $199; the French National Railways bureau, where you could buy a three-month Eurailpass for about $75; the Cook’s, where traveler’s checks were free--an important consideration in those antediluvian days before credit cards; and, best of all, the European tourist services, where you could pick up maps and brochures for the asking.

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Since I was in the neighborhood, I thought I’d check out the suitcases at Saks. The post-Christmas sales were on, but I didn’t really expect to see anything I could afford. Bear in mind, “Europe on $5 a Day” was still in print, and I was planning four months in Europe with the $700 I had carefully saved from my first minimum-wage job. So I was not in the market for fancy goods.

But there, among the marked-down solid-sided suitcases then in vogue, was a tan canvas number that was calling my name. It was trimmed in brown leather, and had an attached leather strap that tied in the middle with a buckle. It somehow looked more rakish than the others--not quite the thing for the typical Saks customer, perhaps, but perfect for a 20-year-old off on the adventure of her life.

It had been reduced and reduced and reduced again, and it cost $25. When I opened the lid, it revealed a gold lining of watermarked satin, with two deep, elastic-rimmed pouches running the width of the case--the perfect spot for the travel alarm and toothpaste, I guessed--and a pair of canvas tapes on each side for securing folded clothing. That day, the bag took its first trip with me--back to the Bronx on the D train; the next thing I remember is sitting on it so it would close the day I left for Europe.

I had loved the way it looked on the outside. I had loved the way it looked on the inside. And now I loved the fact that I could stuff it to the gills and it would forgive me completely, just puffing out a little on the sides in a pleasingly chunky way and lending that leather strap a nicely functional air.

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Standing on the crowded bus from the Luxembourg airport, my suitcase neatly wedged between my knees, I was jostled by someone attached to a big, cumbersome backpack. Although people my age would soon be flooding into Europe with backpacks, I never once thought of trading in my trim little suitcase, which came on subsequent trips, getting a little worn and a little soiled, but never quite losing its elan.

How delightful it looked coming off those baggage carousels, utterly unique and recognizable; how comfortably it sat on the baggage racks of Europe’s trains, taking up just the right amount of space and looking spiffy, neither boring nor aggressive; how safely it cradled my umbrella and my book under that strap, keeping me ready for anything; how cleanly it slid into the smallest lockers in the train stations, even with book and umbrella attached, while I marched off to find a nearby hotel and the folks near me pushed and tugged to squeeze their lumpy backpacks in.

And how I loved the fact that I could carry it myself, saving me tip money and reminding me always of my delicious self-sufficiency.

Of course, I took it with me when I got married, although it remained MY suitcase.

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I was happy to share my bed and my bank account, but I couldn’t even think of allowing someone else’s socks within that gold satin lining. When we lit out for a year’s trip around the world, I took mine, he took his, and we bought a third to handle the overflow. After all, we were planning to travel through 24 time zones and nearly that many climates. Those bags were stuffed when we began, and despite all our care to buy only flat, lightweight things as we traveled, they literally began to burst. My top-of-the-line Saks bargain was looking tired, but holding out.

The other two were giving up the ghost only three months into our trip. So when we got to Australia, we shopped and finally settled on the best we could afford--by now, creeping inflation and the fact that there were two of us had upped the budget to $20 a day.

We bought an enormous suitcase of bright red cardboard with brass fittings for about $25. Australia was a country of immigrants, and this was decidedly an immigrant’s bag--sturdy but styleless, capacious but with no frills. It was big enough to replace the two smaller ones that were falling apart, but it was also going to be VERY heavy. So we invested in a collapsible luggage cart, an early precursor of the much lighter, more compact numbers today.

We came to loathe that red suitcase. It was just too big. It was just too ugly. The wheels were a complete nuisance, and even though they are still in my closet, I’ve never used them since. It was the big red suitcase that prompted our oath: After this long, once-in-a-lifetime trip was done, we would never again travel with anything we couldn’t carry onto the plane.

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Any possibility that we might someday harbor some fondness for the bag after living with it for so long was smashed one unforgettable night in Senegal, our last stop, where we got into a major-league dispute with the taxi driver whose misfortune it was to pick us up at the airport. Despite the signs prominently posted throughout the terminal, he thought he could get away with overcharging us. After 11 months of fending off a worldwide array of con artists, we were battle-hardened and absolutely adamant about not paying what we later realized amounted to a piddling sum.

The driver unleashed a terrifying stream of abuse that culminated in his kicking Big Red and saying that he should have never picked up anyone traveling with such pathetic luggage.

And by then, it WAS pathetic--dented, scratched, its shine abraded, its trim corroded. When it arrived home, it went directly into the trash the minute it was unpacked. Sadly, my beige beauty was ready to be retired as well. It was dirty and scarred. When the buckle had broken, I’d had to remove the strap. The golden satin interior was no longer a joy to behold, fraying and stained with accidental spills. Reluctantly, I consigned it to suitcase purgatory: It turned into storage space. It would have to be grounded anyway, because it would never fit under an airplane seat.

And so began my quest for the perfect carry-on bag, which has not yet come to an end. I learned in Scandinavia that you can cram more into a duffel shape than a suitcase shape; in Colorado that I just wasn’t going to be happy with a bag that was all black, no matter how practical it was; in Italy that if a cloth bag doesn’t have pegs on the bottom, you can’t put it down on a wet station platform; in Ecuador that a large central compartment and two smaller ones on either side is the most useful design; in Alaska that a single central zipper can’t provide the flexibility you get with a set of two.

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No wonder I was having trouble buying a roll-on. All that hard-earned knowledge was suddenly irrelevant. Except for the fact that I knew I shouldn’t buy anything black, I was at Square One.

I finally took the plunge with a dark green nylon upright trimmed with beige canvas, with two zippers that meet in the center and three zippered outside pockets for books and fold-up umbrellas. I stuffed it to within an inch of its life, putting all the heaviest things together, no matter whom they belonged to.

His hiking shoes, my hiking shoes; his camera equipment, my camera equipment; his book, my book, his toiletries, my toiletries. I packed his carry-on duffel--the expensive blue-and-tan one I’d bought for him years ago and had coveted ever since--with our underwear and our lightest clothing. I hoisted it over my shoulder, and gave him the honor of wheeling my brand-new, rolling luggage.

He smartly pulled out the handle, tipped the bag at a convenient angle and started wheeling it toward the door. I walked out first--he nothing if not a gentleman--and then I heard a crash. The bag was on the floor. The handle was in his hand. They had separated before they were even out the door.

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I am back at Square One. I need new luggage. I check out the luggage stores as I pass. I think I know what I’m looking for: a small tan canvas bag, leather trim, gold satin on the inside, strap with a buckle for a book or umbrella, and, probably, wheels.


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