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TRAVELER'S JOURNAL

My Life in Luggage

The suitcases we carry speak volumes about who we are and where we've been

May 02, 1999|SYLVIANE GOLD | Sylviane Gold is a freelance writer who lives in New York

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.

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.

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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