I think I’m patriotic. I’ve never modeled anything with a Union Jack on it, piped the nationwide anthem, or shouted, “I’m British – thank God!”
But whenever I fly family, there is a particular feeling – rising from the chest and up into the face – whenever our island comes into sight. Coming from southern Europe, I’m sorry about how ludicrously iconic the White Cliffs of Dover are. And arriving from the west – Los Angeles or Mexico – higgledy-piggledy villages of Herefordshire fish like sanity after the metropolis or desert.
My grandmother, Ludmilla, once landed in New York accompanied by two children and 32 suitcases. Taxi drivers on the quay condemned with wild amazement, but what looked to them like reckless extravagance turned out to be natural and understandable. How we pack is who we are.
Ludmilla had been a child refugee, a White Russian whose mother took her by indirect routes to Shanghai, where they were poor and stateless. Marriage obtained more wealth than happiness, and internment during the war reduced her to the corner of a hut and few possessions. Her packing power in subsequent years of plenty suggests Ludmilla’s things were her security; suitcases were defenses against the uncertainty that began in a childhood on the road.
“Our things can evolve imbued with our essence,” says the psychologist Dr. Christian Jarrett, “and associated with powerful personal memories. We use them to convey our essence. With packing, there is the everyday aspect of not wanting to forget anything practical, but there is also sometimes more profound anxiety around more meaningful possessions.”
Ludmilla idolised America. No wonder apprehension about her status and reception drove her to pack everything.
Jarrett goes further: “For quite cherished items, there may even be the anxiety over whether it is better to take it with you (and risk losing or hurting it) or to reluctantly leave it behind, thereby temporarily letting go of a part of ourselves in the process.”
To my grandmother, the idea of having things, or not having them, was more important than their use. As carry-on comes out all over the country, there is something of Ludmilla in many of us. For those who find it stressful, the anxiety of packing would seem to come partly from a pressure to divide a self-represented by possessions. At some level, we are selecting those aspects of ourselves that will serve us in Scarborough or Seychelles and will also define us there.
“Huh!” I hear you snort. “Check the weather. Take something cozy, something stylish, and a costume for the beach.” But then there are toiletries, outfits, chargers, electronics, shoes for additional activities, coat or not, books, hats, and the bags allowance to consider, and you haven’t even thought about the children’s stuff yet. Or, more likely, you have sorted them out and left your contents until last. How many hold loads are you studying? Are you going to trust they all get there, or divide essentials between them? As allowances have shrunk, security increased, travel exploded, and possessions multiplied, packing a bag in 2018 is now a fine art. We need an expert.
“Stuffing is one of those many things that I feel I know more about than any other person living,” says the narrator of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat was limited to those mean little measuring cages and airlines devoted to wringing cash out of every kilo. After many mishaps, he concludes: “It is lumber, man – all lumber! Throw it overboard.” This is the philosophy of the accomplished packer who resides within, clashing with our inner Ludmilla.
For men: “One good shirt with a collar and a perfect toothbrush” is your baseline, according to a man I met who once rowed a boat around Spitsbergen. For women: the novelist Louisa Young suggests one silk dress: “Rolls up tiny, in case an ambassador invites you to tea.” She took the tip from her sister, who went worldwide on a motorbike.
Frequent travelers and female flight attendants recommend a shawl or pashmina for the same reason Buddha got by on a sarong – what garment is more versatile? During years of trip writing, a cotton scarf has been my hat, sunshade, eye mask, pillow, and towel. As familiar with the millions of fans of Lee Child’s Reacher novels, part of me yearns to roam the world toting only a toothbrush, free of clutter, master of my fate, or my possessions, at least.
The luggage industry comprehends this yearning for control and has helped us to overcomplicate things in the name of simplification. Enter the contents cube, plastic wallets that fit inside a suitcase – bags to go inside bags, extra packing for the neurotic packer, and environmental lunacy, but they have their fans.
Experienced travelers treat shoes as packing cubes for underwear, socks, spectacles, and breakables. Few recommend vacuum packing. If you kneel on (another) plastic bag, sucking the air out of your smalls with a hoover, you may take too much.
Psychological liberation is also possible in packing, an echo of leaving home or moving house. “At a key point, old belongings are shed like a carapace, fostering the emergence of a new identity,” as Christian Jarrett puts it. You are not just going on holiday; you are evolving into another you.
So how do you do it? You are undoubtedly accomplished in your method, but packing practice is a whirl of eccentricity and insight. Thom Jones, a global educationalist, travels much: “I pack a harmonica for work and pleasure. I judge a country by whether their customs staff request that I play it,” he says.
Gina Balta, a maritime historian who finds packing stressful, starts with a suitcase, then fills “clockwise from where I’m standing, and I resume to the rest of the house, always clockwise!”