The first suitcase I ever picked up was my mother’s. It had travelled with her from Italy and lived in the depths of her wood-lined wardrobe. The suitcase was, impractically, made of dark cream leather and lined in red; there were ruched pockets around the inside perimeter and it buckled and belted shut. It hinted at glamour, midnight trips across oceans, packing that was at once ordered, restrained, yet catered for any eventuality. There is a scene in Rear Window that reminds me of it every time I see it: in which Grace Kelly’s character opens a tiny overnight bag, out of which bursts a froth of chiffon. And shoes.
My mother’s packing was, is, legendary. So much, into such a small space, so beautifully folded. Every dent leveled with a perfume bottle, a little toy, a packet of tea – on the way out to Italy. On the way home to London: a salame (home made), a doorstop of Parmesan cheese, sugared confetti. Despite having two children and orchestrating trips to two different parts of Italy every year, sometimes twice and often alone, her packing was always like this. So I had no idea that packing was an art, a discipline. Moreover, it gave me no clue that packing for a family holiday could be so strenuous, so frenzied, that only the thought of the airplane or car belt clicking into place – signaling that no more could be done and the holiday had to start – would keep me focused.
What I also noticed, but did not really register, was that packing was a solely feminine pursuit in our house. My father carried the cases, but never packed them. Not an insignificant feat as the family holidays were largely before wheeled suitcases, which only took off 21 years ago.
These days, I have two children and a partner. I pack. But thanks to novelty suitcases with characters on the front, my children, aged two and eight, try to pitch in too. The eldest is her Nonna’s daughter. Her packing is regimented, chronological and accessorized. The youngest believes that a nappy, a piece of Lego and a fire truck are all she will need. I start by being organized and disciplined, but in between tending to scuffed limbs, territorial disputes and answering emails, I get confused. I panic. And everything goes in. I find it almost impossible to pack for a climate different to the one I’m in at that moment. There are always a lot of cardigans that never get worn.
I dream of this: each member of the family having their own different coloured bag. Each would be packed several hours before departure, waiting by the front door, zipped, buckled and labeled whilst I calmly organised my hand luggage for the flight. Each bag would be neither too full, nor saggily empty. The reality is that the first layer belongs all to one person but then, in a frenzy, everything goes a little bit everywhere. Like those coloured sand bottles that start off so defined, but end up multi-coloured. I make lists that are never referred to, because I am so busy flapping around the house in search of the glasses I wear every day, yet cannot find in any obvious place.
I love men. My partner is one, my father is one, some of my favourite people are. But a man’s approach to packing, to the whole pre holiday organization, is a mixture of envy and annoyance to me. So little angst, so little preparation, so much calm. I spend hours packing, sorting, thinking, culling; becoming ever more shrewish with every fold of fabric, every stuff of a shoe into a corner. And then at the last minute, when every bag has been bounced closed, when there is no more room, my partner presents me with a perfectly edited pile of clothes, one pair of shoes and a razor. It doesn’t seem like much, but in that moment, that small pile represents everything that is different, wrong and unfair between the way the sexes parent. We invariably drive to the airport, or our destination with me in lip chewing silence whilst my brain explodes with imagined conversations detailing the injustices. I find myself frowning. The children sing along to the play list Daddy has made especially for the trip. He happy and relaxed, the front of house hero. My back stage sweat goes unnoticed.
The perfect cream suitcase? It lied.
First published in National Geographic Traveller. Spring 2012.