Tom Swick: On the trauma of luggage gone astray (and how an inconvenience turned into an obsession)
09.01.10 | 10:16 AM ET
I often dismiss the self-revelatory nature of travel, focusing my gaze firmly on the place. Why dwell on personal growth when you’re encountering a new world? But my most recent trip was different; it became all about me—or rather my missing suitcase.
The first day, when my bag failed to arrive with me in Rome, its absence was an inconvenience. Airlines had lost my luggage only twice in my life, and both times for only 24 hours. I’d grown accustomed to seeing my suitcase riding the carousel (read: no socks or underwear in my carry-on).
But very quickly the inconvenience became an annoyance, and then an obsession. Eating pizza in Naples I thought of my suitcase. Gazing up at Mt. Vesuvius I thought of my suitcase. Walking the streets of Pompeii I tried to imagine the treasures that had been buried under ash, yet all I could come up with was what I had packed into my suitcase.
My favorite pair of jeans. My favorite pair of shorts. My favorite pair of socks. (Yes, I have a favorite pair of socks.) My most cherished shirts, including the old blue one, soft and faded and irreplaceable. The sport coat I bought 10 years ago in Rome. (Now being worn by a lock-breaking Neapolitan?) They were clothes that had worked their way into my heart.
I even missed my bag, a plain black roller that was more than undistinguished; it resembled half the suitcases that are stuffed into planes. But it had a deep green address label and a lime green lock, and it had accompanied me on countless trips, been my companion in a motley of hotels, and carried, no matter the locale, the inimitable makings of my sartorial self.
Now with it AWOL, I discovered not only how attached I am to my wardrobe but how dependent I am on it for my self-image.
Resignedly, unhappily, I went shopping in Palermo. I told myself that by looking for trousers instead of mosaics I was experiencing everyday life. This is always one of my goals as a traveler. Another is assimilation. As much as I can, I try to act, eat, look like the locals. (Which is why, heading to cities, I pack more collared shirts than T-shirts.) Now it occurred to me that my attempts to dress like the locals had always been carried out on my terms, i.e., in my clothes. This was my chance to really fit in.
But I was not in the mood. I pride myself on rarely losing anything when I travel. If I leave home with three pens, I return with three pens. Now I’d lost an entire suitcase. I’d pass hotel entrances and stare with envy at people with bags. I’d even look closely at their wheeled black ones. (You never know.) Walking by beggars I considered making my own sign—“Airline lost my luggage”—and joining them on the sidewalk. (Most of them had bags.) I couldn’t kick a feeling of incompleteness, a sense of being bereft, a hollowness inside that seemed to shout “loser.”
Shopping didn’t help. I don’t enjoy it under the best of circumstances, and doing it in a language I don’t speak, for clothes I didn’t need (if the suitcase miraculously turned up), only deepened my aggravation. Also, end-of-summer sales meant that most of the decent clothing that hadn’t already been bought up was far too large for me (and most Sicilians).
As I made my way glumly down Via Roma, I discovered that there was almost no middle ground between elegant dress shirts and loud sport shirts. I’d see a nice-looking shirt and pull it off the rack, only to find that it had a garish logo or a cartoonish coat of arms enveloping the left side. My desire for assimilation has its limits, which begin, I would say, with the appearance of logos.
Many shirts were decorated with writing, always in English. I could have stocked up on Franklin & Marshall T-shirts. For some reason—a little-known connection between the Pennsylvania Dutch and the Mafia?—this was the only American college I saw represented in Palermo—and I saw it again and again. But it wasn’t just T-shirts. One white long-sleeved shirt would have been perfect except for the word “GAS” stitched in red on the back of the collar.
In late afternoon, staggering into one last shop, I thought I’d found gold: another white cotton shirt, this one with an unlettered collar. Lifting it on its hanger, I noticed with more than dismay—a kind of bitter hopelessness really—the manufacturer’s logo on the pocket. It was of a small man in a hat, carrying a suitcase.