Mr. Suitcase

Tom Swick: On the trauma of luggage gone astray (and how an inconvenience turned into an obsession)

09.01.10 | 10:16 AM ET

Photo by Tom Swick

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.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

10 Comments for Mr. Suitcase

tom swick 09.01.10 | 10:31 AM ET

My bag, by the way, eventually showed up, and I retrieved it at the airport in Palermo three days before I flew back home. I am happily writing this note while wearing my faded blue shirt.

John Keahey 09.01.10 | 11:22 AM ET

Congratulations on the return of your bag. I did something foolish one time only (regarding packing): I placed important medication in a bag I decided at the last minute to check. I was en route from Paris to Barcelona on a budget airline. The bag disappeared for the four days in Barcelona, showing up at the hotel just a few hours before we left to fly to Venice. In the meantime, I had spent 200 euros to replace the medication and 100 euros for a shirt and a few other essentials. No insurance and impossible to deal with a budget airline for reimbursement. Now days, I buy insurance when I go overseas, insurance that I have had to cash in on twice since.

Arun 09.02.10 | 12:32 AM ET

Hasn’t happened to me so far, but I shudder at the possibility.

“It was of a small man in a hat, carrying a suitcase.”

When we are looking for something, they keep showing up all over the place except where we want and mock at us. :)

Laura 09.02.10 | 12:26 PM ET

I love that even though you were missing your familiars, you at least attempted to go shopping and experience that part of their culture.  And hey, we all learned something valuable about fashion in Rome!  I’m glad it made its way to you before the very end of the trip and you had at least a few good days of exploring on your terms.

Larry J. Clark 09.04.10 | 11:50 PM ET

Suitcases.  This is SO irrational…But I bet I’m not the only one who feels a little sad when it finally comes time to replace one.  Thinking about all the times you swung it up on the scale at check-in, off the carousel, into the back of the rental car (the make and model forgotten probably before you checked it back in), rolled it through countless hotel lobbies, and up those four flights in my favorite “liftless” hotel in Krakow.

One of my trusty Pathfinders is getting old, and I just found out the company went out of business a couple of years ago.  When do I put it out to pasture?  While it still has some life left in it and someone can make a “find” at Goodwill?  And now weight is the issue…A bag that is lighter by 3 pounds means a little more flex in my packing and what I can bring home.  Decisions.

Ala Liska 09.06.10 | 4:26 PM ET

I must admit, I am the lucky one. After travelling 10 times across the Atlantic and experiencing every single time that my luggage was lost again, I have finally given up. If I am not moving to a new country and I have to bring all my stuff with me, I just travel with carry on. There is only so many things you really need for a trip.
Aside from that, it is better to be safe than sorry and pack an extra pair of underwear and trousers into your carry on in case your luggage shows up couple days later.

Ericka 09.08.10 | 10:02 PM ET

When I flew from Port Moresby, PNG to Cairns Australia, a short journey between two very different places, my main bag went somewhere else.  Thus my memories of New South Wales are not of the Great Barrier Reef, but shopping for overpriced underwear in Woolworth’s, and pondering the loss of my favorite photo vest.  I filed a report with Quantas, but after returning home, the bag and its contents faded into memory.  Five weeks later, it was delivered to my apartment in Brooklyn smelling somewhat musty and moldy, and I was told it had been “lost in the Solomons.”  Instant reaction: jealousy, for I didn’t get to the Solomons,  Plus, I’m such an animist that I found myself asking my poor battered bag, “How was it?”

Elizabeth 09.11.10 | 12:38 PM ET

My baggage-claim luck was fine until I started transiting through Heathrow.  Now handlers the world over seem to have taken their cue from LHR, keeping my bag back until I am forced to shop for t-shirts and toothbrushes instead of fully launching into the reason I am wherever I am.  It’s become so chronic a problem that I am elated when I see my bag pop out of the shoot, so grateful that I want to write someone a thank you note for returning my suitcase to me.

Marilyn Terrell 09.12.10 | 10:49 PM ET

Thanks for the smiles, Tom!  I’m glad you didn’t settle for a shirt with a cartoonish coat of arms enveloping the left side - I can imagine such a garment but not you in it. Your lovely essay reminds me of something Daisann McLane wrote about a beloved travel bag that broke, and another that became outdated (an old-fashioned hanging suit carrier):

Nina 09.27.10 | 5:53 AM ET

Wonderful article! One of my worst nightmares while travelling is losing my suitcase! Glad you eventually found your suitcase!

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