Adventures of a Suitcase

Whenever I see my suitcase arrive at the luggage carousel, I am genuinely surprised.  No, really, I literally speak to it.  I say something along the lines of “Welcome, you made it!” or “Fancy meeting you here!” or “Thank you for not getting lost” or I might even greet it in the language of the country where we landed and say “Bienvenue” or “Quelle surprise”. 

I never expect my suitcase to arrive at the same time and place as me.  And so, its simultaneous appearance unfailingly brings joy.  You would think that I have experienced significant luggage loss.  You would be wrong.  There were those two times in the late 90s when my suitcase was delivered to my house a day late, full of dirty vacation laundry.  It was still under the Northwest regime.  Funny, everyone who flies always says that whichever airline has the monopoly in their town is notorious for losing luggage, and I, too, used to say, Northwest always loses luggage, even though it only happened twice.  But I digress.

The most recent and most dramatic missing suitcase saga took place when I flew to Budapest to meet my sister.  Yes, I was meeting my one and only sister for the first time ever at age forty, a momentous and exciting and life-changing event, but the fact that my suitcase remained at the transfer location of the world’s if not worst, then the most inconvenient airport[1] threatened to ruin everything.

This fashion bad accompanies my sister and me in all the photos of our first day in Budapest

Like a complete travel neophyte, which I am most assuredly not, I packed all my clothes and personal belonging into my checked luggage, and all the gifts for my sister and her family into the carry on.   We were spending almost an entire week together—toys for my niece could have waited.  My own clean underwear and eye makeup remover could not.  I actually cried all night—a fact of which I am decidedly not proud, but for some incomprehensible reason cannot stop from telling everyone[2].   We got up in the morning, promptly found Marks and Spencer and I purchased some clothes I still wear.  The fact that I managed to not get hurt while shopping there was a bonus. [https://oldladywriting.com/2020/11/02/the-first-spanish-trip/]

I have had more bad luck with luggage literally not completing the trip with me *without* getting lost.  One time, spouse and I were flying to Malta, if memory serves, and at the very start of our journey, right in Detroit Metro airport, were seized with uncontrollable hatred for one of our suitcases.  At that point in time, we possessed one suitcase with wheels.  The other one had no wheels [ https://oldladywriting.com/2021/04/10/meet-me-in-sistine-chapel-or-rome-second-try/%5D.  It suddenly struck us both as an unforgivable deficiency.  We spontaneously purchased a suitcase with wheels and repacked.  I stuffed the now empty wheel-less suitcase into the garbage bin of the ladies room, and worried, until we boarded our plane, that airport security will suspect it of being one of those strategically abandoned bags. 

Another time, we were traveling from London to Paris via the Chunnel.  On the walk to St. Pancras station, one of our suitcases[3], while in possession of all four wheels, unexpectedly lost a handle.  I mean, its handle came off and simply could not be reattached without tools—and who has tools in the early morning on an empty street in London while on vacation?  Spouse gamely hefted the case and carried it.  There is even a saying in Russian, “suitcase without a handle”—awkward to carry, but a pity to abandon.  Well, we were perfectly willing to abandon it by the time we arrived at the train station, after many stops and many more curses.  In fact, we were looking forward to abandoning it—but not so fast.  The replacement model in the station’s store was insanely expensive in pounds, let alone dollars.  The handle-less suitcase made its voyage to the continent.  We had better luck in Paris, and any embarrassment at packing and repacking our stuff in full view of passers-by in the middle of Gare du Nord was mitigated by relief of finally  finding four working wheels AND a handle.  A lovely French saleswoman politely inquired if we would like to take our empty bag with us.  Never have I said “Non!” with greater emphasis (though I did politely add “Merci”).

When my son was going to Austria for a summer exchange, we duly outfitted him with two suitcases.  The American group’s chaperone, a personage who generally inspired less confidence and trust in me than my 13 year old, requested printed photos of the luggage to present to the airline in the event of luggage loss.  I could not convince her that that is not how any of it works[4], and so I printed the photos of two blue suitcases well in advance of the travel date and congratulated myself on not being hostile or passive-aggressive.  Then something made one of the suitcases unavailable to travel, and it had to be replaced.  What would you do?  Exactly what I did, I bet:  put an “X” through one of the images on the photo and write “This one is now black”.

Meanwhile, my very first wheeled suitcase is still alive and relatively well.  The zipper broke, leaving it permanently expanded and unable to fit into the overhead compartment [5]. This is an non-issue, because I check it every time I travel because, as we say back in the Old Country, one who does not take risks does not drink champagne.

[1]  Paris Charles de Gaulle, as if you had to ask.

[2]  See, there I go again.  To be fair, of the three people that regularly read my writing, at least two already know this story. 

[3] Fun fact—it was the self-same suitcase that was purchased in an airport.  It did not last long.

[4] But she was persuaded that a watermelon (1) is neither uniquely American for a cultural show-and-tell in Austria nor (2) can be taken on a plane—and not because it is big and heavy and can break…

[5] See above. Did you notice the luggage tag?


Meet Me in Sistine Chapel or Rome, Second Try

My second trip to Rome was in 1988, during that much-mentioned European summer in college.  There were endless discussions about where everyone will travel after classes end.  I wanted to go to Scandinavia.  Almost everyone wanted to go to Italy.  I went to Scandinavia, by myself—but not before I went to Italy with my roommate Kathy.

This looks like something out of “Rocco and His Brothers”. Milo in 1988

But at the outset, I have to acknowledge that I made a small, but vital error in my first Roman reminiscence when I wrote that I never entered Pensione Milo since 1981. Roman Holiday – Old Lady Writing Apparently I did, during this second visit, and not only that, but Kathy and I even went up to the lobby and loitered there for a bit.  There are photos from this second visit—but, due to lack of funds and related constraints of a 35mm camera, the careful rationing of available resources resulted in zero images of the pensione’s interior.  And then three decades passed, and I completely forgot this ever-critical fact—until I conferred with the old diary.  And there it was.  Never let it be said that I do not acknowledge my mistakes.

As a teenager, I wrote about my life in great detail, which I desperately envy now.  I envy my younger self’s complete and utter self-absorption—but, that is certainly the prerogative of youth.  I would love to recapture that focus in my Third Thirty, and preferably a little before.

And thus present recollection refreshed informs us that on Thursday, July 7, 1988, Kathy, Naomi, and I were the second group to depart the Travelers Hotel in Nimes (the town I missed revisiting due to the plague last year, Pont du Gard and the Plague – Old Lady Writing) on a night train to Paris.  While waiting on the platform, we were rewarded by being kissed by sailors from a Marseille-bound train that stopped in Nimes for a literal minute.  It was a kinder, gentler time.  No judgment.

In my diary, I wrote in puzzling detail about traversing Paris with Naomi from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord with my hateful, incredibly heavy orange Soviet-edition suitcase.  Wheeled suitcases were already a thing then, but out of about 35 people in the group, I was the only one without one.  Being an immigrant, and of the refugee kind to boot, I spent the decade trying, yet never quite succeeding, to fit in.  I would like to think that the orange suitcase was the last vestige of that difficult passage to America. 

In any case, it was a complicated plan in which Kathy (who stored her suitcase at Gare Montparnasse—a detail that never becomes important again in this narrative) and I, after parting ways with Naomi, first headed to the Netherlands, where I left the detested luggage with my erstwhile host family, and then traveled all the way down to Rome, after which we efficiently worked our way back up via North of Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Belgium again, Switzerland again, to finally tearfully part back in Paris.  She mentioned once that she will probably not return to Europe, as she was looking forward to getting married and living the good life in the U.S.  I was instantly shocked, as I envisioned that summer as the beginning of many adventures to come.  We were both right.  And she is still the best roommate I’ve had (present spouses excluded, of course).

But the very first day—after the luggage was sorted and after we spent about two days sitting on various trains (for sleeping wagons are only covered by the Eurail Pass if there is literally no other mode of transportation) and missing various trains (for the Italian rail schedule was an unsolvable mystery in the ‘80s) was Rome.

The hostel where we stayed was either worse than Milo, or I came to expect more.  No, it was clearly the former—as a college student of extremely limited means, my expectations would not rise for at least another decade (remember the First Spanish trip? The First Spanish Trip – Old Lady Writing)  We arrived exhausted and bedraggled at Roma Termini, looking forward to a shower before bed.  I do not recall who went in first—but whoever it was, discovered that only cold water was available (I would guess it had to be me, because had Kathy told me that there was no hot water, why would I have gotten in?  She would have—I would have stayed filthy).  We sat on our respective beds, felt sorry for ourselves, and had a good cry.  I had a fleeting thought that Rome and I just aren’t meant to be.

Our one day in Rome was action-overpacked.  We met several friends from our group—inside the Sistine Chapel, no less, because in those pre-cell phone days you had to pick a landmark, a time, and hope that everyone made it.  It was kind of like a student/buddy moment of Sleepless in Seattle.  Kathy and I walked all the way from the hostel near Termini to the Vatican.  We already know now that it is less than 5k Roman Holiday – Old Lady Writing, but after a long train ride, a traumatic first evening, and on a sweltering, tourist-packed August day it seemed like a manifestation of all the confusion and disorder that I remembered from my previous Rome stay. 

So, I finally saw the Sistine Chapel, and then the Colosseum.  We ate some terrible pasta at a cheap restaurant nearby, cementing my poor opinion of Italian food for the next few decades.  We visited the catacombs.  It was exciting to finally be out and about as a paying, albeit a decidedly not flush, tourist.  But Rome was still overwhelming, in its size, its sights, its sounds, its infinite variety.  If the first trip was one prolonged anxiety attack, the second trip was an assault on the senses.  To be fair, it was only a day, and short on time and money, we made the best of it.  Third time turned out to be the charm.


So Many Books, So Little Time

I read a lot.  I have always read a lot.  It started one warm sunny summer afternoon when I was five.  My grandmother was reading “The Wizard of the Emerald City” to me (Russian version of “The Wizard of Oz”), but had to set it down because, as usual, household chores beckoned (this was some years before she started enlisting me and came to the swift conclusion that my lack of floor scrubbing and chicken plucking skills will never land me a husband.)  She put the book on a piano stool (a piano in that time and place was mandatory; I was not encouraged to touch it).  I circled it for a bit, unsure of how much trouble I will earn myself for touching a library book, but simply dying to know what happened when Ellie, Totoshka, and the gang encountered the savage сannibal.  I picked up the book and managed to put enough letters together to get through the rest of the chapter.  In my mind’s eye, I still see how the setting sun was streaming through the windows (we had northern exposure in our one room). 

Not a good moment to stop this book

And my most enduring, most comforting, most enriching, most faithful, most influential past time was born.  I have never stopped reading, not through years of university, child-rearing, long hours at work.  Backpacking through Europe at 19, I would go without a meal to spend what seemed like an extraordinary amount of money on English-language paperbacks in non-English speaking countries to read on trains (added bonus—lost weight).  I would choose the most pages for the money, which was not always the best literary value, alas.

My reading practices, however, changed over the decades.  As a child, if I liked a book, I would read and reread it.  I would go back, flip through pages, land on a random passage, read from that point, look for favorite passages, reread those, and so on.  This might explain why occasional quotes from “The Three Musketeers” or “Twelve Chairs” or even Chekhov’s short stories still come to me unbidden, but a book I read a month ago is so thoroughly forgotten that I might not recall either the title, the author, or the plot today (I mean you, “Where the Crawdads Sing”.  No offense).

My actual much-depleted pandemic stash

At some point, quality fell somewhat of a victim to quantity.  You know those Goodreads challenges, to read 50 books a year?  (Well, that’s the challenge I set for myself every year—doesn’t everyone?  A book a week, with a couple of weeks off for binge-watching Netflix seems very reasonable.) But why such a rush?  Is it because a friend said once, “I haven’t even read 1,000 books!” in a self-horrified manner?  But, that was probably about 20 years ago, so I have hit the quasi-magic number by now.  Or is it just because there is an embarrassment of riches out there?  I do not want to miss out on something great, and so gulp books down like Lindor truffles.

But I miss the reflection.  And what I really, really miss is the change in my relationship with books.

When I was a child, I read like a child.  The literary characters were my friends.  They lived in my imagination, and they were my counterlife[1].  I lived in their world, and they lived in mine. 

In my childhood, the counterlife was galloping through the vaguely unimaginable streets of Paris with the musketeers.  It was pure fantasy, as I never expected to walk the streets of Paris any more than I expected to walk on the surface of the moon[2]When Did the Arc de Triomphe Start Leaning? – Old Lady Writing

At some point, and I do not know when exactly that border into adulthood was crossed—and the crossing was, I imagine, inevitable—book characters stopped appearing in my reality.  Or, more accurately, I stopped going into theirs.  A certain detachment occurred where, while I remain entertained, enlightened, educated, and generally touched (and occasionally irritated and even bored) by what I read for pleasure, it is no longer my alternate reality.  It is just that—entertainment, education, etc.  It is enough—of course it is enough, there are so many great books that I have read and have yet to read—but I sometimes miss that untamed fantasyland of my childhood, where every story was examined through the lens of how it could play out in counterlife, and where I tried every character on for size as a potential friend or alter ego. 

It is unavoidable and logical, but it is occasionally sad when I stop and think about it.  That wild inventiveness would be very helpful right now, as the global pandemic still rages, theaters are still closed, and non-fictional friends are still remote.  This might be a good time to work on breathing new life into the counterlife… 

[1] Thank you for introducing this term in “The Glass Hotel”, Emily St. John Mandel.  I have always said “parallel universe”, but that implies, I think, something more impossible rather than improbable.

[2] I might add that the vast majority of my childhood literary heroes were male.  I am of the generation and culture that was not bothered by that.  In the childhood reenactments that I held with my girlfriends, we WERE the musketeers. I even won the top prize at a school New Year’s party, dressed as a musketeer in a costume made by my mom, wielding a plastic rapier, and performing the famous “Song about the sword”. What did I win? Probably an orange. Valor and Glory of the Motorbuilders – Old Lady Writing

“One for All and All for One!” Again, by the author.

When Did the Arc de Triomphe Start Leaning?

In this lifetime, my relationship with Paris evolved and improved quite significantly.  I first spent a summer there as a student after my sophomore year of college.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Dickens does not mention anything about lack of funds and lousy boyfriends, but that was an overriding influence of my Parisian summer.  Because 19 year old girls are inherently stupid in love (don’t argue, I know this!), spending three months with a total wastrel seemed somehow preferable to spending them without him, albeit in the City of Lights.  If I could travel back in time to slap the silliness out of the 19 year old me, I would absolutely do it—and the Butterfly Effect be damned. 

Another reason Paris was less fabulous the first time around was because I was poor.  New York, Rome, Paris, they are incredible cities under the worst of circumstances, but the best of circumstances are better.  And so, living in a boarding house with a shared bathroom in the Latin Quarter and not being able to afford even an occasional restaurant meal is a slight bit of a bummer.  I am a Right Bank girl at heart.  On all my subsequent trips to Paris, I made a point to only cross the Seine for sightseeing purposes.  C’est la vie.

Still, it was an amazing summer, because studying French language and cinema at the source of it all, at 19, with a group of new friends (some of whom are now old friends) was an experience of a lifetime. 

There have been several trips since that glorious, sunlit summer, and in various configurations (BFF and I; mom, grandma and I; spouse and I; spouse, younger son, BFF and her daughter and I, etc.)  In March of 2018, my mom and I made the pilgrimage.  It was our Second Annual Girls Trip. I had a purpose; she tagged along.  It was also my Big Birthday Year—we started celebrating months in advance.

It had to be March because Salvatore Adamo was giving a concert at the Olympia.  Salvatore Adamo at the Olympia, let that sink in!  It would be my second time seeing him live.  The first was several years earlier, at the Bataclan—we actually sat in those chairs that I would later see on TV and photo images, scattered on the ground after the horrific terrorist attack…  And now, Adamo, one of the fondest musical memories of my childhood, the iconic venue, my now beloved Paris, and my fiftieth year—the perfect combination if ever there was one.  I knew there was only one PIC* worthy of this type of shenanigan—my mom!

The topic of “MY MOM” can (and might) take up volumes.  But not today.  Today I will only say that she is a woman always ready for an adventure, which is a marvelous quality to possess when one is a parental unit of #oldladytraveling. She has the motive, method, and opportunity—in other words, the desire to travel (especially with her only child), the means to afford it, and a seemingly limitless supply of vacation days despite still being employed on a full-time basis. Eh voila, I offered, she accepted, we went.

I am a recovering Obsessive Overplanner. As of this writing, I do not have a single vacation planned for next year, and it’s already June.  The Paris trip, however, pretty much planned itself.  I bought the concert tickets, and proceeded to work in concentric circles from the epicenter that was Olympia.  The hotel had to be close to both the Olympia and the Opera, where the airport bus would drop us off, the Olympia and the Opera are already close to each other, and the Fragonard Museum of Perfume was determined to also be nearby.  And the rest, as they say, would be gravy.

Because this is decidedly not a travelogue, and because I leave scrapbooking to my mom, I will only mention the *firsts* that happened on this trip:

  1. The first time I actually bought perfume in Paris:  Yes, yes, I know, France is the motherland of perfume, and I do love and wear it (occasionally to excess), but I have never actually bought it there.  I mean, these days everything is available everywhere, and dollars are cheaper than euros.  Except Fragonard—it is not being exported to the US.  So we went to the Fragonard Museum of Perfume, learned a lot about the history and the process (all facts which I promptly forgot and cannot now recall a single one), and bought several bottles of scents with tremendous joy and glee.  This is truly an experience that can only be shared with another girl!
  2. The first time I rode in a cab in Paris: I mean, not to/from an airport, but just because.  And the “because” of it was that we were overserved champagne at some café on the Champs-Élysées—what better reason could there be?  On our first day, we walked along looking for food, were beckoned in by a friendly waiter named Pierre, and proceeded to have a raucous repast consisting primarily of various bubbly beverages and cheese. I am a ridiculous human being who will always walk when she can, take public transportation when she cannot, and only resort to cabs when there is literally no other option.  My mom felt there was no other option. She might not have been wrong.  I have to report that taxis in Paris are really no different than taxis the world over.  Enough said.

3. The first time I visited the Musée des Arts et Métiers:  Paris is full of museums, and every time I delude myself into thinking I have visited them all, or at least all the major ones, a new one springs up like a mushroom right in front of me!  My mom and I were wandering around, looking for covered shopping passages, feeling very hip and urban and deservedly European when we stopped for another obligatory kir and pâté at a café right across from this heretofore undiscovered gem.  Thus fortified, we entered and enjoyed many scientific curiosities, tools that mom recalled from her engineering training, music boxes, and other fun stuff.  Highly recommended!

4. The first time I visited Opéra Garnier:  As centrally located as it is, and as much of a Right Bank girl as I am, I have never been inside until that trip.  I decided that time has finally come to visit the Phantom’s old stomping grounds.  They do tours in English, and we signed up for an evening one, during which you not only explore the opulent stairwells and halls, but get to sit in *his* box.  It is exactly as I imagined—a gorgeous, luxurious, sparkling, and absolutely quintessentially French palace.  The Phantom was right in demanding only the highest standard of quality for the prima donnas to grace this magnificent stage, and if he had to smash chandeliers to achieve it, more power to him!

5. The first time I attended Theatre in Paris:  No, not theatre in Paris, but Theatre in Paris.  During our exploring of the area near Olympia, mom and I wandered into quaint little enclosed square with an imposing equestrian figure of what I, in a moment of unexpected lucidity, perceived to be an English king (well, it is just a parlor trick, isn’t it—his appearance was of a era significantly later than the end of French monarchy). It was, indeed, the visage of Edward II, the “most Parisian of all Kings”, and there was a theatre in the square as well–Théâtre Édouard VII**. My mom, who speaks not a word of French beyond what the general populace does (that is to say, a word of greeting, thanks, and farewell, if that), became immediately excited and said that she wants to see a play just for the experience, the understanding of the dialogue being a bonus she had no right to expect.  I dimly recalled some new-ish initiative of subtitling French plays for the English-speaking audience.  Thank you, the gods of Internet!  Not only did I confirm this, but we ordered tickets to a show, which provides an English language program and makes sure your seats have a good visibility of the subtitles scrolling at the top of the stage.  What a great deal!  The play we saw was “Somewhere in the Life”, adapted from “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard” by Israel Horovitz.  It was quite wonderful, one of those talky, relationship plays with two actors.  Maybe because it was a translation and an adaptation from English, I felt that I could understand about 60-70% without subtitles. Or maybe my French is that awesome.  Yes, definitely the latter.

6. Honorable mention goes to the first time I ate caviar in Paris—because wherever my mom is, there it is.  You can take a woman out of Russia, but…

And this was our Parisian adventure and Second Annual Mother and Daughter trip.  If you are mildly curious about the First, as well as subsequent, annual trips—stay tuned!

*PIC – [in this context] Partner in Crime

**“In the early to mid 1900s,under the direction of Sacha Guitry, the theatre became a symbol of anglo-franco friendship, and where French people could discover and enjoy Anglo Saxon works”.  (courtesy of Wikipedia)