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What Your Luggage Says About You

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Photo: Peter Arkle

It was in the bowels of a Berlin train station some years ago that I lost my principles and got wheels. I was coming back from a long trip with my colleague, call him Sam, and I had a very large, old-fashioned leather suitcase of my father’s. How cool I felt! Except I could barely carry it, worse still, there were stairs; even worse, no porters. Sam glanced at me, and restrained himself, but I knew. Pulling his own suitcase on its nasty little wheels, he gave me that smug “I told you so” look.

I knew the time had come, and the next day I purchased a mud-colored nylon thing with wheels, and it was easy, yes, but I had betrayed my ideals. No longer could I see myself as a true road warrior, a world-beating journalist, a high-style woman with a leather case of that color you get only after decades of use. Sure, it’s easier, but even now, years later, I believe that wheels are for the proletariat. My immigrant grandmother probably took her belongings in a wheelbarrow from Minsk to Hamburg to get the boat to America.

Hard-sided, soft, canvas, polycarbonate, leather, faux leather, wheels, no wheels, there is no end to the types of luggage that you watch tumble off that carousel, praying yours did not disappear. Me, I’m also glancing at other travelers to see what they claim. Your suitcase, that duffel, or carry-on, is who you are when you’re on the road; it reveals your style and status in the way your house does. A turtle has his shell; you’ve got your suitcase.

For it is, after all, by your luggage that they will know you. What you carry your stuff in represents who you are, the essence of you as a traveler. Does your suitcase make you feel part of the travelocracy? Are you a fashionista with a teeny logo bag who slips arrogantly past those lugging duffels filled with duty-free? That guy in black jeans with his silver Zero Halliburton that says, I am so cool, I am a very, very cool photographer?

I am a luggage snob. In my fantasy life, I am a well-worn but beautifully kept Hermès leather suitcase, black, I think, no wheels of course. Or perhaps a supple old brown leather holdall, the sort a spy might have taken aboard the Orient Express; or a Vuitton steamer trunk; or a hard-sided suitcase from Globe-Trotter, that high Victorian company that still makes its cases out of vulcanized fiberboard and uses a 19th-century “guillotine” to cut them.

Yes, my Globe-Trotters, the same cases that carried the clothes of many British royals, have been with me on safari many times, perhaps with Robert Redford in attendance at his African camp. In luggage, my fantasies are limitless. As my mother always said, why be economical in fantasy?

Louis Vuitton, like many of the great luggage companies, set up shop in the 19th century, when the culture of travel was really invented. Trains steamed across continents, ships sailed between them. So popular was M. Vuitton’s luggage, he worried about knockoffs. To prevent them, he made his luggage first in brown and beige stripes and, in due course, with the signature LV’s. I know people who dream of those logos.

My old friend Lois’s entire emotional life has been invested in her luggage. “When I was seventeen, in 1957, I had a black aluminum steamer trunk purchased in Brooklyn, filled with summer-camp clothes and great expectations as a first-year counselor. At that age,” says Lois, who is gay, “I was hiding my true sexuality, buried in those layers of trunk trays like the secrets buried in my psyche.”

There followed the denim duffels tossed into a 1967 Chevy Malibu when she headed for a job across the country, and later, the pink, fake-leather valises for her first trip to Paris. But now, she’s decided, “it’s time for real Vuitton.”

Lois has found herself and discovered her soul in a suitcase. This luggage thing, you’re talking Freud. I mean you can confuse your suitcase with family.

Franklin Getchell, co-owner of Moss Bureau, a design firm in New York, succumbed to wheels years ago and trundles an immense and sensible Tumi, the one with the thousand pockets and zippers and removable inserts. “I feel I am traveling with a somewhat slow younger sibling,” he says.

Or take my pal, the insanely elegant surgeon. She brings only carry-on: her lilac Bric’s wheelie and duffel.

From early on, I was raised with the idea of nice luggage. “Eat your soup softly and carry a good suitcase” might have been my mother’s slogan. When I left for college, she and my aunt chipped in to get me matching Mark Cross suitcases, red, with black leather sides and trim. Most people had hard-sided luggage back then, but my Mark Cross bags were soft, and quite perfect, and I still have them almost 40 years later. My roommate, who arrived by train from Ohio, had, as I recall it, hard-sided pale-blue luggage complete with hatbox and vanity case. (Or maybe it was all in cream?)

Mark Cross was the American luggage of choice; no surprise, perhaps, that the son of the second owner was Gerald Murphy, who, with his wife, Sara, epitomized the glamour of the 1920’s. Ah, the vanity case. The hatbox, the train case.

In my time, I’ve had them all. Now I’ve got wheels. “I would rather break my arm schlepping than wheeling,” my best-traveled friend Jan used to say. But she too finally capitulated. Now she takes a small, wheeled Prada case to the Milan design shows.

As for me, now that I’ve committed to the wheel, I think I’ll go whole hog. Yes, they make me feel like just another cog in the great travel machine. But maybe there’s a new kind of glamour to be found in speed. I may start wearing those shoes with built-in roller skates, so as to glide through airports—Heathrow Terminal Five, for instance—where the walk seems longer than the flight. And I’m certainly looking forward to robotic luggage (currently in development, I’ve heard) that will drive itself, follow me though customs, maybe even hail me a cab.

Reggie Nadelson is a T+L contributing editor.

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