A Matter of Weight and Size

One of the best things about traveling is packing to come back.

Everything comes down to weight, then size. The weight requirements are rarely negotiable, the size often is. How much does this weigh, objectively, in the world? How much does it weigh to me? Does the size make it too big to fit in the remaining space? What can I move, rearranged, rethink so that I can make room for this thing that weighs a lot to me? The more you pack, the more you leave a place knowing it could be forever, the better you get at learning what something weighs to you.

That clock you bought can—even should—be wrapped in shirts and returned to its box and bubble wrap with a glove shoved into the almost-space remaining at the top. Shove the other glove into a crevice nearby. Definitely leave behind the cheetah print slippers someone gave you because she didn’t check the size, and which you used for months even though you find cheetah print disturbing, because the slippers were free.

I like to buy jewelry as gifts precisely because the pieces are light and small and understood. Scarves, too, make great souvenirs because they stuff into the weirdest corners until every seam of the bag stretches and groans, its largest version of itself, but the scarf itself objectively weighs very little. I once picked up rocks in every town or significant location I visited throughout 5 week study abroad trip to three countries, bagging and labeling them like a Martian astronaut. And after that level of commitment I felt I had to devote the weight and space to take them all back across the Atlantic with me. Where they have sat on a shelf in a cookie tin ever since.

The goal is to fit everything you personally find weighty in your luggage. For international return travel, I usually only take one checked back and one carry-on. I buy a cheap duffle in Barcelona or a London street corner and stuff it with souvenirs and new clothes and whatever else I want to come home with me. The return trip gives me two checked bags and one carry-on.

Checked baggage generally cannot exceed 45 lb each. Thus the night before I leave a place where I’ve spend any significant amount of time becomes a stressful exercise in declaring my priorities, and a test of strength and endurance as I repeatedly heave my bag into my arms as I stand on a scale and calculate the bag’s weight.

Sort. Weigh. Weigh. Arrange. Rearrange. Weigh and pray. Tell myself to “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Get vicious. Re-sort. Weigh. Rearrange once more. Pray. Weigh. Add something back in that you cut. Weigh. Make a pile of what I’m leaving behind. Finally go to bed. Barely sleep.

When you’re home again and unpacking all your treasures for all your treasured to see, pray you reasoned well. Pray you have no regrets about the contents of the pile you left on your bed back in Johannesburg!

Things I Have Left Behind:
Slippers
Coats
Notebooks
Cardigans
An AirFrance blanket
An inflatable neck pillow
Belts
Medicine
Umbrellas
Jar of Peter Pan peanut butter

Things I Have Brought Home:
Magnets
Socks
London A to Z(ed)
A fancy clock
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
French- and Spanish-language editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Stuffed animals
Boots
Rocks
Plastic shopping bags
Necklaces
A sword
A vuvuzela
Flags
Betty Crocker crepe mix

Things I Have Regretted:
Betty Crocker crepe mix
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
French- and Spanish-language editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Rocks
An AirFrance blanket
Coats
Cardigans
Plastic shopping bags

Maybe you tend to drive. Maybe most of your trips are just to your grandmother’s and back. Maybe your return trip is heavy a cooler of leftover ham and more pie than you could possibly eat, but you still have one fewer bag after Thanksgiving than you did before. Maybe you don’t bring as much back from your trips as what you leave, so it’s a net loss. For good or ill. Light on gifts, heavy on exhaustion. Light on patience, heavy on endorphins. This is still a matter of weight and size. What did you choose to unload and leave behind? What was taken from you? What was important enough that you made sure to bring it back?

My past two trips have been of the lighter-returning-than-leaving sort. The first instance confuses me, as I didn’t leave anything behind. Not even accidentally, as far as I can tell. And yet it was easier to pack, load my bags into the rental, check into security, and get all my stuff back to my house again after we landed than it was to get it to Virginia in the first place. On my most recent trip, I took a lot of food for Thanksgiving and some gifts, so I knew I’d be lighter on the way back. However, I also brought a good-sized care package home with me, so you’d think it would have worked itself out to about even. Not so.

Maybe I’m just much better at packing to come home than I am to go somewhere. After all, going somewhere is full of unknowns. Will it rain? When? Will I be caught in it? Is this enough socks? What if it’s hotter than expected? Maybe I should pack a pair of shorts, just in case. It’s November in Middle Georgia, after all. You’re as likely to sweat as you are to shiver. So I tend to pack for a number of possibilities and encounter few of them. On the way back, as long as all the essentials end up at my house eventually, it’ll be fine. I know what home holds. I know I can adapt to it.

Now that you’ve been traveling for a while and are getting really good at this, look deeper than the lists. What was important enough that you never took it to begin with? What do you somehow end up carrying back and forth every trip, but you can’t remember the last time you actually used or needed it?

I’m this way with hair dryers. I know that there is one at my parent’s house and one at my grandparents’ house and even one at my brother’s apartment, as well as at almost every hotel in the country, and yet I still find myself trying to justify its odd shape and bulky curves and never-ending cord to myself as I pack for each trip. And I almost never take it. I used to, but I’ve packed a lot since then.

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