When I was 13, we went to Switzerland. My mom had parlayed a decade of frequent flier miles, three savings accounts, and a lifelong dream of spending Christmas in the Alps into a sublime and snowy white reality. So, even though we were not the type of people who jet off to Switzerland for two weeks, that particular December we jetted off to Switzerland for two weeks.
There's something you should know about my mother: she is not a very good packer. If you asked her directly, she would scoff and say, “Why would MOV say that! I'm a fabulous packer.” Truth be told, her motto is “I might need it, so I'd better bring it with me.” If that motto fails her, her other motto is, “More is better than less.” If informed she can only have two mottoes, she’ll dig in her bottomless tote and locate several more mottoes, like “Always be prepared,” and “Why spend money if I already own a black sweater/ scarf/ pair of skis? I’ll just squeeze it in.”
We had a dozen family members and friends on our scenic journey through Switzerland, and they all shared my mom’s packing philosophy: “Bring it!” Now, this would be fine if, say, we were going to hang out in Zurich for 14 days, but my mom (accompanied by a large stack of travel guides and related magazines) had mapped out a trip so schizophrenically full it made the Tour de France look like a leisurely stroll to the corner store. If the city or town had a castle/ chocolate factory/ ski slope/ historic museum in it, it made the itinerary.
We stayed in 10 places in 14 days: this made for a lot of packing/ unpacking/ and re-packing.
I didn’t know at the time that I would someday evacuate a simulated burning airplane full of flight attendant new hires-in-training; it was not even on my radar that I would own a photo badge that read, “In-flight. ID # 9277640. LAX-based.” But prior to that Swiss vacation, I showed blossoming talent at packing. I rearranged the contents of my suitcase on my bed over and over, being ruthless in determining what I could take. I brought only one small bag.
Instead of my fellow family members looking to me as the good example of Bag Packing 101, they viewed my “traveling light” as an opportunity: MOV’s bringing just one bag! That means I can bring five bags because her hands are free to carry more!
You already know the Swiss are famous for their trains. The trains are clean, well-appointed, and above all, punctual. The joke is, you could set a watch by a Swiss train. We took the trains everywhere, along with our 72 suitcases.
Now, my poor beleaguered step-father, Doug, was in charge of any additional suitcases that anyone (read: everyone) might need assistance with. He was solely responsible to get the suitcases from whatever train we were disembarking, then through the snow, up the stairs, across eight platforms, down the stairs, and onto the new train departing in six minutes. In 20 below zero degree temperatures. Poor Doug.
A week and a half into our postcard-perfect vacation, we had the whole wake-up/ eat breakfast/ pack/ taxi/ train/ change trains/ check-in at new hotel thing down to a science. Doug kindly lined up the bags upon arrival as if we were on a royal tour.
“MOV,” he said slightly worn out and impatient on about the 11th day of our trip, “Please get your bags and take them up to your hotel room.” He was pointing to two large blue bags that no one had claimed yet.
Mimi was enjoying hot chocolate next to the fire in a grand public lounge area overlooking the mountains. “No, I already unpacked.”
Next, the bags were given to my younger sister Oakley. “Dad,” she said, laughing, “You already brought my bags in. Remember? I gave you a five dollar tip this time.”
One by one, we were consulted by Doug and reprimanded for forgetting our bags in the lobby. One by one we told him that we already had our bags, thankyouverymuch, and can we have another chocolate bar before dinner?
Doug was losing his mind. He called an emergency meeting of the entire group, including my mom’s cousin Brenda already in her flannel checkered pajamas and wooly Santa Claus socks. All of us stood in the ice-cold lobby shivering and staring at the two mystery bags.
“Are you absolutely sure they’re not yours?” he prompted my mom.
“Doug, I think I know what my own suitcases look like.”
A million seconds went by. We could hear the tick-tick-tick of the synchronized Swiss clocks in the lobby.
Finally, my younger brother (age five) spoke up for the first time:
“Maybe we should read the name-tags on the suitcases?” he offered helpfully. Clearly he was the genius in the family.
Doug approached the first bag cautiously, as though it might contain a nuclear bomb and explode at any moment, like in a Tom Cruise movie. (Keep in mind, Doug had been lugging these two bags all around Switzerland for the past 11 days, but now they were suddenly a code-red danger to us all.) He poked at it tentatively. Ultimately, he flipped over the tag. It read:
He said it with a delicate snowflake glimmer of hope, as though one of us might possibly have a secret identity that we had been hiding from him for two weeks (or perhaps a lifetime), even though he was also responsible for all our passports and would already be aware of any aliases we might be traveling under.
Brenda, always the one to see humor in a given situation, started laughing. “Poor Nena!” she howled, “Has she been wearing the same outfit all this time?” Tears were streaming down Brenda's face.
We were all laughing in that punchy-not-enough-sleep-too-many-trains kind of way. Nena, Nena, Nena News! We inadvertently stole your suitcases!
In between giggles, my little brother was once again the voice of reason. “How will we get Nena back his bags?”
“I think Nena is a ‘she’, Sweetie, not a ‘he’,” said my mother, wiping the tears out of her mascara. She was still heaving with laughter.
Doug, ever practical, rubbed his head, chuckled, and said, “I sincerely hope she wasn’t here on work and had some important meeting or presentation or something. That would be tough.”
“You know what’s tough?” I couldn’t help myself, “Carrying someone else’s suitcases for two weeks, someone who’s not even in your group!”
I felt sorry for Nena. Her suitcases had gone to castles and ski resorts, while she was probably still arguing with some uniformed airline representative about its whereabouts and her necessary compensation.
You’d think that the whole experience would have made me more compassionate toward my future United Airlines passengers who would complain to me about their lost bags, but no.
“We never lose bags,” I'd explain matter-of-factly, “The real problem is theft.”
("My Original Vacation")