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Taking a Load Off in Italy

How Much To Take With You on Your Trip
by Kristen E. Bower, Ph.D.

Standing knee deep in a Roman river that had been a sidewalk just five minutes earlier, I made an observation. I realized that umbrellas made in Southern California are actually just a fashion statement. I should have known, considering that every raindrop in San Diego - on average - is directly linked to six car accidents, three major city street closures, and seventeen broken hips. I had brought an umbrella to Italy positive that it was an absolute, no question, MUST-have item. I now watched awestruck and soaked like a drowned rat, while my totally useless rice-paper yarmulke did the Fish Flip. After a couple of minutes of that nonsense, I waded to the nearest public trash can and tossed the umbrella in. This turned out to be a great decision, as I spent the rest of my trip happily dry in my parka, with both hands free to boot. When it wasn't raining, the parka could be smashed into roughly the size of a fist and stuffed into any free space in any bag. I have since made a note to self for future vacations.

Umbrella fiasco aside, I broke a terrible habit on my trip to Italy. For once, I packed light. Instead of the usual entire matched luggage set that has always formerly accompanied my boyfriend Scott and me on our various adventures, this time we confined our necessities to one day-pack each and a third small bag between us. I am now retroactively kicking myself for the last thirty-one years of over-packing.

The benefits began at the San Diego airport. We arrived several hours early because our friend who drove us there had to get to work. So we decided to check in and read a novel or two (and maybe write one) while waiting in the security line and then at the gate. A few clicks on the keyboard at check-in and we were bumped to an earlier flight into Chicago, thrilled that we could relax about missing our connection.

Once in Chicago, still with time to spare, the airline practically begged us to take an earlier flight that was less full. We put on our poker faces and negotiated a bit, and were given the exact seats we requested. Thus, not checking luggage put us into Europe a full two hours early. Breezing past the poor suckers camped out in front of the fourth dimensional Narnia of baggage claim, we couldn't help but snicker a little bit to ourselves.

The difference between packing for a two week European vacation and packing for an extended research mission on Neptune is simple: the number of garments that are actually essential. I recommend the following procedure. Take out everything you think you need and lay it on your bed.

Then put away 75% of it, replacing the entire rejected collection with one trial-sized packet of Tide. If you feel yourself losing your nerve in this process, remember these key points. A trial-sized packet of Tide weighs much less than a week's worth of clothing. A suitcase larger than a carry-on might not even fit in the average European hotel room. Nobody on your travels will know if you've worn the same shirt for three days in a row. Nobody will know if you've washed your socks in the bidet over a beer in fifteen minutes. Furthermore, nobody cares.

If you're still having trouble, try to remind yourself that the advantages are priceless.

For example, on one breakneck day in Italy, we traveled from Rome to Pisa, through Poggibonsi to San Gimignano, back to Poggibonsi, and finally ended up in Florence. We would never have even attempted this with heavy baggage, knowing we would be lugging it with us all day long. We would have missed out on a wonderful day, and I may have never seen San Gimignano or Pisa in my lifetime (admittedly, missing Poggibonsi would have been no great loss). After having to wake up a nun to let us out of the convent at 5am (sorry, Sister), we headed out to catch the 6:30 train out of Rome that we had prepaid tickets for.

As it turns out, Roman subways sleep later than inter-regional trains. Consequently, we were surprised with a pre-sunrise mad dash across the city center, bags in tow, to catch our train. Fortunately, the load was light and manageable, enabling us to do this without a donkey. More importantly, we crossed the city without having to bump wheeled suitcases over Old World cobblestone - perhaps rattling out behind a Morse Code message, such as "Good God! Why did we bring all this stuff?"

Unbeknownst to us, the 6:30 train from Rome to Pisa was actually a train from Rome to Florence, followed by a second, totally different train to Pisa. This was another stroke of luck in disguise. Because we were to end up in Florence that night, we threw down a few Euro to check our third bag at the train station. Had we been toting our usual wad, this could have necessitated a financial consultant. Speaking of checking bags for a price, it is now a security requirement at almost every tourist attraction worldwide (in case you haven't noticed). This is why when packing for a trip, I force myself to utter an enthusiastic "cha-ching!" for every bag I pull out of the closet.

I try to live and let live, but at times, the luggage mongers really interfere with the rest of us. On a train out of Naples, we had nestled into what we thought were our seats and were situating our pillows when I was approached by a middle aged woman.

"Questi posti sono nostri," she said.

My Italian is just good enough to understand that we were in seats belonging to her party. I handed her my ticket and asked her in broken Italian where our seats were, and she pointed to a cryptic spot on my ticket encoding seats a few rows back. Scott and I thanked the woman and hopped up, grabbed our three tiny bags and headed to our seats, where we repeated the settling in process. Meanwhile, the woman motioned out the side door, and her party - of eight - filed aboard with an entourage of baggage handlers. Were it not for the designer bags, they might have been a lost Sherpa expedition, horribly detoured from their trek through the Himalayas.

For a full fifteen minutes, they fussed and argued over who was sitting where, all the while trying to squeeze thirty-five full-sized suitcases into the tight overhead bins. Exasperated, one of the men finally yelled at one of the women (in English, which I appreciated,) "The train isn't leaving because of YOU!"

Granted, there is the issue of souvenirs and gifts. Inevitably, I always come home from a trip twice as laden down as when I left. Unfortunately, the exodus of a cheap umbrella and a trial-sized packet of Tide only clears so much space in a tightly filled day pack. Coincidentally, someone on my gift list always receives a lovely bag embroidered with the name of wherever I've been, and everyone else receives something small enough to fit inside it. The funny thing is, they usually seem to think I've purchased these items out of purely altruistic consideration for them. As the cat is now out of the bag, so to speak, I hope nobody in my family reads this and catches on.

Now that we are enlightened (pun definitely intended), Scott and I are - of course - acutely aware of everyone else's "weight problem" when it comes to luggage. Leaving Italy, we stood on a waterbus in Venice with our bags thrown casually over our shoulders, while a herd of college girls struggled to hoist their 200 pound life-pods off the deck and onto the boat. I had begun entertaining visions of the Titanic to pass the time, when Scott leaned over and whispered to me, "Do you think they're moving here?"

"Maybe," I laughed. "Or maybe they just have a layover on the way to Neptune."

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