Suitcases, contrary to what you may think, seem to have their own lives and control their own destinies. They make us believe we control where they are going.
But, as it has been shown so many times this summer, suitcases in fact do whatever they want and go wherever they want.
Let’s admit it. We are tired of being cooped up at home. The end of the worst part of the pandemic – or rather, the recognition that we will have to live with Covid for the rest of our days – has driven us to travel. Anywhere. The goal is to get outside those four walls that for more than two years turned into office, gym, conference room, kindergarten, fast food kitchen, therapy room and travel agency for the long list of places we wanted to visit.
And this is precisely the moment the suitcases were waiting for, to disappear. They also wanted some fresh air.
At the enourmous and efficient Frankfurt airport I saw what could be described as a luggage cemetery. Hundreds of them, stacked next to the oval carroussells where they were roughly tossed after being taken off airplanes. They are the suitcases that escaped from their owners.
The came from all over the world. And something unexpected happened on the way. Their owners missed a connection, the suitcases went ahead or were delayed, or perhaps someone made a mistake and sent them to the wrong plce. Whatever happened, there they were, free and happy. I expect it would be several days before someone could start checking them one by one and sending them to owners who, in some other part of the world were cursing at the airline for losing them.
My suitcase also tried to escape during my last trip. My flight was delayed, I missed a connection in Frankfurt and I lost track of it for 16 hours. After an endless and frustrating wait – all the flights were full – I flew on to Rome copnvinced I would never again see my suitcase. It was just one of thousands in that labrynth of luggage. But the super efficient Frankfurt airport employees – real luggage detectives – located it, arrested it, cuffed it with a new tag and forced it into the belly of my airplane. I watched it come out at Fiumicino airport in Rome looking sad, a little red-faced, ashamed because it had been recaptured. Its party was over.
At the Rome airport the lost luggage is arranged in long lines, as though they were museum pieces. Anguished and smelly passengers walk the lines with little hope of finding theirs. I watched for nearly an hour and never saw one suitcase-human reunion. But I did hear the typical and angry “I knew this was going to happen.” A young woman cried as she stood at the lost luggage window after midnight. Her long awaited trip to Europe would have to continue with what she was wearing and a couple of things from Zara.
Each year, an average of 1.4 million suitcases are lost around the world. That is 5 percent of the 28 million bags that arrived late or were sent to the wrong place, according to SITA, an air transport specialist. Just days ago, Delta flew a plane from Heathrow in London to Detroit just to deliver 1,000 lost suitcases. Many more were lost forever.
This has been a chaotic summer. Airlines, restaurants and in general the entire service sector have been unable to recover from the pandemic at the same pace as the mass of travelers desperate to finally lock their doors from the outside. Thousands and thousands of flights have been delayed or cancelled.
In just one week in the United States, between Miami and San Antonio, one of my flights was cancelled, two were delayed for more than one hour and only one left on time. A bad record. And if on top of everything you have to keep track of your suitcase, the best of trips turns into a litany of frustrations. Just in the month of April, in the United States alone, nearly 220,000 suitcases were lost, delayed or damaged.
That’s why the golden rule of travel is this: Stay close to your luggage. In fact, my children know that if they want to travel with me they cannot check in luggage. Even if we’re going to Bali or Japan. They take only what they can stuff into a carry-on that fits overhead.
Two rules for the happy traveller: If it doesn’t fit in the carry-on, it doesn’t go. And you carry only what you can lift with two hands and without any help. Of course I broke the rules in the last trip. I checked in luggage and lost more than half a day looking for the darned suitcase. I did repent. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
When you lose a suitcase, you become angry and nervous. What happens is that suitcases know us better than anyone and could blackmail us if they open their zippers and expose our secrets. Opening another person’s suitcase is like watching his sessions with a psychoanalyst.
They are, in fact, moveable pieces of our home and our life. They know what is essential to us for each trip, and what we don’t want anyone else to see. They hide our smells and our bad clothing choices, and they withstand being stuffed until they are about to burst.
Suitcases almost always end sadly. Broken, abandoned, forgotten and replaced. Or worse: decapitated. I once saw on a carrousell just the handle of a suitcase, with a ticket and a long plastic shred of what had been a black suitcase. It went around and around, alone and dizzy. It would inevitably wind up in the garbage, forever far from the body so brutally ripped away at an airport. Its owner will never know its fatal end.
The truth is that suitcases are never ours even though we pay for them. We treat them so badly – we drag them on cobblestoned streets, stuff them until they bust and throw them in any corner of the hotel room – that we should not be surprised that they will try to run away the first chance they get. They just wait for a moment we’re not paying attention to make their escape.
And all for just a moment of absolute independence, alone in an unknown airport, even though they know that somone is searching for them and that sooner or later they may be recaptured. They just want to be free.