The Things We Carry

March 2011

Shoved off on the side of the room sit three lone boxes, patiently. They are ready to be shipped, but haven’t moved since Thursday when I got the urge to finally tape and seal them all, trapping all the contents of the past year in Europe in a box. They await their long journey, by ship, to the United States. They will take the trip back to the states how I wish I could, following the same troubled waves that millions of emigrants to the United States year for the past hundreds of years did. The big box is on the bottom, a whopping 20 kg. It contains the winter clothes that were sent to me in November. After spontaneously not taking my return flight back to the US in August, I was stuck in Germany without any sort of fall or winter clothing. That box came with boots and jackets and scarves, and is going back with a few Christmas presents and shoes in addition. The edges protrude out sharply.

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Just a mere suitcase of mid summer attire is all I have left not in boxes. The second box is medium sized; it’s filled with accumulated things. It has glasses, books, media, and paperwork, things that build up over time. Within a year’s time people can gather many things, things they probably don’t need, things I’ll probably forget about, things that weigh a lot. That box has, well I already can’t even remember what all the contents of that box are. A couple of shirts and an extra pair of tennis shoes piled in with loads of books. It has a lumpy bulge on one side, squared off with shiny tape.

The last box is smaller. It weighs less, contains folders, pictures, collected postcards from around the world, and paper. It contains the things that have kept me from getting homesick, the papers that kept me legal in Germany and the papers that got me through my graduate classes there. If I didn’t have notebooks to write in I think I’d get lost in my thoughts. The little box is neat, tidy, covered in sharply but neatly bound together with tape.

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A small purple box sits next to me on the nightstand. The metal clasp pops slightly open, unlocked, ready to reveal the only American money I have. A couple of twenties sit there that were sent in Christmas cards.  They are my link home, home where I used to think that European money looked like Monopoly money. They even smell American. I smell European. Now, the green colored bill, so famous and thin stares back at me, through the eyes of Andrew Jackson who guards the front of the American twenty dollar bill.  Various formalities protrude across the crisp paper, a slip which reserves the old formalities of the American lifestyle, of the American Constitution, a note and an idea as old as the man sitting atop the bill. His pursed lips curl as they look back at me. They want to smile. They want to say good for you, you have a twenty-dollar bill, what will you do with it? I could invest it, I could buy four Starbucks with it, I could give it to a man on the street kneeling on a piece of cardboard. I could give it to a European who would then have to take it to an exchange booth, or bank, sending that $20 to 14€, and taking off an additional 2€ for the exchange rate, leaving him with 12. That same box holds a two-pack of fake cigarettes from Hamburg, on the off-chance I want to look like I fit in.

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Short stories by Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and … Woody Allen sleep next to me on the nightstand. A keychain and my accredited pass for the Berlinale International Film festival in Berlin slops lazily over an iPhone charger and a couple of get in free club tickets. A Kleenex box peeps over the edge of the stand. If you were to open up the nightstand, to shuffle around the contents of that drawer from over a years worth of freaking out, cold nights, long papers and hurried trips, you’d find an assortment of knick knacks. Certainly nothing anyone else in the world would have a use for. A pair of broken sunglasses sits atop the passwords to various things. Tylenol from the US presses against a now yellow newspaper article about a graphic designer with ninja reflexes, the “person to watch you doing an awkward moment you hope no one saw, ” which scrunches against the side of the handmade wood because Germany doesn’t make it quite the same. CDs/DVDs burned from friend’s computers from Spain, Hungary, and Finland lie protected under a stack of papers with information that will soon be irrelevant and my inhalers rest at each end. A hand cream from Bath & Body Works and a nail file, a dryer sheet that has lost its smell folds over a camera charger plug-in that is laying on a receipt to Starbucks in Berlin.

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There are a total of three suitcases, one backpack, two sacks and three purses in this room. Two of the purses have straps that have broken, one wheel has fallen off of a suitcase, while two of the suitcases await anxiously for their packing next week. Their royal purple matts the glow of their shiny new zippers.  They don’t know what sort of journey await them. I don’t know what journey await them. The third suitcase comes from Hungary. It has seen lands, and train cabins and trunks I’ll never know. I don’t know the stories it knows. It has a cracked wheel,  a wheel which has graced a faraway land that remains in my brain a fantasy land, with Magyars and horse archers, robbers, gypsies and hagglers. Queens, Kings and dynasties. He’ll go back to that land alone. The room has been full of an assortment of many suitcases, since  September, 2010.

My products have become an array of European names. German branded leave-in-   conditioner, Belgian speaking Garnier Fructis, Spanish speaking deodorant and floss made in Ireland. And although I feel so very attached to all these things, I wonder what I would forget about if they were gone. If the suitcases never made it home, if the boxes were lost at sea, what would I miss? I was thinking about all the boxes sitting back home in the US, I can’t tell you what’s in half of them, would I miss them if I never saw them again? Or do I only need most of what is in them out of necessity? The jackets to keep me warm, the sheets to sleep in, how much of the things that we own do we need? We pile up cards and silly gifts, souvenirs bought out of obligation, all useless. But how do you throw away handwritten birthday cards, expensive wedding invitations, that pair of hideous socks … that your grandma knitted you, but have never been worn?  How much of the things that we carry, create us? Do our belongings weigh us down? Does our packrat nature tie us to specific places in life? Are we the things that we own? Or perhaps the stories that accompany them. Perhaps if we get rid of these things, we’ll forget the stories with them, maybe they consume … us.

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