The Things He’s Carried
For a Minnesotan in France, it’s the Texans who seem most foreign
illustration by Lars Leetaru
My wife packs for vacation like she’s Elizabeth Taylor permanently relocating to the International Space Station. So I shouldn’t have been stunned when we left for Paris with a full studio apartment in tow. (What is marriage, after all, if not a series of surprises you absolutely should have seen coming?) Or befuddled to find, when I unzipped the largest of the bags I’d carried up several flights of stairs at our French hotel, a box fan.
This fan wasn’t one of those little handheld oscillating numbers, but a freestanding machine with a hard plastic frame. Had I known of my wife’s plan to pack it, I would have volunteered to wake up every couple of hours to blow on her.
My own traveling style is more fleet. Who wants to haul around luggage? In regular life, I lug stacks of papers to work, lug my cats to the vet, lug my worries back home with me and even into my sleep. Vacation should be about putting down.
The disparity in our packing strategies was thrown into sharp relief at a French train station near the storybook town of Giverny. We met a couple from Texas on a three-week cross-country jaunt. They each carried everything they needed in a single backpack just about large enough to accommodate my wife’s dress socks and hair clips. The husband had a salt-and-pepper beard and the wife wore her hair in a blonde coiffure befitting the size of their home state. Being from Texas, they were eager to practice their English.
“Watch those bags,” the husband said to me. “There’s a shady guy over at the corner of the platform who’s been eyeing us for five minutes. Now he’s staring at your bags.”
“We got mugged in Spain once,” the wife chimed in. “They get in your way at the door of the train, and then—pow! Wallet’s gone. It’s like a point of pride for us now: We got mugged in Spain!”
The conversation turned toward life back home. The Texans reeled at the mere thought of Minnesota. Like many people from down South, they suspected we Minnesotans live in a Coen brothers movie set atop a still-flowing glacier.
“You must be cold all the time!” Mrs. Texas said.
I assured her it wasn’t that cold. Not all of the time, at least.
“Well,” she lamented, “at least you have the mountains.”
I let that one pass.
Then Mr. Texas leaned in and asked in a low voice, “Don’t you guys have a lot of Muslims up there in Minneapolis?”
I told him we had an average number of Muslims, as far as I could tell. I hadn’t done a head count lately.
He followed up: “I heard certain parts of Minneapolis are No-Go Zones where they enforce Sharia law.”
I assured them that we lived for three years in an apartment on Franklin Avenue, near one of the city’s largest Somali neighborhoods, and not once had someone foisted a headscarf on my wife. My wife probably did have a headscarf of some kind in our luggage, but she had one of everything in there, including full scuba gear.
We certainly had an awful lot of bags, the Texans agreed.
We bid the Texans adieu and boarded the train. I saw them once more, back at the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris, where I shepherded my wife’s rollable wardrobe through the busy station like a flock of fat, disobedient sheep.
“Good luck!” the Texans said, though they seemed skeptical of our chances of survival in the Land of 10,001 Frozen Nights. Surely they’d see us again soon on the news, ransomed back to the local Lutherans in exchange for space heaters and the release of ISIS prisoners. We tried to clear up their misconceptions, but the hardest thing to convince someone to leave behind is a bad idea.
The Texans bobbed away into the throng, unburdened by roller bags or self-doubt. We lugged behind them. I had the urge to point out to my wife that their two small backpacks were enough for an entire weeks-long journey from Normandy to the South of France. Weeks!
But I said nothing. I just kept on schlepping. Because in life—and especially in marriage—the heaviest thing you can carry is a grudge.