Unpacking Knickers

I have just started to unpack ten days’ worth of luggage after a lovely summer trip to Wales (translation: I have opened my bag, spent two minutes wondering if doing the laundry really was what I wanted to do with my day and decided against it), and something struck me: I hadn’t worn a good third of the clothes I had taken with me. I had to face it: I, like many other people, pack too much stuff.

The Knickers Equation

Yellow dress

The yellow dress and Swansea Bay (Photo credit: Justine Houyaux)

Sure, I was glad I had taken my yellow dress, but did I really also need the red skirt, the blue skirt, the green skirt, the two playsuits, when, in the face of it, I basically wore tank tops and shorts the whole time? Did I need my nail polish remover? Or my second pair of sneakers? I was proud of myself for my last-minute decision not to take my iron curler (holiday me only ties her hair in a messy bun on the way out anyway), but I could definitely do better than that.

And what about the unnecessarily complicated equation that made me take fourteen pairs of knickers for a ten-day trip (n days of stay + n/5 + 2)? After all, I haven’t peed myself once in the past thirty years (with the possible exception of that one time when my colleague Isabelle made me laugh so hard during a meeting that my FitBit registered half an hour of intensive elliptical), so why do I feel the need to bring so many changes of underwear when going to a country that also happens to have and sell knickers, should the need arise? And what kind of need would that be?

All in all, I ended up taking my army-issued backpack, a garment bag, and a large duffle bag on top of my purse (speak of travelling light, really), not to mention the biscuits/water/tidbits in the green Waitrose bag behind my seat. Because surely they don’t have biscuits in the U.K. Or tissues. Or the crossword book I bought in the U.K. the last time I was there two months ago specifically to replace the one I had bought two months before in the exact same W.H. Smith but had forgotten at home. Or screwdrivers. Or, you know, toothpaste.


The Genetic Inheritance Approach

When my great-grandmother left Prussia to migrate to Belgium, she took her grand piano with her. When my grandparents came back from Africa, they shipped 27 trunks by airplane, which at the time must have been just a little less expensive than burning everything and buying all new stuff. So I like to think that, to some extent, overpacking has to do with genetic inheritance; those ancestors of mine might have been wanderers, but there always were some heavy logistics involved. It’s not my fault, really. Except that I am not the only one.

After discussing the matter with some people around me, I realised that we all pack too much. My friend Sam, for example, who travels about six times a year, admits that he always takes too many t-shirts. Nina says she takes too much of everything because “you never know,” and I feel that it is precisely that “you never know” instinct that needs to be scrutinized, because deep down, it is linked to our common fear of the unknown.

Our species used to live in a hostile environment where every noise could be the sign of a danger lurking in the dark, and where food was scarce. More than gatherers, we have been programmed to be hoarders for millennia of struggle for survival. When you don’t have much, you keep whatever you possess as close as possible (especially when those possessions are supposed to help you survive harsh winters, famines and predators), which, I assume, is a behaviour that is only reinforced by our consumer society with its all-pervasive materialism and the constant assault of marketing strategies on our daily lives. It’s thus hardly surprising that we find it challenging to leave our material appurtenances behind when going to that big ball of unknown that is “abroad”.

The Carry-On Paradox

To put it in a nutshell, the explanation as to why I take fourteen pairs of knickers with me when I travel may well lie in a form of fear that, out of my regular geographical area, I may not find the things with which I am comfortable. That fear, dear reader, of course defeats the purpose of travelling in the first place. Travel is meant to shake our conceptions a little and to force us out of our usual ways; otherwise, is it even worth travelling at all? Plus, when travelling to rich countries, you can be quite confident that they do, in fact, sell knickers. After all, it’s not as if I was trekking in the Himalayas on my own in 1884 (in which case I’d probably abandon the idea of wearing knickers all together). And if you happen to be a penny-pincher or, like me, just poor, you can always wash your undergarments in the basin and let them dry overnight, should you be in desperate need.

Coming back to the knickers, the only piece of advice that I find useful is to put an extra change of underwear in your carry-on if you travel by plane, in case the company loses your checked luggage. It happened to me when I was fifteen and trust me, trying to buy underwear in Greek is extremely difficult. Especially when you’re not Greek and it’s midnight and you have someone else’s vomit all over your shoes (but that’s a story for another day). My point is: the necessary/emergency stuff should definitely be in the one bag that stays with you. All the rest, however much you like it, should either be a) in your bigger bag or, even better b) left at home.

You do not need seven pairs of earrings, because when you look at your holiday pictures, you’ll realise that you’ve worn the same pair every day. You do not need six books; most places have small libraries where you’ll find just the right book for that afternoon at the beach. You definitely do not need four jumpers and a raincoat if you’re going to Italy for the summer. If you feel like wearing different earrings, buy some from the village market and make friends with the locals. If you finish your book, look at the landscape or buy a newspaper. If it rains, go outside and dance like Juliette Binoche in The English Patient. Improvise. Surprise yourself. Live. It’s what travelling is all about.


The Backpack Paradigm

Sam told me that he had a reasonably small suitcase because he generally travels with Ryanair, and Nina told me her parents’ advice to “always have ugly suitcases so that no one will steal them.” While I think those two behaviours are safe and practical, I don’t own a suitcase; I prefer having a bag. On my shorter travels, I only take my backpack, an ugly greenish thing I bought in a military surplus that could certainly hold my own weight if it had to while still being small enough to be in the cabin with me. It has four compartments and it comes with a complete sense of freedom as I don’t have to wheel it behind me. Psychologically speaking, I feel that, unlike a suitcase, a backpack doesn’t ground me to the floor. Also it’s easier to manage when you have to walk on uneven pavement, and it doesn’t make any noise (looking at you, all the French people at the Tower Hotel who make a ton of noise at seven in the morning with your Samsonites and their damn plastic wheels. You know who you are).

The type of luggage you’ll choose is of course entirely up to you. I know very stylish women who seem to float across borders with Louis Vuitton suitcases in tow, but let’s be frank, if you’re anything like me, you probably won’t splurge on a taxi and you will take the bus or walk instead, which will mean that a) the responsibility to load and unload your luggage into and from the bus will be all yours, and/or 2) there’s a fair chance that you’ll have to carry or wheel your bags over a certain distance. Jon and I often travel with our car, but even then the closest available parking space is not always on the doorstep of your hotel and you’ll still need to walk.

I am all in favour of travelling in style, but I am not Beyoncé (I know, I know, it’s one of my deepest regrets, trust me) and consequently, it is not my job to look fantastic at all time. I am ok with being a sweaty mess and not having suitcases that cost more than my house. In the end, it is all about knowing who you are and what you expect from your journey. I’ll look fantastic tomorrow, after a shower, a good night’s sleep and a proper breakfast. Right now, I am trying to find my way to my hotel (no, I won’t use the app, my paper map from 1974 is perfectly accurate, thank you very much), so get out of my way.

Necessities V. Luxuries

With constant marketing targeted at us, it is increasingly difficult to make the distinction between what we actually need and what we could do without. Packing involves making choices and leaving things behind, which most of us are not particularly good at. At least, I know I am not. A minimalist approach is very nice, but it is not always possible, so I have come up with an 80%-20% ratio of necessities/luxuries that I try to apply as much as I can. For each eight items that really are necessary (toothbrush, comfy shoes, migraine medicines, phone charger, pjs, etc.), I am allowed two items that are not (a pretty dress, nail polish, clutch, …). In the end, the system seems to be working and I have never ever been in the situation of saying “Oh no! I have forgotten that at home! The holiday is ruined!” because here’s the tip you’ve been looking for: there are very, very few things you actually need.

I am no longer taking my good sneakers with me, for example, because they’re the tangible manifestation of my erroneous projections of a possible better me. I very rarely run when I am at home, so why do I entertain the idea that I’ll do it when I am abroad? I think it is because travelling opens a world of possibilities, including the one in which I am not a couch potato. And of course, not once have I gone for one of those pre-breakfast runs I had pictured beforehand. So bye-bye sneakers, you’ll stay home this time. It’s all about lowering your expectations and avoiding unrealistic projections. In this case, the sneakers are neither a necessity nor a luxury, they simply are an unnecessary weight to carry, both literally and metaphorically. And quite frankly, no one needs that, on holiday or otherwise.

Between the unrealistic projections, the weight of our genetic inheritance and the uninterrupted marketing, there definitely is more to packing than meets the eye. It is a struggle between nature and nurture, and between society and individuals. Even trivial matters such as the choice of a certain type of luggage bear meanings and consequences. As for me, next time, I won’t pack more than one jumper, one pair of earrings, and I certainly won’t pack my second pair of sneakers. But I’ll still pack n+n/5+2 pairs of knickers. You never know.

Do you have strategies to pack more efficiently? Are you more of a backpack or a suitcase person? Do you like travelling light or do you take your entire wardrobe when you go away for the weekend? Let me know in the comments!

Psst! While you’re here…

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All texts and pictures © Justine Houyaux.

4 thoughts on “Unpacking Knickers

  1. Nicolas

    There’s a rather easy way to pack less, that is when you know that everything you’ll bring will end up on your back for 10 days without any means of getting rid of anything! Trust me, going on a trekking holiday with a 15kg backpack for 10 days in a very remote place will make you change your habits radically thereafter :-D.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elise Lignian

    Over the years travelling back and forth between Tournai and London, I can say that I developed a systematic hatred towards wheeled suitcases… As you said, 1) they are loud, 2) they’re not practical and 3) they make you look like a f****** tourist who just prevents me from walking at my London pace. I am definitely in the « backpack » team. As for packing advice, I think it is essential to check the weather forecast because even if you go to Italy thinking the sun will shine all day long, you can end up being soaked through and forced to buy new walking shoes, raining coats and umbrellas at the only Decathlon in the city (true story).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Justine Post author

    I’m with you on this. I do understand that under some circumstances, those suitcases can be useful, but they’re not for me. As for the unexpected rain, I’ve been there too, soaking wet and miserable. But it’s part of the package, isn’t it? Thanks for your piece of advice regarding the weather forecast!


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