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The perils and pitfalls of packing for a trip to France

Smug travelers say the same thing ahead of departure: “We’re all packed up and ready to go.” Frantic travelers – us – say this: “We leave in two weeks and the toaster still won’t fit in the cosmetics case?”

We’re headed to France from our home in the US. Three nights Paris, seven weeks at our house in the Dordogne.  It’s time for that panicked ritual known as packing. We’re not good at it.

Last spring, we carried nine suitcases to France, one the size of the box a Prius comes in. We would have taken more but decided to leave the front lawn at home.

This time, we’re streamlining – two carry-ons and a backpack. Come November you’ll be able to spot us – dingy, disheveled, devoid of clean underwear.  But at least we’ll no longer be laden like an Amazon delivery van.

There are benefits to traveling light in France, starting with Paris hotels. Lodgings in the City of Light have charm. That means you won’t fit in the elevator with your luggage. So we have to send the bags up first. Nine times out or 10 they get off on the right floor. They’re what’s known in the airline industry as smart bags. But on that tenth time, they end up on a milk carton. Less luggage means less time spent solving the case of the missing case.

Fewer bags also mean fewer taxi skirmishes. Last spring at Gare de Montparnasse, five drivers scanned our luggage and drove away. “Jamais,” they shouted. It means never. “Jam this,” I said. The French don’t understand sign language.

Finally, there’s the French railway. Trains – even fast, luxury ones – aren’t luggage-friendly. Vestibules have meagre storage racks. Overhead spaces are for coats, if they’re lightweight and not folded over. Travel light and you won’t have to ride the rails with a refrigerator-size duffel between your knees.

Packing is fraught for us. We’re still stocking a recently purchased home in Dordogne. That means framed paintings are tucked in with dish towels. Butcher knives are wrapped in T-shirts. As for the 16-ounce spice jar? So it spills? So what? Most of it can be shaken out of the suitcase. Meanwhile, my socks have never tasted better.

Friends say this is nuts. They ask: Why pack things you can buy in France? We demure, reluctantly, and remove larger items from the bags. But don’t tell me we’ll find this same genuine imitation Naugahyde-upholstered recliner in Paris. French furniture technology just isn’t there, yet.

Packing a travel wardrobe requires sensitivity. To avoid looking like Americans, here are things we leave behind when traveling in France:

  • Baseball caps: They’re fine at a tech start-up, not Chartres Cathedral.
  • Matching sweatsuits: These belong on underworld crime bosses in the movies.
  • Flip-flops: Frenchmen have dogs. They sometimes go to the bathroom in public (the dogs, not the Frenchmen).  The phrase “watch your step” was most likely invented in France.

There was a famous TV commercial years ago with a gorilla and a suitcase at the zoo. The gorilla ferociously slammed that suitcase off the bars of his cage.  The message was supposed to be about luggage durability. But I know better. He was just trying to cram nine pounds of stuff into an eight-pound bag.

And as any gorilla will tell you, less is more when it comes to packing for France…

Mike Zampa is a communications consultant and retired newspaper editor and columnist splitting time, along with his wife, between Southwest France and the San Francisco Bay Area

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