“Bags? We have no bags.” Each time I said it, I stood back to enjoy watching the stunned disbelief bloom on the face of our host at the hotel or B&B. This would invariably be followed by a hard stare at the floor beside my feet to see if this absurd story was an attempted hoodwinking or just some new form of American lunacy.
I admit the idea seemed pretty strange – insane, even – the first time my husband brought it up twenty years ago. “Why would we ever want to travel without luggage?” I asked. Until then, I’d always considered him a sane sort of fellow.
“Freedom,” Rich said. “Mobility. Imagine getting on a plane or train carrying nothing but a toothbrush and a passport!”
“That toothbrush isn’t going to do you much good without toothpaste,” I pointed out. From every standpoint – hygiene, comfort, fashion – the whole idea was ludicrous. And I said so, every time it came up, for the next two decades.
And yet last week I found myself – of my own free will – boarding a train from Spain to France with no luggage whatsoever, not even a purse or daypack, just a few small essentials tucked into my pockets. My resistance had crumbled several months earlier, when I’d read about a travel experiment in which a woman spent three weeks on the road without a suitcase. “But she did take a purse to hold her electronics and toiletries and such,” I said to Rich as I skimmed the article. That didn’t sound nearly as radical as the nothing-but-a-toothbrush scenario. And then I found myself blurting out, “OK. I’ll do it. But only for a weekend!”
Rich was overjoyed and instantly began nailing down details before I could change my mind. “Where shall we go? How about southern France?”
It was a logical choice, as we live in Seville, Spain, and could easily get there by train, our preferred form of travel. We eventually chose a romantic village in the Languedoc mountains as our ultimate destination, then discovered that due to exceedingly awkward railway connections, getting there and back would take six days. That’s when I got serious about figuring out what I absolutely needed to survive on the road.
On the day of our departure, I walked out my front door dressed in durable, fast-drying garments and a 17-pocket vest stuffed with necessities: wallet, camera, Kindle with recharging cord and adapter, soap, deodorant, moisturizer, sunscreen, toothbrush, toothpaste, one of those little wire brushes for flossing my teeth, tissues, moist towelettes, prescription medicines, comb, mascara, lipstick, notebook, pen, and a sheet of French travel phrases. First on the list was “Nous avons pas de bagages. Oui, je suis sérieux. Pourquoi? C'est compliqué.” (We have no luggage. Yes, I’m serious. Why? It’s complicated.)
I had scoured the shops of Seville to find the tiniest tube of sunscreen, a child-size folding toothbrush, the flattest packet of moist towelettes. And still my vest was so bulky I was afraid I was going to be arrested on suspicion of being a suicide bomber. Instead, of course, everyone simply assumed I was chunky. My outermost layer was a light jacket with big pockets into which I’d stuffed a silk scarf and two extra pairs of socks. Rich’s packing was far more minimalist, although he allowed himself the luxury of an iPad (which fit into the roomiest pocket of his travel jacket) for navigation and entertainment.
Our friends seemed deeply worried about the trip’s hygiene challenges, but those were easily managed. We washed our underwear and my shirt every night in the bathroom sink; if they were still a trifle damp in the morning, we finished them off with the hair dryer. Other garments were laundered, but less frequently, or in the case of my socks and Rich’s t-shirt, replaced along the way. All in all, we felt we maintained a reasonably civilized standard of cleanliness.
Dressing in the same clothes every day didn’t faze me, as I’d worn uniforms to school throughout my childhood. What I really missed was my pajamas. We went to bed au natural, which was fine for sleeping but a bit chilly for sitting up to read or watch a movie on the iPad. One night, discovering the bed was too soft for prolonged upright postures, we wound up seated on pillows on the floor, wrapped in bath towels, taking turns holding up the iPad in our hands to finish the film. It was, literally and figuratively, a low point.
Forecasts called for warm to mildly cool weather everywhere on our route, and I’d assumed there would always be someplace to buy an “I (heart) France” sweatshirt if I got desperate. But in the remoter mountain villages, where the temperatures dropped sharply at night, none of the quaint little shops offered anything more substantial than a t-shirt. Note to self: when traveling luggage-free, stick to cities and larger towns where discount stores abound.
These small inconveniences were more than offset by the liberation I felt being freed from the fuss and bother of manhandling baggage. Every time we walked through a railway station, I felt a rush of delight that I was not one of the gasping travelers laboring mightily to haul around gargantuan suitcases. In our lodgings, I was undaunted by even the most torturous old staircases, negotiating the crooked steps and low overhangs with the lighthearted ease of the unencumbered. Getting around was simpler, easier and – I had to admit it – more fun. Why had we waited so long? Obviously it wouldn’t be practical for every journey, but I was already considering when and how to organize future no-baggage adventures.
“Rich, you were right about going luggage-free. Next time you come up with some hair-brained idea, I promise not to fight it.”
“Ready to try nude travel?”
“Hmmm. Let me get back to you on that in 2035.”
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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