(First published in Le News edition 11, 23-29 January 2014)
The day we came back from our Christmas holiday in South Africa, I opened my toiletry bag and a bucket’s worth of beach sand fell out onto the bathroom floor.
‘Oh, said the smaller child, eyeing it sadly. ‘It was a sandcastle when I put it in there.’
She wasn’t the only one who had issues with her luggage.
‘Why do we need seven packets of powdered jelly and three litres of Dettol?’ my husband had asked, surveying our suitcases the night before we flew back to Europe.
‘I can’t get them in Switzerland,’ I answered.
‘And the nine notebooks? Can’t you find paper in Switzerland?’
‘These feel nicer to write in than other books.’
‘And all those giant balls of red wool? Can you explain those?’
‘I could. But as you can see, I’m busy trying to fit a plaster mould of an impala’s hoof print into this suitcase,’ I replied patiently.
He looked forlornly at the pile of bags that he was going to have to drag through three airports and two train stations.
‘Why can’t we just smuggle in wine and biltong like any other South African?’
Frankly, given his heritage, I expected more from him. His father: now there’s a man who isn’t afraid of baggage. He has distributed to the corners of the earth, among other things, a beaded wire sheep (large), a decorative baobab tree (small but inconveniently shaped) and a bolt of shweshwe fabric (starched and completely unyielding). And my mother-in-law is no suitcase slouch either; the last Christmas cake she brought over was so enormous that we enjoyed a slice with tea every day for months.
Anyway, I pointed out to my shirking husband, I wasn’t the only one to blame for those bulging suitcases. With a joyful disregard for Lufthansa’s weight limitations, our South African friends and family showered us with gifts, including 18 books, two bath towels, a full set of table linen and a music box. And a violin.
All of this was in addition to a ridiculously large toy monkey that the bigger child never leaves home without, and all the heavy jackets and snow boots we’d need back in Switzerland.
My husband did lug it all home, albeit with very bad grace. And I’m pleased to report that last week he was proven wrong by my dear friends, the ladies of the High Mileage Nordic Walking Club: it turns out that I was, in fact, not the only person bringing home what he so unkindly termed ‘random crap’.
Laura From England flew back with thirty plastic Disney plates, and the entire M&S lingerie department. Sandy The Other South African imported several boxes of beeswax lip balm.
‘It’s the only one that isn’t addictive,’ she told us. ‘I can’t live without it!’
But it was Elsa from Germany who surprised us the most. She brought a month’s supply of Lindt chocolates. Back to Switzerland.
‘You do realise …’ I began.
‘Yes, yes, I know. I can get it here. But … it’s not the same.’
And that’s the truth of it. No matter how it may look to the customs officials, it’s not really the jelly / baobab tree / five kilogrammes of mosaic tiles that matters so much. It’s what it represents: home; something familiar; something we loved and didn’t want to leave behind. Just like my daughter, sitting with her friends under a hot South African sky and stuffing sandcastles into my suitcase.