Thursday, July 7, 2011

The diary that broke the camel’s back

I don’t know about you, but I like to travel to America with half-empty suitcases so on the way back I can fill them up with treasures not easily found elsewhere: green Tabasco, Curious George collections, Marcona almonds, metal toy cars, white tea, unbleached pull-up diapers, Turkish sumac berries, real chicken bouillon. And at New Zealand customs I like to say, “Nothing to declare.”

This time I even managed to bring back family jewellery of indefinite value, photographic equipment for resale, and Bulgarian goods carried on behalf of someone else and not packed by myself. But if you’re a mom with dark circles under your eyes and scrambled eggs on your shirt, I’m fairly certain you’re allowed to check “no” on all the boxes on your customs declaration form.

But I didn’t dare try to import from my hometown the most precious goods of all: my unearthed teenage diaries and letters dating back to my first year in Italy. OK, so they might not seem valuable, but they may help me write my second book – which, along with my other unpublished memoir, may one day very well become a New York Times bestseller – making these diaries and letters possibly worth millions of dollars. And I’m pretty sure you have to declare that.

I didn’t pack them mostly because they were too valuable to lose. The suitcase might get lost in transit. The plane might go down. Besides, they were a tad on the heavy side. I had already stratified my luggage to the brim with books like The Gruffalo and Clifford The Big Red Dog. Being the last of the great literature to be packed, those three hardcover diaries and countless letters and photographs just seemed like that little extra weight I’d regret turning up with at the check-in desk. Even without a scale or a good grip on kilo-pound conversion, I guessed they might weigh about a pound. And that little extra pound, I sensed, might just break the camel’s back.

Here, the Italian saying seemed even more appropriate – la goccia che fa traboccare il vaso – the last drop that would make my suitcase literally overflow. I imagined the check-in employee at the airport the next morning telling me my baggage was overweight. I imagined having to hand out to perfect strangers bottles of Giovanni Eco Chic shampoo and hyaluronic acid night cream.

So I set the writing aside to be faithfully entrusted to the U.S. Postal Service. First class international priority mail, insured with tracking.

I must have done something good in a previous life because early the next morning the travel gods were with me. First of all, my sleep-deprived three-year-old was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (though I wasn’t sure this would turn out to be such a good thing). Secondly, our luggage was checked all the way through to New Zealand. And best of all, while one suitcase was indeed overweight by around four pounds, the other suitcase was under the maximum by around four pounds! All I needed to do was transfer some items from one bag to the other, without losing my child in the crowds.

What passengers and staff at Washington National Airport saw next wasn’t pretty. With my suitcases splayed open on the floor like two slaughtered beasts, out came all my dirty secrets: unlaundered underwear, a bag of wet bathing suits, a jar of Better Than Bouillon, the new easy-grip Tampax and my secret of all secrets that would expose me to everyone as a fraud: Palladino sage-green eyeliner. But in the midst of all that, I also found a lifesaver – the bottle of Whole Foods fruit-shaped chewable multivitamins that are packed full of nutrients and taste a bit like…Life Savers. To ensure a few more moments of patience from my little guy, I risked grumbles from the growing line to unscrew the lid.

“Do you want a vitamin before I pack them away again?” I asked in Italian.

“Two,” he answered back in Italian. He’s a good negotiator. And I’m a sucker for a guy who speaks another language. “No, not these. A mountain and a rainbow.”

“You mean an orange segment and a raspberry?”

“No, no, wait. Hmmm...” His face lit up. “Two fish!”

“You mean two pineapples?”


“C’mon, honey.” I could hear some throat-clearing in the line. And my dirty underwear was still fanned out in immodest display. But as the vitamins worked their magic, I did manage to fling things around to balance out the suitcases. The first weighed in at exactly the maximum of 50 pounds. The second came in at 49.5 pounds. Only a half of a pound to spare!

I breathed a sigh of relief: thank god I hadn’t brought those diaries and letters after all! That extra pound would truly have pushed us over the limit.

Or was it the two multivitamins that made the difference?


  1. Oh poor dear Heddi!
    Reading this post was actually quite funny though :)And you have to find a way to bring those valuable diaries back, 'cause I can't wait for you to become a famous novelist!
    I didn't know the saying "to break the camel's back", but I did know "la goccia che fa traboccare il vaso" of course! Over here in Uk they say "The final nail in the coffin".

    I'll send you an email with the other "estratti"!

  2. Good morning! (Well, it's morning here in MN, at least!) I found your blog when looking up "wanna-be writers" (which is a category I fit into!) and I really enjoyed this post - I like your style - you are humorous and interesting! I could also completely relate to your situation, having recently returned from a (suitcase-laden) trip to Europe. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  3. Dear Gretchen on a fine day in Minnesota, thanks for stopping by and for your compliments - we wannabe writers need them on a regular basis! (Almost as much as we need international travel...)
    - heddi.

  4. Dear Italian Girfriend, if I become a famous novelist, you can be my translator for the Italian edition: what do you say?