Tuesday, 22 September 2009

To Istanbul, With Style -- And Dog Food

I don't know why it is, but when I travel, I picture myself as a fashionable person. If you remember those old movies from the forties and fifties where the traveling ladies are always wearing high heels, dressed smartly in suits, and carrying new-looking matching luggage, you'll know what I mean.

I honestly can't account for this. Even when I teach, I don't get much fancier than decent skirts and quasi-ironed cotton blouses with low-heeled pumps. I don't do matching shoes and handbags, and I avoid pantyhose like the plague. A few years back, my husband and I bit the bullet and bought a couple of decent suitcases, but for most of our married life, we've traveled with nasty old hand-me-down baggage, backpacks from our China, Sudan and Guatemala trekking days, and bulging canvas sports bags with tears, patches, and broken straps. So where does this passion to look like Audrey Hepburn come from? Why in the world do I think that what I never manage to accomplish in my daily life -- sleek, effortless style -- I will somehow magically attain when I travel?

When our Eldest was just eight months old, we traveled to Japan. A few weeks before we left, we bought one of those MotherCare travel cots. The photograph on the package shows a gorgeous young mother with a cute baby balanced on one hip. Her hair is a smooth, shining pageboy; she is wearing a business suit and low heels and looks like a million bucks. The baby's clothes and face are clean and it appears to be laughing. In short, you couldn't find a mother and baby combo much more different from my firstborn and me, but when I bought that travel cot, I guarantee you, I saw myself as that mother, our Eldest as that baby. The MotherCare mother carried that travel cot like it weighed five pounds. She balanced her fully cooperative baby on her hip with effortless skill; somewhere on her person was hidden a diaper bag containing all the essentials: drinks, snacks, diapers, ointment, changing mat, wet wipes, spare pacifier, spare outfit -- the works. My baby and I were going to look the same when we traveled: I just knew it. That was one of the reasons I went for the cot in the first place.

The reality, of course, was completely different. I was a sweaty, miserable wreck all the way from Wales to Tokyo; Eldest fussed, spat up milk, and only fell asleep during the last fifteen minutes of our flight. The travel cot weighed a ton. Wrestling it through the streets of Yokohama, Eldest strapped crying and struggling to my chest, I almost dislocated my shoulder.

In fact, the reality is always different, but that still doesn't mean I learn. Instead of the efficient, seasoned, woman-of-the-world globetrotter I hope to resemble, I'm the frantic, fly-haired madwoman fumbling for her passport, dropping her boarding pass on the escalator, shrilling at her kids in the waiting room.

But on this last trip back to the Near East, I came close as I ever have to living up to my image. I had come fresh from seeing two teenagers off to university. I was frazzled and hassled, true, and as I packed, the small black backpack I intended to use as my carry-on bag became so full of over-spill -- handkerchiefs, small souvenirs, packages of tissue, books, Japanese-English dictionary -- that I ended up begging my friend Dina for a larger bag to put it all in. Still, I looked good, I felt, wearing my newest jeans, my trendiest top. I had on decent kid-approved shoes -- no mud in sight -- and carried my daughter's cast-off suitcase -- far better and roomier than my own.

I hugged and kissed my dear friend Dina as she saw Youngest Daughter and me off at the airport. My bags weighed a ton -- the carry-on seemed even heavier than when I'd first put it in the car -- but what else was new?

We didn't find the dog food until five minutes before boarding. Youngest Daughter's mobile phone (so much more trustworthy than mine in that she answers it) rang and I heard the following one-sided conversation:

"Dog food? No, of course not! Oh, wait a minute -- her bag is right here, hang on--" (Youngest Daughter opens my vast over-spill carry-on bag and rummages through it.) "--Is it in a kind of yellow bag? Oh wow, you're right, we do!" (Giggling and pinching her nose shut) "I wonder how that got there because I didn't... No. Sorrrry! So, what should we do? Ha ha, no, you can't, can you? Will they be hungry? Oh, poor things!"

Somehow, 3 kilograms of rather smelly dog food -- enough to feed Dina's two spaniels for a couple of days -- had found its way into my carry-on bag, right next to the souvenir cookies and chocolate I was taking to my colleagues. (Dina will tell you that it wasn't as much as 3 kilograms, but it sure as hell felt like it and besides, this is my blog.) How it got through baggage check when my lipstick and hand lotion didn't, I'll never know, but there you are.

On the plane, I prodded Youngest Daughter. "Can you smell it?"

She wrinkled her nose. "No. Well -- maybe."

"I can smell it." I sure could. In fact, I worried about what it might be doing to my souvenir oatmeal and ginger cookies.

The stewardesses swished back and forth, all stylish efficiency and stay-in-place hair. Stewardesses travel stylishly too -- just go to any airport and you will see. They wear neat little hats and pressed suits and panty hose and high heels. Their suitcases don't have marks and dents all over them, and the handle-thingies on theirs always pull out all the way.

"Just leave it on the plane, mom."

But how could I? If I left the bag on the plane, I knew exactly what would happen. Those trim, practical, overworked stewardesses would come along, wrinkle their pretty noses, and throw it out immediately, cans and dry chow. They wouldn't take it home to their dogs, they're stylish travelers and would never choose to heave smelly dog food around in their neat little carry-on bags. And I may travel like a slob, but I'm not wasteful -- that's the bottom line. I might not carry that dog food right down to the gates of hell, but I'm betting I'd get pretty close.

I carried my 3 kilograms of dog food straight through Atatürk International Airport and onto our next plane and off, right through customs. I breathed a sigh of relief that no trained police dogs were on duty, sniffing people's baggage for drugs: how in the world would I have explained their reaction to my carry-on bag? I took the dog food to my university and gave it to a dog-loving friend. Her dogs, I am told, very much enjoyed their first taste of British dog food.

So I still haven't attained my stylish traveler ideal, but then you can't have everything in this world. Besides, there's always the trip back next year.



Robert the Skeptic said...

I'm sure the dogs loved their food treat... after all, it's "Imported"!

Charles Gramlich said...

I've never traveled with dog food. And I don't think I've ever traveled with anything approaching style. I admire the cool cucumbers but I'm not one of them.

Kim Ayres said...

Don't you know that adverts never sell products, they sell lifestyles - impossible, wonderful lifestyles? And we get fooled into thinking the product will give us the lifestyles.

Personally I think you were lucky they let you take the dogfood through customs :)

Vijaya said...

Mary you made me snort my tea ... I remember travelling with my cat and his food. Style? Gosh, I've never once thought about it. But my best friend did -- she gave us luggage when we got married :)

Charlie said...

Historically (I don't use "old days" any longer), people got dressed up to fly—dresses and heels, suits and ties. It was the high-class way to travel, as opposed to the train or bus.

Nowadays, air travelers look more like street people—and the dog food is better than the airline food.

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- I'm sure they couldn't believe their good luck. 'Viandes Fines d'Angleterre', earmarked for British spaniels, but freshly, if inadvertently, imported by a sympathetic American -- what more could they ask for?

Charles -- It was a first for me too. And believe me, you're not missing out. Next time I think I'll try and aim for chocolates or perfume. So much lighter and less smelly.

Kim -- In my head, I know that. I am generally a person who is almost impossible to convince via advertising; I'm really a tough sale. But traveling -- that's my Achilles' heel. It just sickens me: I was putty in their hands. If Katherine Hepburn had been the mom in that MotherCare ad, I'd probably have gotten TWO cots.

Vijaya -- Ooh, traveling with cats is just hellish -- you have my sincere admiration.

We also got matching overnight bags when we got married and it was great; we still have them. But I wish we'd gotten more, bigger suitcases too. Considering our lifestyle, they would've been much more practical than lacquer ware and tablecloths.

Charlie -- Ah, those were the days, weren't they? (Not that I'd know, of course -- it just always looked so good in the movies. Sigh.)

I swear to you, the food on Turkish Airlines is fantastic -- no dog food could be better. For Turkish Airlines, I really should have had on nicer clothes. And no dog food...

Kit said...

Look at it as a tale of derring do and adventure, smuggling forbidden goods through customs at great personal risk and discomfort - another sort of glamour but still it has a certain style to it!!

angryparsnip said...

I always think that this time I will travel with style, breeze through the check-points but. . .
I have so much metal in me that I set off the alarms, along with silverware and small cars from China attaching themselves to me, then they have to hand check me, go through my carry-on, get the idea? By the time I get to the gate I am diffidently not Audrey Hepburn...
but I always hope the next time.

But I did once find some Fabulous luggage in Tokyo that no one else has super easy to spot and all the customs people love ! That part is easy...

Angela said...

Ha, Hilarrious! Did you ever figure out how the food got there in the first place?

MG Higgins said...

Yes, for heaven's sake, keep trying to attain that image! If I could look that put-together when traveling I'd be so proud of myself.

Robin said...

If I had been drinking milk, I would have snorted it out my nose. Yes, carrying smelly dog food around, would make that chic, "Audrey Hepburn traveling to Paris" look tough to pull off!

My favorite part is that you wouldn't leave it on the plane because of the poor stewardesses and the waste of good dog food. Oh, man. I'm giggling again.

kara said...

was it "human grade" dog food? the fact that that even exists makes my heart hurt.

Mary Witzl said...

Kit -- I love this -- why didn't I think of it? I should have told myself that I wasn't dragging around somebody's dog food, I was smuggling imported meat, all hush-hush cloak and dagger. Ah...I'm starting to feel chic all over again.

AP -- My daughters and I set off the metal sensor alarm almost every time. We figure it must be all the static energy in our bushy hair. And I love the idea of silverware and small cars attaching themselves to you: that would really be something!

My kid's rejected suitcase is pink and flowered and utterly huge. How pathetic is it that pulling that around after me feels more stylish than lugging my halfway decent suitcase?

Angela -- My friend cares for a lovely learning-challenged woman who is also a friend of ours. As I was struggling to get my bags out of the trunk, I said, "Not that yellow bag!" and she must have missed hearing 'Not'.

MGH -- Really, I live in hope. I think one day, I may dress stylishly, pose with a suitcase, have a photograph taken, then breathe a sigh of relief. And never have to strain for that impossible ideal again...

Robin -- Nothing says style like a superfluous 3 kg of dog food, eh?

Sometimes I think I was put on this earth not to astonish with my fashion and style, but to amuse and entertain. A small price to pay, really, when I stop to think about it. (As I fold my long Audrey Hepburn legs and incline my slender Audrey Hepburn neck in a philosophical thinking woman pose.)

Kara -- There IS such a thing as human grade dog food? Seriously? My husband will be so pleased: that's his retirement sorted out!

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Bish Denham said...

Oh that's just hilarious! Looking suave at 1 AM in the Atlanta airport is also an impossibility. My flight out was delayed due to all the flooding. There were people everywhere, all of us looking less than perfect. What pleased me is how well behaved we all were. No arguments. Rather, clapping when a plane finally got to be boarded.

Carrie Harris said...

I would make some stirring comment, but I can't stop laughing long enough to think of one.

Emil Kirstein said...

Reminds me of the time we brought the Korean delight, kimchi (pickled cabbage) back home. My bag eventually advertised the product. Blessings.

Mary Witzl said...

Audrey -- Thank you for commenting. I like to strike up a blogging correspondence before I take the plunge and make a side roll commitment, but I'll always comment on someone's blog if I like their writing style or, failing that, what they have to say. What do you teach?

Bish -- It's always wonderful to see people who behave well under difficult circumstances; I have nothing but respect for them. It's easy to behave well when you're fresh and well fed, but when you're hungry and miserable, it's a tall order. And isn't spontaneous public applause a delight? I'm glad you got to witness it!

Carrie -- I'm laughing now too. But when I first saw that hefty bag of dog food, there was no smile on my face. Though I did mutter to myself, "I'll write about this." That cheered me up a little.

Emil -- Thank you for commenting!

I've traveled with kimchi myself, and like you, I've discovered that it's not shy about making itself known. I had a homemade jar leak once on a car journey and that was bad enough. One of the people who comments here packed half a dozen bags of it only to have them explode under pressure during the flight. I believe she wasn't popular with the customs people when she landed.

Chris Eldin said...

Sorry I haven't been here for a while...I have a lot of catching up to do!!
(I linked you as "Cat on Speed")

laura said...

Since I was a little girl, I've always known that if I wear the same outfit, use the same makeup etc... that the pretty models are using, I'll look just like them. I'm still like that! I really don't want to see someone who looks like me advertising their goods. I'd never buy them!!
And I've been on some flights where the dog food would have been a welcome relief from what the airline served. But you're my hero! If I'd had to travel with my son (firstborn) I'd still be in a rubber room.

Anne Spollen said...

It's the fantasy of going to a new place -- you're all new and wonderful -- it makes us want to be Audrey Hepburn. Or at least look like her.

Dog food part -lol

Kids and animals always keep us grounded -- in so many senses of that word...

Mary Witzl said...

Chris -- I think she looks more like a Cat with PMS, but 'Cat on Speed' is great. And I've got a lot of catching up to do myself -- but I'll try too. I miss you!!

Laura -- You know how I feel, then. In my head, I know this is such total nonsense. In my heart, I am Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn -- and Katherine, too.

I keep telling everyone this: Turkish Airlines has the BEST food in the skies -- I was never even tempted to go near that dog food! As for flying with babies, though, my husband and I once flew with our Youngest from London to Tokyo when she was an infant -- TWELVE HOURS, it was, though it felt like a LOT longer. Believe me, we were really glad we couldn't open the windows. I'm pretty sure the other passengers didn't feel the same way...

AnneS -- I'd settle for looking half as good as Audrey Hepburn. Oh hell, I'd settle for 1/10th. I'm not going to get it, though, am I?

Yes, kids and animals certainly ground you. They are very earthy creatures.

Anonymous said...

Haha! This was a great story. I, too, somehow imagine that I am coming across as a seasoned, cucumber-cool traveler, when in real life my luggage is always FAR too heavy (well you've got to bring back oatmeal and ginger cookies haven't you?) and I am far from an Audrey Hepburn look-alike.
Dog food! That is so awesome! *snort*

Mary Witzl said...

Elizabeth -- I'll tell you what was even worse: that dog food, according to Dina, was PORK flavored! Can you imagine? Fortunately, the dogs owners who eventually got it weren't the kind who would mind (I hope).

When we came back this time, I had a good supply of oatmeal ginger cookies -- and Japanese foodstuffs. Wish I could have left the dog food behind and stocked up on more of those.

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