Girl Versus Suitcase



By Jackie DesForges

I’m not sure if it was my blonde highlights, my propensity for eating pizza, or the fact that I had just been dumped, but for some reason at the beginning of summer in 2009, I convinced myself that I was Elizabeth Gilbert. I imagined myself as something tragic and glamorous, a girl who was about to set out on the road with nothing but her suitcase and her pride. I had mastered the “eating” portion of the eating, praying, and loving three-step program, and now I was on my way to attempt the other two steps in Brussels, hoping to look stylish and independent while I was at it. In hindsight, I should have packed more lightly.

I awoke from a Parisian champagne party I’d had with a friend at about six in the morning in order to have enough time to catch my train. Turns out that even after throwing out half my suitcase in a champagne-induced delirium the night before, my baggage still weighed significantly more than I did.

Never travel with a rolling suitcase and a duffel bag that does not somehow securely attach to it if you’re traveling by yourself, have no upper body strength, insist on wearing dresses that do not allow for much movement or dragging of said suitcases, and insist on packing for apocalypse weather.  It took me about twenty minutes — including several breaks that involved massaging my biceps and giving myself a couple of brief pep talks — before I finally made it the two blocks to the station, where I was greeted by about two dozen stairs and not an escalator in sight.

Whimpering, I started to lug my bags up the stairs one at a time, and I was actually very glad at this point that it was so early in the morning because this meant there was no one around to witness my pathetic struggle. Or so I thought.

Enter Scary Man with a Gold Tooth. 

Woman with luggage heading to railway station platform

Photo credit - © Roman Milert |


He was old and smelled like shoe polish but he was dressed semi-decently in a suit that looked like something a grandfather would wear. He offered, in French, to help me get my bags up the stairs. Obviously this man seemed like a deus ex machina at first, and when we reached the top of the stairs I thanked him profusely in both English and broken French, and then I started to walk away so that I wouldn’t be late. 

Gold Tooth, however, decided that he also wanted to accompany me into the station to show me which metro I needed to take to get to my platform. I paused, remembering certain graphic passages from Devil in the White City, which I had just finished reading. And then I laughed to myself. Don’t be silly, I thought. If this guy could find the means to build an elaborate torture chamber, he could certainly find the means to get a more realistic fake tooth. Besides, the station had too many witnesses.

He took my suitcase and started walking with it, but I kept my hand on the handle next to his because, well, it had everything I owned in it and I wasn’t about to let some old guy with a gold tooth run off with all of my summer dresses or the poster that my friend Emily had stolen off a portable bathroom for me in Cannes.

So there we were, the gold-toothed man and I walking towards the station together, each holding onto my suitcase and glancing at each other nervously. It would have almost been a nice picture, like a grandfather seeing his granddaughter off at the station, if we hadn’t been so mismatched – he in his faded, worn suit and scraggly hair; me in my light summer dress and pointed shoes, my bracelet and earrings glinting in the sunlight.

I was somewhat surprised when we made it inside the station unharmed and still both holding the suitcase. He led me to an elevator (no matter how crazy this man is, I will always be eternally grateful for this elevator and the break it afforded my aching biceps) and we rode it down to line A of the metro. This would have been exceptionally helpful if I had needed line A, but, alas, I needed line D, which was down another floor. I knew this because I’d asked the nice gold-tooth-less lady at the info desk of my hotel the night before.

I kept trying to tell this to the man in my decent, slightly broken French, but he wasn’t listening. Suddenly, he asked me if I had a metro ticket. I wanted to say, “Well, maybe I would have had time to get one if you hadn’t been dragging me towards the wrong metro line, you crazy gold-toothed man,” but I was too frustrated to attempt all of that in French.

The look on my face must have translated this quite well, because he said, “Don’t worry, I have many ticket,” and then he proceeded to pull open his jacket to show me his supply, just like they do in the movies — rows and rows of metro tickets, just dangling there like Christmas ornaments along the hems of his coat.

At this point I began to worry, because there was no way that that could have been legal.


woman with huge bag

Photo Credit - © Agnieszka Pastuszak - Maksim |

Rather cheerfully, Gold Tooth pulled one of them out and swiped it through the ticket reader, and we squeezed through the metal entryway with my giant suitcase – together. I went first, not letting go of my suitcase. We awkwardly maneuvered it underneath the turnstile and then somehow he slid through right after it like a snake, without having to swipe another metro ticket. It was like one of those games you play as a kid, where everyone grabs hands and then you spin yourselves around until you’re completely tangled, and you have to figure out how to untangle yourself without letting go.

And so there we were: slightly tangled, slightly sweaty, slightly irritated with each other for our mutual refusal to relinquish control of the suitcase. All of this on Platform A, exactly where I did not need to be.

“Ok,” he said, smiling widely enough to plant an everlasting image of that tooth in my mind, “you pay me now.”

“Um, no,” I said, accidentally laughing, as I always do when I start to really panic. “This is the wrong place.”

“No. Metro you want. This is metro. Money for me.”

“I don’t have any money.” Not really a lie. I was still a student.

“But I help you,” he said, looking confused. He was still smiling that creepy gold smile. “I help, you pay.”

“I didn’t ask for your help. You grabbed my suitcase and wouldn’t let go until we got to the wrong metro. I appreciate the elevator, but otherwise you have not been helpful. I need to leave or else I’ll be late.”

I started to walk away, and he roughly grabbed my arm.

My instinct was to turn around and kick this man in the crotch, as I imagined Elizabeth Gilbert would have done. Instead, I forced myself to take a deep breath, remove my arm from his grasp as discreetly as possible, and keep my voice as even and intimidating as I could. “I’m going to Brussels.”

He obviously did not understand my English, but a young French couple standing next to me did. I noticed the woman nudge her husband and point to me.


Train Station

Photo by Author

The man sensed that I was distracted and made a swipe for my suitcase, and I couldn’t help myself, I yelled. I yelled something that was neither English nor French, nor attractive.

The young woman was suddenly behind me and she put a protective hand on my shoulder, while the young man went up to Gold Tooth and started speaking to him in very aggressive French. Gold Tooth paused, his eyebrows raised as he contemplated everyone’s roles in this situation; he looked at them, then he looked at me, and then shrugged and walked off, presumably to find someone else he could accompany to the wrong metro station.

I’m pretty sure I scared the living hell out of that young couple when I turned around and started thanking them in any language I could remember, offering them anything I could think of to repay them for the help they’d just given me (did they need a babysitter? an au pair? any type of servant?) to the point where I was almost crying.

My search for the D-line after this episode was highly uneventful except for a few hundred stairs and several pathetic attempts at getting my suitcase on and off the metro. It was interesting (albeit somewhat humiliating) to notice the people watching me as I struggled, and to finally see which one of them would be the one to take pity on me and help me lug my beast of a suitcase onto the train before the doors closed on top of me. I wondered what these people saw when they looked at me –the people who didn’t help me, I didn’t really blame them. They were caught up in their own lives; they were on the way to work, they didn’t want to be bothered.

But those people who finally looked over at me with a kind, pitying smile as I sweated and swore and, at one point, kicked my suitcase repeatedly until someone asked me if I could kindly stop — those people who lent me an extra hand or bicep, maybe they looked at me and saw their own daughters, sisters, nieces, or friends, or any young girls just trying to prove that they could travel across the world by themselves and actually make it out okay, heavy suitcases and all.

Ironically, I think Gold Tooth was the only one who ever actually offered me that much help with my suitcase.

Since then, I have traded in my suitcase for a backpack. And wherever I’ve gone –on every metro, train, or plane that I’ve taken– I always see a girl about my age struggling with a heavy suitcase. I look at her as all of those people must have looked at me that summer, and I see myself; I see that determination, that frustration, that desire to prove to yourself that you can do it, that you can make from point A to point B it in a world that was simply not built for little girls with big suitcases. And I want to be her Gold Tooth – but in a more legal, friendly, non-terrifying way.

And so I smile at her, and I offer a hand.

Author Bio

Jackie DesForges

Jackie DesForges

Jackie DesForges is a writer from Los Angeles currently living in Chicago. To date she has served as a student ambassador in England and France, a volunteer in Mexico, an art student on the Riviera, and a fledgling travel writer in Edinburgh. Currently she spends her time blogging about travels past and present at and saving her pennies for her next great adventure overseas.

Author: Brendan van Son

Brendan van Son, the Editor-in-Chief at Vagabundo Magazine, is a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. He is currently exploring West Africa while working on the "It's My Life 365" project. Brendan's work has been featured across the world in both press and on a variety of online productions.

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  1. Love love LOVE this post!

    I am a chronic bad packer who suffers every time I travel with a huge suitcase, on-board bag AND backpack/handbag. It’s great until you have to carry it all over cobblestones or walking long distance but it’s nice to have so many options.

    I’ve always worried something like this would happen to me. I’m so glad the couple were around and able to help you! I probably would have kicked the man and made a run for it if I was in the same situation. ^^;;;
    Nicole recently posted..Korean BBQ 101 in SydneyMy Profile

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  2. Thanks so much Nicole! I’m kind of shocked no kicking was involved. Maybe next time? God knows this won’t be the last time I travel with way more than I can carry….I’m glad to know I’m not the only one!
    Jackie recently posted..books & travelMy Profile

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  3. Jackie, I was gripped all the way through. Having lived abroad for over a decade I’ve had my share of weird and (sometimes) wonderful moments, so I can identify all too easily.

    I’ve turned into a bit of a screamer in the last year or two. It definitely seems to get rid of a large amount of weirdos!

    Oh and good choice re backpack. Saves so much trouble – presuming you can actually lift it onto your back to start with!

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    • Ladies… can I just state that I… as a man. Have changed from a backpack to a suitcase??? I love having wheels haha

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  4. Valerie: Haha the screaming is a good strategy. Maybe the key is to become the weirder person, and so the actual weirdos will feel upstaged and stay away?

    Editor: Haha I don’t care if you’re a man or not, a backpack will always be superior! Give in to the backpack!
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    • Hehehe I like the way you think! I shared this article on Facebook and so many people saw themselves in your shoes. Keep up the stories, they are great. (Not that I’m wishing misadventures on you of course.)

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  5. This post is hilarious. I had the complete opposite experience: I barely took anything to prove I could live without it all. Having a backpack was a great idea, but if only I’d packed more than four outfits for two weeks. Walking in to the museums and nice restaurants in a wrinkly, recycled shirt does not elicit friendly looks.

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  6. I loved this absolutely!!!! I felt a kindred, puppy-dog-eyes kind of empathy that lifted some of the terror from my heart. I’m leaving solo on a rtw trip of sorts, lots of volunteering – and there are moments when i wonder if my determination to prove i can do this all by meself may be a bit more arrogant then secure that “äll will be well in the world because it just HAS TO BE of course!!!:
    anyway – really enjoyed reading this – it was like a big serving of veggies, but yummier because of the melted cheese. ;0)
    Thanks so much for sharing this!! You def have a new fan.
    Happy Trails, Lisa
    Lisa recently posted..Embracing a Day filled with Sublime Inspiration!My Profile

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  7. Oh, girlfriend.

    This could have been me. Delusions of travel grandeur and all.

    You know, Elizabeth Gilbert probably went through the same stuff, we all have. Most of it gets left out of the books though, unless it can be turned into a funny anecdote.

    I remember my first rude awakening from travel-book fantasyland. This book (can’t remember the title) about New Zealand promised gorgeous country, cute guys everywhere, et cetera. When I went there, it WAS a gorgeous country, there WERE cute guys, but I was still my mousy socially awkward self, so I didn’t have some romantic escapade. I did learn to make proper tea though. I still enjoyed the trip, and NZ is great, but the book had misled me.

    When I write I don’t want to mislead people. I would like to be funny and entertaining, but not so much that I give a false impression. That’s one reason I really like the misadventure stories: you can learn so much about what the reality is like from the things that go wrong, and they’re usually not sugarcoated.

    It’s hard to open up and be vulnerable when writing about an embarrassing thing that happened to you, but nothing kills shame like putting it out there. Great job.

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  8. I love your writing and your blog! They always make me laugh and I feel like I can relate to a lot of what you say, especially this. Great story :)

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  9. I’m linking back to this in a new post I’m writing for my blog and I just noticed some of the new comments, and so I just wanted to say hello and thank you so much to each of you for your kind words!

    It sounds like there a bunch of us girls who have had misadventures of the packing/suitcase/thinking-we-are-Elizabeth-Gilbert variety, and it’s nice to know I’m not alone. I am currently drinking wine and cheers-ing to us! By myself! But I might now go force my roommate to cheers for all of us too!
    Jackie recently posted..books & travelMy Profile

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Girl Versus Suitcase