Pack Lightly

Just back from a glorious hiking trip, there’s only one real criticism: once again, I over-packed. My daughter and I were the main culprits; we clearly had overly high aspirations for our mountain social lives. The irony? I once lived out of a single bag for nearly a year, my go-to possession an oversized brown sweater.

A bad economy helped fuel my grand adventure in the summer of 1990. I figured if I was going to be waitressing after college graduation, why not do it somewhere exciting?

I landed in Scotland with a suitcase and a goal: a pub job on the edge of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a month of non-stop music and theatre. And because I was 21 and tenacious, it happened. My tutors were the staff at Scott’s on Rose Street, where I poured pints and practiced an accent more Irish than Scottish. My sprawling apartment and lovely roommates were found after answering an ad at Edinburgh University. They said yes over a cup of tea.

Hanging out at the Fringe with fellow bartender friend Clare.
Hanging out at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with fellow bartender friend Clare.

The Fringe was brilliant. So were my customers, especially the East Germans who’d finally been given the chance to see a world beyond the wall. We met in early fall when they came in for a drink. They reminded me of the submariner I’d served earlier that summer, their aura of wonder for this—freedom, life!—a constant, hovering presence. We traded tales, toasted the new world, explored, shopped (and found one ugly but warm brown wool sweater in the bargain bin. Sold). On our last night together we draped arms, sang American Pie, and pledged a reunion.

By winter it was time for a change. I took in Amsterdam, abandoned the suitcase for a backpack and landed as a nanny for a British family in Geneva. Sweet Sue was the only one to respond to my “I need a job” sign in the English library; she said yes over a mug of coffee and brought me and my backpack home that same evening to meet her family. The first Gulf War began in earnest; anti-American sentiment grew. I skipped the local social scene. Sue and Alan taught me how to drive a stick shift and the pleasure of a good glass of wine with dinner. Amy, Jack and I played soccer and watched the Chronicles of Narnia. My French was bumbling at best. The children translated frequently for me (humbling). I wore the sweater a lot.

The new nanny arrived from England; I’d saved enough and it was time to use my rail pass. I panicked in Berlin; reunification was in full swing and the phones were down. There seemed no way to reach my East German friends, Andrea and Bernd. My hostel-mates conferred. A telegram was sent, with instructions to meet at an appointed time at a central square fountain. We had one shot at this.

That old-fashioned telegram worked. We found each other. They showed me the wall—both sides. We traveled to Potsdam and sat in a café too lovely to hold Bernd’s horror stories of his forced time in the Soviet army. He carried a few faded photos of those days, his visible scars.

We took happier pictures to counter his bleak ones; I was desperate to capture the aura of wonder that lit up my friends in Scotland (it too was fading, real life had intruded). We spoke wistfully of future journeys and then I set out again with my roommate/new friend Cathy.

We met Peter on our train to Prague. He shyly asked if we would share our travel stories. In turn, eyes ablaze, he told us about his role in the Velvet Revolution, the nonviolent democracy movement that had recently brought down communism in the Czech Republic. Hours later, Cathy and I agreed to skip the Prague hostel and rent a room in Peter’s drab communist-era high-rise instead. (We shared his daughter’s room; she was at her mother’s that week. Her absence explained the droop in our otherwise shining Peter.)

We rode the bus every morning with former revolutionaries headed to their day jobs. We ate lunch at the only vegetarian restaurant in Prague, watched artists paint the famed bridges of a light-filled city still basking in its triumph.

And then, Peter’s surprise. First, we met his daughter (same warm eyes), who whispered of a hike, a feast. We took the train to the Bohemian countryside and met Peter’s parents, retired teachers who shyly offered us delicate glasses of plum wine, homemade sausages and bits of self-taught English. I ate every bite of that sausage, the only possible tribute for people so warm and welcoming. My vegetarian rules did not apply here.

Peter on ladder, always wanting to show us the new. Handprints on the Wall with my East German friends. Cathy and I, seeing more than ever could have imagined.
Peter on ladder, always wanting to show us the new. Handprints on the Wall with my East German friends. Cathy and I, seeing more than ever could have imagined.

And then, almost a year after I left, it was time to go home: me and my single backpack and the ugly brown sweater that horrifies my thirteen year-old when she looks at my old photos. The funny thing is, I don’t even see the sweater, not until she points it out. It’s just background to Us: my vibrant, shining friends met on trains, in pubs, over tea, coffee, pints.

My mother, who throws away nothing, eventually rescued the sweater. (Mom also has her African cloth from when she was a 22 year-old Missouri girl teaching in Nigeria; an early Peace Corp pioneer.)

She still packs lightly at age 74. I’m not sure when I forgot her example, or my own light backpack and oft-worn sweater. Just recently returned from the staggering beauty of the western U.S., I do know this about exploring the  unknown: that what you bring on the trip is far less important than what you bring home.

And if my 21-year old self could send her future children one telegram, I know exactly what it would say:

Pack lightly. Leave room. GO.

I hope they get the message.

Author: Kristin O'Keefe

Kristin O’Keefe has bartended in Scotland, written speeches for college presidents, and led communications & marketing for an economic development organization. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney's, Barrelhouse, Your Teen, Grown and Flown, and Scary Mommy. Find her on Twitter @_KristinOKeefe and Facebook at Kristin O'Keefe, writer.

8 thoughts on “Pack Lightly

  1. Darlene Campbell says:

    Ah, you tell a rich story. I was right there with you. Love how you wrapped up your story with your telegram to your kids! BUT, I was waiting to see a photo of you in the brown sweater. If you have one please share. Cheers-Darlene

  2. Kristin O'Keefe says:

    Thanks Darlene! I love how visual you are. You are right, one must see the famed sweater. There a couple shots, in photo montage at end of story. Can you see it? Brown with little red/white flowers. My mother had it for years, but the moths really attacked it in recent years. Though perhaps she hid it in back of closet… I will ask her!

  3. Susan Gottschalk says:

    Okay, Kristin, where were these interesting stories on those boring days in the delegation office? I had no idea you were so adventuresome. I really enjoyed reading today’s blog. You have real talent. On a side note, when my moans where’d the phone this morning, the caller asked if this was the delegation office. She just indicated a wrong # and hug up. As it turns out, when I looked up the # ( out of curiosity), it was Gene Counihan’s office. Remember him?

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Thank you Susan! I think I regaled you all with newly wed laundry horror stories instead! And yes, Gene Counihan was on MC Board for years; such a lovely person. That is a small world…so glad we reconnected. Looking forward to seeing more of your art.

  4. Terry Bierbaum says:

    We want to see the brown sweater when we come for Thanksgiving!! Well written Kristin!
    Loved reading your story!! Hus Terry and Ron

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Thanks Terry and Ron, was definitely an important time in my life. Hope the kids get to do something similar some day.

  5. Sally Carlton says:

    Remind me again why I immediately took a job with Wachovia Bank after college while my awesome roomie traipsed around Europe? I’d forgotten many of those stories and loved hearing them again! Will share with my children in hopes of fostering their desire to see the world.

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Thank you Sally! You should also share your stories about studying in Sweden and traipsing around Europe. I remember thinking how brave you were, doing that at age 18. You inspired me. I hope the kids step outside the comfort zones and go–so much to see, so many good people to meet.


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