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Learning to Travel Light

His time we are not traveling with 17 suitcases!" he shouts. "I suppose you want to take the grand piano?"

"The only time I traveled with 17 items, I murmur, "was from Lebanon to Paris, with three children. Three decades ago."

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Still, when we two moved to Toronto for an anticipated 18 months, we trucked the contents of a 14-room rented farmhouse meant for another farm but ended up in a "centrally located" six-room apartment three flights up. When we left Toronto 64 months late, we crammed nearly everything into a 10-by-20-foot self-storage unit and a garage loft. The huge unused lawn mower remained on the roof deck between the last tomato plants.

This time, flying to Australia on a one-year visa, we can take only four suitcases, two laptops, two tennis racquets, two violins, one backpack that serves as my briefcase, and one little duffel that serves as his. I can't persuade him to abandon his thick dictionary and thesaurus and rely on weightless electronic tomes.

The furnishings left behind are heirlooms, fragile antiques, or just old: flotsam from yard sales and thrift shops, jetsam from friends unloading spare beds and chairs no longer fashionable but too hardy to discard - things that would do for our farmhouse, what Russian migr guests called our dacha.

In Australia I'll haunt the thrift stores for a bed and desks, or choose Oriental minimalism: tatami, futon, cushions, low table, scrolls. We'll rent snorkeling gear. A house. With a garden. On a beach. That's the plan....

Yet in the 11th-hour rush before scurrying to the plane on three hours' sleep, before the tangling tape seals over the last carton's cavernous mouth, I cling to my Russian father's silver baby cup, my American mother's gold-rimmed Limoges for 12, my favorite blue-and-white vase (granted, smashed), my favorite clothes (granted, old), garlic press, garden clippers, food processor.

And what about those saved jars, yogurt cartons, soap slivers? The final inches of cereals, sugar, spices: not enough to give away, too much to throw away. I grew up with my father's and his mother's accounts of life during the Russian Revolution, Russian Civil War, famine years. I know better than to jettison anything of possible use to someone.

And how to leave behind my Russian grandmother's portrait, painted when she was about 20; the painter must have studied in Paris under the Impressionists.... Babushka was not a conventional cutesy-beauty (a term I just invented), yet others said she emanated graciousness and intelligence. Enough loveliness, at least, so that when Leonid, a young officer in the Czar's Imperial Army, noticed the portrait in the house of her relatives in St. Petersburg, he announced: "This is the woman I will marry."

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Theirs was a life of many moves and separations: He was in the Far East before the Russo-Japanese War when he received news he was promoted to general, and his firstborn was a son; in 1905 he was in America, briefly, for the signing of the Peace of Portsmouth that officially ended that war, about the time his daughter, Maria Leonidovna, was born. The family moved every few years from posting to posting both within Russian and abroad.

World War I, revolution, and civil war brought the scattering of possessions - and family. The elder son perished at 19. The younger son, who would become my father, was the last to jump onto an American navy ship in Sebastopol.

My grandfather - Dedushka - found employment in Moscow but was twice imprisoned. Then he spent several years in "internal exile" in the provincial city of Nizhni Novgorod, where he taught geography at the university. Babushka stayed in St. Petersburg, by then renamed Leningrad, and did translations to help support their daughter, Maria, through her music studies even though, being "nobility," she could not get a diploma. Everyone knew hardships: famine, loss, incarceration.

Finally, in 1933, Babushka was allowed an exit visa; her daughter was not. Babushka wavered, anguished by choices.

"Leave before they jail you again," Maria insisted. "Go help raise your only grandchild. I'm young, strong, have work and a bridegroom. Someday I'll join you."

Babushka left with a few family photos, one green blanket for the sea voyage, one silver cup. She would become my mentor, closest friend for life....

Maria remained in Leningrad, in a small apartment once the servants' quarters of Pushkin's house on the Moika Canal. Despite searches by Soviet secret police, the 800 days of Nazi bombardments of Leningrad, difficult cold-war years, Maria somehow hid her mother's portrait even as other heirlooms were stolen, sold, or given away. Surely this helped her survive the hardships and horrors she could not describe. She was not permitted to write to anyone.

In 1986, I took my first trip to the USSR and finally located the aunt I'd never known living in two rooms of a former barracks in a village north of Leningrad. She did not seem surprised to see me, only overjoyed.

She did not complain about her life: She showed her medals for courage during the Siege of Leningrad; she had become a beloved professor of English; in peaceful times, she had trained dogs; she had few possessions but hundreds of friends. She had helped her neighbors for years; now they looked after her. She had survived - though she insisted: "One must live, not just live through."

She unwrapped a package from under her bed. "Take this. I can no longer see it."

SO now, how do I choose what to pack? This portrait I cannot relinquish.... Or my father's silver cup, or....

"Hurry! We'll be late for the plane!"

I pack my mother's plates in the carton: We know no one in Australia. One silver cup? Might get lost in our gypsy existence. A collapsible plastic camping cup is already in my backpack. My father's Swiss Army knife will handle kitchen tasks. I pitch the shards of blue-and-white vase into the trash, leftover jars into the recycling bin. Finally, wrapping it in excess clothes, I put Babushka's portrait into the carton. I don't need it to remind me of her.

"Hurry! The plane!"

My friends think me unfashionable. Faith insists I take her chic black coat, Mary her travel-hardy black silk skirt and shirt: "All you'll need for any occasion." I leave behind bits of my life, depart with bits of others' lives.


I seal the last carton. We drag out four suitcases, two laptops, two violins, one printer, one backpack, one duffel, last-minute garment bag, books - how strangely heavy....

"How can you travel this laden? They'll charge extra! We'll have to store 75 percent of this in Sydney!"

We must. In Sydney we end up in a one-room flat, then embark for months on the road, in the air, in and on water. Nomads travel light. Someday, like Babushka, I'll learn.

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