“Sidet’ na chemodanakh” or “sitting on suitcases” is an ancient Russian custom. I think my, non-Russian, mother told me about it when we were children. Briefly, it’s the point at which when your suitcase is packed and you’re ready to leave on a journey, you stop for a moment. You sit down (on your suitcases). You are still and silent for a minute or two. Then you get up and leave. This ritual is something that I do when setting off somewhere. It’s a moment to collect thoughts and, in my case, run through my ‘leaving checklist’ in my head. There’s more about the ritual here.
There’s something about setting off on a chosen journey that is magical, exciting, and a step away from the known that I’ve always enjoyed.
I think I began enjoying the idea of traveling at a very young age. At primary school my favourite poem which has stuck with me was The Peddler’s Caravan, by William Brighty-Rands. It starts:
I wish I lived in a caravan,
With a horse to drive, like a pedlar-man!
Where he comes from nobody knows,
Nor where he goes to, but on he goes.
And it ends
With the pedlar-man I should like to roam,
And write a book when I come home.
It’s fine to have a romantic view of traveling, if the travel situation is one of choice and not of forced circumstance, and it is the forced circumstance travel that I now find myself dwelling on.
This February, on a recommendation from a friend – and before the Ukraine/Russia conflict erupted – I read The Diddakoi, by Rumer Godden. It’s notionally a children’s book, but well worth reading (if you ignore the dated, non-politically correct aspects of it). It is about Kizzy, aged 6 or 7, she doesn’t know her real age.
Kizzy was a diddakoi who lived with her grandmother in a horse drawn caravan. When her grandmother died and the caravan burned down – per Romany custom – Kizzy was rescued from her situation by Admiral Twiss. Starting at the village school, ‘she finds the weight of village opinion – fuelled by racism, bureaucracy and occasional outbreaks of sheer brutality – to be heartbreakingly overwhelming.’ In her case her circumstance forced her from her traveling life, rather than towards a traveling life that she longed to return to.
Nevertheless, she meets her situation with courage and determination. As this reviewer says, ‘the depiction of Kizzy – her pride, her longing to be independent, and indeed her loyalty to that non-negotiable Romany identity, all that she has left of the life she once loved – is universal, and brilliant.’
Years ago, in my childhood, I read I am David, Ann Holm. The story stuck with me and I read it to my own children. It is a story of a child, age 12, who has lived all his life in a concentration camp. Not having the book to hand today, I read a review of it. The reviewer writes, ‘On the day that The Man, one of the camp guards hated by David, but one who has always been strangely protective of him, offers him a chance to escape, his name is the only thing he has to take with him. The Man has provided him with a compass, a bottle of water, and a bar of soap, David himself has only his name to bring. It is a shocking tale, and a challenging one too for it is not afraid to tell of what it sees.
The travelling of those forced to flee their homes because of disaster, war or persecution is heart-breaking. They may have no time to pack suitcases or ability to take suitcases, let alone sit on suitcases. Theirs is not the possibility of looking forward to the journey, or to feel excited about their destination, even if they know what it is.
The animated film Flee, that I watched earlier today is one such journey. I’ve been meaning to watch it since it came out, but had to steel myself for what was described by The Guardian Reviewer as ‘The true story at its centre is … a harrowing and suspenseful refugee narrative of loss and resilience. A refugee story told with such devastating efficacy as well as such specific nuance, showing us the horrors Amin experienced but also, importantly, how they stuck to him in the years after and still do. There’s an immense weight he carries, an almost constant fear of being removed, his home being taken away, a sudden yank back to a life of violence and uncertainty.’
The film Flee – illustrated why choosing to flee is a perilous choice when you have no passport or travel documents, when you have no money to pay for transport, when you have to negotiate the bureaucracy of immigration to a foreign land, when you have no fall-back if things go wrong, when you have to trust your life to human traffickers with no moral scruples, when you have to choose who in your family should go and who stay if there is only opportunity for one.
The film is jolting evidence that ‘sitting on suitcases’ is a pre-journey luxury, not afforded to those fleeing war, conflict, persecution, natural disaster and other trauma. I don’t know if I’ll ever personally experience a situation where the choice to travel is a survival-or-not choice.
The sitting on suitcases legend has it that your fortunes are influenced by house spirits. ‘If you ever cross the threshold to start a journey, then return to retrieve something you forgot, the spirits would be offended and they’d spoil your trip. Taking a moment to sit and think, therefore, would help call to mind that potentially wayward item, saving you from triggering misfortune. If you remember something as you sat on a suitcase, you might say, that’s the house spirit letting you know “By the way, you’re not quite ready for that journey,”
Next time I set off on a journey and take the time to sit on my suitcase, I will use the time to be grateful for that luxury, and ask myself what I will do to help those whose journeys are perilous.
How will we help others afford the luxury of sitting on their suitcases and not have to make perilous choices? Let me know.
*Listen to Think Again, sung by Billy Bragg