Day 21: Unpacking My Belongings

The closer our relationship drew to a close, the more occasions Matthew and I found to disagree. At some point—his moment of truth came earlier than mine—we must have realized there was no longer any real hope for salvaging our relationship, and the recognition of this impasse enabled us to fight more freely. You dance with more abandon if you’re not afraid of breaking something.

Tomo Yamaguchi, Berlin interior

Tomo Yamaguchi, Berlin interior

One of the things we now found to argue about was unpacking after a trip. I wanted to do it as soon as we got home; Matthew was content to leave it for the next morning, and then he’d unpack only the things he needed. The rest could wait for the day after. He wanted to draw out the feeling of vacation; I wanted to put things back where they belonged, as if the possessions that lay stuffed in our suitcases were impish pranksters that needed to be gotten back into their cages before they started wreaking havoc in the flat. Or ran away.

Suitcases speak of transience and uprootedness, even if it’s one we’ve chosen, indeed, desire. They are the make-shift homes-on-the-go we drag from train station to bus depot to hotel. They don’t belong in the living room. They point too brazenly to leaving.

It was only later that I realized that Matthew could be so at ease with an unpacked suitcase in the living room precisely because he wasn’t planning on sticking around anyway. In his mind, he was already on the way to somewhere else.

I must have an issue with transience. Not only do I unpack immediately upon coming home from a trip, I also unpack when arriving at my destination. I’m that rare traveler that actually uses all the drawers and hangers and shelf space you’re given in a decent hotel room. Shirts and trousers get hung up, socks, underwear and sweaters are laid out in the dresser drawers, dress and running shoes are lined up on the closet floor, toiletries get arranged on the bathroom shelf (why don’t hotel rooms have medicine cabinets?), the assortment of cables and chargers are stowed in the desk drawer. And then, of course, I hide the suitcase in the closet or under the bed.

In essence I set up house. I create a shell of domesticity in which I feel comfortable. I don’t go as far as setting out framed photos, but I don’t do that at home either. Doing so would be just as inauthentic for me as wearing a blazer or a heavy-metal t-shirt. There are clothes that feel right on you and those that don’t. There are objects that belong (or could belong) in your space and those that don’t.

Those of us with the luxury to determine and equip the space in which we live have shaped, even if only unconsciously, an environment that fits us, perhaps not as closely as an antigen to its antibody, but close enough for us to feel comfortable there to a degree we don’t most other places. Think of a friend’s house. Is there nothing you wouldn’t change if his space became yours?

If I wear my house as a shell it is a relatively spare one, without the intricate and dense texture that things exposed or exhibited lend to a living space. Surfaces are relatively empty, except for my books, a handful of photographs and prints, and various minor appliances of too frequent use to be stowed away—the coffee grinder, juicer and blender. Oh, and a collection of ladles and wooden spoons set in a tall earthenware crock. It is like a protein with a minimum of folds, but there are enough to give it identity and make it feel mine. It’s comfortable. It fits.

I returned to this idea of domestic texture after coming across the work of Tomo Yamaguchi, a young photographer who works out of Leipzig and takes photos of the interiors of strangers’ flats. The rooms are neither the forlorn shelters of the destitute nor the salons of the rich but rather the interiors of ordinary people. I was struck by how the rooms had such distinctive character or texture. None of the rooms was particularly attractive or inviting, but each was remarkably idiosyncratic. I realize this distinctiveness is also the result of a deliberate curatorial act but still, these rooms told a story/ And they told it through the objects they housed.

The things in each room oddly enough seemed to belong together. I had the feeling that if all these objects fell out of their frame, I could put most of the puzzle back together again. Some pieces, like the porcelain figurines and paper roses could go into more than one frame but the others, I knew: the embroidered cat pillows and spindle-legged ashtray stand and hanging spoons in one, the enamel ewers, antique alarm clocks and the collection of blue bottles in another, the cheap Danish 1970s furniture, ceramic gnomes and beeswax candles in the form of druids in another.

The kinship of objects was all the more arresting because of the frequent clash in patterns, color and style they evinced; they were like adopted children who after long years growing up in the same house have come to so resemble one another in behavior and speech that the casual observer ceases to remark that they share neither skin color nor build. The disharmony in the patterns of the rugs, throws, pillows and mats that draped these rooms was particularly jarring. Perhaps most people have a higher tolerance of incongruous visual elements than I do, a higher threshold for visual clash or whatever we call it. There may not even be a visual equivalent for “dissonance” or “disharmony”.

Many of the flats depicted in Yamaguchi’s photographs also contain a collection of sorts. The number of items in the collection varies from flat to flat: there are thirty of more enamel pitchers in one photograph but only a half-dozen gnomes in another, but even in the latter the coexistence of these objects was not coincidental. I was convinced that they did not all arrive in the buffet at the same time. They had been accumulated in that ritual act of repetition that gives collecting its meaning. I am also absolutely convinced that the persons living in these flats would be able to recount with an amazing degree of clarity the circumstances under which they acquired each of the items in their collection and the story each had to tell. Each object has taken its rightful place on the shelf or in the buffet in an order known only to the collector. What is a collection if not, as Benjamin wrote, “disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”

The aphorism appears in a small, delightful essay called Unpacking My Library, in which Benjamin, himself an avid collector of rare books, invites the reader to share in his thoughts on collecting as he unpacks the crates containing his books. The text traces the particularly intimate relationship that a collector develops for the objections in his collection, an intimacy intricately bound up in acts of acquisition and conquest.  He writes: “For a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to things. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” And he can do this because precisely of the memories that these objects incorporate.

It strikes me that this project is paradoxically an act of collecting, too. It has many of the features of collecting. I document the objects I dispose of; indeed, I am still considering whether, and if so, how to photograph them. I think about how best to organize and display them. I search for appropriate titles for the texts and the photographs and reproductions of paintings that accompany them. I catalogue and index the things I give or throw away.

It is a odd set of things, this collection of loss, made up of objects of disrepair and neglect, of incongruity and obsolescence. But the things in my collection of loss, like the crates of Benjamin’s books and the array of blue gin bottles in an anonymous Berlin apartment, contain memories, too. And chronicling the loss of these things is perhaps just as good a way of preserving these memories as displaying them in a cabinet.

The first objects I acquired in Athens, even before I bought a table or camping stove for my wholly unfurnished flat, were a pair of small, oblong decorative plates from the island of Skyros that were given to me by a grateful mother whose son I was tutoring in English. I had just arrived in the city and had picked up the lesson from a friend of mine who had met the son while vacationing on the island. I knew nothing of what a private tutor would charge and wound up asking for much less than the going rate, so the mother’s gratitude was quite understandable. Though it wasn’t just gratitude. She was hospitable in that grand and genuine way many islanders are. At the start of each lesson she’d make me coffee and accompany it with a homemade spoon sweet served on a small plate that I knew was reserved for company.

The plates she gave were are handsome ones for their genre, both hand-painted, one with a scene of a yellow-sailed schooner on a billowy green sea, the other a wispy indigo butterfly hovering between two mauve flowers, and both ringed by a riot of decorative elements.

The scallop-edged plates could form part of a collection and in fact, plates like these were traditionally displayed on the walls of Skyrian houses. The ones I have came with holes in back ready for hanging. I never did hang them, and rarely used them, and only when I was serving something like stewed octopus or yellow lentil purée.  The plates always seemed to belong to another household.

I will keep one plate, the smaller one until I write about Aris, the teenager I tutored. The other I’ll give to Joanna. One of her grandparents was born on the island and though I doubt if the plate will wind up on the wall, it will find better company in her flat than it ever has in mine.


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