Monday 26 September 2016

Katie Byrne: lost and found - are we defined by our possessions?

Are we defined by our possessions?

Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne

The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm once asked: "If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I?"

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I had an incident at LAX airport last week that forced me to contemplate this very question.

It all started at Customs and Immigration where most reasonable-minded travellers were presenting passports that were valid for at least another six months.

I wasn't. A last-minute trip collided with a soon-to-expire passport so I decided to take the US embassy on its word that Irish people can 'enter on a current passport up to the actual date of expiration'. At least this is how I explained it to the Customs and Immigration official when my turn came to stand in front of him.

There were a number of questions as he leafed through my passport. I answered them as promptly as someone on a television game show. Don't stall or stutter. That's the rule, isn't it? Occasionally he'd look back up at me and narrow his eyes - customs officials have a gift for making people feel like their very existence is a grand conspiracy.

There were a few more perfunctory questions before he finally flattened out a page of my passport, lifted up the rubberstamp and... called his colleague over.

The two of them engaged in a hush-hush conversation while I gave my very best Bord Fáilte smile. It obviously didn't work because a few minutes later I was escorted to the dubiously titled 'Secondary'.

"Turn your phone off and take a seat," said the customs official as he swung open the door to a waiting room in which 20 or 30 people were sitting in varying states of despair. I knew I was in for the long-haul when I noticed that two of them had fallen asleep.

Secondary is probably better described as purgatory. It is an anteroom for unfortunate souls who have somehow aroused suspicion.

I waited as a Chinese woman was told that this room was the only part of America she'd see if she didn't start talking. I waited as a Japanese man was asked why he needed $10,000 in cash for a six-day trip. I waited as a Korean woman was quizzed about the apparent professionalism of her nail art.

I waited until the possibility of making my appointment in LA faded and the likelihood of the friend who came to collect me still being there slowly dwindled away. I asked one of the officials if I could step outside to make a phonecall: "You can't leave," she answered.

Some six hours later I could, but the feeling of freedom was short-lived. I couldn't find my bag anywhere. Worse, I had checked in everything except what was in my pockets. Toiletries, make-up, the charger for my phone which was now dead. I went looking for a staff member, if only to be directed to a quiet corner in which I could lie down and die... or at least get into the foetal position for five minutes.

We imbue objects with a deeper meaning than they deserve, especially when we travel. A phone is a lifeline; clothing is an identity; make-up is a shield. Who are we then when we lose it all?

I had a fantasy idea about how this trip would transpire. It involved cat-eye sunglasses, a silk jumpsuit and red lipstick. It didn't involve Medusaean hair, the black hooded ASBO-style tracksuit that I wear for maximum comfort on flights and a slightly manic glint in my eye.

Who was this woman? We've met before on numerous occasions - one might even say we know each other intimately - but who is she really?

We all have multiple personae but the variance between a woman "with her face on" and a woman removed of all beauty products, fragrances and shiny things is perhaps the most striking of all.

Like many women, I have two distinct personalities. The shield of make-up gives me an air of confidence and a pep-in-my-step. I dare say I even walk taller. Without make-up, I feel apprehensive, exposed and caught in the very dangerous act of being entirely myself.

I was overcome by a feeling of vulnerability as I walked into the Arrivals Hall that day without possessions or a plan. It didn't help that my handbag was now a fetching plastic option from 7-Eleven. Without the objects that I use to define me, guide me and ultimately hide me, I wasn't entirely sure who I was.

It was a frightening sort of freedom and I wondered if this feeling had always been hidden beneath the layers of foundation, designer sunglasses and branded trainers.

I got up early the next morning to buy clothes and toiletries on Abbot Kinney Blvd in Venice. A homeless man called after me as I headed back to my friend's house with my haul. "Happy Friday!" he cheered. (Even the homeless population are blissed-out in Venice.)

I wondered which one of us was happier, though. I had a bagful of new possessions to fill the hole in my soul but he knew the curious kind of emancipation that comes when you are completely dispossessed.

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