Wednesday, March 20, 2013

An Expat's Bag

By Beth Green 

My purse and me in Prague, 2004.
When I lived in the States, my purse was always full of predictable contents: a compact, some keys, a pen, and a tube of lip balm that I was never be able to find when I wanted it.

This year marks the tenth year in a row that I’ve lived abroad, and nothing shows the changes along those ten years better than a look back at what I have chosen to tote along with me. 

Let’s spin back, all the way to 2003 when I moved to the Czech Republic to teach English as a foreign language. Fresh out of the U.S. car culture, I was used to being mere seconds away from a huge metal apparatus that comfortably fit not only anything that didn’t go in my pockets or minute handbag, but boxes and suitcases of gear if need be. I had purses, don’t get me wrong, but they weren’t as functional as I found I would need if I was going to rely on public transport in a European city. 

Those first years in Prague, you’d find in my bag: a travel pass, key to the city’s trams, subway and buses; a stack of home-made Czech language flashcards, bound together by sparkly hair elastics; aspirin, because I’d usually been out at a bar the night before; a Czech dictionary, sometimes even two; the paperback novel du jour; a journal; black and blue pens to lend to students and a green pen for journaling and marking students’ papers; scissors, for cutting up photocopiable activities for English classes; and a photocopy of my passport—just in case. After a year or two, I added a laptop to this portable office. So, as you can imagine, my bag those days was more often a backpack than a cute purse. 

My purse and me in Hainan, China.
In 2006, I moved to China. I continued my backpack habit for the first few months, until I met the local pickpocket. He was an apple-cheeked boy of about 10, watched from afar by a variety of hard-faced “handlers,” who worked an intersection I had to cross to get to school. Used to being on the lookout for pickpockets in Europe, I figured out who he was and what he was about pretty quickly. In a country where most children are in school from early morning till after dark, a little boy by himself on the street caught my eye. Especially a little boy who watched people’s bags and then followed passers-by. I tried to switch to a shoulder bag for safety, but one day I felt like it was just too much strain on my neck, so I dumped everything in a backpack and left the apartment. Halfway across the intersection, I felt the back of my neck prickle. I whirled around, risking collision with the busy commuters crossing with me, and found the little pickpocket boy on my heels, hand still outstretched as he went for the zipper on my backpack. 

“Hey!” I said, too flustered to shout in Mandarin. 

He grinned, spun on his back foot, and trotted to the far side of the intersection just as the light changed. 

After this, I began an obsession that I maintain to the present day—finding a pickpocket-proof purse. At first, though, I decided minimal was better. For my job in China, I no longer had to carry school supplies around with me, and I quickly decided leaving my laptop at home was a good idea. Instead, I found a moderate bag with a cross-the body strap and filled it with: a Chinese dictionary; a second-hand digital camera; multiple packets of tissue paper because bathrooms in China are usually unstocked; hand sanitizer for the same reason; eye drops to combat the air pollution; a map of the city; business cards of local landmark institutions, so if I got lost and couldn’t communicate I’d be able to show one to a taxi driver; all the random VIP cards that shops and restaurants seemed to think I needed; and photocopies of my registration papers and passport—just in case. 
Res-Q-Me, key chain size.

I moved to a more rural area in 2008, where bus travel was quick and frightening. I added a dynamo flashlight; a Res-Q-Me tool that can break vehicle windows and sever seatbelts in case of a crash; and a better, shock-proof, camera to my purse. By now, I was using a succession of utilitarian-but-ugly purses, thinking that maybe pickpockets would pass me by in pursuit of a flashier bag. 

The small PacSafe bag.
Then, in 2009, my partner and I took an 18-month sabbatical to travel Southeast Asia. For the trip, I found a bag purporting to be pickpocket-proof from the PacSafe line. It had a reinforced cord as a strap and wire mesh imbedded in its tiny, wallet-sized, body. It fit a phone, rolled-up cash, a small set of keys, a credit card or two, and a tube of lip balm. Finally, I was back to my U.S.-era purse habits. Everything else went in my big backpack—or got left along the way. 

The big PacSafe bag.
Since then, I’ve become a PacSafe fanatic. I’ve replaced the poor dinged-up wallet-bag I took on my long trip with another of the same model for short trips, and for daily wear have purchased a larger one that has RFID-blocking material, a latching zipper, and a reinforced pocket big enough for my netbook or Kindle. 

Now, ten years on, technology has taken over my bag. Depending on where I’m going, I carry a smartphone (combining camera, mirror, flashlight, dictionary, maps, business cards and flashcards), a Kindle, a journal, tissues, pens of varying colors for multiple purposes (blue and black are needed for immigration forms but I hate to write or plan anything creative unless its in color), my Res-Q-me tool, eye drops, lip balm, and photocopies of my paperwork—just in case. 

What’s in your bag when you travel?

1 comment:

  1. If it makes you feel any better, Beth, I had a pickpocket steal my wallet right out of my hand, which was dug deep into a winter coat pocket in Moscow. The incident stayed with me because it happened so quickly and he was so smooth that it took me several beats to realize what had happened.