True Value: Genuine Italian Leather Satchel
The bag was genuine Italian leather. It was a warm, milk chocolate brown. It had strong sturdy handles, fit perfectly over my shoulder, and had the ideal number of pockets. It was big enough to hold anything I could need: I could sneak enough candy to feed a small army into a movie theatre, or fill the center compartment with three ounce bottles of airplane-approved liquids. The material and natural color coordinated with all of my clothes. It was one of the key pieces I took with me when I taught abroad in Georgia.
When you are traveling it is always recommended to keep your valuables on you at all times, yet also keep nothing of value on you ever. It is essential to have your passport as a method of identification, yet you must constantly be aware that anything you carry might be subject to petty theft. This thought can result in paranoia when you are making a life abroad. Do you trust leaving your valuables at home surrounded by strangers, or on your person while you are out and about surrounded by a different set of strangers?
Personally, I fell somewhere in the middle. Once I realized that nobody needed to see my passport, I left that at home, hidden in a compartment of my suitcase that I was sure nobody would find, along with my health insurance card and US credit card, which I had brought for emergencies. My local ATM card and whatever cash I happened to have were carried with me in a mint tin, which I found to be a very convenient wallet, easily stuck inside my purse.
My purse also carried my school books for work and dictionaries for getting around, extra layers of clothing for changing weather, bottles of water, or items picked up from the market on the way home. As time wore on and I became more settled, naturally the purse began to collect things. The corkscrew, so I would always be prepared to have an impromptu bottle of wine; the first aid kit, so I would never be without sterile bandages; the wet wipes, so I would never (again) find myself in a bleak public bathroom situation. My lifestyle transitioned as well: long walks after the school day encouraged me to start carrying my outdated iPod, and a few trips over the Turkish border added my passport to the litany of purse treasures.
I never thought twice about it. I knew my surroundings; I trusted my host family and my neighbors. They all knew me. Being a foreign visitor I was somewhat of a local celebrity, and even if they didn’t know me personally, everyone knew who I was. This created a very uncomfortable feeling of always being under observation, but it also made me feel safe to know that someone was always watching. Once I learned my way around the streets, I found the paths that were lit in the evenings and had minimal potholes and figured out how to avoid the dark paths with the feral dogs. I enjoyed the cool evening air and pop in my headphones and listen to English music, or called my expat friends on my government issued cell phone to swap notes on the events of our lives. It was comforting to me, my own personal time before diving back into life at home in a complex foreign language.
A week and a half before I was leaving for the Christmas holidays and the end of my tenure in Georgia, I was finally feeling wonderful about the experience. My life abroad had developed a routine; I was acclimating after months of cultural adjustments. I couldn’t wait to go home and see my family, various members of which had been overcoming insurmountable health challenges since my departure months earlier, but I was still happy.
One night I walked home, purse absent-mindedly secured under my left arm with my thumb wrapped around the straps as usual. I chatted with a friend I hadn’t seen in several days to pass the time while commuting, and made it to the third floor of my apartment before I sensed someone running up the stairs behind me. People didn’t often use the stairs in the building because they were unlit, unglamorous, and there was an elevator. The elevator was old, shook menacingly, charged a few cents to take you up (but not down?) and terrified me more than the unlit stairs did, so I always opted for the five flights of exercise.
When I noticed a dark figure taking steps two at a time below me, I moved to the side of the stairs to let him pass. Suddenly I felt two gloved hands over my face and tasted a mixture of cotton, cigarettes, and blood from the impact in my mouth. I thought for a moment it was my host sister pulling a sick prank, having heard my voice from the entry below, it was just her sense of humor. I kept my composure as a result, though I dropped my phone onto the steps.
For what was only a few moments but felt like a lifetime, I was held there, in a kneeling position, pulled backwards on the stairs while feeling quick breaths in my ear. Just as suddenly, he let go of my face and I felt myself pulled backward by my left shoulder. He had one hand on my bag and was trying to grab it from me. Motivated solely by the knowledge that my passport was in that bag, I refused to let go, a commitment made easier by my resting purse grip. He could not wrench it from my grasp, even as he dragged me and the purse down two flights of stairs before finally letting go once my screams alarmed a neighbor enough to turn on their hall light. He ran out the door and I ran back up the stairs, pausing only to retrieve my phone, and then threw myself at the mercy of my host family, the bilingual neighbor, and the police.
The only scars my purse bore were cased by fingerprint dust. I was only minimally banged up, more from contact with the stairs than from injuries sustained from the would-be robber. I know that I was incredibly lucky that nothing worse happened. He could have been armed; I could have been stabbed or beaten. He could have actually stolen my purse, which would have given him a nominal amount of cash and a sack full of otherwise useless gadgets and personal items, but taken me the rest of my stay to sort out. It had always logically made sense to give a threatening person whatever they ask for in exchange for my own safety, but in that moment all I could think was that purse was my ticket home, and very stupidly how many years of music collection would have been lost on that iPod, since I had never backed it up.
Maybe my subconscious assessed that the risk was low and that it was safe for me to hold on, or maybe I was refusing to let another thing go catastrophically wrong on this grand adventure. Either way, I was unwilling to be taken advantage of by anyone and I refused to acquiesce.
He didn’t steal my brown purse that night. That satchel came home with me and has been on several adventures since. The zipper is tearing a little from the demands I place on it, but the body and the handles still look to be in the same condition that they were when my mother first gave it to me six years ago. That man did steal a certain level of trust in the world though, and I will no longer listen to music or have conversations to distract me from my surroundings at night. When it is too quiet, I quicken my step. I always turn to look at someone approaching me from behind. I am suspicious of groups of men who could overtake me when I am alone, or the lone man walking his dog on the corner who thinks it is appropriate to yell “hey baby” as I walk past and then a series of obscenities when I don’t acknowledge his outreach.
Perhaps that is just considered safe, or perhaps I never really dealt with the crushing blow of having my security ripped away from me in the vestibule of my own home. I was able to face fear, and though I left that perpetrator on the other side of the world, I will not let the legacy of that moment steal any of my zeal of life. I still make the choice to be adventurous and be happy every day, no matter what the risk is. The tough, sturdy, and unbreakable construction of that purse reflects qualities I am now proud to recognize in myself.
Item: Leather satchel
Actual Cost: $60 (estimated, gift)
True Value: $400 in estimated contents, not including the literal and figurative unknown costs of a replacement identity and sense of self
Sarah Feldstein still uses the iPod she got in 2007, and would happily let you teach her about the Cloud so she can finally back it up.