In 2009, when I was twenty-two, I bought a small, black shoulder bag from a department store along the rue de Passy, in Paris. The bag was about twelve inches tall by ten inches wide, and made of a cheap sturdy fabric — the kind used to make dog toys, cargo pants, and discount patio furniture. Weighing no more than four or five pounds when full, it hung from an adjustable strap I always kept long. That way, the bag bounced pleasingly at my left hip as I walked down the street, in time to the metronome tap of my heels on the pavement.
Click, bump. Click, bump. Click, bump.
It was senior year of college, my semester abroad. Weekdays, I loaded the bag with history books, grammar books, art books, and film books. Weekends, I swapped in pleasure reading: Kundera novels, American expat memoirs. A few essential items claimed permanent residence in the bag — a red flip phone, a blue city map, a yellow pocket dictionary — but its contents were otherwise in perpetual flux.
When the bag was overstuffed, as it often was, the top flap wouldn’t close, and the titles of my books were exposed to everyone around me on the Métro. Still, I liked the proportions of the bag, and never considered trading it in for a larger model. It was exactly the right size: big enough to hold all my vitals, but also small enough not to impede my adventures.
The bag made me feel both nimble and prepared. It assured me I had what I needed — and that I didn’t need much.
With the bag at my side, I went to the Delacroix Museum. I went to Notre-Dame. I went to Burgundy, and to Marseille, and to London. I went to a delightful bistro near the opera house — the ugly one — and to an unspeakably bad play at the Théâtre du Châtelet. I went to a professor’s flat to watch an Audrey Hepburn film, and to my boyfriend’s apartment in the Tenth Arrondissement, where I lay with him in bed, naked, arguing about copyright law and Anna Karenina. I went to Julia Child’s home, and a revival cinema, and a perfect sandwich shop with a marigold awning.
At the end of the semester, I left Paris. I broke up with the boyfriend. But I held tight to that shoulder bag.