Invisible Suitcase

Halfway through her semester abroad in Paris, France, Paris Jensen '22 reflects that it takes some practice to learn how to pack a suitcase. Especially the kind you can’t touch or see.   

My first day in Strasbourg, I snapped this photo – sort of semi-consciously – of a path paved with stars. Maybe it caught my eye because of a song I wrote once called “Moving”: “got all of my stars sewn together | be a simple thing really to carry them with me | have my books in a suitcase | wrapped in my coat for the rainy days…”

I find myself telling people on the phone, since I arrived in France, that the interesting thing about traveling is that it both changes you and shows you who you are. I’ve moved a few times in my life, and traveled quite a bit. Once, my family drove across Europe, from Italy all the way up to Denmark where my grandparents live, and I got really good at packing a suitcase. I never actually timed myself, but the habit must have lingered, because at Wesleyan I packed all my stuff for winter break in half an hour once, in a suitcase for one. I was a bit rusty by that point. I still more or less remembered the principle, though: the key to packing a suitcase is to know what it contains like you know yourself.  


Maybe better, actually. After all, when you leave a place you have a very clear idea of all the material things you carry with you. You know how much they weigh. You know that you stuffed your jewelry in the toe of your shoe because there was no more room in your toiletry kit. You make lists when you pack so that nothing essential gets left behind, and you enlist your family to ask you if you packed the chargers and the deodorant.


But what about the things you carry inside you across oceans? Before you go, how do you sort out what’s circumstantial from what’s essential? Who will remind you if there’s a piece of yourself you forgot? It’s not like you consciously choose what to take with you and what to leave behind. It’s just that certain habits fall away when you go somewhere else. You ate granola for breakfast every day before and now you don’t. You used to go running and now you can’t seem to find the time. When you start living in a different language, that goes double. I think people get the wrong idea about translation sometimes. After all, when you take individual words, it seems like what you put in is what you get out. Dog is chien. Bakery is boulangerie. But different things are possible in different languages. Nobody orders themselves “a gorgeous lemon pie” in Massachusetts for example, whereas here in Paris I could order seven ~ très belles tartes au citron ~ off the menu at seven different restaurants and no one could stop me. At heart, translation is a transformation, and plugging yourself into Google translate is impossible.  


When you try and “translate” yourself, you express yourself differently. Different conversations become possible. Weirdly enough, I’ve discovered that I’m a lot more comfortable starting conversations in French than in English! It puts me immediately in the mindset of wanting to learn, instead of wanting to make a good impression. I also trust that the people I’m talking to have a good reason to be patient with me. If I’m talking with someone else who’s still learning, like another student, I think we put ourselves in the place of the other person a little bit more than we otherwise might have. In my experience, the dynamic this creates is actually quite special – casual, but containing a lot more openness than I’ve found in most casual conversations.  


Kugelhopf is a classically Alsatian cake, something I tried for the first time in Strasbourg last weekend. You may be noticing that pastry is really the unsung hero of this essay.

I think that traveling – and especially living somewhere new – is kind of like translating your body from one space to another. On one hand you can think of it as the same you. But you articulate yourself with the rhythm of life around you, and that makes different actions possible.  


For example, I took a train to Strasbourg this weekend for my birthday. It was the first time I’d ever taken a train alone, but I didn’t really think about it or worry. It seemed like such a natural thing to do “when in France.” I got to thinking a little bit about it on my second day in the city, in a little park. I had gotten pretty sick of walking, so I found a square with some nice fall color and a bench, cracked open my livre de poche, and made my way through two dozen pages and half a Kugelhopf. I found myself thinking suddenly that there was no way I would be doing this at home. I would not have taken the train to a new city for the weekend by myself. And I would not be reading in the park. It seemed so improbable and so natural at once, because it struck me as just the kind of thing I might do – I was actively doing it – and yet it had never occurred to me to try it before. I learned a new way of being myself in that moment. 


Moving and learning are not so different. Both of them take a willingness to transform without knowing in advance what you’ll keep and how you’ll change. I suppose that’s what it means to gain knowledge of yourself, and that nobody is unchanged by real knowledge.   


Not all the things you learn are new. I’m often just as surprised by the things I carried with me in that invisible suitcase: the things that remind me who I am. I learn from the things I take photos of, from the music I most want to hear, from the things that I want to keep in my space. It turns out that I love the natural world and its creatures just as much now as when I was a little girl, and that half the photos I took in Strasbourg were of geese and trees; that I want to dance to the old folk songs my dad would always play; that punk rock still lights me up like a Christmas tree; that having candles and fresh flowers around makes a place feel like home to me, and that it reminds me of Denmark, and my mom. I think I notice something like that every day, that makes me stop for a second and then start up again with greater conviction.  


That conviction is something you lean on when you’re picking up so many new things all the time. Figuring out where all the old feelings go and how they fit together helps you open yourself up and make space for new things. Without even really thinking about it you sort out a lot of what’s essential from what isn’t, which is fortunate because it lets you process vital new information like the subjunctive conjugation of être and which bakery makes the best éclair.  


These days whenever I feel the need to open up my past life and take things out and look at them, I figure I can pack it up again if I need to before my class starts or the exhibition opens. I’ve carried the different parts of me to enough different places, translated them into enough situations enough times, to have a good sense of what I’m traveling with. Even if I still don’t quite know myself like I know the contents of my suitcase.