In August, on one of my first mornings in Copenhagen, the 1000 or so students on my program and I were all shepherded – hungover and confused – to a concert hall for a series of propagandistic lectures that promptly put the large majority of us to sleep, and of which I remember little. One kernel of wisdom I do remember, however, was a line from the Program Director’s speech: “Experience is what you get, when you get what you don’t expect.” Naturally, this became a running joke for me and the people I began to spend my time with; anytime anything went wrong – we got on the wrong train, we had to bike home in the rain, the castle we wanted to spend or afternoon at closed right when we arrived, etc. – we all chimed “experience is what you get…”, completely destroying with our sarcasm the somewhat insightful, though very cheesy, wisdom we had been given. This was our experience and we would define it as we saw fit.
Study abroad is not an experience well-suited for brief definitions or quick summations. Granted, this is often true of all four-month periods in life, but other times are usually more accessible to other people, as well as subject to less inquiry. Study abroad is an experience that can’t be well understood by people who don’t go through it – due in large part to the fact that it’s hard to fully wrap one’s head around as one lives through it. Inevitably, I will face the question “How was Abroad???” – and that is a moment I dread. I really don’t know how to begin my answer to that question. Incredible? Tiresome? Life-changing? Unbearable? How do I explain an experience that is somehow simultaneously all of those? Sure, my family will listen intently enough, and for a long enough amount of time, for me to recount the best anecdotes, and paint a more-or-less accurate picture of what my time was like, and I’d like to think my friends will at least half-listen as I attempt to do the same with them, but even that will only be the tip of the iceberg.
The issue is that I’m saddled with four months of memories that don’t fit all that neatly together, and require a much greater degree of explanation than anybody would reasonably be expected to listen to. This means there will be a four month chunk of my life that will go mostly misunderstood by the people who would have very well understood that period had I not gone abroad. Perhaps nobody other than my mom cares about what I’ve been up to, but I want people to care, and I want people to understand. I just worry they won’t, and I fret that that is due in some part to my own inability to properly share it.
This difficulty arises from the fact that there is, for me at least, a noticeable difference between the Study Abroad Experience advertised in brochures and glorified on social media, and the actual, lived experience itself. On the surface, study abroad seems perfect: minimal low-enjoyment schooling, and maximal high-enjoyment traveling. This equation is, however, not entirely accurate. School certainly plays a smaller role in my life here than it does at home, but it has proven itself to be utterly devoid of enjoyable elements. The travel, fortunately, is quite enjoyable, but it too is not without its stresses, as the constant confusion (linguistic, navigational, gastronomical, etc.) eventually becomes a death by one thousand cuts.
The problem, then, is of finding a way to describe to someone who spent the last semester ping-ponging between the library and the dining hall that at times I wanted nothing other than to sit with a course packet on one of the blue couches in Sawyer and watch the day reveal the night. Granted, I didn’t feel this way while walking through the ruins of the Roman Forum, but maybe much of this essay is inspired by feelings I had while I sat one night in November, when I was lucky enough to be wearing shorts and a t-shirt, overlooking those same ruins. How do I explain to someone who has never been to Rome, whose greatest travels in life are perhaps to and from Williams, that it’s possible to look at two thousand years of history and simultaneously sit in stunned silence and be worried by the inability to relate what that moment was like? How do I explain that to myself? While it can be argued that this is a privileged problem to have, I don’t think the context in which these thoughts are occurring should diminish the ideas themselves. Learning to share our experiences with others is of paramount importance whether these experiences take us to the ruins of ancient Rome, or the ruins of modern America.
There is another aphorism regarding experience that I have spent a great deal of time ruminating on this semester, and I treat it with a much higher degree of regard than the one quoted earlier. This comes from a professor I’ve had at Williams, though indirectly through a classmate: “Experience exceeds our ability to describe experience.” This semester has been such an intense burst of activity that I can feel as I live it that I have not fully understood it. I have, in fact, realized, that I cannot truly comprehend both what I have done, and the meaning of what I have done, without a good deal of distance – both temporal and physical. This was certainly true of my time in high school, and I’m sure that my stays in Copenhagen and Williamstown are no different. Sadly, until I come closer to grasping what I have done in Europe, interested parties in the states will have an understanding even further removed.
This does not mean, though, that there is no point in attempting to describe what I have done. Personal experience only moves so well from the owner to the inquirer of the experience, but sharing with each other allows us to expand our view of the world. If we don’t communicate with each other, we isolate ourselves from the people around us, and fall into habits of assuming that people don’t understand what it is like to be me – and of course they don’t, how can somebody walk in my shoes if I keep them tied tightly around my feet? Opening up to somebody else is not easy, but meeting people from around the country and around the world has been one of the joys of my time abroad, as it has changed the way I think about myself and those in my communities. Sharing with each other enables growth and understanding, otherwise, it is like we’re standing on opposite sides of the ocean.