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Maximizing Your Experience Abroad the Old-Fashioned Way

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The Honeymoon Phase

From the first moment that I knew I would be studying abroad, I immediately decided that I wanted to write and maintain a travel blog and start a new Instagram page dedicated to documenting the highlights of my travels. I also wanted to start a food blog for all of my foodie friends and family back home. At the time, I thought that I would have time to maintain all these different forms of social media, travel on weekends, and have enough time to study on top of everything else. That was a big mistake. The hardest lesson I had to learn upon arriving in Edinburgh was that time is an illusion. Even though I had just arrived in Scotland, time was already of the essence. I felt so much pressure to get out and explore every inch of the city before school started. The first couple days were really fun as I snapped photos and wrote excessively in my journal for my blog about my first few incredible days in the U.K. But then school started and I no longer could explore and blog at my leisure. I made a schedule for myself and tried to stick to it. Study and go to class, explore a new café or area of the city that I hadn’t been to and then snap a photo and write about it. I’d make travel plans for the weekend and plan to bring my laptop or journal to record my adventures so I could blog them later. This system worked for about a month before I started to feel like it wasn’t enough or that something was missing.

Finding “Perfect”

I noticed that while I had a lot of content, I wasn’t getting the sort of engagement from friends and family back home that I wanted. I then became obsessed with finding the perfect moment to capture from each one of the beautiful locations I visited or one of the cool little museums or cafés I visited. I thought people would rather see the highlights than be flooded with a regrettable amount of boring photos all from the same locations. I began trying to stage the perfect funny, serious, happy, peaceful, awe-inspiring, or totally stressed and anxiety inducing photos. For example, when I finally paid a visit to the Elephant House Café where J.K. Rowling wrote most of the first Harry Potter book, I didn’t stop to savour the moment as a Harry Potter nerd the way this self-professed Potterhead should have savoured it. I immediately asked my friend to snap a photo while I posed myself trying to find the best way to show other people how excited I was. The same thing happened when I went to visit Ireland’s Aran Islands. I was obsessed with finding the coolest possible spot to take a photo. I ended up having a friend stage a photo with me sitting on a rock dramatically overlooking the sea. Do I regret taking that very posed photo? No. That photo actually helped me win a photo contest but that’s beside the point. But if you asked me what I remember feeling while I was actually on the Aran Islands, I probably couldn’t tell you much more than “it was really beautiful and rainy but I loved it”. I missed out on just being present and experiencing being in the moment because I wanted to show people I was having a great time rather than actually enjoying my time there. I have a few regrets but I’ve finally learned through trial and error to simply put my phone down and to just be present during my travels and experiences while abroad. And to be honest, staging “perfect” is so superficial and subjective that I don’t think “perfect” is attainable.

The Subjective “perfect” versus the Objective “perfect”

I often like to say that subjective truth isn’t the opposite of objective truth. There is only one truth. This applies to the concept of perfection. My subjective perception of “perfect” is not another person’s objective perception of “perfect”. I am left with the reality that there is only one “perfect”, and that is not a forced photo, but a pure expression of happiness in the form of a perfectly un-staged candid photo. While a candid photo might not be the most glamorous photo, it captures the best moments of an experience in a very vulnerable and un-altered way. It allows us to live in and enjoy a “perfect” moment in our lives. A chance to be a tourist and experience fun, new, and silly stuff without having to worry about appearances. It’s a very freeing experience to be able to just relax and enjoy the view rather than stress about capturing the best modified version of the experience. Trust me when I say that you’d rather have 10 candid moments of an unforgettable experience than 10 “perfectly” staged photos where all you might remember is crazily running around trying to get the sunlight, moonlight, or whatever else might look good in the photo.

Scrapbook Method

The last piece of advice I’ll give is this, my rule of thumb is what I call the scrapbook method. When I got home I wanted to scrapbook photos of my travels. Looking back at almost all of my photos, I saw someone who looked like she had a really great time traveling and studying abroad. But did I actually have as amazing a time as I looked like I did? I would probably say no looking back at my time abroad. I do have regrets, and those tend to all be because I was too preoccupied with trying to look like I was having the best time of my life. Those photos are all great looking but don’t evoke as emotional a connection as I would have wanted. But the few truly candid photos I did return with I cherish as my favourites. Those photos were taken when I wasn’t concerning myself with how I looked or appeared. I just looked happy and distractedly engaging in conversation with my friends. Those are the photos that make me tear up when I look at them. So do yourself a favour and forget about trying to find “perfect”. Just live life to the fullest and don’t only think about having photos you want to scrapbook. The “fake it till you make it” version of your time abroad will only go so far. The genuine and often embarrassingly funny version of your travels is what will stick with you forever.

Lexie Henning is a student at the University of Missouri – Columbia and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2015 and at National University of Ireland, Galway in Galway, Ireland in 2017.