3/24/14: Pictures aren’t quite everything, part 1

My increased use of Facebook while living in Paris makes it no surprise that I’ve thought a lot recently about the meaning of photos, particularly in study abroad and in the context of how sharing your experience with friends and family has changed.

European study abroad’s popularity for American students really took off after World War II, when communicating with loved ones back home was a matter of occasional letters and telegrams. Perhaps an expensive phone call if need be. An old photograph or two on a bedside table would allow you to think of them every day and see their faces in fixed expressions, unchanging day in and day out. And that was pretty much it.

These facts are well described in Dreaming in French, a book I’ve nearly finished reading that chronicles three notable 20th-century American women — Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis — and their respective years abroad in Paris. A few old photos remain as memories, and there are pieces of journals they kept and a letter or two they wrote. Then of course there are the intangible and indescribable impacts that Paris and France had on their later cultural lives. Though no doubt American students’ imaginations still ran wild when thinking of the far-away grandeur of Europe, there were fewer young adults going abroad, and, without the worldwide connection we have today, I assume there were fewer feelings of “look at all of these people I know going over there, I’m jealous, I need to do something that cool!”

Jackie Kennedy, left, and her friend Claude de Renty in the south of France during her year abroad.

Study abroad today, on the other hand, often consists of daily Facebook updates, a smattering of profile picture changes in a different country every month, perhaps a blog post each week to elaborate on this adventure in a castle or that transformational art museum visit. I’m not criticizing the phenomenon, simply stating the facts; I’m as much a part of this tendency as any other student. My photo albums from a six-day span during a spring break venture to Ireland and Scotland contain more than 200 photos alone — and those were significantly edited down before publication.

These Internet connections mean that you can share your abroad life with a 1000-plus friend base, and they can live vicariously through friends’ experiences on a daily basis. Comments on photos or statuses are frequently some variety of the following: “aw, jealous!” “you are so lucky!” “can I please have your life k thanks bye.”

What these masses of photos do, in my eyes, are paint an even more romanticized ideal of study abroad than was already the case before the Internet — largely because the reminders are constant. I came into this semester in Paris having scrolled endlessly through photos that friends studying in Germany, Scotland, Italy and Australia had posted during previous semesters. I’ve wanted to study in France since my freshman year of high school, but when I made it here I naturally felt an enormous pressure to “have a good time.” That meant filling my Facebook profile with as many “Europe is wonderful” updates as possible.

Really, Europe is wonderful. But that pressure is undeniable.

I had an hour-long discussion on this subject in late February with one of my spring break partners-in-crime Kelly Anderson. We’re two of the biggest picture-takers I know from UNC who are currently studying abroad. But we’re also trying to remember that even friends who looked like they had a perfect time on their semester abroad probably encountered just as many bumps in the road as we have. In doing so, we’re trying to remain committed to our own experiences and to not feel influenced by what we’ve seen from others.

I immensely enjoy taking photos, scrolling through them at my leisure and reminiscing. But the select photos I choose to take and publish online don’t always reveal the whole story.

Consider the following:

Drinking a pint during my first night in Dublin!

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This is as fabulously stereotypically Irish as it gets — I’m even wearing a shade of green!

DISCLAIMER: I was actually running on zero hours of sleep the night before (because Carolina basketball, because early-morning flight) and had been walking and traveling all day and felt quite awful — dizzy, dehydrated, getting chills. Instead of partying in pubs all night I struggled back to the hotel (Kelly was so kind as to sacrifice her night and head back, too) not long after this was taken and collapsed almost immediately.

Frolicking on the Glasgow Green!

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Beautifully manicured park sprawling right through the middle of the city. Included a great deal of architecture worth admiring. And as a former horse girl coming from life in Paris, virtually endless green space = me as happy camper.

DISCLAIMER: I loved seeing the stunning park, but I was much more concerned about someone in the group who was starting to feel faint due to various stress factors, probably including sleep deprivation and dehydration (traveling ain’t easy, y’all) — and we were in the middle of a vast 10-acre park, a long way from anything or anyone helpful, and miles from our hostel. And it was my choice to walk to the middle of nowhere in the first place! I was feeling quite guilty and worried when this was taken.

A stroll through the Scottish countryside!

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A promenade through unperturbed Scottish rolling hills? Dream come true!

DISCLAIMER: I had planned to hike a couple of kilometers farther up this incline and reach Arthur’s Seat, an iconic lookout in Edinburgh, but the ground was in terrible shape and I stupidly hadn’t worn proper attire for the rough terrain. I was pretty upset with myself when this was taken that I’d gotten all the way over there only to not be prepared and have to skip one of the activities I wanted to do most. I stopped immediately after this photo was taken and walked right back down onto city sidewalk.

Sunset over Tuileries Gardens with the Eiffel Tower in the distance!

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I was watching this with my boyfriend. ‘Nuff said, right?

DISCLAIMER: Not exactly. We had come back only a few hours before from a traveling mishap, getting stranded in the Normandy countryside near Bayeux (a story that will merit a blog post soon). We’d just spent half an afternoon in the Louvre, which was lovely. But we’d only eaten a tiny meal all day, our feet were in a lot of pain after walking close to 20 miles the day before, and we were cranky and tired.

It was still very beautiful and a real treat to share with Ted, just not the flawless romantic experience it might appear to be.

Running the 5k at the 20th annual Maratona di Roma!

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I might not have been doing the full 26.2, but a 5k with 80,000 other participants isn’t too bad of a consolation prize. We’re about to cross the start! Exciting!

DISCLAIMER: It was really cool. But those of us at the front of the pack had been standing outside through steady rain and two significant downpours for more than two hours — many of us, like me, without rain gear. We were soaked to the bone and shivering when I took this; I don’t think I’ve ever wanted a race start to go off more quickly. Of course I felt much more sympathy for the marathon runners, like my friend Jenny, who faced a truly grueling battle of wills with the weather.

This is not a call to cease the “ooohs” and “ahhhs” over friends’ incredible abroad journeys and the adventures they share on social media. I’m not going to stop doing so any time soon. And all of the scenes in my photos above were blessings to experience. What happened when they were taken was, to put it simply, life. No matter how hard my friends and I try to plan ahead and make trips run perfectly, they never do.

This post is more a gentle reminder, one I’m giving myself as much as anyone else. Go travel or don’t travel, love your photos and those of your friends for what they are, learn from the mistakes and don’t feel like your experiences are any less significant because they don’t look as “fun” as someone else’s. It’s not a competition; there’s no need to make it one.

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