On my flight from JFK to Europe, I brainstormed about how to best preserve my memories, immortalize my experience in France, and record of all of the cool European things that were about to happen to me. I spent much of that transatlantic journey struggling with whether or not to blog about my semester abroad. I chose not to, and I’m glad I did.
When a student blogs publicly about studying abroad, she is writing for the consumption of others. Namely, her family members and her friends who are not studying abroad. She explains what is going on in her abroad life in a way that someone who is not studying abroad—who has never been to that place—can understand. Writing for this kind of audience requires breaking down and truncating experiences, picking just the highlights, or telling stories for the audience’s sake. In doing so, she thinks about and remembers her time abroad from an outside point of view—in particular, the point of view of an American at home. By condensing memorable experiences as they come, and retelling them in paragraphs digestible to an outsider, she loses the aggregate experience of the present. Even worse, she may fall into a self-aggrandizing social media trap, selling her experiences and painting a pretty, idealized picture of life abroad.
In order for studying abroad to be an immersive experience, you have to live your abroad life such that it becomes your ordinary life. Blogging inhibits this. A blog locks you into a ‘traveler’ mentality. Blogging about experiences abroad like a funny sign at the grocery store, or a movie playing in town, or a great time at a bar, keeps these things exotic and extraordinary.
In order to immerse myself into French culture, I had to abandon my American perception of things. A comparison framework would not do me much good: “French espresso is worse than American-style drip,” or, “The French are more curt than Americans.” Sure, there are merits to a comparison framework, to draw inferences about what makes the French “different” relative to Americans. But this requires evaluating France with a strictly American standard. Rather, I had to take French culture for what it was, and try to see French customs and values as if they were all I knew. This was challenging. Blogging would make that process much harder because the audience of the blog keeps you in an American perception of what is going on around you. Analyzing and judging cultural idiosyncrasies while abroad cements your status as a visitor. When you let your life abroad become ordinary to you, it also becomes deeply private—you find a rhythm of normalcy completely different from your old one that an outside audience would not understand.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand why someone may choose to blog throughout his or her time away. I have friends who are blogging about their experience abroad, and I check out their blogs whenever I think of them or when they broadcast about a new post on social media. I’ve noticed a trend. Any proper study abroad blog has several weeks’ gaps in it, followed by an apologetic, hasty post: “I’ve just been so busy! [Interesting city] is amazing. Will update later.” In those weeks, our blogger was traveling, living, eating. And she did not pause to jot down, translate, or synthesize these experiences.
So, then, how did I document my time abroad? For the most part, I didn’t. My first time in Paris, I did not once take a photo. In Aix, whole weeks went by without jotting something down besides class notes. I had one exception. My family has a strong tradition of sending postcards to loved ones wherever we go, so once or twice a week, I sent a postcard to my family with a bulleted list of my travels. Their fridge became wallpapered in shots of Aix, Marseille, and other European cities I had visited. When I got back to the United States, I had a handy stack of images and list of experiences to flip through.
There are, of course, other options for recording experiences. Keeping a diary or journal is a classic route. Taking lots of photos is a great choice that will also please your mom. Either way, though, the key is to keep an honest record. No showing off, no unnecessary explanations, no clickbait titles. However you choose to document your travels—or not—while abroad, I urge you to only consider methods that keep you present and let you think about your experiences like a local person would.
My postcard stack, though cute—and handy for when relatives visit and ask about France—is not always how I remember my semester abroad. I remember it just as I remember anything else. A word, or an image, or a cold imported beer can trigger a vivid memory and momentarily send me back to France. When this happens, my mental trip back, like that first transatlantic flight, is only for me.