Unpacking the abroad experience
It occurred to me today that my half-a-summer abroad experience is coming to a close. Eleven days. That's all I have left here. In a mere week and a half, I''ll be heading back to California to live out a quasi-normal lifestyle until school starts back up again. And, with the onslaught of final exams amongst other activities, I am sure these next eleven days will fly by just as the past five weeks have. As with any significant long-term endeavor, it's always interesting to reflect on what the experience has meant to me. And, so, I look back fondly on the group of 23 strangers who somehow managed to tolerate, and even appreciate, each other's company, on the historical sites that moved me and educated me and on the language that has served as a constant source of frustration but also victory.
The sentiments are always the same: reflection, appreciation, gratitude, perspective, insight. I always return from these sorts of endeavors with the belief that the experience has changed me, inspired me, made me a better person, etc. When I hear from my friends who have traveled abroad, participated in Duke Engage or done something similar with their time, their stories follow a similar narrative. But, this time around, I've also been thinking about something else: how long does this "change" actually last? And, if it doesn't last, does that mean it ever truly existed, or is it simply a concept we fabricate for ourselves to elevate the importance of our experiences?
I contemplate how long I have until the friendships I've formed dissipate, until the people I've wandered the streets of Spain with, or stayed up until 4 a.m. talking to, become mere acquaintances I greet on my way to class or smile at while sitting on the plaza. I am concerned that the conversations that have inspired me, or that have made me question deeply held convictions, will soon lose their significance and become lost in the depths of my mind and concealed by newer revelations and more recent encounters. I worry that my recollection of historic sites and monuments will be reduced to tagged photos on Facebook that neither capture their true beauty nor accurately reflect my appreciation.
Mostly, I wonder how long it will take for the memories to fade to the point that they will hardly impact me at all. Because, as time goes on, they will fade and they will lose significance. That is unavoidable.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to devalue the abroad experience or suggest that it isn't worthwhile. Believe me, I wouldn't trade these past five weeks for anything, and I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to study in Spain in the first place.
But, it is something I find myself thinking about more and more. This past weekend, my group visited the city of Granada, one of Spain's most historic locations. On our last day, we trekked through the Alhambra, a complex and massive castle, parts of which were first built in the ninth century. According to our tour guide, the Alhambra is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I just Googled it, and that's most definitely not true, but, still, it's an incredible place and I highly recommend it to anyone who visits Spain. Exploring each room and passageway, relishing in the highly intricate architecture, roaming through the gardens—it's one of those places you can get lost in for hours and never become bored. And, when you reach the top of the Alhambra, you get to experience what is certainly the best view of Granada the city has to offer. I definitely took upwards of 20 photos, all of which were essentially the same photo but from a slightly different vantage point. And, unsurprisingly, no matter how many photos I took or from what angle, each time I went back to review them, I was met with an unsettling sense of disappointment. None of them depicted the Alhambra exactly as it was. None of them fully captured the beauty of the scene before me. None of them were quite right. And, so, I was left trying to capture the moment from memory and to sustain it in my mind, if not in a photo, which of course didn't work either.
And, I realize that's what a lot of my abroad experience has consisted of—this desperate attempt to capture the moment, the beauty, the experience in its entirety.But, while the moment itself may eventually fade in significance, it means something now, and now is really all that matters.
Michelle Menchaca is the Editorial Pages Managing Editor and a Trinity junior. This is her final column in a biweekly series during the summer.