I spent fall 2016 studying abroad in Seville, Spain. From across the ocean, I watched as President Donald Trump was elected. I listened to Spaniards quote satirical Simpsons episodes, making fun of Americans. I weathered all the American stereotypes thrown at me. Now I’m back, and being an American feels different than it ever has before. Here are some of my observations.
Studying abroad was beautiful. While abroad, I traveled somewhere new almost every weekend, exploring historic European cities, walking along canals and climbing castle steps. I experienced a plethora of new foods, places and cultures — and I documented every second of it with my phone.
These experiences didn’t seem to matter unless I had a picture of them and could share it with the world. My phone was perennially glued to my hand, snapping photos of things I could easily just look at.
On a trip to Morocco, I couldn’t sleep, so I got out of bed and watched the sun rise over the Mediterranean Sea. About 10 minutes into the sunrise, I started to feel an itch, a mild panic that I didn’t have my phone and couldn’t capture the moment. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to remember it, that I’d forget the way the shoreline looked in the morning, and I was sad I wouldn’t be able to post this sunrise.
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Still, the majority of the time, I did remember to bring my phone, and I was able to take pictures. I took photos of the bridge I crossed every day on the way to class, of my friends smiling over a pitcher of sangria, of every tourist destination I visited, of the view at the top of every cathedral or tower I climbed. I had thousands of photos — picturesque memories — stored on my phone. I chose the best ones to upload to Facebook, then selected the most artsy ones to post on Instagram.
My friends from home, my mom’s friends, my coworkers and my relatives favorited and commented. I felt relevant, seen. They gushed about how beautiful and exciting everything looked, how happy I must be. When I scrolled through the Facebook album, I thought about how beautiful and exciting everything had been, how happy I was.
But in reality, I was rewriting my own memories through the photos I shared with the world. My grinning photo from that first week in Seville didn’t capture how I’d missed my layover on the way into the city and was stuck in the Madrid airport for 8 hours, questioning if studying abroad was the right decision.
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It didn’t show how I’d gone into the park near the university and cried after my first class, because I couldn’t understand a word the professor had said. It didn’t capture the way the city sometimes smelled like horse pee, or that the weather was so hot I could barely stand to be outside.
Studying abroad was beautiful, even with all of the uncomfortable moments, but the photos I posted only captured the picturesque experiences. I didn’t feel any compulsion to document moments when I felt uncomfortable, unsure or unhappy. I only posted the final destinations, not the 8 hour, over night, bargain-priced bus rides I took to get there. My Facebook album shows all the sunny days and the happy moments. It depicts my life, but edited down to only the parts I’m willing to share.
After a few months abroad, I became aware of my compulsive need to take photos and more cognizant of the dichotomy between my virtual self and my reality. I learned to sit back and enjoy the view. I watched with amusement as people turned their backs on beautiful monuments to take selfies, as if the sight would only be improved by their face blocking half of it. I watched tourists live out their adventures abroad through their camera lenses. I watched my friends and myself hide our reality through our smiling posts.
It’s a mistake to spend our time hiding behind our phones, documenting life instead of living it and creating false, overly positive virtual realities for ourselves. Life is beautiful, even with its ugly moments, but we don’t necessarily need to prove it to all our Snapchat friends.
Teresa Turco ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in psychology and economics.