Let me tell you all a story:
So you have just found out that you have been accepted into study abroad for the upcoming semester. It is a dream you have had since you can remember, with years of preparation going into deciding your perfect destination, the upkeep of grades, the planning of classes, and the weeks of research starting with “the best things to do in (fill in the country).” The closer the departure time comes, the mix of anxious excitement creates butterflies that make their way up from your stomach and cloud your brain, filling with with the intoxicating hum of adventure and the subtle fear of entering into uncharted territory. You daydream about all the new friends you are going to make, all the places you will see, all the food you will eat, and all the memories you will make. The day comes when you zip up your suitcase, wave goodbye to your family as you pass through the gates which will lead to your new adventure, and sit apprehensively in the airport suddenly alone. And you are terrified. So what do you do? You get onto your social media and post the obligatory “Hi. I’m going abroad. I might be doing cool things sometimes. Here’s my blog because I guess that is what people do when they travel… write blogs. Oh and here is my snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, myspace, Facebook, whats app, drop box, and YouTube so that you can follow my every move.” And so it begins.
To the causal observer, your social media reveals a story of ceaseless adventures into new landscapes, snapshots of pubs, pints of Guinness, famous landmarks, smiling faces of strangers pressed against yours in tacky selfies, and an onslaught of new Facebook friends of people from around the world. To the rest of the world, it looks as though you are having the time of your life with not a care in the world. Every person is a new friend. Every night out is filled with laughter. Every adventure goes just as you had planned.
Beware of the social media traveler. Because what you don’t see is the face behind the screen, the face who isn’t always smiling, the face who looks in longing at other friend’s posts from back home or other places abroad and wishes they were anywhere but here. Don’t be fooled.
For lent this year I have taken on the challenge of doing one thing a day that scares me. Given that every new day presents its own set of obstacles, I thought this would be a relatively easy goal to set, but alas I have come to a point where I feel called to do something that is more out of my comfort zone than eating blood pudding or taking public transportation in a totally new country. And that is to share the truth.
Let me begin by saying that I am by no means regretting my decision to go abroad and have had experiences which have brought be immense joy and a wonderful opportunity for growth. I have seen places that I only ever thought I would look at in pictures, experienced cultures I never knew existed, and met people who have totally reshaped the way I see the world. I wouldn’t trade this for anything.
That being said, I have realized that I have an issue with the social media traveler, as I have coined the term, because it creates a false sense of reality. When you hear about people’s experiences abroad, watch their GoPro videos, like their Instagram posts, you see the side they want you to see. I wish someone had told me that there is another side, the side that leaves you sitting alone in your room on a bed that feels like a springbox and smells like urine wondering what the heck you are doing with your life. And I am here to say that this adventure has had its fair share of ups and downs. So here are some things that you don’t see. Here is my face, my real face, the one behind the screen. Here is what I have learned:
- I have never realized how much being alone made me uncomfortable until I was really truly alone. The first week I arrived my Irish roommates had not yet arrived, I barely knew the other Regis girls I had come with, I was 7 hours ahead of my family back home, making it difficult for me to communicate with them on a regular basis, oh and did I mention I was in Ireland? The silence shook me to my core. It still does sometimes on the weekends when all my roommates go home to see their families and I miss mine. Or when I go into the kitchen to eat my dinner and turn on Ed Sheeran (what a homie) so that I don’t have to listen to the clank of my fork on my plate and the dull thud of rain on the windows, the only other sounds in the house. So yes I get lonely. It happens and its ok.
- Making friends isn’t as easy as it seems. Within the first couple weeks of my residence here, I quickly realized that I couldn’t keep up with the lifestyle the locals live and many of the other study abroad kids embrace. Don’t get me wrong, I have had my fair share of cider and been out to the pubs, but I would rather be sitting with friends playing games, watching Netflix, or just chatting about childhood memories. It also didn’t take me long to figure out that I wouldn’t fit in here as much as I thought. Anyone who knows me is aware that I have a natural glow about me, especially in the sunlight, akin to most vampires, which makes me especially prone to jokes about my complexion, or lack thereof. Despite what I had hoped, my fair skin still stands out in contrast with the strange orangeish hue of self-tanning lotion and bronzer, my curly strawberry blonde hair with the straightened platinum blonde styles, my bare face with the cosmetic masterpieces of contouring and fake eyelashes, and my leggings and flannels with the tube dresses and heels of a night out at the clubs. And although I have been shown the upmost kindness by my roommates and classmates alike, I still feel out a place, yearning for the companionship I had in Colorado where I didn’t have to look far to find someone to go on a hike or hit up some new powder on the slopes.
- Not all travel always goes as planned. Sometimes you can’t get to everywhere you want to go and sometimes the places you go are not what you expected them to be. I had hoped to see more of rural Ireland, to find hikes and trails in the large expanses of green meadows, and unfortunately the weather here makes it rather difficult to find the motivation to be outside and public transportation limits me to the cities. Traveling around Europe provides its own set of challenges. What they don’t prepare you for in school is things like how to get a Russian visa or how to navigate the Vigo bus system with very broken Spanish. If nothing else, I have quickly learned how to be flexible.
- Finally, it is ok to cry. That was the hardest lesson for me to learn while I was here. I don’t get emotional very easily, but the influx of change and newness, combined with lack of sleep, is a recipe for emotional disaster. Although it has gotten much better since my arrival, I still get anxious when I have to do new things, travel on my own, or adapt to new situations. It is part of growing, pushing my boundaries, and challenging myself to look beyond my comfort zone.
So I leave you with this. Know that there is a human being behind the smiling faces you see on social media, one that experiences loneliness, sadness, anxiety, anticipation, joy, and companionship. If you ask me how I am doing, I will say fine because in all honesty, I am totally fine. But to those of you who travel, whether it be to new countries or even taking a step outside your door, do not be fooled by a need to pretend that everything is always ok, because in life, sometimes not being ok is the okayest thing in the world.