Happiness is Private: Studying Abroad for You, Not Social Media

This post is the sixth installment in a semester-long series of posts from Towson senior Allie Woodfin. Allie is studying this Fall 2014 semester at the University of Avignon. You can also follow along on her tumblr at: http://provisoirementprovencale.tumblr.com/ 

“Every form of happiness is private”


Woodfin in Avignon.

Like a stained-glass window in a cathedral, anything epic, memorable, and beautiful is made up of small, seemingly insignificant pieces. I would absolutely overlook a shard of brilliant blue glass on the sidewalk near Notre Dame, but I would not overlook the magnificent windows—my camera lens was probably already pointed at them.

Before I start, I should say that I think talking too much about the “transformation” of study abroad creates unfair expectations for magic to happen as soon as you step on European soil. I didn’t learn this as soon as I set foot in Charles de Gaulle Airport, and I regret that I discounted my first few days since they weren’t so beautiful. However, what I’m finding is that the best things about study abroad are not your pictures with monuments that anyone in the world can name. Those are cheap. Everyone has those. They’re not the moments that you made happen. The best things are the split seconds of eye contact you make with strangers because you’ll never see them again, the familiar silhouette of the local men and women, the words that you pick up and where you learned them, and the times you realize that you’re functioning in another culture: giving directions to tourists, the only people who know the town less than you; wandering around Sephora and remembering the words for facial features and cosmetics; and hanging up after a 6-minute phone call and realizing that you’ve overcome your worst fear since getting to France. These are things that you weren’t looking for, but that found you anyway.

For example, staying in Avignon during my Toussaints vacation and hanging out with my host family (and my host mom’s adorable parents) was not as trendy and Instagrammable as toasting on a beach in Ibiza, and I felt like a goober telling the other Erasmus students I’d stayed home while they went to Barcelona and Cannes. But one day, we ate the freshest oysters money can buy, and my “host grandfather” showed me how to dress one with mustard, vinegar, and red onions before tossing it back. I took regular naps in the giant rectangle of sunshine that lights up my bed around 2PM. We made pumpkin pie for Halloween. I met a retired lady for coffee and English conversation one morning. I learned how to understand a very different French accent over a week of dinners. There are a lot of other beautiful things that happened during that vacation that, if I told you about them, you’d say “seriously? You crossed an ocean to study abroad and you think that’s cool?” These things don’t matter to someone else, and they’d probably smile and nod while I obliviously chattered about moments that only I saw and only I can understand.

But—that’s okay. As Ayn Rand once said, “every form of happiness is private.” Thinking about it this way has helped me reconcile what every study abroad alumnus has told me, which is that you come home and find that you can’t put into words what the most poignant moments of your trip were. Instagram your trip until it can’t be Instagrammed any more (guilty as charged), but don’t engineer your study abroad experience so that it’s outwardly beautiful. Blow off the monuments for a little while, make a fool out of yourself trying to order lunch at a restaurant on your first weekend (and go back once your French has improved drastically, to the delight of the waiter), take random long walks because you can, and take note of the little pieces of your trip—they’ll make up the magnificent story you’ll remember later.