Living Life Through A Different Lens

En France, je devais prendre une decision : apprécier le present ou me perdre derrière une caméra.

Studying abroad can be incredibly nerve-racking — especially when it is your first time traveling outside the United States — but when you acknowledge your anxieties and challenge yourself to push past initial fears, your experience abroad is all the more rewarding. For me, my biggest achievement was coming to terms with my need to document my study abroad experience.

Let me set the stage. It is the summer of 2011 and a seventeen-year-old young women embarks on a study abroad program with her high school French class, armed with two over-sized pink suitcases and a Kodak camera, ready to take on Paris and Nice, France. My only regret after those five weeks in France was that I did not take more time to appreciate the present. Not only was I filled with the need to photograph every statue, monument, and landmark, but I became obsessed to the point of holding my friend’s camera hostage when I ran out of memory, as I endeavored to document every second of my time abroad, frame by frame. The saddest part of this realization is that despite my excessive documenting, I still struggle to remember mundane details.

I understand now that I used my camera as a barrier against culture shock. My camera became my crutch, my bridge to familiarity, as someone studying abroad for the very first time.

Luckily, I cannot say that I’m completely regretful of spending as much time as I did behind the camera. I cherish the moments when I can reflect on an experience that solidified my love for the French people, language, and culture. Additionally, through documenting my study abroad experience, I was able to come to a clear conclusion regarding footwear: comfortable shoes are the most important travel companion.

During my second day in Paris, I was tasked with walking from my apartment in the sixth arrondissement to l’Arc de Triomphe in the eighth arrondissement, which I quickly learned would be the death of me (or rather my feet). And of course I chose to break-in a new pair of shoes on my second day, leaving my feet blistered and cut by the time I reached my destination. I cannot tell you the number of times I complained about my feet in those ballet flats during that painstaking walk, before finally giving up and settling for my less stylish, blue sandals. From that moment on, I decided that the best way for me to capture what it was like to travel, to walk miles and miles exploring a city, involved photographing my feet (literally) on the ground. Funnily enough, the photos that mean the most to me have ended up being these “feet photos”, photos that break away from the monotonous snapshots of la Tour Eiffel.

What I’ve learned since then is that nothing can compare to the experience of stepping in front of the camera lens and reveling in the study abroad moments that leave their lingering mark. I constantly have to remind myself that some of my favorite moments are the ones when I left my camera or phone at home. I feel like my generation believes that in order for something to be real and meaningful, it has to be documented and later validated online (of which I am guilty). However, I recall a handful of times in France when I ran out of camera memory, and felt instantly lighter, like the 21st century pressure to exist in a digital world disappeared and I could finally be on the other side of the camera lens. One of my favorite quotes from Toni Morrison perfectly captures this sentiment: “At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.”

My advice for individuals wanting to study abroad is to attempt to find ways to exist beyond the camera lens. Some of my best memories stem from moments when it was just me and my thoughts, not documenting my time in France from behind a camera, but experiencing it. Another significant piece of advice that I can offer is to never substitute comfort for fashion, or risk learning this the hard way, as I did with what I call the “France Shoe Debacle of 2011.” Of course there are instances where fashion is extremely relevant, especially in Paris, but in my opinion it is more important to be able to walk to your metro station than to be dans la haute couture. And as my program instructor liked to remind us throughout the trip, “never dress for anybody but yourself,” which she perfectly embodied, strutting around Paris in her Louis Vuitton backpack and heels. Merci, Madame.

If I returned to France today, firstly, I would limit myself to a certain number of photos per day to ensure that the majority of my time was spent without a camera. Secondly, I would buy a pair of shoes and break them in before I went abroad. And thirdly, I would spend a longer period of time traveling and exploring. As I’ve been told, with time, you get to know a place better than a camera could ever capture. My fourth and final recommendation would be to allow moments to catch you by surprise, as they often lead to adventure and uncharted territory, where the love of travel meets curiosity and thrill-seeking in the most exciting and rewarding ways.

La Fin

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