What started as a daily class assignment, turned into my most prized possession.
I was excited when my professor announced that we wouldn’t be having any homework. Instead, all we had to do was write a three-page journal entry everyday. At first three pages seemed like a lot, but it turns out it was never enough. My leather-bound, Moleskin notebook soon became my best friend. As the weeks rolled on, I no longer worried so much about where my phone or wallet were at all times (those were replaceable), but I increasingly was more concerned about where my journal was.
Studying abroad is different from just traveling as a tourist. You immerse yourself in the culture and experience a place from all different perspectives. You are not only traveling, but also growing as a person. And like all great adventures, you want to remember as much of your travels as possible, to capture as many moments as you can. We usually do this by buying souvenirs or taking pictures; but as a study abroad student, you’ll find this feat more difficult than your other trips.
Throughout my travels I gathered various things to bring back to the States with me — clothes, shoes, trinkets, food, CDs from street musicians, artwork, etc. — but I continued to scour the shops of Barcelona for something that seemed worthy of commemorating my trip. How was I to buy one thing to represent a milestone in my life? Truthfully? I couldn’t. However, about half way through my trip I figured out the best souvenir to bring home with me and it was already in my possession: my journal.
My journal contains memories that no material thing or any amount of pictures could quite capture. It contained my experiences as I experienced them: My reactions to La Sagrada Familia; The excitement of finally understanding the language being spoken around me; The gelato shop that had, by far, the best gelato I had ever tasted. My journal contained memories of the little things like ticket stubs and napkins of my favorite cafes — memories that would have faded had I not written them down.
Journaling is therapeutic, especially as a study abroad student. When there is so much to do and so little time, sitting down to write about your day can seem tedious. But this is also why I would recommend it to every traveler, especially the busy ones. Traveling is like being on a constant adrenaline rush: you are so excited about doing the next thing that you forget to process what you have already done. Journaling is not only a way to remember everything you did on your travels, but also a way to process your experience on a personal level and allows you to get the most out of your experiences. You catch the little things that would probably slip your mind had you just tried to recall them from sheer memory.
For example, one of the most memorable moments from my trip was in the first week when we had a tour planned near the port with the entire group after a few hours of free time. A group of us had stopped in Las Ramblas to get some churros con chocolate (which are pure bliss, by the way). But we had lost track of time and underestimating how long it would take to get to the port. We ended up sprinting through downtown Barcelona, hardly knowing what direction to go, barley making it in time to meet up with our group. It had nothing to do with a lesson plan or a big historical monument, but it was something that stood out to me, so I wrote it down.
Studying abroad makes you realize that it’s these little things that stand out and make your experience so special. Although spectacular, the huge monuments and the historic city tours are not the things that make a study abroad trip stand apart from just another tourist trip. It’s the everyday things like grocery shopping, getting breakfast before class, catching a taxi, or finally figuring out the public transit system. These experiences make studying abroad a milestone rather than a trip. But it is also these experiences that are the first to fade from memory as time distances you from them.
By writing down what you did, saw, felt, you capture what made the experience unique for you. Anyone can take pictures of the major sites, but only you can describe how you felt seeing them. We all have similar postcards and souvenirs. But no one has the same journal. Your journal is your own. It contains what was important to you, what captured your attention.
You wouldn’t go to class without taking notes would you? If you didn’t you could still listen to the professor and look at the slides in class, but if you don’t take notes it’s going to be difficult to recall what you learned later. The same goes for traveling. Sure you can be completely aware while you are touring around and making these amazing experiences, but if you don’t write them down it will be difficult to recall later. Pictures of course help, but you usually won’t take pictures of the information you learned while at a museum or the observations you made at lunch, or the name of that restaurant with the really good gelato.
We all see the world differently and a journal allows you to transcribe your experience from your perspective. Traveling is so much more than seeing a new city and culture, it is about experiencing it. The true experience comes from the thoughts and feelings conducted. Experience is not just seeing, but hearing, talking, thinking, smelling, touching…many sensations that a photograph can’t quite capture.
Our professor required our journal entries to include sketches, something I wasn’t uneasy about at first, but soon came to enjoy. Unlike writing, sketching allows you to take a snapshot of what stood out to you, something that you want to remember as is. Sketching also requires that you sit and analyze something you are looking at, whether it be a street-scape, a building, or the landscape. You analyze the lines, shapes, colors, and the overall space that you are a part of.
But journal doesn’t have to contain entries of just pen to paper. My journal is littered with things most would consider garbage such as napkins, business cards, ticket stubs, flower petals, and pamphlets. Although they may just seem like pieces of trash, these little things are better than any souvenir I could have bought. Some of the tickets are slightly crumpled with tattered edges, like my public transit pass that I used everyday.
Studying abroad is about the little things you do everyday. It’s the little things that make your experience indescribable to other people. But I know if I hadn’t written down the things I did everyday I would eventually forget the little things that made my experience more than just a trip to Barcelona. So when my wanderlust kicks in, and I want to re-experience my journeys, I don’t look back to the pictures and souvenirs I collected, but to my journal.
I look back at the tattered-edge pages scattered with coffee stains and dirt; at the napkins from my favorite restaurants; at the sketches of the Barcelona streets and my weekend excursions to Italy. I look back at my comments about class lectures and field trips. I am reminded once again of the friends I made and the lessons I learned. And it’s only when I look back at my journal that I am back in Europe; back on the flower tiled streets, walking by bakeries of freshly baked bread, sitting at a restaurant eating tapas and drinking sangria.
Don’t get me wrong, souvenirs and pictures are amazing ways to remember your adventures. But there is something about having your memories documented, to commemorate your travels in a way that is unique to you. In fact, I now keep a journal every time I travel, collecting ticket stubs and business cards along the way; and I would suggest that every traveler to do the same.
Convincing yourself to take time out of your busy travel agenda can be difficult at first. However, once you make it a habit, it’s hard not to take the time. You get excited about writing down your day adventures. It’s like going home and telling your best friend about the amazing day you had.
Your memories aren’t something you can have shipped overseas, or have someone bring back for you. So next you embark on an adventure don’t forget to bring a journal and a nice pen, and make sure to write down anything and everything you experience: the food, the sites, the people. Even the things you think are unimportant (including your random thoughts), write them down, because those are the things that you will want to remember later. If you write everyday of your travels, even just a page each day, I guarantee it will become one of your most prized possessions that no other souvenirs could compare to.