17. A Picture’s Worth

17. A Picture’s Worth

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

A Picture’s Worth

The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.

~G.K. Chesterton

When I went abroad, I chose Scotland seemingly at random, and St Andrews because it appeared to be the best of all possible options. There was an ocean, an entirely different culture, and a university full of traditions that had been around longer than my country.

I was sent an orientation guide full of things to keep in mind that ranged from the practical to the silly. For example, they made a big fuss about the fact that “I’ll knock you up” means one thing in America, but in the UK it means “I’ll knock on your door.”

For the record, that has never come up in conversation during my time in the UK.

There were other things, like what a “quid” is (slang for a pound, the unit of currency, like “buck” refers to the dollar), warnings that only Americans or athletes wear white socks, and the all-mighty “what you’ll need” list, including hiking boots (used them once), a backpack (used it but made myself look like a tourist in doing so), and a hidden passport pouch (don’t get me started on this one).

Maybe all of that should have tipped me off, but part of me just didn’t understand that when I got off that flight and opened exhausted eyes to the Scottish sun, I would be in an entirely different world.

To be fair, like many American Junior Year Abroad students at St Andrews, I didn’t live a markedly different life from my one at my home college. Most of my friends had accents, that’s true, and in my spare time I found myself in front of the Sacré-Coeur or the Tuscan hills. I was of a legal drinking age and found myself at pubs with my friends, but overall, nothing much had really changed when I look back on it. The scenery had switched and the people had rotated out, but I was still a college student living a college life.

I had this desperate need, as so many JYAs do, to take full advantage of this time in my life. Many of my peers thought this meant seeing as many countries as physically possible, and that was my first deviation. I knew I didn’t want to fly past landmarks with my eyes hidden behind a camera, only pausing to absorb when I was back home and uploading the photos. I wanted to bask.

When I went to the Sacré-Coeur for the first time, I remember sitting on the steps in front of it with my breakfast, looking out over Paris as a light fog lifted. I took a few pictures, and then I put the camera away and I took a few deep breaths, not talking to the friend beside me. I got the sense then that there are pictures and there are moments, and your desire for the picture should never get in the way of the moment itself.

It was the beginning of a change.

I ended up transferring to St Andrews and finishing my degree there. For whatever the reason, I got the sense that I just was not finished with it yet. There was something that I hadn’t felt yet, some immersion that just hadn’t happened. There was a part of me yet to be fulfilled, a part of my home culture yet to be shed to fully dive into Scottish life.

I avidly pursued my degree, following my passion for writing in a way that wasn’t encouraged in the States. My teachers and my family warned me that writing just wasn’t a practical career; it wasn’t likely to yield a sustainable income. In Scotland, for the first time, I felt like my passion was supported and encouraged; if I wanted to be a writer, what business did I have pursuing anything other than writing?

I continued to travel, and I stopped taking tours and started staying with friends, diving into a more genuine experience of a different location. I still took some amazing pictures, but those pictures were filled with laughter, with friends, with moments that I still look at and say, “No, wait, you have to hear the story behind that one!”

At the end of my senior year (fourth year, as they call it in Scotland), the days began stretching longer. Scotland is far enough north that the length of the day varies greatly based on the time of the year, and as June bloomed, the days seemed endless, as if they were accommodating the dwindling time I had left in the country.

My family arrived, early enough to do some traveling and make the best of their time abroad, and then we settled in for Graduation Week. My graduation ceremony itself was unlike anything I had seen, with traditions dating back hundreds of years. I remember the feeling of waiting in the wings, a faculty member straightening my robes and showing me how to hold my silk hood so that the University Principal could cast it over my shoulders and indicate that I was a proud graduate of the university.

I crossed the stage and knelt on a velvet step. The principal slapped me on the head with a piece of cloth (a piece of John Knox’s pants, actually) and hooded me, and I rose a graduate.

The last event of Graduation Week was the Graduation Ball, and even that went far too quickly. It came to its bittersweet conclusion, and my friends and I looked to each other and knew it wasn’t time to say goodbye just yet.

We went the only logical place to go. There is a beach beneath the ruins of St Andrews Castle, partially hidden from the cliffs above, and it was the site of countless memorable nights in St Andrews, the site of the infamous May Dip, a beautiful place that was as meaningful to students hundreds of years ago as it is today. I stood at the top of the cliff, about to go down to the beach, and I stopped.

It was almost 2 A.M., but the sun hadn’t set completely. It was a small light in the corner of the sky, hiding just behind the ruins of the castle, just below the horizon but still casting a blue glow. The light refracted and set the tumultuous North Sea glittering, glowing, shining with unbelievable flecks of light blue against the velvet navy sky.

I couldn’t move. I didn’t reach for my camera. Tears began welling in my eyes and my friend touched my arm and whispered, “I know.”

People around us were trying to snap pictures, but their frustration was vocal and obvious; it just wasn’t transferring into a photo. It was only appropriate, really. That moment could never be captured, could never be framed, could never be shared, and yet it will never be forgotten. Like all experiences that shape us and change us, it is right behind my eyes, ready to be called up, never far from my mind and my heart.

It wasn’t just that I graduated. I had learned to live my life for the moments, and not for the pictures.

~AC Gaughen

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