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Behind the caption in Glasgow

September 29, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Phoebe Nichols

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that the photos captioned #bowdoinabroad on Instagram don’t tell the full story. Instagram never does; there’s no way that a filtered square can capture an entire semester. And yet I spent this past spring posting photo after photo, scrolling through cleverly captioned snapshots and trying to define and tell my own story without the context of everything I knew.

Being an extroverted, overcommitted Bowdoin student is a hard habit to break; I’ve never been one for solitude or down time or getting enough sleep. It’s not because I don’t like myself, but rather because I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by opportunity and loved ones and adventures that seem much more exciting than spending time alone. But I landed in Glasgow without knowing anyone, so hanging out with myself was pretty much the only option.

It was great, but also sometimes lonely and terribly confusing. As someone who talks a lot, days spent by myself were vaguely jarring. Words that would generally spill out into the chilly air had no ear to catch them, and so they remained to bounce around as unarticulated thoughts and observations in my mind. I kept trying to go to bed early because I had a negligible amount of homework, but my nocturnal tendencies built up over years of academic overachieving wouldn’t let me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should join a club, organize an initiative or simply spend more hours in the library. I’ve always prided myself on spending my time meaningfully and doing things I love, but I realized that I didn’t know how to not be busy. I didn’t know who to be without meetings and constant plans to get a meal with someone and juggling jobs and classes and trying to claim a table near an outlet in Smith. I felt lost in a big city of anonymous students and gray skies without the context of Bowdoin to show me who I was supposed to be.

I couldn’t introduce myself with a list of activities and majors, the identity I leaned on at Bowdoin to fill my time and my thoughts. And somewhere along my long walks around Glasgow and the constant coffees that kept me warm, I realized that I didn’t need to reconstruct the Bowdoin Bubble to feel like I was a real person. Being alone, without a full schedule of commitments, stopped being stressful and started to feel like the best sort of norm. Combined with the relatively small wardrobe I brought with me, it was like a sort of stripped-down version of my life—I made fewer choices every day, but at the same time I was presented with a million options whenever I turned a new corner. Living was more exhausting and more relaxing abroad than I can remember it being before.

I learned to play the bagpipes and to like whisky, or at least to convince myself that I like whisky. It’s still unclear. I read a lot of books. I said “cheers” a lot to demonstrate my grasp of the dialect, but I also had to ask people to repeat things three times because the Glaswegian accent is a bit like a foreign language. I went to museums and bookstores and countless cafes. I walked everywhere, trying to get used to the whole driving-on-the-other-side-of-the-road thing and also almost got hit by a car twice because I never learned how to walk in cities and also because people in Glasgow drive like pedestrians were invented last week. I started asking the whereabouts of the toilet rather than the bathroom, because it made me feel British despite my American accent and because I got a bit of a thrill out of saying something that would make a twelve-year-old giggle.

My solitude made every exchange—ordering a bowl of soup, commiserating with a fellow pedestrian over the buffeting wind—an important part of my day rather than another contribution to endless sensory input. For the first time in a long time, my life didn’t feel colored by other people—it felt colored by me. Since it was impossible to define myself in terms of grades or clubs or where I lived or the fact that I like Moulton better, I looked inward. I looked downward. I saw my own feet on a windswept hillside in a place that I had learned to call home and I posted it on Instagram.

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