“Not all those who wander are lost.”
~ J.R.R. Tolkien
Study Abroad is an experience – that much at least should be clear by now. Well, actually it’s more like a collection of little experiences that will all eventually come together to make up the bigger picture, just like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. That’s why no two people will ever go on the same exchange, even if they go to the same university, in the same country, even at the same time. Moreover, the experience – how it unfolds, what you take from it etc. – that part is all up to you. I think it was Albus Dumbledore who once said our choices define us much more than our actions and, you know what? He had a point!
I think one of the biggest choices I made (in terms of how it’s affected my Study Abroad experience so far) was my decision to not get a new plan for my mobile phone. There were several practical reasons for this, most of them to do with money (I’d have had to pay to break my contract, phone plans here are much more expensive… the list goes on and on), but finances aside, the more I thought it over, the more I decided to give it a go. I’ve been the proud owner of my own mobile phone since I was eleven-years-old, and I got my first smart phone when I was sixteen. In other words, for the past four or five years, if ever I’ve needed to know something – be it the local bus timetable, the name of the last five Prime Ministers, or even detailed instructions on how to mop a kitchen floor (don’t judge me, but I genuinely did once Google that) – it’s only taken me a few moments to find it out. We really do live with the wealth of humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips, and the prospect of taking that away was more than just a little daunting for me. Which of course only made me more determined to do it.
I should point out here that I haven’t gone completely cold turkey. I keep my phone on aeroplane mode most of the time, but I can still access Wi-Fi and, living in a city such as Montréal, I’m rarely without a good connection. But this has made the process of getting from A to B a whole lot more interesting – especially when I don’t have the foggiest idea where B is. Which is most of the time seeing how my sense of direction is determinedly backwards even on a good day.
You would be surprised at how many people react with horror upon hearing that I don’t have a Canadian phone number, meaning I don’t have access to 3G which leaves me permanently stranded between Wi-Fi hotspots. I frequently get asked questions such as ‘how do you manage?’ or ‘don’t you think you should just get one?’, which to me only further reiterates how dependent we have become on the Internet to solve all our problems for us. The point is, we as a species managed perfectly well before Tim Berners-Lee came along and though I shall be eternally grateful to him for doing so (that floor wasn’t going to mop itself), it is more than possible to exist without being permanently connected to the World-Wide Web.
In fact, I would argue that it makes life (and certainly my Study Abroad experience) a lot more interesting. Not being able to rely on my phone to tell me where to go forces me to look up for a change, meaning I see so much more of what’s around me. Montréal is one of the most beautiful cities out there, but sometimes you have to go looking for the best bits, and I can tell you now that you won’t find them on a screen. Things like watching the sun set over the Olympic Stadium, seeing Downtown all lit up at night from the other end of Rue Sherbrooke or catching sight of the tip of a racoon’s stripy tail as it dives for cover behind a wheelie bin (sorry, trash can). Moments like those are fleeting; if you blink, then you can miss them just like that and if you’re too busy scowling at your phone screen because Google doesn’t have a clue where you are either, then you won’t even realise they were there in the first place.
It’s true that not all those who wander are lost, but sometimes getting lost is half the fun of wandering. Don’t get me wrong, having 3G can be a lifesaver – especially when you’re stuck outside your friend’s apartment having to resort to throwing stones at their window Romeo-style because their buzzer isn’t working and you don’t have the Wi-Fi password to message them – but you don’t need it to survive. So, the next time you’re somewhere new, take the road less travelled by and remember to look up from your phone screen every now and then. Because you never know what you might see hiding just around the corner.