ACCENT San Francisco: The Things You Remember

This week, we meet ACCENT San Francisco’s new Programs Assistant , Matthew Facer, who has studied abroad in Italy, Spain, and England. Matthew explores the nature of memory in study abroad: how memories fade, how we carry them with us wherever we go, how they often resurface at unexpected times, and how they shape us into different people.

I have lived abroad three times in my life—twice as a student, once as a student teacher. These three experiences have punctuated the distinct epochs of my adult life—the first, as the fretful eldest child of a rural Utah family whose parents never owned a passport nor college degree; the second, as a fledgling jobseeker who leveraged his degree to attain a meaningful vocation; the third, as a self-assured adult with the confirmation of my experience stamped on my graduate-school acceptance letter.

That first experience took place over five-and-half weeks in Siena, Italy. My Tuscan summer was a flurry of transient emotions which at the time felt indelible. Siena still lives somewhere in my mind, and every so often, by some strange osmosis, it will return to me; of course, I have not forgotten ninety-cent cappuccinos, or the decadent revelation that is ricotta-and-fig gelato, but the sensation—the thrill—of those small pleasures proves much harder to recollect.

By the time I had arrived in Spain, more than five years had passed. My Italian memories had endured, but they were devoid of any sensory attachment. Yet once I exited the plane in Madrid, that mélange of anxiety and excitement—of uncertainty and intuition—flooded back to me.

Two years later, I descended the bus in Oxford; the high street was manic, the side-streets labyrinthine. On the meandering journey to my apartment, I came across the Museum of Natural History, where one of the great debates on the theory of evolution transpired. That hallowed plat of earth stretching before the Museum, so revered those first few weeks, became the dubious stretch of my commute where soggy, trodden leaves made even walking treacherous.There is a hard truth to studying abroad: the enthusiasm wanes and the mind adapts. Eventually, you engross yourself in the quotidian aspects of existence and life in Oxford becomes nearly indistinguishable from life in Utah, or Siena, or Spain. The names on the storefronts change but the contents remain the same.

Eventually, studying abroad ends. You return home. After the initial readjustment, your “old” life resumes. In a few months, the memories of your experience cloud and some even dissipate. In a few years, the residual memories coalesce into an impressionistic painting, some details appearing more salient than others.

I can recall, somewhat vaguely now, the sensation of my first nights alone in England, Italy, and Spain—lying on my bed, utterly astounded at how I arrived, at that moment, in that place. I can recall thinking, almost defiantly, that I would not allow myself to forget that feeling.

But you will forget some things; that much is inevitable. After all my travels, I have come to recognize that the determination of our brains to adapt is a fallible component of our design.

But studying—or working—abroad is worth it. You receive the privilege of experiencing a culture that you have only ever observed from afar, but with the intimacy of a local and the perspective of a visitor. You are permitted entry to two cultures—the one you inhabit and the one you convey home—and the synthesis of your experiences within those two cultures washes over you at the most unexpected instances and in the most wonderfully-unpredictable ways.

I still carry the afternoon warmth of the cobblestones in Piazza del Campo, the unrivaled joy of the students I taught hailing me from across the street, and those nights in Oxford spent at the college pub, engaged in darts and discussion.

I may forget that the Piazza was teeming and humid, and that none of our apartments had air conditioning. I may forget that in class the children were rowdy, and that some days I pondered whether I was teaching them anything at all. I may forget that the college pub was too small, and that the din of voices was too heavy to sustain proper conversation. I may even forget how badly I wanted to blend in with my host cultures.

What matter are the things you remember.~Matthew Facer, ACCENT San Francisco

Did this post inspire you to study abroad and create new memories? Use the ACCENT Program Finder to discover your next great adventure: