Since I got back on campus I’ve been feeling more and more like all I write about is the problem with the European study abroad experience. That’s not really a very deep topic, and it’s a little unhelpful to everybody who’s not studying abroad in Europe, so I’d really like to get down to the core of what bothers me about Americans studying abroad in Europe and put this whole self-image to rest.
Like any good anti-consumerist, I’ll start with the necessary condition that in a capitalist economy, we’re defined less by what we make than by what we have. We all know that Craft is a faith whose devotees are dwindling and that we work so that we can pay for things we don’t, strictly speaking, need. I don’t think it’s productive to rail against this process, but I think it’s less productive to deny that it’s happening in the first place.
We consume more than material goods, though. We buy t-shirts, but we also buy books, and unless it’s that beloved copy of Huckleberry Finn you got from your grandfather, the material copy of the book doesn’t matter nearly as much as the text. The same goes for movies, whose physical substance has been essentially obliterated by streaming video anyway. We can’t wear these intangibles on our bodies, but they’re much more important—if you lost a favorite t-shirt you might have a moment of mourning for it, but nothing compared to how you’d feel if they canceled your favorite TV show.
And this might be thin ice, but I might even argue that identification increases with intangibility. Most of us here, I assume, would think of ourselves as Carleton students before we’d think of ourselves as New Girl fans or Apple users. The more intangible a consumer good is, the bigger it tends to be; college is maybe the biggest good on the market, and it requires an enormous investment of money and emotion. Moreover, we live here, we don’t just commute, which adds a much older, much more visceral level of identification: we’re always irrationally attached to the places we’ve lived. Even people like me, who define themselves as much by what they reject as what they embrace on this campus, are still starting from Carleton in the first place.
The thing is, though, that Carleton’s brand isn’t very well-defined. Before we enroll, we don’t really know much about it; afterwards, we’re too close to have a good view of it. Once you’re on a mountain, you can’t see the mountain anymore. We know the colors, the windmills, the Bald Spot; some of us even know the alma mater. But we don’t have a common vocabulary to talk about Carleton; it hasn’t been crystallized into a set of stereotypes, and so the identity we form with it is bound to be full of contradiction. Recall Rob Oden’s dictum about the elusive average Carl.
One thing unites Carleton, though, and that’s the rigid insistence on study abroad, especially if they happen to be renovating Evans. And since the choice, really, is no longer “should I study abroad” but “where should I study abroad,” the process of preparing to go off-campus takes on the characteristics of sitting down with a catalog. At least in Europe, each city has rigid, unshakeable characteristics in our minds, even before we visit. Venice is St. Mark’s, green canals, pointed windows; Paris is cream-colored stone, the Eiffel Tower, roadside crêpes. Tourism departments might come up with nominal brands for these cities, but the true images they have in our minds come from the books we read, the movies we watch, the pictures we see at the OCS photo contest.
As I experienced it, a lot of study abroad is about confirming those images, which is to say consuming the brand. When I decided to study abroad in Rome, I did it primarily because of the film industry, but also just because I liked the idea of living in Rome—the loud shopkeepers, the churches, the layers of excavations. This is maybe the most common marketing ploy in the study abroad game: “Picture yourself on the Charles Bridge!” (Or in the Tiergarten, or in Red Square, or your drug of choice.) Whether you want it to or not, your preconceptions of a place work their way up to your higher faculties, and you end up making a choice maybe not primarily but at least partly based on those preconceptions. And when you get to Europe, at least part of what you do will be fulfill those preconceptions. You’ll take a picture at the Eiffel Tower. You’ll take a picture at St. Peter’s. You’ll take a picture on the Rialto Bridge.
So let’s reduce this: when you pay to study abroad in Europe, you are paying for (among other things!) a t-shirt with EUROPE printed on it, and you’re hoping people tell you it looks good on you. And that’s fine—or at least, if it’s bad, there’s nothing you can do about it short of skipping Europe entirely—provided you realize that a city is not a t-shirt, is almost by definition a self-sustaining cultural ecosystem, and wouldn’t suffer a bit if you vanished entirely. You might be treating Europe like a commodity on some level, but it will never treat you like a client. Or if you can’t get away from the artifice of it, maybe take this angle: what you’re really buying when you go to Europe is difference, and if you end up with a bunch of pictures of the food you expected to eat and the churches you expected to see, that’s a pretty lousy return on investment.