Quantifying an Experience

by Madeleine Hallen

Since coming home to Maine, I’ve been asked “How was Uruguay?” a million times. I hear it from neighbors, friends, and relatives, all meaning the best, but not understanding that I still don’t know how to answer. I know what everyone wants to hear:

“It was amazing! My host family and internship were awesome, and I made so many friends and saw such cool places!”

This is the response I first used and, to be fair, it’s all true. But it’s hard for me to group so many memories, conversations, adventures, and emotions into a sentence like that. You can’t know a book without reading the whole story, and obviously, a one-sentence summary does not suffice.

Being asked this question and never knowing how to respond made me wonder how I would measure the seven months. Meaning, answering “How was Uruguay?” not to an outside party, but only to myself. My first instinct was to take tangible parts of my experience, assign value based on how many times they occurred, and in this way, determine significance. The most significant things would be what I could measure my year with. I soon realized that I was basically rewriting “Seasons of Love” from Rent ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvyHuse6buY). The song brings up a good point- it’s surprisingly hard to take such a concrete amount of time and define it by something else. I could define it more generally by how many bus rides I took, how many times I traveled, how many friendships I made, how many sunsets I watched. I thought that those would be great, universally understandable and beautiful memories, but they lacked a certain emotional value. Using these experiences to quantify my time didn’t feel complete- it was too general, too normal, and left out too much.

Then, I began thinking of ways to incorporate that personal side that I felt was missing. I could use dozens of personal ways to quantify my time with memories specific to my friends, family, and internship. However, I realized that these experiences, though meaningful to me, were too specific to quantify in a general statement. I think they will hold more value in a journal entry for myself than in a blog post, or in my short answer about my experience abroad.

I came to the conclusion that I could not use numbers to determine significance. I had more general experiences that were vast in amount, and I had specific experiences that were too isolated, too small, and therefore, I couldn’t possibly group them together. Throwing numbers out of the equation, but still thinking about significance, I found a solution. The answer was to quantify my experience with concepts- things like beauty, joy, and love. I found that using such concepts as a way to quantify my experience to answer that question adequately incorporated the complexity of my time in Uruguay, as well as simplified my answer to be appropriately short for the prompt. These feelings were present in every experience I could describe as general, as well as every isolated moment. All of them were so present in my seven months, yet all numerically unquantifiable. When I think of my time in Uruguay, there is beauty, there is joy, and Rent was definitely onto something, because there is, most importantly, love. The most significant part of my experience was that I grew love for my family, my internship, my friends, the city, my home, the language, and myself.

And now, I ask myself, “Maddie, how was Uruguay?”

“There was beauty in every moment, and my days were filled with love- I will be forever grateful.”

My first and last photos from my seven beautiful months in Uruguay.