Leaving Philadelphia was difficult. I remember lying on my bed one glorious summer afternoon, crying forlornly. Leaving was an emotional upheaval – I found the thought of being separated from my American friends of 12 months more upsetting than when I left my well-established UK social circles behind. Why? Precariousness I guess. Those American social circles were just starting to mature: if I said goodbye to them now there was no guarantee they’d survive the trans-Atlantic rift.
Also, when I left the UK in July 2009 I knew I’d be back on British soil after exactly 1 year. There was no such certainty when I left the States.
Thankfully, an annual holiday of a fortnight during the summer was enough to maintain my connections in America. I loved the feeling of wandering through the city, believing for just a few precious days that it was as if I’d never left.
In January 2012 I was thinking desperately about Philadelphia, waiting for my grad school admissions results to come back in. It was more than just a ‘Yes’ answer I was after – with a PhD offer came the promise of continuity. Professionally, I wasn’t going to be stuck in internship after internship for the next 5 years; in a personal context I could return to the Eastern Seaboard and try to re-start what I left behind in September 2010.
Yet now we’re at July 2013 and I’m thinking critically about my “stopped clock” belief for the first time. Nearly 3 years have passed since I was in Philly, it isn’t realistic for me to assume that I can restart relationships and life from where I left off. I will be based 90 minutes up the train tracks from Philadelphia, the full-time demands of graduate study means that I can’t simply nip down there in the evenings. It’s going to be weekend trips.
Do I even want to turn the clock all the way back to September 2010? A lot has altered in those 3 years. I’ve gained more worldly experience. Navigating a truly “foreign” country and wrestling with “foreign language issues” was an eye-opener, with moments of run-round-in-circles-screeching elation and moments of slam-your-fist-into-the-brick-wall-then-cry-alone-in-the-toilets anguish. Going through a second PhD application cycle taught me (a) I was nothing special in a vast pool overflowing with talented individuals (another cry-alone-in-the-toilets type lesson) (b) despite that I possessed the skills to make the second attempt a success.
It does hurt me to think of Philadelphia life and its people moving on without me. Though at the same time the friendships that mattered not only have lasted but I reckon have strengthened. The people I’ve grown closer to over the 3-year interim period are not always the ones I predicted – which should teach me not to make too many over-optimistic assumptions…
I’ve made the decision to leave a month after I arrive in the USA before I venture into Philadelphia for a proper visit. My first paycheque isn’t going to arrive until then (I don’t want to burn off all my dollars on a regional rail ticket). Although more crucially, I think my first priority should be to settle into life in New Jersey, rather than pretend I’m merely living in a particularly far-out Philadelphian suburb.
It’s a shame I can’t come back to Philadelphia itself, but I know that in this case the decision to emphasise professional standing outweighed personal preferences.
Besides, where genuine friendship is concerned? Those clocks never stop.