My evening flight up to New Jersey was delayed in increments. Text messages at intervals eventually told me it would be 3 hrs late. I couldn’t even try to scrape onto the last train from the airport – we were arriving way too late for that. By 8.30am I’d need to be at Rutgers University for my PhD convocation.
Don’t panic. As the saying goes. It wasn’t worth paying for a hotel room near the airport that I’d only reside in for 4 hrs – I’d get to sleep in an airport terminal the night before the culminating, crowning event of my advanced degree (duration: 4.5 years).
The symbolism seems obvious enough.
Anyway, this is why I always travel with a pashmina. Those things almost as important as towels. Throw ’em over your head when attempting to drift off under glaring LED lights; wrap ’em around your body when an unexpected chill breeze strikes up; cover your bare shoulders to reduce sunburn. Pashminas are amazing. It’s why I managed to get ~60 mins of sleep within a 4 hr time span crammed onto an airport “sleep proof” bench next to a massive widescreen TV blaring 24 hr entertainment drivel, with AC blasting me. I got to my Convocation early.
If a PhD teaches you anything, it’s how to operate under stressful conditions with limited resources.
Memory functions like a strip of paper. You can fold two distant pieces so they fit together. It was weird to disembark in New Brunswick…and everything felt exactly the same. It was like I’d never left. But the disquieting bit was I forgot what Atlanta was like as soon as I returned to New Brunswick. Memories and emotions are stained into the fabric of places. When people ask if I miss the UK I tend to shrug and say I don’t really think about it. And that’s totally true: it’s impossible for me to conjour up the memories and sensations of a place when I’m living somewhere else. But those memories and feelings will come flooding back if I return.
It means that there are feelings I can only access in one city. The feelings experienced when floating down the Rhein on a lazy summer weekend in Basel? Yeah, I’d need to fly to Switzerland for an August holiday. Cycling over the Thames to the backdrop of a vivid purple & yellow sunset? Can’t recreate it ever again.
As I wander around New Brunswick and Rutgers taking this in, I feel heartbreak. Because I was glad to leave the wilderness of New Jersey and plunge back into a massive city…but I can’t recreate to this sense of place. It was unique.
On my last day at Novartis – a couple of days before I’d fly out of Switzerland permanently – I sat crying on the banks of the Rhein for an hour. It didn’t matter how I’d struggled in such a foreign country, or the frustrations of education plans thwarted long-distance…it hurt to leave. I still catch myself yearning for those tranquil walks through Basel’s old city, dawdling beside quiet fountains in empty squares.
A city will break your heart. Although your heart will heal…it’ll never re-form how it was before.
And you won’t want it to.
Graduation isn’t really about the ceremony itself. It’s about closure on an experience that can be fuzzily-defined. I defended my PhD in early December in a low-key fashion (bought 2 bags of croissants for my defense catering, the leftovers lasted a week), then loitered around the area until early January in much the same manner as pre-defense. Hanging around the school gymnasium for a couple of hours just to walk across the (small) stage and get “hooded” with something that WOULD NOT function as a hood in a rainstorm is as good an end point as any. You Walked, you’re 100% done. Send official photographs to your parents – everyone’s happy.
On the subject of location-specific memories…I spent a bit of time in New Brunswick and went down to Philly for several social engagements. Some of the highlights of my trip included:
- Thai food that wasn’t sickly sweet.
- Sleeping at the 24 hr swanky Korean spa. Cheaper than a hotel, I was out like a light for 9 hours AND I got sauna/hot-tub time thrown in for the price of admission.
- Coppery espressos drunk slowly in view of Independence Hall.
- Hanging out with friends I’ve known for almost a decade, sharing plates of Sichuan grub and having stupid conversations. Then going to a dessert bar to eat ice cream in a torrential thunderstorm.
- Brunch in Manayunk. It tastes better there.
I’ll get on a flight to Atlanta. These sensations will fade out as others fade back in. I’ll taste the humid Georgian air and remember my martial arts, Emory, and all the writing. I won’t remember what it really felt like to be a doctoral student, or to live it up in Philadelphia.
At least, not until the next time.