In 1999 I went to Europe for a semester with about twenty-five other undergrads from my university. Our program was based in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, a little village tucked in between the lakes and mountains just north of the Italian border. It was a beautiful place to live and a wonderful spot from which to take off exploring. Almost every Thursday afternoon, after class was done for the week (that’s right, no Friday classes) the bulk of us headed out for the train station and then on to an unbelievable variety of destinations. During my three months there, I went to Milan, Turin, Florence, Munich, Salzburg, Venice, and Prague. Others made it to Nice, Geneva, Pisa, Genoa, and more. I spent spring break in Tunisia and Easter in Rome. We all went to Frankfort, Heidelberg, Cologne, and Amsterdam together and later took a second trip down to Rome, Naples and Pompeii. The semester turned out to be the most amazing thing any of us had ever done.
It was so amazing that when I came back to campus in the fall, I found it difficult to describe to my old friends the enormity of the experience. I put together the requisite photo album and told stories about all the exciting things that happened to me over there, but these tended to end up being disheartening exercises; there were too many people to keep track of, too many references that required complex explanations, too many details that had to be left out. I always finished a story feeling frustrated that my listeners didn’t really get it.
To compensate for this, I’d get together from time to time with a group of people from the Europe trip. We’d sometimes reminisce about the trip itself, but just as often we merely hung out and talked about whatever was going on around us. Sprinkled in to those conversations were the codes and rituals and inside jokes, the special language, we had compiled during our time together in the spring. That language was a critical bonding agent for my memories of the trip, and I relished the opportunity to break it out a few more times before it faded away.
And it did fade away. As the semester went on, people got busy with classes and projects and the affairs of the semester. The gatherings ended and were replaced by random, unplanned five-minute reunions when a couple of us landed together at a football game or some frat party. In those moments we would hug or shake hands and ask how things were going but the immediacy of our sympathies, the ability to dip into that special language, had slipped away.
In the abstract, that seems like a sad thing, but at the time it felt okay. New stuff was piling on the old - new experiences, new challenges, new loves, new jokes, new things filled with their own importance and potential. There were too many other things happening to get choked up about the passing of a moment that was never meant to last forever anyway.
For the last two years, Polly and I have had our own special club. We would get Ava out the door, bike Pip down to school, and then come back home to our own little bubble. Inside the bubble we followed a regular routine: reading, writing and math in the morning, some play or special activity, book reading at lunch, and then a nap. At the end of the nap, I would carry her down the steps to give her time to wake up before riding down to pick up Pip from school. Mixed into this routine were several idiosyncratic rituals – a special toothbrushing exercise, snack runs, and the ‘ding-dong’ game to name a few. We worked so well together that after a crazy weekend with everyone home, we looked forward to those first quiet hours on Monday morning when it was just the two of us again.
Last week that all ended as Polly officially entered kindergarten. In June when school was letting out and Polly and I had our last couple of days together, I felt surprisingly emotional about it all. I welled up a few times doing the dishes and had to work to hold it together the final time we rode down together to pick up Pip from school. As such I wasn’t sure how I’d react to Polly’s first kindergarten drop off.
But as it turns out it wasn’t that hard. Pip and Polly rolled into school together with heads held high and smiles on their faces. Ava and I headed back to the house and then on to our respective tasks. Too many new things lay ahead for us all to worry much about what coming to an end. My biggest disappointment in the whole experience is that there’s really not much more to tell.