College is a time of disguised instability. At 18 years old, four years in one place seems like a long time, but it isn’t. Each fall when we move into dorm rooms, we hang up posters and register for classes and take another step toward independence and adulthood. Part of being young is being undeterred by this instability; when we go to college, we commit ourselves to a temporary environment. We fight for club leadership positions, try to get housing points so we can live in a specific dorm and pour time into friendships that may have an expiration date. We act as if our experiences are permanent even when we logically know that when we graduate, they may dissipate. Within the whirlwind of college, there is an even more temporary experience that many choose to engage in: studying abroad.
When you leave for a semester in another country, you know that whatever you encounter when your plane touches down will only last for a few months. You may have to adjust to a new language, swap out familiar brands for new names at the grocery store, and try to interpret a novel set of body language and social cues. You are away from your family, your friends, your campus and your cognitive map of daily life — despite this situation, you may still try to find permanence. Your emotional desire can override your logical understanding of your transient situation.
My experience abroad thus far has shown me that despite my recognition of this semester’s impermanence, I am still seeking stability. When I arrived in Copenhagen in late August, I found myself trying to memorize streets and find visual landmarks so that I could find my way home without looking down at my phone. Knowing that my visit here is substantially more than that of a quick trip, I crave the understanding and familiarity that typically accompanies home. I want insider details about Copenhagen even though I know that after my final exams in December, most of the information that I’m desperately seeking to imprint in my mind will no longer be useful, and my memories of street names and biking hand signals and Danish introductory phrases will slowly fade away.
Even in these first few weeks, observing this phenomenon in myself is fascinating. I expend energy figuring out which grocery store has the cheapest eggs, which coffee bean brand tastes the best and which bus lines take me where. Recognizing my own unnecessary attempts at permanence has made me reflect and reassess what it means for something to be permanent.
When I was a child, the concept of permanence almost always related to the physical: a house, a school, a playground. As I got older, though, my definition of permanence has changed. It has become a means rather than an end. Being abroad and observing my own tendencies to memorize and catalog experiences made me realize that seeking stability in an unchangeably temporary situation is a way to segue into the permanence of adulthood after college.
Learning how to navigate a new city, meet new people and assimilate into a new culture is a way to prepare myself for the next time my life flips on its head — spring 2020, when I graduate from Georgetown. And not only that, but the transient things that I’m involving myself in right now manifest themselves in the experiences that I’m bringing back home: memories of walking on Copenhagen’s cobblestone streets; the planning and preparation required for cooking all of your meals for yourself; and how to transition from being at home to sharing a suite with five new people.
It’s important to have permanent things in your life — things that make you feel stable, safe and grounded — but it’s changing circumstances that really have the power to affect you. Stepping into new experiences with their end dates in mind is restricting and preventative. Even if it’s knowledge that won’t last, I like knowing which grocery store has the cheapest eggs (Netto), which bus stop to get off at for my school (Rådhuspladsen), and how to get a gel manicure (ask for shellac). Throwing your heart into something that you know might not last is one of the most raw, striking and incredible parts of being young.