Revisiting Old, Familiar Places

Two weeks ago, I visited my old university, from where I graduated just six months ago. Everything pretty much looks the same – the odd-looking art pieces, the plastic benches, the many halls bustling with all types of noise imaginable. And yet, the feeling is different. In a way I couldn’t explain, I felt like a stranger in a place I called home for the past five years. My emotions wrestled between joy and sadness with each step I took. on I walked – past the silver gates, along the sidewalk that’s now covered with red bricks, across the lawn that’s always muddy but where the green grass is always fresh, even on days of drought. I walked and paused, smiled and stared. I looked around me – the buildings, the trees, the benches, the people – and I felt a mix of contradicting emotions surge through me. I don’t understand. It was like I was both eager and scared at the same time – eager to return but scared of what I was returning to.

But, why? What is making me feel such fear?

Is it the newly paved streets? Is it that new waiting shed? Or the new rules implemented perhaps? Probably not. I was never really a follower of rules. Well, I guess it must be that new cafe outside the library and those new shelves inside the laboratory and those new sofas that replaced what used to be study tables and those new routes and every other single hint of change I had to witness that day.

I was scared because what was once familiar has now become unfamiliar. I was scared because I was watching the past slowly fade away before my eyes. I was scared because I now return as a stranger to a place where once I was a resident. I was scared because a certain hollowness filled me as I looked around me. I soon realized that more than the new sights and sounds, the hollowness and fear sprung from the fact that though this is an old, familiar place, there are no longer old, familiar faces to greet. On this day, I was left to wander alone in a place where friends once wandered and wondered with me. On this day, none of the people I met brought me comfort and joy. None of them made me want to stay a little longer. And all I could do was to hold onto such a heartbreaking truth, wishing that it doesn’t completely shatter my heart that day.

I took what courage was left of me and revisited the places I used to frequent back when I was still an undergraduate. While I tried to perpetually convince myself that these are nothing more than structures and open spaces, my emotions got the better hold of me. Each familiar sight led me to a nostalgic trance.

There is that library, where I used to sneakily eat my lunch and snacks whenever I got hungry while looking out for librarians and guards who might throw me out when they catch me. This is also where my blockmates caught me eating a Krispy Kreme donut in between the shelves one day. They couldn’t let that go… ever. And this is where we spent most of our days studying, reviewing, cramming papers, taking naps, and whiling the time away (because this is the only place in campus that is cold enough to quench the day’s heat).

And there is that building too. The one that’s home to Chemistry majors. Many hours were spent there doing laboratory work, chatting with blockmates, gossiping about people we barely knew, and discussing – or ranting – about our professors and all our academic burdens. This is where we spilled chemical reagents on our shoes, broke glasswares, and wondered whether we’ll get cancer from all the experiments we’re doing. This is where we fought for a spot in the schedule for an instrument’s usage, for a space in the benches, and for an empty drawer. This is where I texted with classmates during a boring class, talked about the most trivial things with friends, and developed many of my skills as a scientist. But more importantly, this is where I felt belongingness – where I found my family in college. This is what we called our home, our lair. Many memories, both good and bad, were made here. And no other place made me miss college more than this building.

There is also that cafeteria, where the heat is unbearable, and the noise, even more so. This was the real battlefield, where tables and chairs run out faster than French fries and where ninja skills prove to be the most useful. This is where fun stories, hearty laughs, and delicious (unhealthy) food are shared between and among friends.

And then, there are all those miscellaneous places that brought back memories. The scenes played in my head as vividly as if they just happened yesterday. There are those class play rehearsals, those food trips, those inside jokes, those photo shoots, those angsty moments, that quick run to some building to make it to the submission deadline, those long lines to sign up for an oral exam, that nerve-wracking moment before the actual oral exam, that collective panic attack before a final exam, that sudden crave for instant noodles, those sleepless nights, those ‘boos’ for horrible exam scores and ‘woohoos’ for awesome exam scores, that one weird classmate that all of you can’t stop noticing, that one professor who always makes a last minute announcement, and all those many other memories and moments that I’m not sure I’m proud of but I’m glad to have anyway. They are what made my college life what it is, and I won’t have it any other way. In the end, as I walk around the campus, I come to find myself repeating the same words that Dr. Jose Rizal said of the same university: I spent many happy years there.

I went home with a heavy heart that day, knowing full well that I can no longer bring back what once was. I shed a tear for all the memories, for the inability to turn back in time and relive them. But I smiled afterwards – happy that I was still able to remember and both surprised and glad that revisiting old, familiar places, even in the absence of familiar faces, is able to elicit the same feelings that filled me back when I had those moments in the past. While I fell vulnerable to nostalgia, I was, at the same time, thankful for the opportunity to look back.

Nostalgia bites us hard, but its deep, painful bite leaves a mark on us – a mark that reminds us to look back once in a while, to remember friends who have once been our light and our support, to stay in touch with these friends, to remember good times and be inspired by these to make more, and, more importantly, to move on. Nostalgia may take us back to the past, but it also reminds us that we can’t permanently return to it. We can remember, but we need to move on. And so, fueled by the past, we move forward.

I revisited an old, familiar place, and while I was saddened by the fact that everything has turned into the ashes of history, I have also found a certain sense of closure. I have come to accept that the chapter of my college has come to a close, but that doesn’t mean it stops there. My college friends are still my friends, and we can still continue to make memories even after college. So I move forward, inspired and excited.

Remembering the past doesn’t change anything, and we don’t have to be stuck there. It just reminds us of where we’ve been and who we’ve been with. At the same time, it reminds us that we can’t turn back time and we need to move forward. So, just in case you get stuck and overwhelmed by nostalgia, go revisit an old, familiar place. It may bring back a lot of memories and you may cry, but in the end, you’ll feel a certain sense of relief, closure, and unexpected inspiration.