Friday, September 09, 2005

Those heady freshmen days

Watching clusters of happy American students go off to college for the first time on the telly recently put me in mind of the time I left home for University College, Cardiff in Wales. Flying away from the parental nest really is a rite of passage, a painful rite from some, but nevertheless a necessary one. As the parent(s) help their child carry the brightly colored plastic containers filled with books, plants, clothing, chips, candies, sodas, etc. into the dormitories, they're really in one way saying good-bye to the child they've reared. What returns to their Thanksgiving table will be an adult, a girl or boy who's now tasted the freedom of making decisions, and the status quo has shifted forever.

My parents took my cousin Adrian (who was already studying at Liverpool polytechnic) and me to the Belfast docks where we caught the overnight ferry to Liverpool. I was to spend a few days with him adjusting to life "across the water" before I left by train for Cardiff where I was to attend law school. Adrian was fun and we'd been extremely close since childhood--now, sadly, we've drifted apart and hardly talk at all, but such is the serpentine road of life--and they'd deemed it prudent that he act as my guide. After the tears and copious promises at the dockside, we boarded the ship and proceeded straight to the bar where we loaded up on gin-and-tonics and chatted with other Irish students making their way to various universities and colleges throughout the United Kingdom. My gregarious cousin, the gin, and merriment added piquancy to the excitement I felt about the shining, new life I was sailing toward, and, even before we'd navigated the estuary that becomes the broody Irish sea, I'd forgotten the tearful dockside farewell and my parent's melancholy as they made their way home in the car, each silently locked up in their own thoughts about their eldest boy who'd now permanently left their protection.

Liverpool was fun, a swirl of introductions, pub hops and dining at trendy restaurants that served colossal hamburgers (not by American standards) and salads in deep bowls made of bread. I loved his flatmates and close friends: quiet Ian from Derby whose girlfriend once asked an air stewardess in mid-flight to Greece how to open the jet's window because she was very hot; suave Miles, his other flatmate, who was Irish though born in England and educated at a top Roman Catholic public school called Ampleforth; and four girls who were student teachers and lived in an upstairs flat with bright purple curtains in nearby Lark Lane. It was in Liverpool where I stopped using sugar, an accident really, because Adrian didn't care for it, had none in the flat, and we kept forgetting to buy some, so every morning I'd have my tea without and then decided to do the same when I arrived in Cardiff.

Cardiff was different to Liverpool, so very elegant because of its keep and castle and gorgeous civic centre housing, among other buildings, the university's administrative offices and the art museum. I will never forget the melody of accents surging through the halls and refectory of the law school: Malaysian, Canadian, Australian, Irish, British public school, British regional and Welsh, of course. Here, I experienced my first sharp feeling of public shame since arrival on the mainland, when I talked to some public school chap and he said he couldn't understand a word of my Irish accent. My accent was strong then, but I knew I could be understood. He had wanted to diminish me in front of his friends, and had been victorious though I would not allow him to see it. To my horror, I found he was also in my tutorial group--there were eight of us--and he was such an ass. He adored the sound of his plummy voice and always boasted about his 'barrister' father. He was a bigot too, very anti-Irish (as many of these types of English people are) and constantly interrupted me when I was answering the tutor's questions...though I got the last laugh because he was kicked out of the law school after he failed the end of year exams and ended up at some second-rate college studying English lit.

The university allocated me a room in a self-catering village called Llys Talybont (Although South Wales was fully anglicized, the street signs were in both English and Welsh, and the University had Welsh names for some of its accommodations.) There, I found myself sharing with Richard and Gary, two Englishmen, a tall, broody Welshman called David, and John, someone whom I knew from my grammar school who was studying medicine. Our mothers had stipulated to the university authorities that we should room together--a final act of parental authority, if you will--as we'd be wonderful company for one another. Mother chose to ignore the reality that I couldn't stand John at school; he behaved in a precious manner and was an intellectual snob, loved only the company of chess players and straight 'A' students.

I quickly learned John was obsessed with hygiene, disease and sickness to the extent he used to think he had developed symptoms of one disease or other he'd just learned about the previous week in a lecture. This would have been relatively tolerable except for his need to recite the litany of gory symptoms accompanying these infectious illnesses. Of course I talked him back toward sanity each time, but I also learned then that the practice of medicine's as much an art as a science. We never became close friends and grew to tolerate one another during that freshman year, especially since Richard proved to be an absolute prick (Gary settled into the role of faithful lackey) and constantly poked fun at us because we were, in his eyes, only 'stupid Irishmen.' This, notwithstanding, I was always at pains to remind Richard everytime he broached the subject that it took much higher grades to get into law school at University College than it did to get into the Civil Engineering faculty. After the second year, John went off to live with a bunch of medical students, I wangled a room in a house with some postgrad students, and we've never seen each other since.

As today's students at American campuses will find, the first weeks of college are spent making new friends and attending parties, dances and concerts. I deliberately don't mention pub crawls here because they're not permitted to go to bars or imbibe alcohol until twenty-one, unlike British and Irish students who can do so on their eighteenth birthday. (As an aside, I've always though this American prohibition very stupid; if an American kid comes of age and can vote at eighteen, they should be allowed to decide if they want to drink alcohol at that age, too. I guess, the law's a remnant of America's puritan roots.) Like it were yesterday, I can recall the hilarious times spent with my friends Patsy, Lindsey, the Simons (one of whom announced he was a Jew as he tucked into a ham sandwich), Peter and Hilary, the vicar's daughter who towered above us, danced abominably and kept us all in stitches with her accent imitations. But after those initial weeks, partying was relegated to weekends in the main (at least it was for law and medical students in Cardiff) because the tutorial work began to pile up and we had to stay in the law library until ten at night just to keep up, and even then I felt I was still behind.

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Gone Away said...

I think I've been sent to haunt you, Damian, being as English as they come (though not with a plummy accent, thank God!). It's okay by me but I wondered if it bugged you, especially as I grew up in South Africa and Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), both of which I have no doubt you demonstrated against in your student days. ;)

And I won't even ask the obvious question (Belfast? RC or Protestant?) because it just doesn't matter. :D

Damian McNicholl said...

Hey Goneaway, thanks for the comment. I love all things English, except public school idiots with illusions of superiority...oh, and Maggie Thatcher when she was in her prime. It's Derry actually--the county, not the city, and I was reared RC. And you're right, it doesn't matter...people's religion, class, race or sexuality just does not matter.

Gone Away said...

Good to hear, Damian, and glad we got that out of the way. :)

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