Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Guildford, Portsmouth and the Isle Of Wight


Just as 1999 turned to 2000 I made an impulsive decision to not bother finishing high school. Instead, I applied and was accepted to a small liberal-arts college in the woods and rolling hills of western Massachusetts. I told only a small circle of people and within a few weeks I finished my tour of public education on a chilly Friday afternoon in late January. On Monday, I was a college student.

My first day was the coldest of the year so far, well below zero without wind. My family and I bundled ourselves in warm coats and carried my boxes of books and trash bags filled with (black) clothes into the ugly concrete building that I would call home for the next 3 years. Later, I would move into an apartment shaped like a UFO, literally in the woods. But I stayed in those cold stone dorms for a long time. The thing about my college dorms that made them a little unique is that almost every had a single room. They certainly weren't large rooms, but not having a roommate was a luxury, especially in a place filled with so many special snowflakes like Hampshire College. Unfortunately, I drew the short straw and got assigned a roommate. Fortunately, within a few weeks I had walked in on my roommate and his girlfriend enough times that he decided to move out, leaving me a giant, half-empty room that would not be filled until after the summer break.


This was how I came to meet Gavi. In his last semester, Gavi lived in the single next door. Somehow he had ended up with so much stuff crammed into that tiny room that he could barely open his door. My first memory will always be a head peeking over what seemed to be a full-size couch turned over on its side and pushed in front of the doorframe. I decided that, from someone in his first semester to someone in his last semester, I would swap rooms.

Gavi and I would spend countless hours just talking or working and hanging with all the people. That first semester was an insane, magical time for me, as I can imagine the first taste of college is for everyone. The cast of characters that paraded through my life could fill this page and many more, but that's for another day. Those times didn't last and college was never as fun as it was that year.


Story time: I lost a bet that semester and Gavi and a few of my friends duct-taped me to the door of my room and covered me in shaving cream. This was of course video-taped, and thereafter I would get recognized by people now and as the duct-tape door guy. There were no drugs or alcohol involved, believe it or not.

Epilogue: As tends to happen, I eventually met a girl and we ended up running around Japan that summer. I could have attended my high school graduation and prom if I had been so inclined, but I skipped them. As everyone I grew up with donned tuxedos and silky dresses, I rode the bullet train north to Kyoto. I was 18, and there was such a sense of youthful adventure at that time.

That was a hundred lifetimes ago, or so it feels like. For Gavi, it was many, many more. We lost touch not long after I moved to LA. I remember the last phone call - walking down Venice boulevard with a girl I hardly knew, Gavi launching into some insane story about life back in Boston and handing the phone over to her so she could say hi. Everyone laughing. Gavi has that effect on people.


Years later, we would reconnect on Facebook. I found out he was studying psychology in the English countryside. When I decided to travel through London, we made plans to meet up.

I caught the afternoon train on Thursday. It was quite empty so I grabbed a seat by the window and watched urban jungle gradually change to grass and trees and sheep. There is a shade of green in the country that exists nowhere else in the world, and every little village is carefully authentic as it has been for a few hundred years. London of course bears the scars of hundreds of years of fire and bombs, but the country is, even at its most inhabited, little changed from the days where druids built stone circles there was a castle on every hilltop.


Gavi lives and studies in Guildford, and hour by train.  We met in a small cafe and talked for a few hours, catching up on almost 10 years of our lives. In the evening, we took the train to Portsmouth, a town on the coast known for charming pubs and old ships. The tourist season had not nearly started yet and we had no trouble booking a 'bed & breakfast' near the water. That evening we walked along the stone walls of an old fort and watched the sun setting, talking all the while of life and love and how things change, or don't. Despite backgrounds and decisions that couldn't be more different, we found that 10 years had brought us to remarkably similar circumstances.

I know that's a rhetorical fallacy, you can find parallels in any set of circumstances in the same way that a broken clock is right twice a day, but I think we're fundamentally similar people. Listening to his story I saw that he and I shared the same tendency to both fight and support organized systems and bureaucracies. That is - maintain a fundamental and unwavering cynicism about the world around us but harbor a suspicion that things should just work as advertised if only we worked hard enough and had enough patience. Begrudgingly, we're both in our own ways straddling the line between being skeptics and suckers.

Our first, crisp morning in Portsmouth we got up early and caught the HOVERCRAFT. Yeah, that's right, the hovercraft. What? I'm expecting about 50% of the people reading this to be as excited as I was. And yes, it's every bit as awesome as it sounds.


Thing is, Portsmouth is cool and all but it's also only a mile from The Isle of Wight. From watching Top Gear, I know this to be a beautiful, remote island with lots of windy roads you can do powerslides on. And it's only 10 minutes on the HOVERCRAFT. Unfortunately, Top Gear did not tell me that it's actually an absolutely gigantic island with lots of expensive tourist traps and really very few scenic ocean vistas. Compounding our problem was that it was friday and Gavi, being a practicing Orthodox Jew, had to be home by sundown for Shabbat. Regardless, we pressed on with our plan and chose a tourist trap, some kind of wildlife preserve that advertised the ability to feed penguins. Pretty awesome, right? The hovercraft and penguins? I'm glad we can agree on this.

We had to bus it there, which dropped us on on the side of some random road. It was surprisingly hard to find from there, which wasn't a good sign. When we got there, though, we found what was basically an all-bird zoo, plus a few wallabies. For a pound we were given a bag of feed for the scary-aggressive ducks. The penguins were worth the trip, though I strongly suspect that they were just using me to get to the fish. Typical.


We headed back as the sun started dipping low in the sky. A bus, to a train, to a train. Getting on the platform back to Guildford, I hesitated a second too long and the door slammed shut between us. I frantically tried to open it as the train pulled away, but it sped off. I caught the next one 20 minutes later and as I got off Gavi was there waiting for me. We took one last picture, leaning back with arms outstretched and hugged goodbye.