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“Mr Van Schayck, life is no joke”

“Mr Van Schayck, life is no joke”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Professor Onno van Schayck shares a meal with independent sorority Diablo

Tuesday evening, Bogaardenstraat 16. We’re sitting on the first floor of an apartment building where students and Maastricht locals live in harmony together. Most of the time, at least. The police were called in a few weeks ago, says psychology student Elizabeth de Nijs. “Nienke and I were just talking, with a bit of music on in the background. It was nice weather so the window was open. Then the old people on the ground floor called the police. Even the officers had to laugh.”
The sorority sisters are seated around a heavy wooden table, which De Nijs hammered together herself last summer, bench seat included. No more rickety IKEA junk – it was time for something a little weightier. And not too expensive: the five planks, each five metres long, cost a total of €150.
Meanwhile, Hasina Nezami walks by with tears running down her face. The chopped onions are taking their toll. Any moment now they’ll disappear into the risotto, together with courgette and chicken. For dessert the Diablos will be serving up home-made brownies. Professor Onno van Schayck is impressed – by the table and by the risotto. “Wonderful.”

He himself grew up in Zaandam, where his mother served baked potatoes every Monday and minced meat on Wednesdays. Every day had its own set menu – not unusual in those days. “As a student I kept the routine going for a few years. Now I cook on average once a week. My kids once staged an uprising against my cooking. Rightly so – my wife is much better.”
For Nezami, whose parents fled Afghanistan in 1993, nothing beats Afghan food: rice with carrots, raisins, meat and spices, and that in a single dish.

Just then an alarm goes off. Van Schayck is startled, sits bolt upright in his chair. The noise is deafening, like a ship’s horn, but the students continue to pick at their risotto unperturbed, as though it happens three times a day.
Not quite that many, says De Nijs. “But we are used to it. The fire alarm is constantly going off in student houses.”
Before long the quiet returns, and Van Schayck begins to talk about his research on addiction. He is known as the ‘smoking professor’, he says.
“So you’re one of those doctors who are always standing outside the UNS 50 having a cigarette?” asks De Nijs.
Van Schayck: “Whoa, hold on a minute, they call me that because of my research. As a student I smoked a pack a day, but I quit before I graduated. When I couldn’t take it any more I’d go running. Recently we made a fascinating discovery. If you show smokers images of an ashtray or a bar, but very quickly – without them noticing it – the cravings seem to subside. The technique has already been used to treat fear of spiders. Now we had smokers play a game where we inserted those subliminal images, and it worked.”

Nezami suddenly turns to Nienke Knockaerts, who is apparently behaving oddly. “Do you have a hangover?” Diablo’s drinks are traditionally on Wednesdays, but the students can sometimes be found propping up the bar on Mondays too. It’s easy to put away ten beers then, says Nezami.
Says Knockaerts, originally from Brussels: “On an evening like that we usually buy a fifty-litre cask.”
“That’s some serious drinking”, responds Van Schayck.
“We don’t plan it that way. Drinking is something you learn. Everyone drinks beer.”
“A friend of mine doesn’t like it”, says Nezami. “I took two bottles of wine for her to the cantus. But after that she switched over to beer anyway.”
Van Schayck: “Beer after wine? You’re better off starting with the one that has less alcohol.”
“At the two-day hockey tournament they give out beer the next morning to help you get rid of the hangover”, De Nijs says. “It’s the last thing you feel like having, but it does work.”
Nezami: “But then you also see people ...”
Van Schayck: “... throwing up?
Nezami: “Yeah.”

The students turn their attention back to Van Schayck. Did he enjoy his own student days?
“Yeah, they were great. I did epidemiology in Wageningen. We had unlimited funding and a lot more time than you do. Seven years. I got to know my wife; I always used to borrow her lecture notes. There was no internet, so we only studied from books and notes.”
Van Schayck lived as an ‘anti-squatter’ in Wageningen, in a hospital no less. “My room was four by ten metres and I slept between the equipment, or what was left of it. You could still smell the disinfectant. There were sixty of us students in total. The city council was against it at first but later gave us permission to stay there.”
“Sounds like some kind of horror scene, a big abandoned hospital like that”, De Nijs shudders.
“Yes, it had those corridors like a monastery. We ate there too, which actually the fire department didn’t allow. So as spokesperson I went to the caretaker and said: ‘I say, it’s not that nice to eat on your own.’ That’s when he gave his infamous reply: ‘Mr Van Schayck, life is no joke.’”

When De Nijs moved into her apartment, she noticed there was no extractor fan in the kitchen. On phoning Maasvallei, the housing corporation, she was told: “‘But students don’t cook. Not really – not like families, with proper meals and everything.’ I couldn’t believe my ears.”
The conversation comes to an end. Van Schayck offers to help with the washing up but the gesture is unnecessary: De Nijs managed to pick up a second-hand dishwasher for seventy euros. “So good”, she sighs.
“We think so too”, Nezami says.

This is a new weekly series in which a professor sits down for dinner in a student house.

Elizabeth de Nijs * 22 * third-year Psychology

Hasina Nezami *21 * first-year School of Business and Economics

Nienke Knockaert * 18* first-year Medicine

Onno van Schayck * 58 * professor of Preventive Medicine, married, four children * lives in Maastricht

Scores (up to 5 stars) given by the guest, professor Van Schayck:

* Quality of food: 4

* Hospitality: 4 (“Nice atmosphere. Everyone felt at ease despite the age difference. I could have been their father”)

* Cleanliness: 3 (“Hard to say much about that, but yes, it was different than in my home”)



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