It takes barely five minutes for the battle for the women’s panties to come up in conversation. This weekend – counting from when this dinner took place, in late March –the underpants will be hanging from a pole smeared with grease, soap and oil during NOOC, the grand opening of the rowing season in Tilburg. “All of Vidar [the Tilburg student rowing club –Ed.] will be defending that pole”, the students babble enthusiastically, because the club that manages to get hold of the panties drinks for free for the rest of the evening. Jackets will be ripped to shreds in the time-honoured tradition of brassen, beers will fly, and women – especially the lighter ones – will be “catapulted” after the men have surged forward like a battering ram. Yes, the female students are likely to end up in their underwear in the heat of the battle; this is the rule rather than the exception. Anything for the honour of the club, snigger the men of Viramitas.
What do the women think of that? asks Professor Esther Versluis, her tone friendly but critical. The girls want it too, the four assure her. “Brassen is very friendly, it’s not a real fight. You do try to pull people to the ground by their jackets, but if anyone throws a punch they’re out immediately. And we’re much gentler with the women”, explains Chris de Haas. “So it’s not misogynistic?” Versluis asks. “No, really. When a man takes on a woman, he’s only allowed to use one arm”, says Bob Wolf. Versluis looks doubtful.
It’s Wednesday evening and the men from Viramitas, part of the Saurus rowing club – “we’re very open, a whole bunch of members of the so called ‘jaarclubs’ can join every year” – are busy with the oven, making different kinds of bruschetta, chicken stuffed with goat’s cheese, and a side of broccoli and sweet potato. The men like to cook; there’s no “poor pasta” here.
“Wine?” Versluis brought a bottle as a gift, and the students pour a glass for her first before serving themselves. They can easily go through a bottle and a half, or twenty beers, in a single evening. In their own words, though, they are “wimps” compared to the Saurus fraternity Librium. They’ll get in a boat now and then – they’re members of Saurus after all – but competitive rowing is a bridge too far. They have no interest in training seven days a week and living like shut-ins.
“May we call you je?” Felix Dijkstal asks politely, referring to the informal term of address in Dutch. Of course, replies Versluis, “otherwise I feel so old.” She herself studied Arts and Culture in Maastricht, part of the third cohort of students. “Why Maastricht?” Dijkstal asks. “I’m from North Holland, a small village called ’t Zand with a population of fifteen hundred. The gossip used to drive me nuts and I wanted to get as far away as possible. In my first year I lived in Vroenhoven (Belgium) in a house with fifty other students. There was always some party or another, so I didn’t really need to join a student association.” She looks around De Haas’ two-room flat on the Grote Gracht. “I never had this kind of luxury as a student.” After her PhD in Utrecht she was asked to return to help set up a new study programme, European Studies. “I was in two minds for a long time. Utrecht is very central and it’s a proper city. If I were to come back here it would be for real, so to speak.” It turned out to be a good choice, although she still has trouble “taking seriously people who speak really country Limburgish”. There are murmurs of agreement all round, including from the sole Limburger Wolf, who comes from Venlo.
Does Saurus have many international members? Versluis asks. Yes, says Sjors Vermijs, “but if you don’t speak Dutch after a year, you fall out the boat.” Versluis has never been rowing; never been to Saurus. She is promptly invited, together with her husband and children, to take part in a rowing clinic.
By this point the bruschetta has been polished off and the chicken and vegetables arrive on the table. Versluis beams with pleasure: “What a luxury, four men cooking for me.” She takes a bite and adds, “Nice, guys, well done!”
“So how do you guys start an email to a tutor or course coordinator?” the professor asks. With “Dear”, they shout in unison. “Sometimes followed only by the first name, sometimes with last name too”, De Haas says. Why do you ask, says Wolf, though he has a suspicion. “You’d be surprised how many emails I get that start off with ‘hey’.”
“Anybody want more white, or would you prefer red?” De Haas asks as he fetches the bottle. Versluis would like a drop of red. “Same glass okay?” “Sure, but you’ll lose a point for hygiene”, she laughs. The conversation turns, as it so often does in this series, to the surplus of female students in Maastricht. The professor is surprised – she’s never noticed that in European Studies. Does it have something to do with PBL? she asks. It’s the study programmes UM has on offer, the students decide. Versluis laughs. “I met my husband here; he was my supervisor during the introduction camp. How wrong can it be?”
For the rest of the evening the conversation jumps from one thing to the next; from De Haas’ eye operation to Wolf’s goldfish (“fat Kevin”) to the live (and terrified) chicken gifted by a student association in Wageningen. De Haas: “It’s not normal, giving a live animal as a present.” Agreed, says Versluis, and she takes her chance to return to “that pole and the women.” That’s not normal either, surely? The students go on the defensive: the women do it out of their own free will, they say – unlike the chicken. And: “The guys are stripped too.”