Professor Erik Driessen arrives bearing a bottle of wine and a gift: a Raymond van Barneveld dartboard. He is in awe of the reception committee. “That I, a mere citizen, can sit at the table with the board!” Because indeed, the full board of HG Sunergos has turned out for the occasion. Sunergos mean “working together” (think “synergy”), but what about HG? “Heerengenootschap”, the students say: society of men. For this is a fraternity within the student rowing club Saurus. We are being hosted by secretary Pieter Dijkstra, who also happens to be tonight’s chef. Treasurer Karo Abas makes an appearance in the kitchen every now and then, but otherwise wanders around somewhat aimlessly. Jaouad Kasmi, as president, gets to show up a little later. As it turns out, he even gets to shout to Dijkstra in the kitchen “Pieter! Hungry!”
Driessen is in awe, too, of Dijkstra’s culinary skills. “When you go to dinner with students it’s already pretty special to not be served up a rubber chicken. But this is even better, it all just works: fresh spinach, peas not cooked to mush, and good wine too!”
He knows what he’s talking about. “I love cooking. As a student I didn’t exactly aspire to be an educationalist; I wanted to be a chef.” He worked in different restaurants, he says, although his career proper began in an erotic cinema. At this, an eyebrow is raised here and there, but the topic flits by as quickly as it was broached.
The other students are less into cooking. It stresses Abas out because he is constantly wondering, why this, why that? As for Kasmi, “If there were some kind of food pill I could take, I’d never cook.”
But the professor isn’t done with the topic: he wants to know which of their parents cook, whether they went to university too. The answers are perhaps not what he expected. Kasmi’s father, the son of a Moroccan immigrant worker, came to the Netherlands at age 12, went to a vocational high school (LTS) and became a construction worker. Later, after having problems with his back, he went into computer science. Next Abas relates almost casually that his father, an Iraqi Kurd, spent 14 years fighting with the Peshmerga against Saddam Hussein before fleeing to the Netherlands. Driessen is impressed: “Does your family still follow the news from the region, with IS and everything?”
Yes, they monitor Iraqi news sites, Abas says; they still have family in the area. Although the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is now relatively calm, “many of my father’s friends are fighting IS”.
Then the conversation turns to food again. People over there eat things like sheep heads. “Do you too?” Driessen asks. No, Abas laughs, “I’m better integrated here than I would be there”. He was born in the Netherlands, after all. Likewise Kasmi, who is not overly fond of Moroccan cuisine: “I once got fed sheep brains. Without me realising it.”
Dijkstra and Professor Driessen are both from the FHML. “Lucky”, Dijkstra said earlier in the evening. “I was afraid it’d be an economist or something.” Driessen: “You’re with us? What year?” They talk briefly about Dijkstra’s research internship in gynaecology. He is an ambitious student, the professor decides – but Dijkstra thinks all students are ambitious. That’s certainly true of Kasmi, who showed up delighted with the news that he’d received an 8 for his bachelor’s thesis. After a year of law (“the only bit I liked was tax law, the rest was rubbish; criminal law is way too romanticised”) he had switched to fiscal economics. He will soon return to the law faculty, however, for his master’s in tax law.
The students are amused when Driessen reports that as an educationalist, he also teaches lecturers. Has he ever had “a ‘difficult’ one”? Kasmi asks. You bet, the professor replies. There was the angry doctor “who asked if I had any idea how many patients he had in his waiting room. And once at a university of applied sciences I asked who was looking forward to the workshop, saying those who weren’t could leave – and half went ahead and packed up their stuff! Fortunately it still turned out to be a good session.”
Driessen will be tasked later with scoring the students on the food served and other things. Assessment is a major theme in his field: “When you’ve been working with someone for a while, you develop a bond. As a result you become less critical. We do research on how to avoid this.”
This is music to Abas’s ears. “Developing a bond, exactly – that’s why sucking up to tutors is so useful when it comes to your attendance grade. I used to have quite personal contact with a tutor by email and it meant I was able to skip four classes instead of three.”
Sunergos is a Saurus fraternity – do the men still row? Yes and no; they still do some coaching now and then. And why is the group not mixed? Driessen asks. “It works well like this”, they say. “Women are different; men are easier.” And this way, when they go out with a sorority “it’s guaranteed to be a party”.
Driessen suggests that, with their “divine rowing bodies” combined with the surplus of female students in Maastricht, the Saurus men must do well with the ladies. The students don’t take the bait. To be fair, they’re not particularly physically imposing; that’s what you get when rowing takes a back seat. Still, their membership of the rowing club did lead two of the three to land a nice student job: pallbearing at funerals, and other related tasks. “It’s a kind of employment agency hired by companies like Monuta”, Dijkstra explains. “The man who started it was keen on rowers because they listen to commands. ‘Gentlemen, lift!’ Just like with a boat.”
It’s not Abas’s cup of tea. “I couldn’t do something like that. Funerals are too intense for me, all that grief.”
“So you’re an emotional man”, Driessen observes. Then, chuckling: “I suppose it’s not all that useful to be crying while carrying a coffin.”
Eventually the conversation returns to the professor’s time at the erotic cinema. It just happened, he explains: as a freshman in Amsterdam he was offered a room at the Wallen, above a sex cinema with loudspeakers mounted on the ceiling. “I could never have had my mother over to visit. So I didn’t take it, said it was too expensive.” But the operator had a job for him. He also owned a gay cinema at the Spui, Boy Saloon, where Driessen could make himself useful doing odd jobs: opening the doors, screening the film, serving drinks, cleaning the theatre. The last task was not fun, especially in the last row, where the backrests had a certain special sheen. “The seats were lined with velvet, but there was no velvet left on the backrests.”
The Sunergos students are hanging on his every word. “Cool, it’s a whole other world.” Yes, Driessen agrees. Then, ever the academic: “It’s a part of society you otherwise wouldn’t see.”