I had a night out with my friend Saskia, who I met in Alex. I stayed in Amsterdam and she decided to visit me there. It’s the start of the academic year and in Holland – I don’t know how it works in the UK- new students do all sorts of activities in freshers week to get to know the city and their fellow and sister students a bit better. Some of those students like to join a student corps and are taking part in a so-called initiation week. This initiation is often covered in secrecy. The activities they have to do seem rather cruel and degrading and the media has covered stories in the past about these initiation rites in which students seriously harm themselves or even die.
While we were strolling through the city we came across some of these rites. It is a cold September evening and freshers dressed in suits are standing on a square facing a pub full of members of the particular fraternity they want to join. In the pub they all seem to have a jolly good time. The freshers are not allowed in. They are allowed – no, they HAVE to- stand outside 20 yards or so away from the pub, staring at the jolliness they so wish the join. They’re not allowed a drink, they just have to stand there for hours, occasionally receiving some abuse from older members. Saskia, who is horribly kind-hearted, felt so sorry for them. On the Nes, the theatre street of Amsterdam- it’s more a alley rather than a street- we came across two girls standing outside a cafe. It was not completely clear to me what they were doing. It seemed they were humming into a mobile phone held to one ear while sticking a finger into the other. Saskia, who is more familiar with student corps and their initiation rites than I am, explained that they have to close their ears and keep humming for hours on end. Apparently it makes you go slightly insane. Again, Saskia felt horribly sorry for those girls. Like those boys in their suits, going thirsty and freezing their freshers’ arses off on the square, I don’t think there is anything to feel sorry about as this torture is all self-inflicted. No one forces them to join. I was also wondering how sick one can be to invent ‘games’ like that. ‘You know what would be fun, let them hum for an evening. It leads to a rather unpleasant sensation in ones head. That’ll teach them!’
I know the drive for most if not all people to belong is very strong. I have never understood why one is willing to endure degrading activities in order to belong. I don’t understand that members who have been degraded themselves last year, the year before that or even longer ago, are more than willing to inflicted the torture they have endured themselves. And I probably sound like an old hag now, but the twenty-something-year old who feels oh-so cool to be degrading the teenager is actually a baby herself. Maybe that’s the point; that you get the magic of it all after you have been initiated. You enter the old-boys-and-girls network and you are sorted for life. Your father used to be member and speaks of it with much love. Maybe all your girlfriends talk about joining and you don’t want to lack behind.
Saskia might feel sorry for those freshers and I might think they are a bit sad but it’s very likely that those freshers find us sad as non-corps members. That bit of torture and degrading is so gonna be worth it. It will open golden gates that probably will be closed to us and other ‘commoners’- or whatever they call muggles in corps world- for ever.
Belonging, exclusivity, individualism, uniqueness, taking risk, playing safe. Whatever leads us to the Golden Gates and beyond or keeps us from insecurity. The choice is ours.