I graduated from University in the 1970s with a marginal degree, having booted my final exams. I’d spend far too much time in the library pursuing my own chimeric interests in science and wilfully paying far too little attention to the actual course in which I was enrolled. Becoming father to a child in my penultimate year as a student, with all the sleep-deficit that entailed, didn’t help to concentrate the mind either. So I slunk out of college into a very hand-to-mouth existence living, all three of us, in a bedsit in Leeson Street.
My egregious pursuit of more interesting intellectual fare at college had, however, struck a chord with a visiting professor in my final year. He had been visiting Ireland from Boston on a Fulbright Fellowship and I completed a final year project with him: about the only scheduled activity in which I was firing on all cylinders that year. A couple of months after graduation, I found a letter from “my” professor offering me a place in the Boston University PhD program. All I had to do was muster the first semester’s fees – a matter of several thousand dollars – and he was confident that I’d wing the rest with teaching fellowships.
So the following summer we went looking for the small fortune that would fund the Great Leap Forward in America. As the Netherlands had a minimum wage of Dfl 10 (about £2.50) an hour - much better than you could hope for in Ireland or Britain – we headed off to the continent to look for work. A week later, I was all set to take a job making plastic fish-boxes in a factory outside Utrecht (and happy to get it!). Then I heard from a fellow scientist that Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam was looking for a general labourer while they assembled the world’s greatest aquarium exhibition. Their existing effectives having been tasked to build aquaria and catalogue fish all day and far into the night, someone needed to maintain normal services. The following Monday, therefore, I became the grunt who was to sweep and clean, lift and scrape while the Great Exhibition Project ponderously accelerated into action.
My work-mates were extraordinarily kind. One of them elected to speak to me at work exclusively in Dutch, despite her being fluent in English, so I would get up to speed with the language. Indeed, almost all of them had left school as soon as possible because they loved animals but they all spoke two or three foreign languages, knew the Latin names of everything they handled and had extraordinary levels of practical skill. All my book-learning looked pretty paltry by comparison, but was accepted as a more or less agreeable quirk: like Tim’s hobby as a taxidermist or Peter and Gerhardt’s habit of talking to each other in Morse from having served out their National Service in Signals.
Social inclusion in Holland, while mandated in law with things like the generous minimum wage, is also deeply embedded in the collective conscience. It soon became common knowledge that I was saving every guilder for my Graduate School fees. I hadn’t been a week getting my khaki work-clothes wet before my family was invited to stop camping and share a house a short walk from work. And, as the work-programme heated up in the Autumn, my work-mates insisted to the management that I should have equal access to any time-and-a-half over-time that was available.
The collective adopt-a-student drive came to a peak when the twice-yearly draining of the water in the crocodile pit fell due. I was busy elsewhere all day but at knocking-off time in the locker-room I was presented with a bucket half full of coins which had been shovelled out of the crocodile sludge and roughly rinsed. Someone else gave me a bottle of acetic acid, which we used to clean finger-marks off the aquaria, and said it was just the thing to make old money shine like new. I was as proud to be presented with that bucket as I was to receive my PhD four years later.
After all I wouldn’t have had the one without the other.
Zondag mengeling elf. NotSundayMisc 11
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