The older gentleman and I were chatting away amicably. Suddenly, he produced a series of paper cards, with holes in them. The kind you might inflict on your notebook during an especially dull lecture. ‘This is my student card’, he said, ‘The holes contain information about me.’
Mr. Beks and I were UKrant columnists, fifty years apart. Our paths had crossed during the newspaper’s jubilee celebrations. Looking at our student cards – his punched card, and my plastic one with a barcode – it seemed as though we were of two completely different eras.
Yet, as he talked about demonstrations, and sit-ins at the Academy building, and of young people coping with identity crises by donning the latest American fashion and banding together in associations, a strange sense of familiarity came upon me. It was the same existential dread, it’d only been laminated and computerised since.
The city too had only gotten glossier. The Mussengang strips on display at the UB, testify that hauling rusty bikes out of canals has always been a much loved tradition. Secret rendezvous for semi-underground tribes are now simply cafes and bars. Even back then, entire neighbourhoods needed to be built to accommodate the influx of residents. Though perhaps now, we could do without the asbestos.
Along that long bike path from then to now, the only glaring difference was the wide detour into the woods we’ve taken for the past year and a half. For a brief moment, Grunn was bereft of her usual life and colour. As we await the end of social distancing with bated breath, there’s a yearning for the old days.
Yet with bands of youngsters terrorising the Binnenstad past midnight, hundreds homeless, and ‘student’ having turned into a mere transition state between ‘adolescent’ and ‘employed’, the picture is a brutal one. It’s as if having gone through this collective trauma, Groningen has ‘grown-up’ a good deal. Too much for my liking.
Though I’m not anything, if not an optimist. I harbour the hope that any day now, we’ll all wake up and realise that the nightmare is truly behind us. That the compassion that got us through was hard won, and most importantly, that we are free to disrupt the drudgery of the new normal with the old youthful fervour.
‘In fifty years, you’ll understand’, Mr. Beks said, visibly emotional as we walked down the stairs at the UB, ‘There are memories everywhere I turn’. I smiled at the thought.