Sororities and Fraternities are most often associated with teen films coming out of the US. But here in the Netherlands, they have a rich and deep history and, as writes one anonymous member, initiation is not a simple process
If you’re going to be around any Dutch city in late August and early September, no doubt you will see some very strange behaviour from some of the younger locals. You might witness a bunch of guys, smartly dressed, but crawling down a cycle path while other lads in waistcoats and top-hats dump buckets of flour over them. Or maybe you’ll come across a row of girls in jumpsuits, lined up and facing a wall, blind-folded, while other girls pace up and down shouting at them in Dutch. At any other time of year, the sight of anyone in the city’s dirtier canals would be very rare (they tend to be drunken tourists or stag party members) but during August and September you will see scores of students determinately swimming lengths, all the while being pelted with rotten fruit.
Welcome to ‘Ontgroening’, which roughly translates into ‘hazing’. It is a weird time of the year just, as the summer holidays end and before serious university work starts, when students that want to be members of ancient societies must prove their dedication through an intense initiation process. Anyone on the outside will tell you that it’s a dirty, degrading and humiliating brainwashing session. Those on the inside, however, will fiercely advocate that there is a good reason they don’t let those goody-two-shoe nae-sayers in, as there’s nothing quite like a bit of an ordeal to separate the wheat from the chaff and to encourage real bonding and early solid friendships. Once you’re through, you’re a lifelong member of an exclusive and secretive club. Traditionally, it becomes a student’s first professional network, where they will both meet and mate with the high fliers of the future.
As a Brit, the whole fraternity/ sorority/ student society culture is somewhat foreign to me. But having already witnessed their antics on the streets of Amsterdam in years previous, I was curious, in a voyeuristic kind of way, and I wanted in, just once, just to see. And so, when I came to Amsterdam in 2011 to complete a study abroad year, I convinced myself it was the best way to learn Dutch, to make Dutch friends and establish some proper roots in my favourite city. I had asked around about the Ontgroening and had a lot of negative reactions. The whole process is highly controversial. Stories of accidental death and ritual animal slaughter caught my ears and I heard it described as Guantanamo Bay for dim Dutch students where you’re bullied and brainwashed until you develop Stockholm syndrome. But I also heard positive stories; if you want to know someone who knows someone and find your way into a top job in the Netherlands, these societies are the places to start. They can be elitist, but as far as “making connections” goes, he sorority/fraternity network is a treasure trove. I also heard stories of trips abroad, charity work, theatre nights, sports teams and wild parties – so much that appealed to me. So, secretly, without telling my highly disapproving Dutch boyfriend, I paid the fee, submitted a Google translated application form and turned up solo at the “get to know you” party for a society that I now can’t give the name of. This wasn’t so bad, as everyone was smiley and welcoming; the super enthusiastic sort, happy to talk slowly and clearly in Dutch and in English when required. Beers on tap were seventy cents each and, after a few, I was able to relax a little, a little too much actually. I drank away my nerves to the extent that my memories from the night are fuzzy, but I did manage to etch out my niche as the token foreigner and the British beer tank. That was the last of the beer for the week though as, apparently according to new regulations after a death, drinking is banned during Ontgroening, and participants have to be fed and hydrated and can no longer be deprived of sleep. I wondered how intense things had been in the past that such strict regulation now existed, and how much would have really changed since then.
I arrived at a meeting point the next day, slightly late and hung-over to high heaven. We had been told we were leaving Amsterdam, and nothing else. We were bussed in silence to some nondescript point in the Dutch countryside. There were people yelling (oh so much yelling), so many orders and commands, none of which I could follow or understand. Some sort of chant started up, half in Latin, half in Dutch, that went on and on and on. I sat for about 3 hours in a drizzly field, trying to join in with the ongoing chanting, sitting with my legs stretched out in front of me and all the while thinking “my God, what the hell am I doing?” The sitting and chanting then turned into digging with spades; making small holes in the ground and, once a whistle was blown, moving on and filling someone else’s hole in. Most other people were chatting in Dutch, but I was just too tired, I wasn’t having fun and just wanted it to be over.
I don’t know what made me turn up the next day. I think maybe it was just chatting to people and enjoying it, as well as hearing what motivated the other girls. There were many whose parents and grandparents had taken part in the same such ritual, decades ago, and those to whom the sentiment was just very appealing. All in all there really was a feeling of everyone being in this together, and furthermore, the eight people I was literally tied to did end up becoming solid friends of mine to this day. Staggering around Amsterdam, blindfolded, tied to a group of other girls while someone squirted a water pistol loaded with something sticky at me wasn’t exactly fun, but I enjoyed it none the less – the Stockholm syndrome was setting in. There were a series of challenges and tasks to complete and, admittedly, some were pretty bad. Lining up blindfolded with head bowed next to a Red Light District canal with toes over the edge, teetering and trying not to fall in as someone fired tennis balls at you; talking your way into getting a red light window for an hour so we could throw a party in the room; adopting cruel and unusual nicknames, and having to wear these on a placard around your neck (I was tourist), as well as seeing how many upmarket establishments you could enter whilst covered in flower and wearing nought but a bikini, a veil and an inflatable swim ring. Writing it now, I’m raising my own eyebrows, but in all honesty, I didn’t stop laughing the whole way through. It was damn right dirty, degrading and yeah, pretty humiliating.A lot of people didn’t stay. They were not forced to and no attempt made to convince them to remain. For much of it, I didn’t want to either. I was, however, enjoying the company, the feeling of belonging and being a part of something. And still, the worst part was at the after party; being caught out by a friend, who caught me looking all preppy in my skirt, jacket and blouse andwho proclaimed, “My God! You’ve joined those douche bags?!I thought more of you.” I however happened to very much enjoy my time with them after the hazing, and obviously the Stockholm syndrome isn’t as bad as people say it is. If it were,I wouldn’t be breaking the first rule of both fight club and Ontgroening by writing this article.