Semolina from Ghent

Semolina from Ghent

I had my dream job in my pocket but there were still a couple of hurdles to jump. The party was over, now the serious stuff would start. Because landing your dream job is one thing, keeping it is another. As a Dutchman “with a past,” they would keep an extra close eye on me. I had to deliver, day in and day out, as De Clercq was not really well known for his leniency. Being a workaholic himself, he expected his staff to push themselves to the limit as well. There was a whisper that his wife was decisive in pretty much everything in his life. Even the shelf life of his assistants. If Madam Fazzi (one of the best-known and most expensive top lawyers in the country) did not like you, you were toast. So before I started, the Madam was my first hurdle: I was requested to audition in Ghent. Just like my predecessors.

I was extremely nervous. Supper in the De Clercq-Fazzi residence. I did not even have a suit, nor black shoes. No car either because there was no money. I figured a stopover in Drachten at my dad’s. Borrowed some money and his Volkswagen Golf. A friend lent me his suit and bought a new pair of shoes with the money I had put on the side. The only thing left was a present for the Madam. This much I knew; if you were invited, you had to bring a present. Other than that, I was clueless about etiquettes and stuff like that. “Take something typical Dutch,” my mother said, “Belgians like that”. Eventually I succeeded to find what I was looking for at a well-known candy store: Haagse Hopjes (a type of caramel candy) in a fake Delft-blue mug. Even Japanese tourists would not buy it, but anyways, it was the thought that counted. Oh and of course my career was at stake here.

I was almost peeing my borrowed pants. I was sweating profusely, on my way to Ghent in the pre-GPS era, with a wrinkled map. Where was that bloody street I was looking for and why was there no one outside to ask for directions? The houses kept getting bigger and bigger and time was running out. I was soaking wet under my armpits. Only five minutes left and again, I saw a one-way street. Darn!

Finally, at exactly 20.00 pm, I was at the Cyrille Buyssestraat. Now I only had to find the right house. Well, castle would be more appropriate. I could not spot a house number. I did see a man with a dog. “Ah, you are going to the Minister? That is on the other side of the street. Would you like a handkerchief?” After having parked, I stumbled down the driveway at five minutes past eight. Shit! Forgot the Haagse Hopjes. Back to the car, more sweating. Finally, there was the front door. A deep breath, wiped my forehead with my sleeve, rehearsed my opening line and rang the doorbell.

It felt like minutes, but finally, she opened! Way too fast I blurred out my opening line: “Very nice meeting you, Madam and thank you very much for the invitation. I brought a small present for you, nothing special, but it is typically Dutch. By the way your house is beautiful.” She wanted to say something while I, in a clumsy way, gave here the Haagse Hopjes in the mug. “Thank you”, she said with a little smile. “I am the maid, but I will give Madam your present. Please follow me to the lounge.” I felt the ground sinking away underneath my feet. We did not have that in Friesland. Maids I mean. Lounges neither by the way.

My predecessor and future colleague were there already. That comforted me somewhat because I already knew them. After a glass of water, my blood pressure started dropping again. Still, I felt stressed. This could not go wrong. Madam entered the room; I stood up and was introduced.

“Excuse me, Whiske?” That is how she has kept calling me all those years. My new boss entered the room.

We all stood up and almost saluted. As a full-bred politician, De Clercq felt the pressure as well and to break the ice, he cracked a couple of jokes. Amicable, everyone laughed, too loud, but it did clear the air. Chitchat, about Belgian politics. “We are moving to the dining area”, Madam said.

Even more staff, crystal, lace napkins. How did that work again? I observed my new colleague’s behaviour and copied her. We were served Gentse Waterzooi (a kind of soup), actually quite tasty as well as a good wine, that I drank way too fast. Were they all looking at me? The wine helped me to gain some speed. I told them about Friesland. Reference was made to my “speech for the boss” that I had made for his trip to Belgrade (see 2.2). He laughed, I beamed. “Would you like some dessert, Whiske?” Madam asked. “Yes please Madam, we Frisians are good eaters.” Then I saw the dessert plate. Semolina. Traumas from my youth re-emerged. I will eat pretty much anything, except for one thing: semolina. Yuk. For God and Country, I bit my tongue. Gagging, I ate everything. Do not show them anything. “It was lovely Madam!” Then it all went completely wrong, but I did learn a wise (etiquette) lesson for life. I felt like a cyclist who had just arrived at the top of the Mont Ventoux. My plate was empty. At home you could excuse yourself and there was not anything I wanted more but to be excused. Madam saw my plate being empty and summoned the waiter. “Give Whiske another serving! You see how much he likes it, a real Frisian.” Everyone laughed. I was about to throw up, but another plate was placed in front of me. I wanted that job very badly, but this was a really high price to pay.

We went back to the lounge to have coffee with some sweets. I felt more like a double whisky and a stomach surgery, but I composed myself again. Say something smart and do not make any mistakes, I muttered to myself. That was what was necessary at that moment. Puking over the light blue sofa would not be the best move. Again, a lot of talk was about what had been published in the newspapers that day. Darn, I should have prepared myself better. Politely I chatted along. Biting my tongue because I did not want to dominate the conversation. Self-knowledge comes in handy every now and then. Opening my big mouth would not be wise at that moment neither. Besides if I would, I might have to burp, which would not be wise with all this semolina in my belly. On the other hand, I did have to position myself in a somewhat more prominent way, in order not to come across as shy or overly impressed by others.

The chapter on Belgian politics was wrapped-up and De Clercq said: “You must be tired”. This was my chance, I thought. But right at the moment I wanted to prove to him that I was full of energy, my stomach started to rumble. In addition, due to my beaten assertiveness, I saw my colleague signaling that it was time to wrap things up. Ah, of course, only then my coin dropped. In these circles, suggesting that you might be tired is a polite way of getting the guests to leave. Imagine that I, in a gainsaying and long monologue, would have started to recite my knowledge about the European Union, which I actually had in mind. Etiquettes… Thank God, I was saved by semolina!

I drove back over the E40 and was dead tired. This had taken a lot of my energy and I was convinced that I had looked like a fool. My phone rang. I parked my dad’s Volkswagen Golf on the side of the road and heard the voice of my new colleague on the other side. “You did that really well! Excellent performance. Madam was clearly charmed by you!” All tension came out now, including the semolina, which I spit on the side of the road. Relieved, I drove on to Brussels, the capital of Europe.