Monday, September 22, 2008

Holland Hijinks

OK, so I managed to get through the weekend without going online. I was surprised at how little seemed to happen whilst I was away. There was some sport played. There was a fair amount of column inches dedicated to the economic crisis, and when I got home I had seventeen emails. But really, nothing much happened. Probably proof that the internet isn't quite as essential to my life as I'd thought.

Had a great time away, actually. I was taking part in an orientation weekend for first-year students at my school. I had thought that it would be mostly attended by undergrads but that there would be a sprinkling of postgrad students and therefore people in their twenties, too, but when I got drafted into the "getting-to-know-you" games I realised my mistake. Most of the group I was with were just out of high school, and I was older than them by at least ten years! Whoops. Dancing with 18 year-old girls made me feel like just a BIT of a dirty old man, as did being part of the judging of the 1980s-inspired catwalk competition (yes really), but after I realised that the only person worried about my age was me, I decided to just go with it and enjoy myself.

As the weekend progressed I realised that my impression of what a weekend like this would entail was probably entirely based upon my experiences at home. Having attended a university college, as a rule, anything involving the word "orientation" also involved the words "kegs" and "sex". Yep, that's right, pretty much the Australian version of a fraternity. And even now I've realised that my image of how people get to know one another is based almost purely on this alcohol-fuelled, sexually aggressive, Australian model. Now I'm not for a moment suggesting that your average Australian goes to university and is met at the door with a slab of beer and a packet of condoms, but that's certainly what it felt like to me. And it certainly made me feel pretty darn out of place, not to mention inadequate, when at every social event imaginable all the talk was about who just had a "vom" and who just picked up, and that it was pretty clear if you weren't able to participate in either event you might not fit in. Thankfully, a fair amount of participation in the former was good enough to ensure that I wasn't a complete social pariah, but the latter left me completely cold - I just wasn't ready for it, for one thing.

So imagine my surprise when a bunch of 45 students headed to the woods for a good dollop of orientation, only to discover a virtual absence of all these things. Where was the double-fisted binge-drinking? The skolling competitions? The public chundering? The hip-grinding on the dancefloor and face-eating competitions? What was wrong with these kids? Didn't they know how to have fun? What were they, a bunch of poofters or something?

At no point did I see anyone more than merry. I think I witnessed ONE couple share a kiss - and do you know what they did? They left the dance floor and went outside, away from public view. I only saw it because I was on the way back from the bathroom. There was no machismo. No ritualistic, competitive drinking. No elbowing people aside to get to that "hot" girl who was momentarily without a dancing partner. No social heirarchy of who was good-looking and cool and who wasn't. It was almost like..... having a good time. It was NICE. It was FUN. It was CIVILISED. Who'd've thunk it.

I've thought a bit about it since (as you can probably tell), and tried to compare it to my own experience, and the reasons why it was so different from this. Is an Australian versus European comparison actually valid? Was my experience not a little more contextual than that? Is comparing three years at university college with an orientation weekend for a bunch of musicians really fair?

I think that there's something in those questions - but still, the cultural element cannot be ignored. And any sort of socio-ecomomic analysis will probably produce almost identical results for both sides. My college was VERY exclusive - it was the domain of the upper-middle class private schoolkid, who graduated with excellent marks. Talented, bright students from good families. And yet something in their make up meant that when you handed them a beer and said "have fun, kids" that they drank themselves into the gutter and slept around.

Maybe there really is something in the "cultural significance of alcohol in Europe" diatribe that we hear all the time. I don't know. Either way - I know where I would have preferred to have been eighteen!

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