Last week I had yet another of my brief visits to Amsterdam – at 2 nights, it was probably my longest visit yet. The excuse this time was not transit. In fact the visit this time had a specific purpose – my friend Matthijs Lok, whom I’ve known since my first year in graduate school when he was a visiting student from Leiden – was defending his Ph.D. thesis. In the Netherlands this is is a mega big deal – a ceremonial affair complete with both defendant (I should probably say defender) and forgive the excessive use of the metaphor, a jury or panel of professors (nope not peers – at this stage distinctly not so – more like su-peer-iors!). I had heard of these affairs before from other people, and it always sounded intriguing, so when the chance came to attend one, I did my utmost to attend.


Matthijs in writing to me about prepping for the event had mentioned that it was something like preparing for a wedding, and he was not far off the mark. First the venue – very church or chapel like in appearance, and indeed may have at one point been one – the stained glass windows are a clue perhaps? (On a side note — the ceiling reminded me of some of wooden ones we’ve seen here in Egypt, painted in intricately patterns in many colors. The structure of the ceiling was identical to those here, the patterns and colors however, distinctly Dutch seeming, and there was even a chandelier with bulb holders resembling tulips).

Another similarity to weddings was that the main man of the day, like a groom, wore a tux, which in the true groom fashion was a rental. Professors, came in full regalia too – which means their academic robes. I wore a sari (something I usually only wear at weddings). Finally, there was the chanting (oops, speech) followed by the question-answer session with the professors, all in a language that it’s safe to say was unintelligible to me. It was in Dutch after all.

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But jokes aside, the whole ceremony was very impressive. And though I couldn’t understand anything – my rudimentary German was inadequate to cope with Dutch – I could make out that Matthijs was doing well. He waved his book at the beginning, and appeared relaxed, and was able to draw laughs from his examiners. The presentation and talk was followed by a few minutes of the professors leaving the room (this part was familiar having experienced something similar myself just a couple of year ago) and then coming back in to congratulate M on his successful defense and declare him Dr. Lok. Then there was a cakes, chocolate and juice reception in the lower level of the building, where we lined up (again just as if it were a wedding) to congratulate and welcome the newest member of the academia into its fold.

Took me back briefly to my own Ph.D defense – a very different affair – small (there were three of us: my adviser Bill, committee member Sue Lederer and me chatting with a fourth, Angela via speaker phone) in a hotel room with me at the desk nearest to the phone, Bill on the armchair and Sue on her bed. Ceremony due or undue was not part of the mix. But it was in Vancouver rather than New Haven, to take advantage of the fact that most of us were there anyway. Plus the fact that the entire profession of science historians was there to welcome me to the other side (the fold) made it special in its own way. Not to mention the superlative dinner at Tojo’s that we had in celebration, with a dozen of my friends and colleagues, and Bill footing his namesake. But that’s another story (or should have been) we’re talking about Matthijs’ big day here. Its not all about me, even when it is 😉

Later that evening [back in Amsterdam now] there was an informal reception with drinks and cheese and such at a bar in an old movie theatre. In the interim I took a trip to Rembrandt’s house. Highlights were, (i) his studio, a portrait of which I’d seen in Vienna’s Kunsthistoriches Museum in the summer, and which was even better than the painting had indicated; and (ii) a demo of the engraving and printing techniques he used, as well as an exhibit of engravings from his plates.

An account of Amsterdam would be incomplete without mention of Ingrid-Anne and David, who so graciously put me up in their lovely apartment overlooking one of the canals. So pretty. We were instant friends, sharing as we did a fondness for travel – David like me is something of a citizen/child of the world – and good food. My fondest memory with them is riding home after dark from the party back home on the back of I-A’s bike, something I haven’t done since college days in Chandigarh. We stopped off for a bite at a Thai restaurant called Cambodja run by Panjabis from Delhi. Talk about international confusion! It was fine because were were also a rather motley lot. Despite being nearly closed , they gave us a spot-hitting meal of warmth – soup and rice. With that I’ll end this post with a toast to all my Dutch friends –

Prosit! here’s hopingI meet many of you in different places all over the world… soon!