It’s the season of the sere and yellow leaf, the fig hangs heavy on the bough, and here in Belgium it’s the rentrée académique. Down at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the bright yellow waffle van on the corner fills the air with the smell of ‘chocolate’ waffle additive, and makeshift blue canvas booths line the main campus boulevard. Student societies are offering newcomers various inducements to sign up. A free Bic seems a dubious swap for being spammed for ever by the Zombie Society, though it’s better than the carrot I remember one club offering when I was a student, a raffle ticket with a 1/nth (for n≈∞) chance of splitting a yet‐to‐be‐built cabaña in the Canaries for 37 minutes every February. It didn’t take long for some joker to add a large M at the end of the society’s ‘Win a Timeshare Condo’ slugline.
So the bleus and bleuettes are in the throes of their baptême, a ritual with all the trappings of its Christian precursor, though the ULB was an avowedly secular establishment set up by liberal freemasons in the 1830s to break the Roman Catholic stranglehold on universities. Why blue? One story is that new police recruits in the 19th century wore blue smocks; another that the freshers have to dunk a hand in a jar of methylene blue as part of the cruel, unusual and degrading treatment to which initiates are subjected. As part of the pervasive narcissism of small differences, new Flemish students are groentjes, ‘little greenies’, though the clash of cultures is rarely more than notional, since Flemish and francophone campuses, like most things Belgian, occupy parallel worlds.
At the ULB, students dressed as wizards can be seen pelting one another ritualistically with florets of broccoli. It’s all largely a pretext for getting pissed, though it is seldom framed in those terms. In Princeton, where state law bans boozing in bars for under-21s (though 18‐year-olds can get a licence to sell it), the lengthy sequence of porticoed brick and stone mansions along Nassau Street hosts the university’s ‘dining clubs’– speakeasies in all but name, private premises where 18-year-olds can get as bladdered as they like. Their Belgian counterparts, however, have to make do with the ULB tram stop, which at 5.45 this morning was awash – or rather not – with bone-dry Smirnoff and Absolut bottles. Since Belgian undergraduates pay only €827 a year in tuition fees, there’s a bit more change in the booze tin than for (non-Scottish) UK students, who have to stump up £9000 annually, early beneficiaries of Whitehall’s wheeze to get youngsters off benefits by urging them to enroll in tertiary courses without extra investment, and getting them to pay for it all instead of the state.