Het Zweetkamertje

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that university and tradition go hand in hand. As the oldest of its kind in the Netherlands, Leiden University – founded in 1575 – is certainly no exception to this rule.

Recently, I was privileged enough to attend a friend’s graduation ceremony at which I encountered something that I (and arguably most people) would consider to be an exceptionally bizarre tradition.

The ‘zweetkamertje’ translates literally as the sweat (‘zweet’) room/chamber (‘kamer’) – with the addition of that cute diminutive suffix ‘–je’ which the Dutch are so very fond of.  Thankfully, however, this is not a tale of sweaty people congregating together in a sweaty room to wallow in their own sweatiness. That would only be part of the story.

Let me take you back to the days in which a university education was reserved for the offspring of the affluent and uSis (Leiden University’s online student information system) was not the bane of every student’s existence. At a certain unspecified moment, a certain unspecified individual took it upon themselves to pick up a certain unspecified piece of charcoal, and write/graffiti/decorate (delete as you see fit) the walls of this room. The precise details of its origin are hazy, yet from this, blossomed a lengthy and unyielding tradition.

Historically, the room was used as a meeting place for trustees, followed by a second senate chamber, until finally it settled upon its purpose as a room for students awaiting their doctorate – hence the ‘sweat’. Nowadays, students are invited to sign the wall upon receiving their Master’s alongside signatures from the likes of Queen Beatrix, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill.

Perhaps it’s these admirable names, or perhaps it’s the musty, lingering smell of antiquity, but there’s something very decadent about this room. Aside from being incredibly out-of-the-ordinary, it’s like a highly personal and profound manifestation of the wealth of success that Leiden University has produced throughout the ages. It’s also a lot like the inevitable consequence of leaving a four-year-old unsupervised with a Crayola.

However you wish to interpret it, it’s difficult to deny that the ‘Zweetkamertje’ is playful; it’s cordial; it’s unique. And somehow, I can’t help but feel that this poignant tradition captures the beauty of studying here at Leiden University.

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