University of Wisconsin–Madison

A Different Me

I envy those that can find themselves through a simple Google search of their name. I can only imagine the pure egotistical joy I would feel if somehow I vaulted to the top of the search results for “Paul van Vliet.” Such celebrations are to remain as fixtures of my imagination, however, as I have been beaten to fame by another man who, regardless of the time inconsistencies in my story, stole my name and ran with it.

A quick Internet search will tell you the most popular and prominent Paul van Vliet is now a white-haired Dutchman who in the last fifty years has entertained audiences in the Netherlands and beyond with his humor and showmanship. I know of him only through seeking what the Internet has to say about my own illustrious life, but I have become acutely aware of his existence during my time here. The surname van Vliet is quite a common in the Netherlands and can be seen all over town. The first “van Vliet” I saw in the Netherlands was proudly displayed as the brand on a dumpster. Since then I have found my name on a car showroom, and most recently on a very busy stroopwafel stand, confirming to me that I am moving up in the world. But no matter how busy a stroopwafel stand is, no “van Vliet” will be passing my predecessor up any time soon. And so I carry around the name of a famous, aging comedian and showman, which has not been without its interesting moments. Upon informing my Dutch teacher of my name, I received a short burst of laughter, followed by a thorough explanation of the misfortune I was already well aware of. That exchange, among others, prepared me for my next unfortunate encounter.

I sat in the second row of the lecture hall, sweating profusely and pretending that I wasn’t breathing hard from the hell-for-leather bike ride across the city that I had sped off on after realizing my exam was in a different room than anticipated. The proctor was a grey-haired Dutchman who spoke with a raspy, strained voice as he asked to see my student card. As a foreign exchange student, my card is marked with a large F, clearly visible through bifocals, and suggesting quite plainly that I am not a Dutch student. After he checked my card, I scribbled away at my test, which I believed to be one and a half hours long. After throwing my pen down at the ninety-minute mark, I was puzzled by the number of people still left in the room, and upon rereading the cover sheet of the exam, discovered that the exam period was only half gone. Mildly annoyed with my chronic test reading problem, I stayed slumped in my desk chair for the next hour dreaming of sunshine, good grades, and cheese, waiting for the rain to pass, before getting the attention of the proctor to hand in my exam.

The same jolly grey-haired Dutchman that had checked my student ID at the beginning of exam wandered over to me with a smile and took my test from my outstretched hand. He then took a few steps back towards the front of the room as I packed up my things. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him turn around and with a small burst of energy stride back to my place and, displaying my test, finger pointing at my name, hurl a string of whispered, rushed Dutch at my unexpecting ears. I was quite sure it was a question from the tone of his voice and, seeing my name displayed correctly, I found it appropriate to whisper back a nonchalant “ja” as I reached to pick up my coat from the floor. I expected my response to satisfy the whispered question that was still being decoded and amplified somewhere in my frontal cortex, but my fears were realized when my call was raised with an incredulous “Really?” I felt as though I was in too deep now and not wanting to explain to the man that I hadn’t understood him, I decided to follow what I believed to be the path of least resistance and reply again with a simple “ja.” Neck deep in confusion, and not wanting to be seen as some kind of flip-flopper, I had no other choice. Now, as the initial question was gaining some clarity in my ears and brain, the kind, and now quite excited proctor, spelled it out in full detail. Still whispered, he asked one more time in a confirmatory tone a question from which I picked out enough words to understand his excitement. I had just confirmed to him that I was close family of the most famous Paul van Vliet, a celebrity of his generation. Being committed to my story, I replied again that it was indeed true and, with raised eyebrows and a smile the old man, slowly turned and strolled back to the front of the room.

Flustered from the thrill of accidental deception, I quickly shuffled out of the exam room and down the riot stairs to where my bike was parked. Cycling home I imagined the proctor sitting down at the dinner table telling his family about how he met a relative of the great Paul van Vliet. It is with no hubris that I say that it must have been one of the more interesting moments of his day—barring more erroneous claims to fame from other students—as I know he spent at least six hours of that Monday proctoring exams. And so as I biked back to the city I felt a sense of importance. I was, if only in the eyes of one proctor, closer to fame than I had ever been. Unfortunately, in order to clutch at some shred of fame, I had had to assume a false identity. I doubt that is what friends and family were referring to when at pre-trip parties and holiday gatherings, after I had recited the details of my trip, they told me how much my time abroad would change me. I was still Paul van Vliet, but now I felt one step closer to overtaking my predecessor in fame. And so I decided, if I am ever to climb the Google search charts, I’m going to need to start lying to more exam proctors.

1 thought on “A Different Me”

  1. Mr. Van Vliet, I want to inform you that your work is being recognized. Your written descriptions of your international experiences are elegantly poignant yet profoundly mature and have earned you a follower. Keep it up. I anticipate bigger and bolder foreign encounters and introspective meditations from you.

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