Written by Bert Plomp
In the autumn of 1953, the apartment in Napoleon Square was ready for occupancy. The tent on the campsite was packed up, and we moved into the apartment on the third floor of the first block. In this four-room flat, my younger brother Charles and I shared a room.
I lived there throughout my elementary school years. First with the five of us, and after the birth of my sister Saskia in 1956, with the six of us. The whole group squeezed into a small flat.
The apartment had a modest living room. An extension of it served as a small dining room, which also doubled as my parents’ bedroom. Additionally, there were two small bedrooms and a tiny kitchen with a balcony.
Since all the rooms were already occupied, Saskia had to share a bed with my parents. She did so until she was almost six years old. It was truly an unsustainable situation.
The parental bed was actually a fold-up bed, which had to be folded up in the morning to make room for the dining table. Having a shared bedroom was much better for me than for my sister. I couldn’t imagine having to share a bed with my parents.
The two small bedrooms, one of which Charles and I used, were each about six square meters in size. Placing two beds side by side was not an option because the room would become impassable. That’s why Charles and I spent the night in a bunk bed. Charles on the bottom, me on top. Distinctions had to be made.
My older brother Theo had the other bedroom all to himself. The fact that he was older and potentially a student gave him the right to his own room. I considered having a room of my own an unparalleled luxury – a place to retreat for reading or studying. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough rooms in the apartment.
Regarding Theo’s room, I can’t omit a shocking event that occurred at this address. Due to limited finances in the Plomp household, Theo had to earn some extra money with a part-time job during the early days of his studies. This was also true for other family members if they wanted to buy something special.
Theo earned some money by washing dishes in the evenings at the De Dietsche Taveerne nightclub on Oudkerkhof Street in Utrecht. He did it so passionately that the club owner often gifted him a bottle of strong liquor. Over time, he had amassed an impressive collection of whisky, rum, cognac, and other spirits. He displayed this collection in a wall cabinet in his bedroom. Despite not consuming a drop of alcohol in those days, he was very proud of his collection of bottles.
The purchase of this fancy piece of furniture was made possible by his first child benefit payment. As a student, his allowance was not just doubled but tripled. This was a significant amount of money for an ordinary family. The furniture was a wretched piece that you had to assemble yourself. It not only looked rickety, it turned out to be so as well. The piece of furniture was mounted to the wall with just a few metal plates. The built-in desk was essentially nothing more than a flap supported by two chains. You could fold down this flap, and with some goodwill, you had a desk to study at.
During that time, I enjoyed visiting Theo’s room occasionally, especially when he was spending weekends with his girlfriend Petra in The Hague. Sometimes, I would borrow clothes or other interesting things from him.
On one occasion, I visited his room and, leaning on the desk, inspected his impressive stock of drinks. What a waste of all that unused liquor, I thought. While admiring all of it, the wall cabinet began to tilt under the pressure of my leaning hand. It flipped over along its entire length, taking the entire stock of bottles with it. The bottles crashed one by one onto the concrete floor. Fortunately, my parents didn’t hear this commotion. At that moment, a religious radio broadcast was playing loudly. So, I managed to slip out unnoticed and leave the sea of spilled alcohol behind.
A few hours later, I learned from them about the terrible disaster that had occurred in Theo’s room. They must have become alarmed when an intense alcohol vapor wafted into the living room.
I pointed out to my parents that, when I left the room, I noticed that the preacher on the radio was making an unusually loud noise. I suggested that his noise might have caused the cabinet to topple. After all, the apartments were very thin-walled and highly susceptible to vibrations. Vibrations that propagated to all corners of the building.
My parents worked tirelessly over the weekend to make everything presentable again before the student’s return. It took months for the pungent alcohol smell to completely dissipate from the house. That odor was abhorrent to my parents. They were afraid that the neighbors might mistake them for a bunch of alcoholics. They might wonder where such a pious family had gone wrong.