The smoke of Zaanen is a love story. Not a typical one though. Most love stories are private, lots of intimate exchanges, long looks and commitments that last. But this one took place out in the open, typically in the front of buildings. We all saw it happen, except the beginning. I had heard the story before but never thought much of it. Jan always tells stories but listening to him now in the hospital as fluid is being drained from his lungs made his words more paramount. Its amazing how human frailty focuses the empathic mind. Jan is suffering from complications from two surgeries to relieve esophageal cancer.
When I saw Jan in July in Stockholm, there was no hint of hospitalization in his future. He chose the Swedish means of transportation, the stand-up two- wheel slightly motorized scooter, to get around Stockholm. He seemed like a child again, each morning regailing me and others within earshot of the joy of 2-wheel standing mobility around Stockholm. I settled for the bus, the lack of European cell service being the bridge too far, or more aptly the expense I was not willing to incur. I saw him take off one morning with others from the workshop and indeed he seemed a natural at it, no reticence there. I suspected he must have ridden a rudimentary version of the modernized Segway transport when he was young. It turns out Jan and I spent part of our childhoods on the most southern islands in the Caribbean, Jan in Curucao and Tobago for me. Jan was conceived on a family vacation to Costa Rica. After a brief stint back in Curucao, he was shuttled to Leiden where he entered the world in the very hospital in which I was now visiting him, Leiden University Medical Center. Immediately after, they returned to Curucao for the next three and a half years giving shape to his Caribbean roots. Perhaps this is part of our mutual bond, he intonated.
In between nurses’ visits, we continued our conversation. I noticed the level of the fluid in the drain container was rising. Jan insisted it wasn’t and con- tinued. As a goodbye to the Caribbean, Jan’s parents took a trip to Mexico. Jan’s father was on kid duty that day in the open-air market in Mexico City as his mother was taking a break. Wondering through the market with his sister, born in Curucao, he noticed a quite irresistible lump on the ground which he proceeded to eat. Much to his father’s surprise, it was horse shit. Yes, Jan ate horse shit. The cure for the dissintery that ensued was a strict diet of ripe bananas. How they managed to smuggle enough bananas on their plane car- rying them back to the Netherlands remains a mystery, a story shrouded in Dutch customs lore: the Dutch family with a year’s supply of bananas and an extremely hungry kid.
Like all of us who grew up in the Caribbean, winter is harsh. Hearing a knock on the door one day, he opened it and was greeted with what seemed like a fierce animal. It was the chill of winter, his first. Nothing in Curucao readied him to be pierced like that so unceremoniously with just the opening of a door. There was no warning, just an enduring cold . To this day, Jan hates the winter and thinks back to Curucao as his escape.
Around age 13, Jan discovered another escape and here lies the love story. One day his school had a class outing to the countryside in Drenthe just outside Groningen. Two of his class mates, Marianna and Maartje took him on a hike away from the crowd. Jan was a good-looking boy but shy and nerdy so there was no resistance to being led by two precocious girls, also 13. They tired and soon found a park bench. I know what you’re thinking but that’s not it. This is a PC story about a nerdy school boy who would become a world-renowned physicist, coiner of Planckian dissipation. There is of course continuity in how we become who we are.
Or perhaps not? But we’ll see. Both girls said, “ close your eyes, we have something for you” and placed Jan firmly on the bench. Jan liked Maartje but was too shy to say so. Marianna sat on his right knee and Maartje on his left. Jan heard some undecipherable rustling but he kept his eyes closed as instructed. Was this the moment in this nerd’s life? Ever so carefully, Marianna took out wrapping paper and tobacco and rolled a cigarette and placed it in between Jan’s lips. Maartje took out a lighter and lit the cigarette. He then opened his eyes as Maartje clasped his hand and led it to meet the cigarette. What an introduction to smoking. “You know Philip, the first 4 cigarettes are pretty bad, but then the fifth one, that’s an experience,” Jan said. They returned to the group, Jan now in love. He discovered smoking and it would forever be linked to Marianna and Maartje, each puff taking him back to that day in Drenthe where his world changed to the Jan Zaanen we now know.
I first met Jan in 1997/98 in Trieste and of course it was on one of his noto- rious smoking breaks. He stopped me and said he liked my talk and proceeded to say somethings I barely followed. Jan’s accent took a while to decipher but his love for smoking was as clear as a crystal day. When I saw him smoking in Trieste, I remember thinking why doesn’t this man just buy the damn cigarettes in a store. With the back story revealed, I now see the continuity. I now look back on that first meeting in Trieste differently. There was a certain intensity and earnestness in Jan’s eyes when he smoked. It was as if something were being revealed to him. I now have an idea what. From the first cigarette Mar- ianna rolled for him ever so deliberately, smoking would always take him back to that park bench in Drenthe when he was 13. He remained purely platonic with Maartje, and of course Marianna, but their mark on him was indelible.