We are preparing for a week in Amsterdam and I put the finishing touches to our itinerary. I print it off, admire it, and go in search of My Lawyer, for I suspect he will be keen to peruse this grueling schedule. He has never said as much but I suspect my organizational skills are what first drew him to me.
I find him packing his suitcase in our bedroom. I hand him the itinerary and inspect the suitcase.
“Why have you packed three pairs of shoes?” I ask. “We’re only going for 4 nights.”
“I thought I might go for a run whilst we are there,” he says.
We both look at the itinerary.
My Lawyer takes the running shoes out of the suitcase.
The itinerary is water-tight. It has to be; not only do we need to secure school places and somewhere to live, but we also need to convince the kids that Amsterdam is worth leaving their home, friends and goldfish for. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s someone else to convince: my Welsh mother.
My mum is proud of me for embracing this relocation. I know this because she recounted to me a conversation she had with my brother, in which she told him that she is proud of me. This is huge; Welsh women do not bestow compliments lightly (and never directly).
My mum has never been to Amsterdam. We want to show her how easy it is to get there, and how beautiful our soon-to-be new city is. We also need someone to look after the kids whilst we flat-hunt. Given that she spends a large proportion of her time in London looking after our off-spring, it is possible that this will be something of a bus-man’s holiday for her.
At the airport, we navigate security and settle down in a café to get some lunch and the Dutch courage I need to get on the plane; I am terrified of flying, and so need approximately a large glass and a half of wine in order to maintain equilibrium. After we order, we kick off the Amsterdam-Is-Great campaign by ceremoniously unveiling the Amazon Fires to the kids. They are delighted, although the five year old wants to know why she can’t watch any videos on it.
“I don’t know,” I say. I turn to My Lawyer. “Why can’t she watch any videos on it?”
“It only streams film if you have wifi,” he replies.
“Don’t worry,” I say to the five year old. “We have wifi at the Airbnb.”
“Also it only streams film in the UK,” says My Lawyer flatly, unfazed by my scowl. Delivering bad news is, of course, his daily bread.
“That was a bit of a waste of money then,” says my mother. “You should write to Amazon.”
I down my wine.
We board the plane and it sits on the runway for a full hour. I fall asleep and wake up again sober and we still haven’t gone anywhere. I HAVE USED UP MY VALIUM-REPLACEMENT ALCOHOL and now I’m just a bit hungover. My Lawyer and the seven year old are discussing continents. No one knows if there are six or seven. Is America one or two?
“Is Oceana a continent?” the seven year old asks.
“No, it’s a nightclub in Kingston,” I reply.
Eventually we are up, up and away. The five year old, who is next to me, does not look up from her tablet as we roar into the air. I grip the armrest. It’s just 45 minutes, I tell myself. It’s just 45 minutes. I manage to stay on an even-keel as we glide over the North Sea. Dutch people are chatting behind us and my mum says to me, “Well, that’s just impossible. There is no way I’ll understand that language. German, you can kind of work out. But that’s just impossible.”
“Ok mum, here’s a Dutch sentence for you: Ik drink water. What do you think that means?”
“That’s cheating. You’ve deliberately chosen words that sound the same.”
“You can talk, anyway. You’re bloody Welsh. That sounds like Elvish.”
The seven year old leans across the alley to say, “Can I tell you all the details of Minecraft?”
45 minutes is actually quite a long time.
We land at Schipol airport, miss a train, have a small argument, get on a train, get on a bus in the dark and unexpected snow, and arrive at our Airbnb.
Then things start to improve.
After a good nights’ sleep, My Lawyer heads off on a pointless expedition to obtain the Dutch equivalent of a national insurance number, having left his passport at the Airbnb. (Seriously, this guy has quite an important job involving legal documents. WTAF.) The rest of us get the tram (TRAMS! IT’S LIKE TOY TOWN!) to Vondelpark to make the most of the snow. Vondelpark is the largest park in Amsterdam, and the snow that arrived the night before we arrived hasn’t yet melted. There is a real danger that the kids think we are moving to a permanent winter wonderland, but fuck it. Win the battle; the war is too long-winded and baffling to really give much of a shit about. Narnia-Vondelpark is an alternative fact.
Vondelpark is ace though, snowy or not; strewn with lakes, parakeets and two cafes in the middle for those of us who are heavily addicted to caffeine. Sadly, one of them – the one with indoor seating – is closed today, which leads to an almighty meltdown from the five year old who is not coping well with the cold/idea of change/lack of ipad. The two year old, on the other hand, who is a TOTAL FECKING NIGHTMARE in London, behaves amazingly, and we realize that he must have been Dutch all this time and we never knew. We slide on the ice to the Blauwe Theehuis to meet My Lawyer, fresh from his passport-less gad about town, and warm up with a hot chocolate. Given the fruitlessness of his morning, My Lawyer is surprisingly buoyant. I wonder if he just waited for us to leave the Airbnb and went back to bed.
We walk from there to the Rijksmuseum; it’s no distance, not even the five year old complains (much). We are realizing that, compared to London, Amsterdam is a village. We grab a map of the museum and work our way around; guns, cannons, vases, paintings. You know, good cultural shit. We feel fulfilled. We walk home via Pancakes! Amsterdam, where the two year old drinks chocolate sauce straight from the jug and spends the next hour off his tits on sugar, dancing perilously close to canals and gesticulating at cyclists. I realize that, actually, he is depressingly British.
The week warms up and the snow melts to reveal more dog poo than I might have liked. The Dutch, it seems, are not as fastidious as the English are when it comes to cleaning up after their pooches. This surprises me, as generally, the public areas we have seen so far have been otherwise very clean. And their dogs tend to be big, impressive hounds, which means the shits are, frankly, gargantuan. I decide to defer judgment on this; maybe the shit got lost in the snow. That should be a saying: shit gets lost in the snow. Those would be good famous last words.
With that in mind, we leave the kids with my mum and go flat-hunting. We have enlisted the help of a relocation agent who has lined up six apartments for us to view. We are focusing our search on the Zuid (South) area, below Vondelpark, because it’s a little cheaper than the centre, it’s close to the Dutch school that we really like and Schipol airport is a six minute train ride from Zuid station. Only one of the six apartments is an actual shit in the snow; the other five are all quite decent and by the end of our search, we have a front runner: a split level flat with lovely wooden floors (sorry in advance to whoever will be living below us) and 3 bedrooms. The five and two year olds will be sharing a room because frankly the seven year old has done his time, and needs to see some vested return on the cumulative hours he has spent listening to the five year old bellow Let It Go at the top of her voice.
But we can’t accept the apartment without knowing which school we can get the kids into. Dutch schools have a great rep for nurturing happy children in an unpressurised environment. I know this because it says so on the back of the book Happiest Kids In The World, which I own but have not been able to read yet due to the unforgiving itinerary of this trip. For children aged 6-12 who are new to Dutch, there is a nieuwkomerklasse – an individually tailored language programme at a language school which usually takes around a year, after which the child is proficient enough to join their class at their chosen school. The language schools are dotted across a couple of different locations around Amsterdam, and our worry is that this will make for an even longer transition period. However, the school that is top of our list seems to be the only one to have its own internal nieuwkomerklasse, with a maximum of 15 children, and the children join their normal year groups for PE, lunchtime and play. This seems like a much easier transition. Nieuwkomerklasse is a great concept and a good example of the effortless organization we are coming to associate with the Netherlands – things are organized in a way that makes life easier. Southern Rail may find this approach revolutionary.
The stakes are high, then, as we visit the school with the seven year old, who is excited and curious, and the five year old, who is vaguely contemptuous but mostly bored. We leave the two year old with my mum, who is starting to notice a pattern.
We are met at the school by the children’s counsellor, who is responsible for their emotional wellbeing. She, like pretty much everyone else here, is fluent in English, and chats amiably with the kids about their current school. When she asks if there are any questions, she is talking to them, not us. We learn that they have space for us in September, when our seven and five year olds will be eight and six year olds, and will find themselves in the same nieuwkomerklasse. This will be a great comfort to the five year old and an almighty headache for the seven year old, but he takes it on the chin. We look around the school and watch children in dress up outfits playing outside. The classrooms are large and colourful. We meet our kids’ future teacher, who explains that she will tailor language programmes for each of them individually according to their age and personalities. There is no discernable shit in the snow. We cannot believe this is all free.
“Thoughts?” We ask the kids on the way out.
“I will be the BEST at English,” beams the seven year old.
“I’m hungry,” says the five year old.
We collect the two year old and my mum, who by this point has not been out of the Airbnb for nearly 48 hours, and have a delicious lunch at De Plantage, which sits right next to Artis Zoo. The kids have toasties and the adults have open sourdoughs – my mum and I opt for the marinated bavette which I would heartily recommend. We eat in the bar area, but if you have the foresight to book, try to get a table in the restaurant by the zoo side and you’ll be able to watch the flamingos prancing about.
We spend the rest of the afternoon at the zoo, wandering around rather aimlessly because the two year old won’t let us look at the map. It’s fine though, because the zoo isn’t too sprawling and it’s fun letting the kids lead the way. I realise that, as a result of being too afraid of the two year old to get the map back, we are accidentally having a very Dutch experience: a relaxed family day. I’ve now read the prologue to the Happiest Children In The World and so am something of an authority on the matter. We are exploring together. We are having fun! I don’t say it out loud, in case I jinx it.
Our final stop is a pizzeria called Yam Yam, which is the north west of the Central area of Amsterdam and a short walk from our Airbnb. It’s really family friendly, with a couple of crates of children’s books and toys by the counter, and when the waiter doles out the wine glasses, he asks if the seven year old will have one, which the seven year old finds hilarious. We kick back. Two bottles of wine disappear in celebration of a fairly successful trip. The pizza is good and we wander home merry and vaguely in charge of the children.
The next day, we fly home, and I am feeling strange. Having found a school and an apartment, reality is setting in. We are going to live in Amsterdam. We are going to learn a different language. We are going to be immigrants. We experience turbulence on the return flight, and I sob uncontrollably; I forgot to drink my valium-replacement wine, and I have to move to a different country, away from my friends, the good butchers, The Tulse Hill Hotel, my lovely mum. The plane lurches, and I dig my nails into my mum’s arm. She talks me through it until the plane steadies and the seatbelt signs go off again. She does not complain about the lack of circulation in her arm, and she does not complain about the fact that her oldest child, her only daughter, is buggering off to the Netherlands with her grandchildren. Yes, she has conceptual problems with the guttural Dutch “g”, but she has been nothing but supportive about the move, and this trip would have been much more difficult without her. I am grateful to her for the sacrifice she is being forced to make, and I am proud of her. She will know this because she’ll read it on my blog; I do not bestow compliments lightly (and never directly).