We are in our new home in Amsterdam for half term. We are trying it out for size for a week, a taster session of our new lives to come. It’s our pilot episode, although even if it’s shit, we have to film the series. But if Mrs Brown’s Boys can make that work then by God so can we.
This is the first time the kids have been to our new apartment. We are on the second and third floor of a very Dutch building – tall and skinny, because they are taxed by width. There are many, many stairs. We have three bedrooms, but all three kids want to share a room. They go to sleep when the three year old stops talking (approximately 9pm). They wake up when he resumes talking (approximately 6.30am). This is definitely not enough sleep, but it means we don’t have to unpack the boxes in the third bedroom, so I’ll take it.
Dutch apartments are big, open spaces for inclusive, integrated family living. Kids play with their minimalist wooden toys alongside parents sipping Sancerre. Probably they include their children in some political chat. This leads to mutual respect, so that when they are teenagers they make Facebook friends with you and do not steal your emergency Marlboro.
“It’s like a big trick so they think you respect them, and they can’t hide anything because you’re with them all the time,” I explain to My Lawyer.
“I think it’s more that by sharing the whole space, you become equals, so the mutual respect is an inevitable consequence?”
I shrug. “Potato, potahto.”
This open-door attitude spills out to the street, with large, net-less windows displaying family life like the shop front of a television store; wherever you look, there is someone or something to catch your eye. This is most evident when night falls, and lights come on.
“They’ve got a nice flat,” I observe of our neighbours opposite one evening, from my window-side vantage point. I have been sitting here for some time, watching a man and woman walk from room to room. Occasionally they chat.
“They’ve got no kids, that’s why,” says My Lawyer, removing small pieces of Lego from between his toes. Then he looks up, and says in a hushed tone, “Not for long though.”
“I think the woman is pregnant. I saw her inspecting her tummy last week, and then he looked at it too. They looked pleased.”
“Ah!” I smile. I am happy for the people. I watch them sit down together on their sofa. Oddly, they do not reach for a remote control. Then I gasp. “Do you know what the people are doing now?”
“They are just sitting there, chatting.”
“They do that a lot,” says My Lawyer conspiratorially, “even though they have a television. They don’t go out much. Maybe because of the pregnancy.”
My Lawyer’s desk, in the study next door, also faces out to the people’s window. I wonder about moving it.
The sun shines all week, so the kids and I spend much of our time in Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s largest park, which is two blocks from our house. The park accommodates three large cafes and lakes that steadily increase in size, because the park is basically sinking. Every thirty years or so, the park undergoes renovation and water removal to stop it becoming Vondel-Lake. On the north-east side of the park there is a paddling pool, with a play area and sand. With the Dutch schools still in term time, the area is full of British families on their half term break. Parents trot after their young, trying to smear them with sunscreen. I lie on the grass by the paddling pool and, embracing the holiday vibe, I relax, only occasionally getting up to stop the three year old from roaring in bewildered babies’ faces. He is, by some measure, the most feral child in the pool, but he surrenders this crown several times over when the school day finishes and Dutch families arrive.
Speak to any expat in the Netherlands and they will describe Dutch child-rearing as anything from relaxed and liberal to borderline negligent. The Dutch famously eschew helicopter parenting, and so kids are given more freedom, trusted to sort things out for themselves. The ensuing liberty means that your children will find often themselves in a situation somewhere between The Famous Five and Lord of the Flies. And some will cope better than others.
“MUMMY!” says the seven year old, astounded. “That baby took a toy from that girl, and gave it to his mum, and she just ACCEPTED IT!”
“THEY SPLASH ON ME!” wails the three year old.
“I found this water pistol,” says the six year old, aiming at her brothers. “Finders keepers.”
“Let’s go home for tea,” I suggest, disarming the six year old.
My Lawyer has the week off, which means he only works four or five hours a day. He asks how the park was and I relay our experience.
“Also,” I add, “a lot of children were naked! You don’t see many naked children in paddling parks in England.” Our pilot episode’s subtitles read: “WHAT ABOUT PAEDOS?”
My Lawyer nods sagely, for he has six weeks’ more experience of Amsterdam than I do. “The Dutch are much more relaxed about their bodies. That’s how I know that guy has an appendectomy scar.”
“You know,” says My Lawyer, nodding towards the window. “The people.”
I turn to the window, and we see the people sitting at their clutterless table, facing each other.
A brief silence.
“Should we go out for dinner?” I ask.
“Definitely,” says My Lawyer.
We round up the kids and cycle a couple of blocks to George Bistro Bistro for burgers. My Lawyer has bought a Dutch bike, with high handlebars and low seat. He sits upright, shoulders back. It is impossible to ride a Dutch bike without looking relaxed. I, on the other hand, have shipped my city hybrid bike over from London. High seat, low handlebar. This was fine in London, but here in Amsterdam I’m the Briefcase Wanker of the cycling community.
We lock up outside the café and settle at our table. “You did not tell me enough how amazing this city is!” I say, removing glass and cutlery from the three year old’s grasp radius. “Why haven’t you been raving about it more?”
My Lawyer does a sad face. “It’s been pretty lonely, here on my own.”
“Hi sir,” interrupts the waitress, nodding in recognition at My Lawyer. “your usual?”
The bistro does Instagramable little burgers for the kids, and My Lawyer and I have tuna steak burgers with avocado. They are delicious. Like most cafes, alcohol is served. I think this is lovely, eating with the kids. If someone looked through the window, they would think we are Dutch. This is how you access your kids’ thoughts and worries, I think. This is how you bond.
“When your dad died,” says the six year old, “did you bury him or burn him?”
“What? Um, he was cremated.” I say, topping up my wine.
She looks at her older brother for clarification.
“Like Darth Vader,” explains the seven year old. “On the funeral pyre.”
“I’M DARTH VADER!” shouts the three year old.
“I do miss my dad,” I say. Talking about feelings. Bonding. “Do you want to see a photo?”
“YES!!!!!!” exclaim the kids, with more enthusiasm than I expect.
Then it dawns on me. “I don’t mean a photo of him on a funeral pyre.”
The excitement evaporates. The children exchange glances.
“When I die,” says the six year old, “I’ll just open my eyes to see what it’s like. Then I’ll be able to tell everyone.”
My Lawyer signals for the bill.
The next morning, new people move into the street a few doors up. We are no longer the new ones. They don’t know how long we’ve been here, or if we are English or Dutch. I smile at them as I walk past, but I don’t say anything, enjoying the ambiguity. I relish a moment free of Brexit shame.
I walk across Vondelpark to A Bikes to hire a bakfiets for the day. A bakfiets is the ubiquitous cargo bike; an elongated bike with a large box secured behind the front wheel, into which one can pour children, dogs and shopping. Available with two or three wheels, we’ve been advised to try out the two-wheeler first. It has a better turning circle and therefore better at dodging trams and stoned people. If you want to rent one of these cargo bikes, I recommend you book online, and get to the shop early. Most rental places only have a few cargo bikes and they are very popular.
The bakfiets takes a good few minutes to get used to. Because the front wheel is so far forward, the steering is sensitive. You can’t lean on the bars for pedalling momentum, because you’ll veer sideways. I do a lap of Vondelpark and head back to pick up the rest of the Amsterfam.
We spend the day with new friends we’ve met through the Amsterdam Mamas online network. They lead us down to Amsterdamse Bos, a forest about twenty minutes’ cycle south. The seven year old rides his own bike there and I suspect the six year old could have, but the box bike has been part of the leverage to get her to Amsterdam with minimal fury, so she and the three year old ride as my cargo. Their weight actually makes it easier to cycle, apart from when they sway from side to side when I have to scream in terror and stop to breath into a brown paper bag. That only happens occasionally.
In the middle of the forest we find a pancake house called Boerderij Meerzicht, which has a huge play area, indoor and outdoor seating, and actual reindeer to feed. The sun is shining, the sangria is flowing. A very easy day.
There is much excitement when we return to our apartment in the evening. The people are getting ready to go out.
“He’s in a smart white shirt,” reports My Lawyer from the window. “Look! He’s doing a little dance at the lady!”
The man, oblivious to his additional audience, shimmies.
“This is very unlike him,” I observe.
We put the kids to bed giddily. What does the evening hold, for the people? This is the first time we will have seen them leave their apartment. The shimmy is just the beginning. What other moves are up his starched sleeve?
But when we return to the front room, the people are back in their normal clothes, on the sofa. Reading. Just sitting and reading, like in the olden days.
“I don’t understand,” says My Lawyer.
“I do,” I say. “The people are fucking with us.”
Half term, our pilot episode, comes to an end. The kids and I must go back to South London for four more weeks before returning to Amsterdam for good. We order sushi takeout for dinner for the third time this week, making the most of the excellent Sushi Kings around the corner from us, a few roads beneath Vondelpark. We eat at our table in the window, feeling a bit deflated. I didn’t want to leave London, and now I don’t want to go back to London. My Lawyer is here, my stuff is here. Plus, I am very easily won over with daytime sangria.
There is movement down on the street, unusual for a Sunday evening. We both peer down.
I gasp: “The people! They’re out!!”
The lady looks up and down the street, straightening out her dress.
‘She doesn’t look pregnant,” I say, looking accusingly at My Lawyer.
“I dunno,” he says, shrugging. “I suppose she might not be.”
The man locks their door and turns, a bottle of wine under his arm, a spring in his step. His shirt shines a clean white beneath his jacket.
“He’s wearing the shirt!” My Lawyer says.
“Ahhh,” I say, cocking my head like a gratified Gogglebox sofa-dweller. “He did a dress rehearsal.”
We watch them walk down the road to the real thing, hoping it will meet expectation.