“Ik heb DEZE nodig, voor mijn kinderen, alsjeblieft.”
It is 9am in Amsterdam and I am the first customer at our local pharmacy. I am brandishing my iPhone at a Dutch pharmacist who reads the word MEBENDAZOL. In English, this is MEBENDAZOLE. Still none the wiser? Allow me to clarify. One of the Amsterfam young has worms.
To retain what remains of their dignity, I won’t reveal which of my offspring has been up and down all night with an itchy bum. It’s pretty academic anyway, given that, in all likelihood, the rest of us are now probably incubating the next generation of wriggly parasites. Oh, don’t wrinkle your nose. At any given time, 50% of ALL KIDS have worms. So if you think you’ve never had them, then you’re either lying or you have no nerve-endings in your butt. Which guy do you want to be? Liar or Numb Bum? Arse-faced weasel or weasel-faced arsehole? I’ve had worms and I know this because I have feelings in my asshole. If you think that you’ve never had worms then you’re walking around with a stupefied ass; an ass so incurious that it’s indifferent to parasitic invasion, and I feel for you, my friend. In more ways than I’d prefer to.
We’re getting into strange territory.
THE POINT IS, most of you will get to surreptitiously purchase and administer worming medication to your children without having to clumsily construct your first ever Dutch sentence to a woman looking at you as if you are the very parasites that are most likely multiplying within you at that very moment. Probably none of you will feel an inexplicable urge to blog about it to literally tens of people. Imagine being me.
The Dutch pharmacist hands me a small box of pills, and says something in Dutch. Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, hosting our parasitic worms. Somewhere deep in Brexit England, Katie Hopkins sniffs the air, hungrily. Immigrants? Parasitic worms? But it’s too good to be true; this woman from Amsterfam is British, middle-class and white. She’s no immigrant. She’s an ex-pat, so she’s exempt from the expectation to integrate.
To integrate is defined in the dictionary as to “Bring (people or groups with particular characteristics or needs) into equal participation in or membership of a social group or institution.” For most of us, it means: Dress like us. Sound like us. Behave like us. Us are white, of course. Us are from the West. Us are the invaders of the world, refusing to integrate on an international scale until us became Us and the original us became them.
I walk home with the medication, integrating the shit out of Amsterdam with my freckled whiteness and a presupposed access to medication that may or may not be required. Easy peasy. I get back to the flat and tag in to the childcare, as My Lawyer tags out to go to the office.
I be-shoe the children and we thunder down the stairs and out into the street to continue our seamless integration al fresco.
The six year old and the three year old holler at the top of their voices.
“Shhhhh!!!!” I hiss. “This is our street! We have to pretend to be normal here.”
“Okay,” sighs the three year old. “I be an owl?”
“Sure,” I say. That sounds harmless.
“TWAT TO YOUUUUUUU!” he howls into the air.
“It’s twit twohoo,” corrects the eight year old.
“TWAT TO YOU,” the three year old shouts back.
“We’ll just go to for an early lunch and get a few bits for tonight,” I say. I am clutching my empty shopping bags. Everyone here carries their own shopping bag. I am one of the every.
We have lunch at a very Dutch-looking bakery. No English menus; good, I think. We don’t need them. I know the words for sandwiches is boterhammen. I look at the menu and I cannot understand most of the Dutch words. This is baffling, given that I have recently completed FOODS in my Duolingo language app. I note a few words that I recognize, kaas, tomaat, kip, pesto, all of which, you’ll note, are close to their English equivalents, and after queuing at the wrong end of the counter for five minutes I cobble together an order for the four of us.
“Drinken?” The lady behind the counter asks.
Christ, I hadn’t got that far. “Um, vier chocomel, alsjeblieft.”
Chocomel is a chocolate milk drink upon which children become reliant as soon as they step foot on Dutch soil. They down it joylessly and then demand more.
In the absence of a viable alternative, I do the same. We eat our boterhammen and then stagger out into the sunlight, in a chocomel-induced stupor.
“I feel sick,” says the eight year old.
“Take deep breaths,” I advise, mainly to myself.
“Twat to you!” whimpers the three year old.
The Dutch pay us no attention; they are used to this behaviour from the British.
On the way home, we pass Albert Heijn, which is the posh, Waitrose-equivalent supermarket here. My London Wanker radar kicks in through the chocomel fog; sparkling water will help. And maybe an avocado. Might they have pomegranate? Smoked mackerel? We work our way around the aisles, loading up our basket with Good Fats. The kids choose puddings for later. Things are looking up.
“Um,” I say, as we get to the till. There is no-one here. I look around helplessly. A uniformed worker wanders over and says something in Dutch.
“Sprekt je Engels?” I ask her.
“Self-service,” she says, and helps us to scan everything through. The kids load up our shopping bags.
“Card,” she says, pointing at a machine. I tap my card on and she shakes her head. “No Visa,” she says. “Electron.”
“I don’t have that,” I say. “I might have cash-“
She shakes her head again. “No cash.”
I look at her. “You don’t take cash?!”
“No,” she says, “No cash.” I sense that she has had this conversation many hundreds of times. “You have to put back.”
I unload the bags, trying to explain to the baffled kids what has happened, and whispering my own bitter farewell to the avocado.
We arrive home with chocomel hangovers and little else. My Lawyer gets home at the same time; he’s back early because he’s travelling away with work tomorrow. The kids are still upset about the abandoned shopping.
‘What’s wrong with them?” asks My Lawyer.
“I got Albert Heijn wrong,” I say, flatly.
My Lawyer suggests that I go out on my own for an hour or so, to get a break out on my own before he leaves. I take his bike, because mine is the only one with a child seat and he wants to take the kids out somewhere.
“Pick up that parcel too?” he asks, handing me a Delivery Note that has been hanging around for a few days. I brighten; it might be something fun. The parcel depot is a good cycle away and I think it will cheer me up.
My Lawyer bought his bike in his first week here. It is a very Dutch affair, with high handlebars and pedal brakes. It also has no available square centimeter onto which one could perch a child. This is My Lawyer’s equivalent of a two-seater sports car. Family life will not permeate this vehicle.
The seat is too high for me, and I cannot work the pedal brakes. I crash twice before I get to the end of our road. A group of removal men laugh at me. I wonder who they are moving. Why are they leaving? Didn’t they like it here?
After several more near-misses and in busier traffic, I walk My Lawyer’s stupid bachelor bike the rest of the way to the parcel place. There is nowhere to park the bike, so I lean it against the window of the office where I can see it. In all honesty, I’m not passionate about its security.
“Hi!” says a cheerful man behind the counter.
“Hi,” I say, pulling myself together, waving the card. “I have this.”
The cheerful man taps a few things into his computer. He walks out to the back of the office, and reappears with a large document-sized envelope.
“Mohammed,” he grins, placing the envelope in front of me.
I look at the envelope, and then back at the man.
“I am not Mohammed,” I say. I feel this clarification isn’t entirely necessary.
“This is Mohammed’s address,” says the cheerful man, pointing at the envelope.
“This is my address,” I reply, smiling back.
“Mohammed lived here before you?” he asks, pushing the envelope towards me, still hopeful that I might relieve him of its burden. I fight the British urge to take the parcel out of politeness. This is between Mohammed and the cheerful man.
“I have no idea who Mohammed is. I’m sorry.”
No one has stolen the child-resistant bike. I cycle a different route back, through Vondelpark, which is now familiar to me, and safe. I am a little tearful. I wonder about Mohammed. Where is he now? I feel sure that he doesn’t have worms.
As I arrive home, I see My Lawyer at our front door with the kids, chatting to our landlady. I fix my smile.
“How are you settling in?” she asks, in fluent English.
“It’s all great, but not without its challenges! This morning, for example, I found myself asking for worm medicine.”
“What?” She asks. Behind her, My Lawyer closes his eyes. He knows that slapstick self-depreciation is my go-to in any unexpected social situation.
“Yep,” I continue with abandon. “I googled the medicine and said,” – and here I put on an unidentifiable accent, at which point My Lawyer leaves – “Ik heb deze nodig, voor mijn kinderen.” I laugh awkwardly, and immediately hate myself.
“How did you know this?” she asks, frowning.
I sigh wearily. “I think… worms are just more common in England? Or maybe we are just a particularly disgusting family?”
“No,” she says, “I mean the words. How do you know these words already?”
She is impressed. I hate myself slightly less.
“I have a language app,” I explain. “I’m trying to learn.”
“This is quick,” she says, nodding.
I go inside and recount this triumph to My Lawyer, who is wondering if deworming the apartment will be taken from our deposit.
Later that evening, the five of us take our worming tablets.
“You won’t blog about this, will you?” asks My Lawyer.
“Absolutely not,” I say, downing my pill with red wine. “I’m writing about being an immigrant.”