Two of the five of us are bleeding as we arrive at our appointment with the municipality of Amsterdam. We are here to obtain our burgerservicenummer, which is like a National Insurance Number but much more fun to say.
“What time was your appointment?” asks the receptionist.
“Twenty minutes ago,” I pant.
She is not impressed. “Let’s see what we can do for you.”
We are twenty minutes late because the six year old fell off her bike. Our tardiness thus far as Amsterdam residents has been mostly bike-related; falling off them, repairing them or cycling them – for some considerable distance – in the wrong direction.
“She’s bleeding, sorry,” I say, ushering the six year old in front of me as a human shield. “She fell off her bike on the way here. That’s why we’re late. Could I have some tissue?”
“For him too?” she asks, gesturing at the three year old, who is sporting a bleeding lip.
“Oh Christ, not again,” I say.
“Christ!” says the three year old, spitting blood cheerfully.
The three year old is bleeding because he has a spot on his lip made up of fused blood capillaries that have escaped the usual confines of several layers of skin. Back in London, the spot was unsightly but contained; here in Amsterdam, it has spontaneously ulcerated, and bleeds heavily for hours at a time. He will need an operation, because apparently it is not acceptable to start school intermittently bleeding from the face. And for an operation he needs some health insurance, and for some health insurance, he needs a burgerservicenummer. The situation bears a poetic circularity; For want of municipal bureaucracy, much blood was lost. We are at the front line of first world, middle class relocation, forming a bloody yet orderly queue.
We are warned that the municipal appointment will take two hours, and My Lawyer disappears with a jolly clerk to kick off our administrative sanctification. As I stem blood in the waiting area, more people arrive, and it quickly becomes apparent that everyone is approximately twenty minutes late. The three year old hits another child around the head, and I strike up conversation with the victim’s mother. Meeting another newcomer is like starting university; there are the same stock questions you begin with, minus the “What A Levels did you do” one, which we all now know was a fairly pointless question even when we were eighteen. Fucking Media Studies. Generally, the questions are thus:
Place of Origin
Where are you living
How long have you been here
DO YOU WANT TO BE MY FRIEND
My new friend and her children speak English as a second language, and they speak it perfectly. I am one of the small percentage of people in Amsterdam who speak only one language, and just about everyone in that percentage is English speaking. Being surrounded by polyglots is both inspiring and crushing to one’s self-esteem. Combined with the cartoon cloud of Brexit shame that follows us everywhere, we Brits are not winning any popularity contests over here, believe me. I add my new friend on Facebook, so she cannot get away.
My Lawyer re-emerges from the bureaucratic throng. “Your turn,” he says regretfully. Either he is empathetic towards the municipal grilling I’m about to face, or he’s bracing himself to take over the childcare. “Where are they?” he asks.
“Don’t know,” I say. “Bye!”
My stint with the cheerful clerk is an hour long. Mostly I just need to be sitting in front of her as real live proof that My Lawyer isn’t forging my existence. I pass the time by taking secret photos of myself as she types and photocopies, types and photocopies.
She hands me back our marriage certificate.
“Here you are – I now announce you man and wife!” she laughs hysterically.
“Ha, yes! Many thanks,” I reply, chuckling Britishly. Ho ho ho.
“This is how you say it, isn’t it? Announce you man and wife?’
“Basically, yes,” I say. “Although it might be ‘pronounce you man and wife’, now I think about it.”
The cheerful clerk hits herself on the head. “Oh gosh,” she says. “My English still isn’t all there, I’m afraid!”
Christ, I hate myself.
Now I have my burgerservicenummer – most people abbreviate it to BSN, but I think we are all enjoying burgerservicenummer – I can get a Dutch bank account, a Dutch phone and a three year old that doesn’t spontaneously bleed from the face. These will all be significant steps forward.
The Dutch are keen on appointments – don’t just turn up at our doorstep, you philistines, this isn’t Coronation Street. My bank appointment falls at the beginning of my fourth week in Amsterdam, and I wake up feeling more vulnerable than my usual, Brexit-cloud, mono-linguistic self.
One month is longer than a holiday, but still nowhere near long enough to feel at home. Even in this cosmopolitan city, accessible and welcoming, where the cafes have both wine and play-areas, we have been met with several obstacles a day, which, after a while, takes its toll. Turning up at the wrong place, with the wrong bank card, with three unsettled children. Getting lost geographically and linguistically. The wrong change. Not knowing where the good coffee is. Epic Google Translate fails. Missing my mum.
I pull myself together. Perhaps I will feel empowered once I have my bank account. I trot down our stairs to the street, where my bike is locked up. I pause. Something is different about the bike that I have owned, unscathed in London, for the last ten years.
“Oh,” I say, realising. Somebody has stolen my saddle.
I burst into tears and run back up to My Lawyer. The children flock around me as I explain tearfully what has happened.
“Don’t need to cry!” says the three year old, patting my knee.
“The police will catch them,” says the six year old kindly.
“I’m going to see if I have enough reds,” says the eight year old, inexplicably.
My Lawyer calls me an Uber, and I cry all the way to the bank. That isn’t how the saying is supposed to go.
My driver speaks in an American accent, offering me tissues, water and sympathy. He asks about the kids’ schooling in a bid to distract me.
“They’re going to Dutch school,” I explain, hiccupping like a tearful child.
“Right! I did the opposite, went to international school here to learn English.”
This momentarily stuns me. “You’re not American?”
“No, I’m Dutch.”
I get to the bank and am greeted by a young man with slicked-back hair and, as he registers my distress, an alarmed expression.
“Hello, sorry I’m crying,” I say. “My saddle – from my bike – it was stolen.”
“Your bike was stolen?” he clarifies.
By this point, I have regained control of my rationality, although my tear ducts are still galloping away with abandon. I know that I am crying for reasons beyond a stolen saddle.
“Yes,” I nod. “My bike was stolen. Exactly. My bike was stolen in its entirety.”
“Ok,” he says. “I will get tissues, and a lady to sit with us.”
The lady brings me tea and we chat about my fictitious loss, whilst slicked-back hair man busies himself unconvincingly at the computer. I write down the addresses of some places I can buy a cheap replacement bike.
“This one will be stolen too, you know,” she warns. “I’ve had bikes stolen in every city I’ve lived in. Here, London, Milan, St Petersburg….”
“Are you Russian?” I ask.
“No, I am Dutch.”
“Do you speak all of those languages?”
“My Italian isn’t as it should be.”
“I’m learning Dutch on Duolingo,” I tell her, with a handle on my quivering voice.
“Oh yes, I am also learning French on this. It’s good, but my French is also bad.”
“Well,” I say, “It sounds like you are a very good linguist. The British are terrible at languages.”
“Yes,” she nods in vigorous agreement.
“Laziness?” she suggests, helpfully.
I was going to say that everyone talks English already, but I shrug. “Yes. We are very lazy.”
I trundle home with an empty Dutch bank account. I will be able to fund the account in five days or less, when I receive my bank card. I trudge up several thousand stairs to our apartment, feeling embattled and defeated. This has not been the emboldening morning I’d hoped for.
The eight year old runs to me.
“I found enough reds!” he says, and hands me a heart of Lego. It might be one of the nicest things anyone has ever made me, and I tell him so.
I put the Lego heart on our bedroom mantelpiece, when something catches my eye from our opposite neighbour’s apartment. A sudden, violent movement. An angry shout emanates from the open window: FUCK!
I go out to the balcony to take a closer look and I see the light fitting swinging from the ceiling, and a tussle – arms everywhere, and a huge, billowing figure. Just as I begin to wonder what to do, the wrestling couple collapses on to the bed and I realize that I am watching one man’s unsuccessful attempt to change his duvet cover. I cannot look away as the man sums up the energy to go into battle again, but with the same result. There’s not a language in the world that quite captures the enfeebled humiliation a human feels as they lie, subjugated, beneath a triumphantly naked duvet.
It happens to us all.
I make my way back down the stairs and out to the bike shop, to buy a saddle to get back into.