There’s nothing like your kids’ first day at their new school in a country that speaks an almost impenetrable language to make you wonder exactly how much the therapist’s bill will be, for three of them, in approximately ten years.
It is the first Monday in September. Amsterdam is enjoying a break in the rain that has lasted for more than a day; people are making a note of the date.
We have arrived, too early, for the first day of Dutch school. The eight year old and the six year old pose reluctantly at the school’s front door, so that my iPhone can capture the exact moment that their future therapist will need to isolate. Maybe by taking this photo I can save a lot of money just by showing it to the kids myself: “You see? Here! Here is why you hate me! But, my darlings, now you can say you hate me in two languages! Plus, Mummy wrote a blog about the consequences of this relocation whim, which was turned into a best-selling book, and then a television series that starred Sharon Horgan as Mummy and David Mitchell as Daddy. Do you remember the premiere, my darlings? When you found out that My Lawyer was actually your father? That’s going in series two, you clever little deranged lunatics. Oh, it’s okay. I NEVER SAID YOUR REAL NAMES.”
Dutch schools do not have school uniform. The throng of colour at the school entrance reaches a dizzying crescendo. These, by many accounts, are some of the happiest children on the planet. The eight year old and the six year old shrink towards me. The six year old reaches an arm up the sleeve of my coat. In moments of uncertainty, she likes to lightly stroke the hairs on my arm.
The doors open, and we trickle forward with the crowd. A teacher stands at the entrance, to greet and shake the hand of every child. My kids manage to shake hands without making eye contact. Steady on, we’re British.
The six year old and the eight year old will spend most of their first year together in the school’s Nieuwkomersklas. Each of the fifteen newcomers in this class, aged between 6 and 12, will receive an intensive, tailor-made language programme in order to get up to speed with the language. At first, they will only spend lunchtimes, playtimes and gymnastics class with their own age group classes. As their Dutch improves, the time with their age group classes will increase.
The fifteen nieuwkomers take their seats. Their corresponding adults hover above them nervously, snapping photos, curating a gallery of apprehension. One boy starts to cry, and the teacher sits with him to wave goodbye to his mum and dad. The time has come.
“Bye, kids!” I say brightly. “Have a great time!”
The eight year old is already writing his name on his workbooks.
The six year old looks over to the crying boy. She could go either way. She looks up at me, and I swoop in with a cheerful see-you-later. Neither of us cry.
I spend the day chasing up the three year old’s place at voorschool. He is supposed to start soon, but we have heard nothing from the school. Further analysis of the enrolment process reveals that, at some stage, somebody somewhere did not add his name to a list written in biro. The three year old and I show up at the school to oversee the application of the biro. I am asked if I have any concerns about the three year old.
“Well, he has older siblings, so he can sometimes be a bit….. hitty,” I say, miming a light air-patting that in no way replicates the three year old’s occasional violent outbursts.
The Dutch voorschool teacher shrugs, non-plussed. “They don’t do that here.”
“Oh, fantastic!” I say brightly. “That’s alright then.”
My Lawyer is working from home, so that I can pick up the older children without the distraction and/or violence of the three year old. The children give very little away as they bundle their bags into Steve, who is still aglow with newfound fame, following his appearance in the last line of the Great Big Bike Blog Round Up.
I try not to badger the children with questions as we cycle home. The eight year old tells me how easy the maths is, and I read between the lines that actually, he has been learning to count in Dutch.
“I’m so excited about Alisha’s birthday party,” says the six year old, suddenly animated. “She doesn’t know if it’s going to be a bouncy castle party or a swimming party, and Lucy wants a bouncy castle party, but I hope it’s a swimming party because I LOVE swimming parties!” She grins back at me.
I smile back at her, not knowing what to say. She is talking about her friends at her old school in London; it is not a party she will go to. I am glad I am wearing my sunglasses.
On Tuesday morning, we have an unexpected guest. I come downstairs to see a sixth breakfast bowl, next to the six year old.
“What’s-“ I ask, and then I recognise something in the six year old’s expression as she busies around the empty place setting.
I turn to My Lawyer. “Bawby’?” I whisper.
He nods. “Bawby.”
Bawby is a tiny fairy princess pirate. She lived with us when the six year old was a toddler, and disappeared shortly after the six year old started preschool and made some human friends. The significance of her sudden reappearance is not lost on me. Following the advice of my friend Dr Genevieve Von Lob, in her book Five Deep Breaths, we ‘acknowledge the being as a legitimate presence in the household’, which means I harass her to get ready in the same way as I harass the rest of the family.
“Come on Bawbs, we’ll be late for school. Time to get your shoes on.”
The six year old rolls her eyes. “She doesn’t need shoes.”
On Wednesdays, Dutch schools finish early. I remember this as I hand the children the packed lunches that I’ve pointlessly made. I add “EARLY FINISH” into the calendar on my phone, and set it to repeat every Wednesday into infinity.
My Lawyer is taking the kids to school this morning because I am meeting our new cleaner. I am even more nervous than I was on Monday. We have never had a cleaner before. I spend a long time tidying up before she arrives, dead on time.
“I am Lena!” she says, shaking my hand.
I introduce Lena the cleaner to the three year old. She tells me that she has five grandchildren, the youngest of which is also three. I tell her that I also have two older children, who are at the moment miserably learning how to be amongst the happiest children in the world.
“Three children!” says Lena. “But you look like little girl!”
“Thank you!” I say. “And you look like… not a grandma!”
She doesn’t really smile, because this isn’t really a compliment.
Lena the cleaner tells me which products she will clean with. She also has very exact mop specifications. Lena is quite strict, but I thrive under instruction. The three year old and I go out, tasked with Lena’s shopping list.
We return with the wrong mop.
“I can use it,” Lena shrugs, “but this is more for in-between cleaning.”
“Ah ok,” I say. I do not know what she means by in-between cleaning.
My Lawyer picks the children up. He arrives too early, and the six year old cries because she wants to go home when she sees him. They all arrive back to the clean apartment, and My Lawyer collapses onto the sofa.
“You’re still wearing your shoes,” I say. “Take them off! It’s clean here!”
He doesn’t move. “This is my family time.”
“You’re just lying on the sofa with your shoes on.”
“This is as good as it gets.”
We somehow make it through Thursday and into Friday. Everyone is physically and emotionally exhausted. My Lawyer and I are hungover. It is pouring with rain, and we forgot to make the packed lunches the night before. We limp towards Friday evening, which holds in store a family trip out: we’ve been invited to a pizza night. Several English-speaking families from school will be there. This is how it starts, I think, getting a bottle of prosecco out of the fridge. This is how we plug in.
We head out into the rain, where fancy-pants Steve is waiting in his rainwear finery. My Lawyer and I get drenched loading the kids and prosecco into the cargo box. The three year old complains about a drip on his seat.
It’s been a hard week, I think as we set off, but this is really as good as we could have hoped for at this early stage. We even have a social engagement! We-
I feel a judder and come to a stop at the end of the road. Something isn’t right with Steve. I look down; his back wheel is as flat as a pancake.
“For fuck’s sake, Steve,” I say, and then turn my anger towards My Lawyer, who cannot hear what I am saying in the rain, but argues back in any case. A house divided against itself cannot stand. But if it cannot hear what it is saying, you’ve half a chance.
We wheel Steve around to the bike shop. It is difficult to say who is the most deflated. I say in my best Dutch: “De band van mijn bakfiets is-“ and here I make an explosion noise.
“You have a puncture,” nods the bike man, in perfect English.
Steve is nothing if not self-aware. Pride comes before a fall, he thinks. He checks into the bike shop for a weekend of rehab.
We storm home. It is too late to get to the pizza night. We are all wet, hungry and tearful.
“What do you want to do?” I ask the children. I am at a loss.
“Bawby would like to watch The Grinch,” says the six year old.
Sometimes I think Bawby is just taking the piss.
We order pizza of our own and watch Jim Carrey prat about in a film that laments the commercialisation of Christmas, for which Carrey earned $20 million.
“Phew,” says The Grinch. “Almost lost my cool.”