I am forgetting how to drive. I no longer do a Big Shop. I don’t brush my hair any more. We have bike parts and WD40 in almost every room. I eat stroopwafels for breakfast. I have put on four pounds, all of which is solid cycling muscle on my butt. Possibly one pound is stroopwafel. I know that crossing the road on a red man here is against the rules, and you could ruin a Dutch policeman’s day if you did that in front of him. I drink sometimes at 5 in the afternoon, which I did before too, in my old life. But now, if I drink with another adult, I can call it borrel and chalk up another notch on my integration bedpost. I know to say congratulations to the parent of a child who is celebrating their birthday. You have to shake their hand. Hij is jarig! So tricky to translate – the best I can do is: He is aging! On this one day! We Brits age everyday. We understand dog years better than anyone. Is it only two years since the Brexit referendum? It feels like fourteen.
And yet, this last year has gone so quickly.
We have lived in Amsterdam, as a family, for one year precisely.
We zijn jarig.
Where do we all find ourselves linguistically? Well, the nine year old and the seven year old now speak Dutch after a year of intense immersion at Dutch school, which, by the way, involves more emotional trauma than most happy-go-lucky globe-trotting family blogs would have you believe. You can now ask the nine year old and the seven year old: “Was it hard?” and they will tell you (with a European shrug), “No. Dutch is easy.”
As far as I can see, there are two possible reasons for this response. The first is that my children operate entirely without historical context, living only in their present like goldfish, ignorant of the fruits of even their own labours. The second is that they have repressed the worst of it; the seven year old sobbing herself to sleep every night for the first two weeks, begging to go home to London. The nine year old being bullied; something that, in England, he was subjected to on account of being a brain. But, starting school in the Netherlands, he was dumb twice over; mute without words to express himself, and therefore a dumbass to his new classmates. Je bent dom. He finishes the year, now, at a Dutch reading level six months ahead of his age. He is best friends with the one other boy in his class who does not play football. The seven year old finishes the year with an entourage. Somehow, the dust settled in just the way it did in England; I could not tell you how. I have only just taken my hands away from my eyes.
“Dutch is easy”. I’m living with goldfish, or emotionally repressed time bombs. Maybe somewhere between the two, depending on the day, or the temperature, or the quality of their sleep, or the unpredictable moods of their parents, who are also traumatised for any number of reasons. Wait, isn’t that all children? Am I writing about you?
The four year old is easier, being, as he is, a tiny baby that we carry around, and whose every whim we attend to. People say that you can move anywhere with very small children; their surroundings are not important, it is the consistency of their people that matter. This is true. The four year old is no more or less unreasonable than he was in London, and we are, all four of us, still just as much in his thrall. When he is tired, he says, “Dress me like a baby,” which means, “Bath me, be-towel me, fetch my pyjamas and come, one by one, to bid me goodnight. Several times.” This is very advanced for a tiny baby, and we have noticed that the older he gets, the more impressive as a tiny baby he becomes. He has even started school and has sort of learnt a second language, which is very unusual for a tiny baby.
My Lawyer works. He works a European day, coming to school with us in the morning, because, as you might have heard, fathers are much more involved here in the Netherlands, due to a combination of healthy cultural working habits and easy proximity to and from work by bike. After his European working day, which is spent entirely in English, he is sometimes home early enough to eat dinner with us. The family evening meal is another staple of the enviable Dutch work/life balance; a time to exchange news, reconnect, and have a lively debate about who is and isn’t allowed to play Fortnite. After the family evening meal (at which he may or may not be present), My Lawyer then has an American working day, which, conveniently, does not clash with his European working day, falling, as it does, in the middle of the European night. My Lawyer works for an American company. You can take the office out of America, but. A fox won’t become a chicken just because you put it in a coup. And, if it does, well, that fox is gonna get the sack. Needless to say, My Lawyer is a fox who does not speak Dutch.
I am chipping away at it. Each week, I translate the Saturday magazine supplement of Het Parool, Amsterdam’s newspaper. I am both time and vocabulary poor, so reading the magazine takes most of the week. I start, on the weekends, with the short editorial, and then a regular feature called Koppen (Heads), which displays twelve faces, unified by location or profession. Dutch people like looking. What have you got to hide?
By Tuesday, I’m reading a column by either a midwife or an undertaker. They take alternate weeks, describing a snapshot of their work. Children are delivered, parents are buried. Or, parents are created, and children are buried. A reminder: this is reading material intended to accompany your Saturday brunch. On Wednesday and Thursday I’ll read the interview, which gives me a little light relief from the preceding existential crisis and a few colloquialisms to boot. By Friday, the magazine is crumpled and the children are dragging their feet towards the weekend. I wait until the kids are in bed and My Lawyer is working his American day. I pour myself a glass of wine and I read my favourite section, the column of Femke Van Der Laan, the young widow of the beloved Amsterdam mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, who died last October, leaving her with three young children. Last week, Femke wrote how her youngest lay down next to his father’s grave, stretching out his arms to feel the sun on his young skin. Sunbathing, next to his dad. Slowly, I unpick the Dutch, and sew the story back together in English, with the help of a large dictionary and my own personal interpretation of loss, which is different, and also the same.
Dutch family life, as it is sold to you on Amazon, seems idyllic: Happiest Kids In The World! We are already so used to the best parts of this culture – no homework, cycling everywhere – that we hardly think to mention them any more. But they are the easy bits. You don’t need to “get used to” not doing homework. You just don’t need to remember to it any more. Likewise, being carless is barely noticeable. You only think about how annoying parallel parking is when you are parallel parking.
The most striking moments of the last year, for me, have not been on the bike, or around the family dinner table, or marvelling at Amsterdam’s city planning. Instead, they are the moments when I see versions of my own human experience reflected back at me in a different language. When I read about a family carrying on after loss. When I walk past an open window and hear an exasperated shriek from a parent. When I watch a neighbour struggle impotently against the immeasurable power of a duvet resisting the captivity of a new cover. When I observe that men here still don’t get it (my daughter’s judo teacher, to my daughter, who is seven: “Will you still be this pretty next week?”). When I see my Dutch neighbours, on a weekend morning, drawing back their curtains at a later hour than you’d expect in our sophisticated district of the city, Dutch cartoons blaring in the background to momentarily stupefy their kids. The differences are obvious at first, but when I look back over the last year, most notable for me is the unifying inevitability of the human condition. Birds shit on everyone. What a comfort that is. What a relief.