Steve is sick. He’s finding it hard to move. On good days, when he’s feeling spritely, he can’t make a dignified stop; it is, more often than not, a graceless, juddering halt. On bad days, he stops without warning, with no regard for those around him, on him, or, indeed, in him. In all cases, he makes a strange noise; a rasping metallic la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you as he rattles forth, his external efforts drowning out his internal disintegration.
So far, so average middle-aged guy at the arse-end of winter, staring down the barrel of another twenty-five years of work, not being able to talk about Star Wars going wrong and now this: involuntary noises upon which his existential denial ultimately becomes reliant. But I’m not talking about an average middle-aged guy. I very rarely do, hence, perhaps, my ascent as Tulse Hill’s most popular export in Amsterdam. I’m talking about Steve the Bakfiets, #stevethebakfiets, celebrity cargo bike, our reluctant sixth member of the family who isn’t enjoying a brooding retirement in the highlands of Scotland, as was so nearly his fate.
I take Steve to the bike repair shop and am greeted by a boy who looks like Frodo Baggins, and, I suppose I must acknowledge due to his professional presence here on a school day, is actually a man.
“Mag ik engels praten?” I ask. Permission to speak English! This is too technical an issue for my level of Dutch, I have decided. I am living in Zuid, an expat-drenched area of Amsterdam in which every shop offers assistance in Dutch and English, and sometimes only English. Is this bilingualism the cause or the result of expats’ reluctance to speak Dutch? It’s academic, of course; the likelihood of your learning Dutch depends on where you fall on the Venn diagram of White? Black? Rich? Poor? And, crucially, Will you die if you return to your country of origin? There’s no greater incentive to learn a language than a one-way ticket to an AK47 welcoming committee.
Where was I? Oh, right – talking English to Frodo. A lot of people say that self-awareness is my defining trait.
“So he – I mean it – I mean he,” I pause, to pat Steve apologetically, “he’s making a funny noise when I go over bumps.” This is the technical language that I couldn’t fathom translating.
Frodo inspects Steve, lifting the stand up and down.
“Is it this bit? It could be banging when you go over rough terrain.”
Terrain. Honestly. In this part of Amsterdam, there is no need to speak slowly, or adjust your vocabulary. I often have a harder time talking to American friends; for example, when I need to go to the toilet. Americans don’t say, “I’m going to the toilet”. They say, “I’m going to the bathroom”, to avoid unnecessary imagery. When we Brits say, “I’m going to the toilet,” what Americans hear is: “I am going to urinate into the toilet.” <uncomfortable pause> “OR PERHAPS DEFECATE.”
“I’m finished,” says Frodo, standing up from Steve’s nether regions. Steve and I both notice that Frodo moves without wincing. We wonder what it’s like.
“See how you go,” he says.
“Bedankt!” I say, pathetically.
On the way home, I drop into the Jumbo, which is our local supermarket and is pronounced Yumbo, not Jumbo. Don’t tell me you don’t learn anything during our five minutes together every fortnight-ish.
I’m in the Jumbo because the nine year old has announced that he is a flexitarian. What this means, apparently, is that he doesn’t eat dairy any more, but has selected some controversial add-ons. He still eats meat, because he read some information about the shape of human teeth and also burgers are delicious. Fish and eggs are both still on the menu, for brain-related reasons. Troubling him is the environmental impact of industrial milking. Yes, I know that beef herds are more problematic than dairy herds, but dude, he’s NINE. Stop being so judgmental. You were the one who didn’t know how to pronounce Jumbo only moments ago.
So I stock up on oat milk, coconut yoghurt and vegan cheese and head back out to Steve. I kick his stand up, but it falls back down. I try again, and the same thing happens. People walk past, averting their eyes. I try a third and final time, but the stand comes back down to earth with a defiant thud. Look, I’ll just say it, okay? Steve cannot keep it up. I push him home, his dysfunctional stand dragging along the ground, and a cargo of hipster food rattling impotently on his chair, as if flakes of oat might outweigh the sands of time.
I collect the kids with my London wanker bike (low handlebars, exposed chain, right trouser leg tucked into right sock, BREXIT SHAME stamped on my forehead) and the nine year old races home to make a toastie with his vegan cheese. It does not go well.
“Mum,” he says. “I do not like vegan cheese AT ALL.”
“Is it… not good?” I ask.
“No. It tastes like a car.”
And over breakfast the next morning, the nine year old grimaces over his overnight oats.
“Is it… not good?” I ask.
“It’s fine,” says the nine year old. “I mean, it’s okay.” He takes another bite and winces.
“Maybe it’s okay to have regular milk in just your oats?” suggests My Lawyer. “I mean, you’d still be cutting down, and you’d be helping the cow, too.”
“How would I be helping the cow?” asks the nine year old.
“Well,” says My Lawyer, “Imagine what would happen to the cow if it didn’t get milked!”
I see the figurative bus approaching, and I throw My Lawyer beneath it with relish.
I ask, innocently: “What would happen?” This is why I got married. Moments like this.
“It would…. explode,” says My Lawyer, who studied for many years in one of the UK’s best schools, went to a prestigious university, undertook a law conversion course and now practices law in a company of international renown.
“COOL!” says the four year old.
“WHAT?” cries the seven year old, welling up.
“I’m not sure that’s true,” says the nine year old.
“It is not true,” I confirm.
“Okay,” says My Lawyer, “What happens then?”
“The milk would just… dry up,” I say, patting my breasts. “Like mine did.”
“I’ve had enough,” says the nine year old, and we choose to assume he is referring to his breakfast.
My Lawyer suggests that I might get better service at the bike shop if I speak Dutch this time. This is because My Lawyer thinks that I can speak serviceable Dutch. Perhaps he doesn’t realise that this is akin to asking me to play Scrabble with Will Self. Still, these indignities are nothing compared to Steve’s, for whom serviceability is currently a distant memory. I give it a go.
“Sir!” I say to a grown up man in the bike shop. “I brought yesterday this cargo bike in here. This boy” (here, I point to Frodo behind him) “did something and now my problem is worse. Actually, are there now two problems: the noise and the stand. I find it finer if I do not pay.”
Back in London, I would sometimes hear a foreigner – can I say foreigner, now that I am one? – speaking pretty rudely to waiting staff, or cashiers, or even (gasp!) myself, and I would put it down to culture. I mean, almost every other country has a more direct style of communication than Britain, don’t they? We say sorry far too much, us Brits, even though we are almost never genuinely sorry. In fact, in most cases, saying sorry is actually an invitation for the other person to say sorry, but at least you sound, on the surface, polite, right? That’s important. And these other foreigners – arguing over a bill, or returning perfectly serviceable goods, or telling me that their own countries are immeasurably better than the UK – they could be pretty rude sometimes! It was sort of abrupt! It was as if they didn’t understand the nuances of our language! IT WAS ALMOST AS IF THEY POSSESSED AN ENGLISH VOCABULARY MORE LIMITED THAN MY OWN!
The grown up man seems unfazed by Arsehole Foreign Me, and gets straight to work on Steve. Frodo probably cries inside, but that’s millennials for you; they become inexplicably offended at forthright, baseless, poorly-constructed exclamations of incredulity, covfefe? The door opens and a friend, a fellow ex-Londoner, walks in. Whilst Steve gets his mojo back, we have a polite conversation about cheddar cheese. We talk about cheddar cheese for a good five minutes. Oh, the tang; the crumble. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
“Did you get your temporary residence permit?” asks my friend.
A short silence follows. We bow our heads.
“Okay!” says the grown up man. “That should do it!” He’s switched to English because he has heard our conversation.
“Thank you!” I say, in English too, goddammit. Switching back to Dutch after an English conversation is like deciding to change direction halfway down an escalator.
Steve gives the impression of structural integrity, and really: what more can we hope for? At this point, I’ll trust anyone who has, on the surface at least, control of their most basic faculties.
I cycle Steve to the dentist, practicing a Dutch apology for drinking too much English tea.
I might not really mean it.