Amsterdam · Family · Life · parenting

The Simple Life

My Lawyer is in Dubai again and has found himself in an enormous suite, the poor bastard.

“I don’t know how it happened,” he texts, and a ninety second video tour of the suite follows. He eats down in the restaurant, he tells me, but early evening finds himself back in his palatial quarters, feeling honour-bound to make the most of each distinct area: bedroom, kitchen, sitting room, city-viewing corner. There is a chaise longue at the foot of the bed, for that pesky time between drinking your nightcap in a silk bathrobe and getting into bed, when you just need a quick sit down to rest, so fatigued are you on account of the long pilgrimage from the city-viewing corner to the bed. My Lawyer hints at a suggestion that the sheer expanse of static space around him makes him lonelier, but this is not received well. He backtracks, and our marriage continues.

Back in Amsterdam, I’m organizing birthday parties for the four year old and the seven year old. You might have heard that in the Netherlands, the children are happier than all other children around the world. The children in the Netherlands are not materialistic or greedy. They are self-sufficient, interesting and grateful. There’s a whole book about it – you know the one: The Happiest Kids In The World, the cover of which is a drawing of a dad cycling a bakfiets containing three kids and a dog. The mum isn’t there, because she’s working part-time in this flexi-working, co-parenting, Dutch idyll. The dad is smiling, because, according to the book, “Dutch children are pleasant to be around.” Here is a list of, to quote, “some” of the things that set Dutch children apart:

Dutch kids

Imagine how I felt reading that, two years ago, in London, as we prepared to make the move to Amsterdam? (I mean, apart from the “seen but also heard” one, obvs. Brief second thoughts at that point. Also alarming: “more time with their mums and dads.” Gritted Teeth Emoji.) A few pages later, one of the authors writes that “the Dutch kids’ parties we’ve been to are simple, down-to-earth affairs”. Apparently, the adults sit in a circle, eat one slice of cake each, and talk. Children play with second hand wooden toys. There might be a mild ruckus when the children realise that the distribution of toys is not precisely 1.7 toys per child. They will rectify this themselves, and then do the washing up. Fuck you, Pizza Express Pizza Making Party! So long, Laser Quest! Not for us, ball-ache of Paint Ball! We’ll be living the simple life in Holland, with a cake that was actually our only gift to the delighted child, followed by cycle out of the city and a… a… a FAMILY HIKE! YES! A FAMILY FUCKING HIKE! And our kids will walk and walk in the inimitable horse-piss rain of The Netherlands, feeling invigorated, hardy, FUCKING GRATEFUL TO BE ALIVE. “Thank you!” The birthday kid will holler through the slicing downpour. “Thank you for my birthday cake and my birthday hike! Oh look – the rain is turning to sleet. BEST. BIRTHDAY. EVER.”

“I’d like a pony party,” says the seven year old.

“I want a Candy Castle Spiderman Party,” says the four year old.

I’m not saying that the book is fake news, but there aren’t any photos in it.

Kitchen
Historically, “the Dutch housewife was always the boss of the household. She wouldn’t spend hours in the kitchen but enjoyed keeping her home neat and clean.” – The Happiest Kids In The World, pg 211

The pony party is downgraded to a trampoline party, on account of several other girls – SOME OF WHOM ARE DUTCH – having had a pony party in living memory, and who wants to have the fifth pony party? Fifth Pony Party is a great band name, I think to myself, as I cycle to Hema for party bag shit. I think a lot of things to myself on the bike, like: why is everyone on Twitter mad at Countdown’s Rachel Riley? What am I not getting about the Fleabag priest? Did I only fancy Robert Mueller because I thought he had some serious shit on Trump? Am I sitting on both labia equally? What happens if you favour one particular labia over the course of decades of cycling? I am not speaking to many adults. Help me.

After Dubai, My Lawyer flies to San Francisco. We cannot speak at all when he is in San Francisco; the times don’t work. He sends me photos of the Bay, cropping out the more obvious homeless people. I text him screenshots of Theresa May promising to quit to get her deal through, which I think is news, but it’s not; she cannot even muster up enough support for her potential resignation. My mum calls, in part to arrange her forthcoming visit for the birthdays, and in part to tell me that I used the wrong spelling of practise in my last blog post.

“I have an easy way to remember it,” she says. “Practice, with I-C-E, is the noun, just like ice is a noun.”

“But ice is also a verb,” I say. “You ice a cake.”

There is a short silence. “I suppose that’s another way of looking at it.”

I think: Oh fuck. Birthday cakes.

Cake
“There doesn’t seem to be any form of competition among moms to be the perfect mother.” – Happiest Kids, pg 198

In the days that follow, I am lucky enough to be in a position to throw money at my problems, and also lucky enough that said problems are THE ANNUAL CELEBRATIONS OF THE ON-GOING SURVIVAL OF MY OFFSPRING. I mean, the alternative is a shitload worse. If they died, I mean. Not just hiking. But also hiking a little bit.

My mum arrives, tells me I’m too thin, and then we walk around Amsterdam pointing out wonky walls. My mum sees things that I no longer see; how hard this city must be for car owners, the gratuitous number of bakeries, the recklessness with which Dutch people load their rickety bikes with children, animals, pieces of furniture, other people.

“They must spend so much time cycling!” says my mum. “I wonder if Dutch people have problems with their-“

Labia?

“Knees.”

My Lawyer arrives home. We celebrate the birthdays with around €500 worth of time in places that give you static hair and e-coli. On the birthdays themselves, we are required to bring in traktaties to school – a treat for each child in the class. I make brownies with the (now) eight year old. We cut them up and count them – 28 brownies, plus two shop-bought gluten-free. My mum and I forge an assembly line of cellophane, ribbons and labels whilst My Lawyer takes a late call with San Fran.

I take the traktaties into the eight year old’s class the next morning.

“I have the treats for all the children,” I say to The Meester, the eight year old’s teacher, in stilted Dutch. “You will in the box see two special, for the gluten-frees. They…. Are…. Named. And also extra, for her…. schoolerond.”

Klaserond,” he corrects, and then, in English: “You have not been practicing.”

The next day, my mum leaves. London needs her. My Lawyer goes back to his normal thirteen-hour working day. After dropping the kids to school, I go home, make a cup of tea, and settle down to read a book that I’ve downloaded onto my phone to stop me looking at social media. A reminder pops up on iCalendar: GROEP 4 OLD SOCKS. Fuck. I put my tea down and scour the house for socks that the eight year old can make into a puppet. I don’t know what size socks to bring, so I take a pair from each member of the family and then cycle back to school with five pairs of socks, wondering, as I cycle: did all the Dutch kids remember to bring in their own socks this morning? Or were Dutch mums, or (GASP!) Dutch dads going through underwear drawers at 8am, wondering which socks were shit enough to leave the wardrobe, but not shit enough for school to wonder about social services intervention? And could Dutch labia be subject to actual evolutionary change? What about balls?

“Which socks of mine did you take?” asks My Lawyer that evening.

I shrug. “Fluffy brown ones?”

“Those were my hiking socks,” he says, looking into the middle distance.

 

Toys.jpg
“Children growing up in the Netherlands are used to having second-hand toys.” Happiest Kids, pg 192

11 thoughts on “The Simple Life

  1. Loved this one especially much!
    Also has the identical “Am I sitting on both labia equally?” worry while cycling through Brockwell Park this week (the 12th mile that day, so not unfounded perhaps!). Xxx

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Right. Highly entertaining (as usual) and mildly disturbing. Lauren, I’m a fan (keep writing, ‘Amsterfan’ is too soon!). As a 47-year-old expat and a fellow parent from your 7 year old’s class, I actually intended to protect your Lawyer here (a lonely and rather unpopular endeavour, I know, but hey, how about diversity of perspectives here?). Sadly, it was not meant to be as I got distracted and needed to check with my wife to what extent am I supposed to be concerned with the (potentially unbalanced) exposure of your labia (plural of labium) when riding Steven.

        God, I’ve just re-read this and this comment sounded differently in my head. Nevertheless, thanks for the intriguing thoughts on a sleepy Sunday morning in my household, and a rather unexpected family conversation over coffee. As Klara might confirm.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes the SF time difference is a killer isn’t it. I think he is travelling more in this job, yes. At first I thought it was just because I noticed it more, not having my mum around the corner to help, but we just chatted about it and for sure it’s more.

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  2. I was horrified when I found out about traktaties. My Dutch partner, who works at sea (and is always, conveniently, away at these strategic times) omitted to warn me about this and I found out the night before that I had to supply 33 treats and ‘something for the teachers’ – seriously, every time a child has a birthday the teachers get cake or biscuits – for the following morning. For the first few years (barring the Group One disaster) I really tried, making multi-coloured jelly pots (which baffled the Dutch children) and individually wrapped homemade cookies. By Group Eight I had acquired a coolbox and handed out ice lollies from Lidl in the morning break time (it was June, just to be clear).
    I do love your blog. After 14 years in the Netherlands (child now nearly 16) it really resonates.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Joanna! Coolbox is a smart idea – the nine year old has a June birthday. I was wondering if the traktaties (ever fancier – my brownies seemed actually low-key to some of the “party bags” handed out) were a bigger deal because we are in moneyed Zuid in Amsterdam – whereabouts are you? How is your Dutch? I’m always mega jealous of people married to someone Dutch. I tell My Lawyer off all the time for not being Dutch.

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