I’m cycling through Vondelpark on my way to Pilates. I have kept my Pilates from you because I feared you would judge me; expat, blogger, Kept Woman, Pilates fanatic. It is a slippery slope; soon I’ll be juicing. Getting my nails done. Having my aura read. Going to therapy. Pah! Who am I kidding; I don’t need therapy. I have you.
The reason that I am going to Pilates is because every now and then my back seizes up at an angle of approximately 140 degrees for twenty-four hours. After twenty-four hours, mobility slowly returns, shrouded in acute pain, and I become very angry with everybody, especially those without back pain, and double-especially those without back pain to whom I am married. These episodes of immobility tend to coincide with My Lawyer’s trips abroad. Here is what usually happens:
Monday: He leaves; I enjoy a little space.
Tuesday: I notice that the dishwasher is not loading and unloading itself.
Wednesday: Dutch School Half Day. I become paralysed.
Thursday: High on pain killers. Commence competitive passive-aggressive martyr whatsapping with My Lawyer. He gives as good as he gets.
Friday: Torn between escalating martyr whatsapps up to full-blown accusatory assault, and backtracking in order to reaffirm my staggering independence even in convalescence. Both carry an emasculating punch. Hard to choose.
Saturday: My Lawyer returns. Quality and quantity of gifts that he brings is dependent on the velocity of my whatsapp campaign at the very point in which he stands in the airport on the threshold of Duty Free. Tricky to time. So many variables: time zone, menstrual cycle, severity of back pain, assholery of children. Takes years of practise to assess the winds of marriage, whilst standing at 140 degrees, and set the sails accordingly.
To clarify, then: I’m not a Kept Woman, and it is My Lawyer’s fault that I am going to Pilates. That was all clear though. Right?
So, I’m on the way to Pilates For Entirely Classless Physiological Reasons. I’m weaving through tourists, dodging dogs, listening to the wind in the trees. Usually I have my headphones on, but I have recently been told off by Hendrik, my unorthodox Dutch coach, for blocking the sound of oncoming traffic. “You set a terrible example for your children,” he said to me last week on seeing my headphones around my neck, “and also you will die.” Both of these things are true.
I turn a corner at the end of the park and see a huge wall of flowers that isn’t normally there. It is causing something of a hubbub. I cycle past the flowers, but the noise of the hubbub follows me, and curiosity endeth the cat: I pull over and walk back to the flower wall. I read, in flowers: WE NEED MORE FLOWERS. There are Dutch and English hashtags either side, and a collection of postcards. I become part of the hubbub and adopt a quizzical expression to invite explanation.
“Hallo! Shall I tell you what this is?” says a lady dressed in pink. She is one of three Official-Looking Pink Ladies. She has walked straight into my quizzical face trap. My quizzical face is the same as my I’m-not-sure-I-agree face, and also my that-has-given-me-pause-for-thought face. We Brits are open books.
“Yes please,” I say.
“It is because we need more flowers,” explains Pink Lady, smiling.
“I see,” I say. I do not see. “And who has done this?”
“Well, it is the people behind the group, We Need More Flowers,” she nods.
That clears that up.
“The intention is,” she says, “that you select a postcard that attracts you, and then you write a wish on the card. Then you can attach the wish to the back of the wall, and select a flower to take with you.”
I look at the postcards. There are six themes, all with the premise, ‘We Need More…’: Love, Wonder, Together, Bravery, Laughter, Imagination.
“I’m on my way somewhere,” I say. “I don’t think I can take a flower with me.”
Arriving at Pilates clutching a single flower does not scream Classless Physiology. But then I look again at the postcards and take a step forward.
“Look, most people have chosen Imagination,” I say to Pink Lady. “I wonder why?”
“I don’t know,” she says.
“What will happen to all the wishes, after?”
“I don’t know,” she says.
“Okay, thank you!” I smile, with my grateful face, which is a little like my why-are-you-here face.
“You’re welcome,” she says, and her smile is the same as mine.
As it happens, I do need more imagination, for a world I am inventing in a script. I am mildly alarmed at the number of Imaginations that have already disappeared from the postcard stacks. Something tells me that I need to stake my claim on extra imagination now, before someone else does. I take Imagination, and I write on it. I walk around to the back of the wall and pin my wish alongside the few others already up. The wall is solid, not chipboard, and I hurt my thumb sinking in the wish.
Pink Lady is suddenly beside me, brandishing a hammer. Somehow, this doesn’t surprise me.
“You might need to use this,” she says. “Oh. You did it already.”
“I’m pretty strong,” I say. Because of Pilates, I don’t add. I jump on my bike, head out of the park, and realise that I forgot to pick a flower.
The next day, I am sitting in my new Dutch class. This is my second lesson, and the level is, perhaps, a little low; however, it is local, and free, and I am desperate. I am no longer treading water. I’m floating backwards into English. Here is my Bermuda Triangle: I parent in English at the expense of my Dutch. I practise more Dutch at the expense of my work. I work more at the expense of my children. I take what morsels I can get, and hope that something, somewhere, works. I’m waiting for a break, a sign, an Act of God. My thumb still hurts from the wish.
I take my seat at the front. I’ve jumped into this class mid-term; everyone else has an established seat. I am the only native English speaker in the class, which means that to communicate with my classmates, I must speak Dutch. When they are not speaking Dutch, my classmates speak to each other in variants of Arabic. I scroll through my phone whilst we wait for the teacher to arrive. I post a photo on Facebook of Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England. Sorry, did I say photo? I meant article. I like him for his articles.
“Excuse me,” says a voice in accented English to my left. A woman. A face I haven’t seen before. “Do you read Dutch?”
She introduces herself as a Hawaiian masseuse. She describes Hawaiian massage as “deep tissue, but also relaxing”. I have been up since 5.30am with the five year old and the word relaxing makes me want to weep.
“I have a letter from the Dutch authority, but I don’t understand it,” says the Hawaiian masseuse. “Could you read it?”
I skim the letter. Formal Dutch is not my forté, but this letter does not look like good news. Just then, our teacher walks in, and the Hawaiian masseuse takes her letter to the teacher for clarification. I scroll through the Guardian app, looking at – I mean, reading about – Mark Carney. Carney has said, in a roundabout way, that Boris Johnson is talking a load of bollocks when he claims that leaving the EU in a no-deal Brexit will not necessarily cost us.
“They have rejected your request to stay,” says our teacher to the Hawaiian masseuse.
I try not to listen to their conversation. I am forced, therefore, to fixate upon Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, and his magnificent eyebrows. After a time, the Hawaiian masseuse packs up her things and leaves. The class begins with conversational language. Informal Dutch is not my forté.
Class finishes. Amsterdam is trying out summer, and so I decide to take a turn about Vondelpark on my bike before heading home to do the laundry. The wall of flowers is still there, because we need more flowers, according to the people behind We Need More Flowers. The flower side of the wall is depleting, but the wish side of the wall is flourishing.
Life is too short to be unhappy, writes one philosopher.
Love = more grandchildren, writes a somewhat passive-aggressive grandparent.
Flowers in a field are more lovely than one flower in a vase, writes someone who doesn’t entirely back the fundamental strategy behind the wall of We Need More Flowers.
A group of English teenagers wanders around to the wish side, clutching postcards.
“You wouldn’t need a hammer in England, would you?” says one.
“Do you wish about flowers, or anything you like?” says another.
“I’m going to wish to get into Bristol,” says a third. “Do you think that’s a very selfish wish?”
Just then, a gust of wind dislodges a wish from the wall, and it lands facedown at my feet. Perhaps this is my sign, I think, staring down. Perhaps this is my Act of God. Perhaps this is my Mark Carney in a Boris Johnson No Deal Brexit.
I turn the card over.
It is illegible.