“Where would you live, if you could live anywhere in the world?”
Well here’s a conversation that travellers have. Wait, travellers? I guess that’s not okay. I don’t want to appropriate the experience of actual travellers; the ones who identify as travellers, rather than humans who are in the process of travelling. Our house is stationary. We’re not going anywhere. But we went somewhere, and that’s the point; London to Amsterdam is quite the deal. Are we immigrants? Technically, yes. But now I’m appropriating a discourse of struggle, of escape, of life or death. I mean, it’s hard to get a four-bed house in South London for less than 700K, but is that life or death? Shouldn’t you be grateful that you’ve reached agreeable purchasing potentiality south of the river? Christ, imagine if you identified as Shoreditchian. No. I can’t. I literally can’t imagine it.
So, FUCK. Expat then, I guess. Person Too Moneyed To Need To Worry About Integration. Also: English-speaking. White. Current Biggest Worry: that the children can no longer spell English words that they used to be able to spell. Also, our coffee machine is a bit too big for our kitchen counter. Go Fund Me pages are very easy to set up on someone else’s behalf. I’ll just wait here, holding the toaster.
“I’d live in Paris,” says the eight year old at dinner, “for the food, fashion and people.”
It is a weekday, and we are eating dinner. When I say we, I mean the kids – the five year old, the eight year old, the ten year old – and I. My Lawyer is still at work, on the phone to San Francisco. Since he abandoned me on our luxury holiday in Panama a few months ago (is the Go Fund Me done yet?) to go to San Francisco for something to do with the law, he is either on the phone to San Francisco, or he is emailing San Francisco, or he is in San Francisco. Sometimes, these San Francisco trips straddle a weekend, and on these occasions I accuse him of being on holiday. He always contests this via FaceTime in between hikes around Lake Tahoe, which is not as warm as he would have liked at this time of year. (“I had to buy a jumper.”) My Lawyer’s life is a catalogue of disappointments, but he wears it well; stoic, resilient, and handsome in the glow of a dazzling Californian sunset. My hero.
“Actually,” continues the eight year old, “Maybe I’d live in New York. For the food. And the fashion. And the, er….”
“People?” I suggest.
“YES! The people.”
The eight year old is something of an Americanophile. I’m not sure that’s a real word, and read into that what you will. But over the course of our two years (TWO YEARS!) in Amsterdam, she has become fluent not only in Dutch, but also American. Her personalities switch between languages. English Eight Year Old is bookish and busy. Dutch Eight Year Old is a tomboy, up trees and in ditches. American Eight Year Old has her own fantasy YouTube channel in which she compares and contrasts toys that are sent to her by fans, all of whom hope that she’ll sing a song about the power of friendship at the end of the episode. Probably, a Mean Girl has been defeated along the way, and now sees the error of her ways, and smiles gratefully as she makes eye contact with the American Eight Year Old during the chorus.
“I’d live in England,” says the five year old.
I don’t know why he says England and not London. What is he, a Brexiteer? Was he not in London long enough to gain Full London Wanker status? Would you rather your five year old was a wanker or a Brexiteer? These are difficult questions in difficult times.
Will someone please hold this fucking toaster?
It was supposed to be easy for the five year old. He’d learn Dutch effortlessly, they said. Like a sponge, they said. But, during our first year, he clung to English like a raft adrift. He blinked hard whenever anyone spoke Dutch to him. This developed into a habit. The internet told me to not draw attention to the hard blinking and that it would go on its own.
“Why are you blinking like that?” I would ask him. It is not my fault that the internet lacks authoritative tone.
“Just tired,” he’d say.
We have a black and white illustration of our London house on our wall. My friends bought me this picture as a farewell present, to ensure that I never forget the house in which I had ample kitchen counter space. The five year old sees the picture every time he sits down to eat. My friends gave me a subliminal message as a farewell present, in order, I presume, to guarantee my eventual return. Also, two of them have had kitchen extensions in the time that I’ve been away, which I think you’ll agree is incredibly insensitive.
Possibly, the five year old thinks that England is the only alternative. This week at school, he has said goodbye to a classmate, whose family was moving back to the States. I saw the father, the repatriating patriarch, on their last day, and I wished him luck.
“We are taking them out of their culture,” he said, wide-eyed, bewildered. No-one tells you, when you have children abroad, how different their frame of reference will be to yours. No-one tells you that this experience isn’t entirely as shared as you had assumed it would be. No-one tells you that, one day, you will look at your own child and ask, “Where are you from?”
You know what? That toaster is shit anyway. Just chuck it. We’ll use the grill until the Go Fund Me pays out. Can you take a photo of me looking sad with bread? Can you put it on your socials? Should we do one with me standing in the bath holding the toaster? Sure, you might think that’s a little much, but it will make all my other friends think twice before extending their kitchens. Go big or go home, that’s what I say. What do you mean, “which home?”?
The five year old stopped blinking eventually. We didn’t notice it stop; we just realised that it had. Now, after two years, bilingualism is virtually effortless for him. Dutch syntax infiltrates his English. “What is it beautiful today!” he might say, looking out of the window. He doesn’t remember the effort of becoming bilingual, just as he doesn’t remember the minutiae of relocating. He was in England (LONDON!), and then he was in Amsterdam. He wasn’t old enough, at three, to notice the signs in the lead-up to our move. He didn’t see the significance in My Lawyer’s increasingly frequent trips across the North Sea. The whispered conversations in our (spacious) kitchen. Other parents at the school gate, asking, “any news?”
Small children don’t notice these things.
Older children do.
“I’d live in San Francisco,” says the ten year old. His eyes stay on me, scrutinizing my reaction. I take a sip of wine, which is a Californian pinot, and heavier than the label would have you believe.