Since my last blog post, LITERALLY TENS of you have got in touch, one way or another, to ask if The Amsterfam is moving to San Francisco. These cleverest of Amsterfans have picked up on tiny clues from the last few posts, such as the fact that My Lawyer seems to have already moved to San Francisco. Keen followers will remember that My Lawyer left our family holiday in Panama to go to San Francisco during a San Francisco-based work emergency; it has since transpired that the San Francisco-based work emergency is no longer an emergency, so long as My Lawyer becomes San Francisco-based himself. My Lawyer is a big hit in California; of course – he is British. He is funny. He has great hair. Also – and this is a huge plus for the San Francisco-based company that employs him – he is a people-pleasing workaholic. If anyone is looking for the love child of The OC’s Sandy Cohen and the bloke from The Fast Show who wants everyone to like him, then call off the dogs; I have him right here. Oh wait, no I don’t; he’s on the other side of the world.
Word gets out. Behold; a brief collection of example reactions at the school gates:
“You need at least $300K a year to live comfortably in San Francisco.”
“The public schools are great!”
“You should live in the city.”
“You should live in Berkeley.”
“You need at least $500K a year to live comfortably in San Francisco.”
“You shouldn’t do it. The homeless situation is like the zombie apocalypse.”
“You should look on Craig’s List. It’s the only way to get something affordable.”
“You’ll need private schools. The public schools are terrible.”
“You should go. I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
“You shouldn’t go. You will never see each other.”
“You’ll need two cars.”
“You need at least £750K a year to live comfortably in San Francisco.”
I wonder, not for the first time, what it is about me that invites so much unsolicited advice. I wonder if it’s because I’m small. I have always had the unnerving suspicion that all my friends are empathetic grown-ups, noticing the unending panic in my eyes; that I’m on work experience in the office of Adulthood, stabbing buttons on the photocopier at random, trying to behave like everyone else.
Now is a good time to tell you that My Lawyer loves California; that, as an Almost-Couple in our mid-twenties, we travelled down the west coast together, becoming an Actual-Couple somewhere along the way; that, as house-mates in our early twenties, we would nurse hangovers together on a Sunday morning, festering on a sofa older than our collective age, feigning laziness in the way that we draped possessive limbs upon one another, watching The OC on Channel 4:
“Wow,” My Law Student would say. “That guy has great hair.”
My Lawyer visits us in Amsterdam to go on holiday with us to the Dordogne. He brings me a soap dish that says SOMEONE IN SAN FRANCISCO LOVES YOU. He also brings news; not only does the San Francisco-based American company desire his bespectacled legislative attention, but so, too, does an Amsterdam-based Dutch company. We fly to the Dordogne, because we don’t have a car, let alone two cars, which we will almost certainly need in California. My Lawyer is bringing his laptop, paperwork, and two telephones with him on our holiday. I am bringing books, in order to escape the uncertainty, but I know already that this tactic won’t work. Books, by their transportive nature, pose the same question that is the eternal itch of expat life:
If I am here, where else could I be?
I have decided to abstain from social media on holiday. As a blogger, this is bad practise from an already tech-phobic writer. Bloggers are supposed to post with regularity. Facebook: at least once a week. Instagram: at least once a day. Twitter: several times a day. “What about your SEO?” People in the know will ask. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation; in other words, how easy is it to find you on Google? (Answer: not easy; Google will turn Amsterfam into Amsterdam, because it believes that you have made a mistake.)
What about the hashtags?
What about the engagement?
What about the shares?
It is a relief as I put an out-of-office on the blog’s Facebook page, sharing an old post from two years ago, when we first arrived in Amsterdam. I re-read it briefly, and am overjoyed to be reminded of the “bovine flaps” that I cooked during our first week here. Christ, it was hard at the beginning. For a long time, I was sad. I could never tell you everything, but you assume that, don’t you? The bovine flaps were just the tip of the iceberg. You should always read everything knowing that you are never reading everything.
It is still hard, now, of course. But, isn’t it for you, too? Isn’t life hard? I wonder this, as I sit in the early-evening Dordogne sun, sipping rosé, dipping in and out of a truly excellent book, gazing out over the French countryside; gosh, isn’t life hard? The children are in the swimming pool, playing an incredibly rough game that I should probably police. Inside, behind closed doors, My Lawyer is on the phone, discussing one of our possible futures with the Amsterdam-based Dutch company. I catch the odd distant word: potential, promotion, family.
I feel as if I have found myself in some nightmarish, corporate version of the television show Blind Date. For those of you unfamiliar, Blind Date was a British television show presented by a Liverpudlian lady called Cilla Black. A single man or woman would hide behind a screen, and on the other side of the screen sat three potential suitors of the opposite sex (there were no gay people during the 80s and 90s). The single person could ask three questions, and the three suitors had pre-prepared answers. Cilla could flit between the two, being, as she was, the star of the show. Cilla is the only one anyone remembers. Welcome, then, to the Corporate Blind Date Dordogne Special! On one side of the screen: me. On the other: unknown futures. Cilla Black: My Lawyer, of course; the star of the show. The one everyone remembers. UPDATED 2019 FORMAT: The single contestant is no longer just blind, but deaf as well, depending entirely upon Cilla for selected information; filtered twice over.
My Lawyer emerges from the darkness, squinting into the sunshine.
“What did they say?” I ask, looking up from my excellent book.
“That they are based in Amsterdam,” says My Lawyer, “And that I’m a perfect fit.”
I return to my excellent book, until I’m interrupted again by an argument in the swimming pool:
“It’s so annoying!” shouts the ten year old at his sister. “You think going under water is the answer to EVERYTHING!”
Midway through the holiday, it is my birthday. I have brought with me, from Amsterdam, the handful of cards that arrived in time. The children give me cards that they have made the night before, with the paper and pens that I packed. They also give me a piece of paper upon which they have written, in felt tip:
entitles the bearer TO 1 Day @ the Spa: water masage “ahaaa”
I look at My Lawyer.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “It sort of crept up on me.”
My Lawyer takes the children out shopping in preparation for a birthday party tea, leaving me with my excellent book and my thoughts. My excellent book is Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. It tells the story of Arthur Less, a man turning 50, baffled by life and its complexities, large and small. The book contains the most efficient description of anxiety that I have ever read:
“…because he is afraid of everything, nothing is harder than anything else.”
This is me, of course; whether I’m answering the phone or moving to San Francisco. When you let things happen to you, as Arthur Less and I do, you become rather fascinated by how far you can drift upon currents that are beyond your control. It’s pleasingly impressive, of course, from the outside: You’re moving to Amsterdam! You’re moving to San Francisco! Gosh, you’re brave! And isn’t it wonderful, to have people think that you are brave? There are things you learn in the course of each move. When the rug is about to be swept, again, from beneath you, the trick is not to furnish that rug, to minimise damage. Actually, as the Trailing Spouse, your duty is to be the rug, soft and homely for your children to snuggle on, keeping yourself flat and steady, so that when Cilla Black tugs you towards the most appealing future, you can float towards it with little impact to your infant passengers, and whilst it might be terrifying for you, so is every other option anyway, so what is the difference, really?
Also, did I say rug? Because I meant magic carpet. You can levitate, right?
Conversations continue; some of them I am in. The children have their say: the ten year old would like to go to California, because he does not want to perform in the end of year show at Dutch school. The eight year old would also like to go to California, because she imagines that it will be very exciting to tell all of her friends (won’t she seem brave?). The five year old would prefer to move back to London, to live with my mum, who we lived with for two months before joining My Lawyer in Amsterdam. My mum cut the crusts from the five year old’s sandwiches and had a biscuit tin. Sometimes, a fox appeared in the garden. It was, quite simply, the best two months of his life.
No-one from the San Francisco-based American company offers to speak to me. It may or may not surprise you to learn that there is no family liaison representative during a relocation negotiation process; much like the family of a henchman, the family of a corporate lawyer does not illicit a great deal of consideration. But what if they did? Whilst My Lawyer is inside the holiday house, speaking to the San Francisco-based American company, let us stretch our imaginations to conjure up the HR Department of said San Francisco-based American company. A peaceful scene; an office strewn with greenery, photos of philanthropic endeavours adorn the walls, and a team, fresh from an outing to a Brené Brown TED talk, converse occasionally, always compassionately, employing the honed techniques of empathetic active listening that landed them these esteemed roles on the front line of this pioneering organisation, dealing with the most delicate, most precious ingredient in the alchemy of business: HUMANITY ITSELF. Behold, the team leader, Ned Flanders in real life human form, stands suddenly at his desk:
“Holy growth opportunity, Team! We got here a British guy in Legal, Amsterdam, who is poised to move his whole family to San Francisco in order to join the group-hug-a-bug that is Legal, San Francisco! [whooping, clapping; someone hits the Gong Of Open-Heartedness] I know, it’s so exciting, but it’s not a done deal yet; he has three kids [audible gasps] and an unemployed wife who is qualified for nothing [Gong Of Open-Heartedness is stilled; someone coughs in the background]. What’s that, Hank? Oh, I’m glad you asked – yes, the kids are in Dutch School; say, maybe that spreadsheet of foreign language schools might come in handy here? And the FAQs about the Californian School System? I mean, I know diddly-squat about the Dutch System so I guess they don’t know much about life here, apart from- [room starts to rattle] oh, shoot, EVERYONE UNDER THE TABLES! [Ten minutes of earthquake] [Earthquake stops] Well, that was a humdinger alrightyroo! Oh, shoot, my GRATeaTUDE mug got a little brokely-dokely. Well, I’m just grateful for every hemp and essence of happiness tea that brewed within its protective chamber. Farewell, sweet vessel of peace. Oh, can someone take Hank to the Emergency Room please? He has the corner of a monitor in his eye socket. Thanks Martha – good luck Hank! Oh yes, we surely will keep you posted on the British family in Amsterdam! Yes, Hank… it’s the kids we are all thinking about too. [Martha steers Hank through the door by the monitor] [door closes] Well, Team, I‘d like to say you don’t see that every day, but….that’s California! [jovial laughter, cheery shrugs; small fire in corner of room is stamped out] Anyhoo! It’s possible, Team, that our British friends are worried about guns; Europeans read a lot of negative sentiment about our gun culture. Some of them have never even seen a gun! [Team tilt heads to the side; collective “How adorable!”] What is the count so far today, Janice? [Janice Googles] Seventeen shootings today! Just seventeen! Can anyone remember the last sub-twenty Monday? I surely can’t! Maybe today is the – [four shots heard through window] …huh. Well, we live to dream! I mean, most of us do. Anyhoo! Back to the British family; let’s remind ourselves what Brené taught us today, about integrity in the workplace: ‘It is easy to justify shortcuts based on expediency or cost. But integrity does not work that way*.’ We all know from last week’s Fireside Chat that Trailing Spouses are vulnerable to anxiety, isolation and depression; and my sources are telling me that this particular Trailing Spouse has [checks notes] “completely abandoned her Instagram account”. [Audible gasps; signs of the cross; colleagues grasp hands] She is probably wondering, as an unemployed wife who is qualified for nothing, how much her opinion matters in this decision; indeedily-deed, if it matters at all! This British Lawyer has spent the best part of the last four months travelling; it is possible that he has forgotten some important family occasions… yes, Janice? … Well, I know he could have, but not everyone knows about the soap dish shop on the corner. It is lucky that we have a ton of them here for emergencies; the box of which I’m standing on right now. Actually, can we get one sent to Hank’s place? After a few hours in the ER, that ceramic trough of well-wishes will be a real sight for sore…. eye. [silence] TEAM! We must meet vulnerability with vulnerability. What we must NOT do, Team, WHAT WE ABSOLUTELY MUST NOT DO, is give the impression that this British Lawyer is a cheap and convenient plug in the dam on account of his – [checks notes] Holy Timotei, he has good hair! – on account of his affable British temperament. Say, Sandra, is that a new brooch? Oh, sweet Moses, it’s Hank’s eye! Quick, put it in my broken GRATeaTUDE mug and follow them to the Emergency Room! That could save Hank thousands of dollars! Wait, do you think anyone has talked to the British family about health care?”
My Lawyer emerges once again from the darkness.
“What did they say?” I ask.
My Lawyer replies: “They said: ‘What about the shares?’”
He pours himself a glass of wine and sits with me. Over the course of our holiday, his beard has become mightier, and his hair greater. My own hair has started to fall out, and I have prickly heat all over me, and I have my period; probably one of my last ever periods, because next year I will be forty, with thinning hair and British teeth, prickling red beneath the Californian sun, with Cilla Black/Sandy Cohen here looking younger each year, like Benjamin fucking Button. Probably I’ll be sitting on our San Franciscan balcony, pulling out clumps of hair, scratching my heat rash, sipping rosé, dipping in and out of another truly excellent book, looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance and thinking: Isn’t life hard?
My Lawyer signs on a dotted line.
A quick recap of the Blind Date concept: the three potential suitors can rehearse their lines to perfection. Cilla, God rest her soul (BECAUSE SHE IS DEAD! WRITING THIS PIECE I HAD FORGOTTEN THAT CILLA BLACK WAS DEAD! SO NOW IT’S LIKE SHE *JUST* DIED! WHEN WILL THESE TORMENTS END! I AM EXHAUSTED!) – Cilla will always be the star, with her fun twinkling eyes (DEAD!) and memorable Liverpudlian catchphrase, “We’ve ‘ad a lorra lorra laughs!” – which, for my international readers, roughly translates as, “Let’s wrap this the fuck up.”
But wait – who’s the invisible one, behind the screen, asking the questions? Does… does she have a say?
No-one ever thinks of the family of a
henchman corporate lawyer.
We’re staying; of course we are staying.
Amsterdam, you had us at “Bovine flaps.”
*from Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead”, Ebury Digital, 2018