Amsterdam · Family · Life · Travel


I mean, for fucks’ sake, January.

There we all were, eating, drinking and laughing round at December’s, forgetting the time, the date, the year. Bringing as much booze as we can carry and drinking even more. Agreeing that yes, it’s too cold to go for a run, the kids are too tired to do anything else but iPad, and it is the season to be jolly so have another glass, won’t you? Careful, there’s a kid under your chair. Whose kid? No idea. He looks like he’s fallen asleep because it’s 9pm, no wait, 10pm. 11pm, because it’s a special occasion, and are no rules at December’s!

And then in strides January, like a juicing fanatic hijacking a pub crawl. The piano player stops and we look at each other accusingly: Who invited that guy?

December waited all year for her moment; she decked the halls, warmed our cockles, bestowed untold swathes of emotional labour to minimise our worries with her seasonal anxiety amnesty, and for what? Because here’s January, tapping his watch, tightening his man-purse strings, limbering up for a fucking triathlon or some shit on a yoga mat that he has woven himself using only lentils and self-righteousness.

“Back to school, bitches,” he says, slinking up from plank to cobra. “Oh, and that story December was just telling about November getting her drunk at Sinterklaas? Yeah, that’s not a #metoo. She could have said no. When you could have said no then it’s not a #metoo.”

As much as I’d love to stay and listen to January mansplain #metoo, I’ve got to get these kids to school. Usually My Lawyer does the morning school run, but this first week of term he has to once again travel with The Job He Doesn’t Have To Travel For, and so here I am at 8.20am in the dark outside school, nodding goedemorgen, trying hard to not accidentally speak German. December’s anxiety amnesty, much like #metoo, has been curbed and redefined within more specific perimeters; when we said stop worrying, we didn’t mean completely. Christ. It’s not a free-for-all. DID YOU MAKE THE PACKED LUNCHES???

The three year old pulls at my hand as we go through the school gates.

“Can I play? …Play? …Play?” he says, echoing and fading out on the word play as if he’s narrating a film that I’m in (which, of course, he kind of is.) This echoing-to-fade is a new linguistic development that has less to do with bilingualism than it does his tendency to behave like a very drunk person. That said, he has been throwing out a few more Dutch words recently, usually only if they are easier or more fun to say than their English counterparts. “Look,” he might say, pointing at a spider. “A spin.” And then: “Spin…. spin… spin…”

But the three year old doesn’t seem to distinguish a great deal between English and Dutch; he’s still learning English, and Dutch words are just other words he’s having to learn. And he’s starting to pick and choose.

The eight year old, on the other hand, is a collector. He has hoarded words since he was small, impressing adults with a large vocabulary and tricking them into thinking he’s particularly intelligent, when actually he has just always been trying to complete the whole set. Dutch is another puzzle, a different code, an extra level that he’s unlocking, and he fires out linguistic attempts without fear or self-consciousness, most of the time managing to communicate something resembling his initial intent.

“Mama,” says the six year old, tightening her hand around my thumb. She only has my thumb because I have three children and two hands; she shares a hand with the three year old. The six year old is not thrilled to be back, because unlike her older brother, she minds making mistakes. Her written and read Dutch is already compatible to her Dutch classmates’, but her spoken Dutch is whispered in fear of error. The effort diminishes her. She shrinks.

She says nothing else, but tightens her grip. I wince, because my thumbnail, or to be more specific, the skin around my thumbnail, is the barometer of my own language anxiety. I myself went back to school last night, to my Dutch language class, where I dig around my thumbnail for two and I half hours, down to jelly-flesh, as I fish for words to wield.

It is fun. Not the skin-picking; that’s gross. But the language-picking, or rather unpicking, is compelling at every turn. Some translations are too delicious: afraid is bang. BANG! Of course you’re afraid if you hear a bang. But verdampen is a false friend, and means evaporate.

Slim means smart.

Slank means slim.

Dik means fat.

Which words can you trust?

Learning a language, you learn a lot about the personality of your host nation. These week, our lesson focused on emotions. Our teacher handed out small cards, each depicting a feeling. The first of my three cards was:

Schaamte,” explained our teacher, “is shame, or embarrassment.”

A puzzled silence.

“Which is it?” I asked. “Embarrassment or shame?”

“It’s different?”

“Yes,” I said. “Embarrassment is, my trousers are undone. Shame is…. Brexit.”

“Ok.” She thought for a while. “For embarrassment you could say…. gênant.”

“That sounds French!”

“It is.”

As a Brit in post-Brexit continental Europe, I spend every day darting like a pinball from embarrassment to shame to mortification to abashment to self-reproach, eventually settling on a bed of self-loathing nails that soon will no longer have to comply with EU safety regulations. And here are the Dutch, giving so few fucks that they don’t even bother inventing their own word for embarrassment.

The second of my three cards was:

Heimwee: Homesickness, but not just. It also means nostalgia; a rose-tinted lament for something unknowable, like phantom pain in a missing limb. Seeing this card, I was reminded of my drunken sobs at December’s table; five months after I emigrated, I realised that I’d emigrated. What was I missing? What was happening in that parallel universe, the one in which I said no, I won’t leave, I want everything to stay the same?

We say goodbye to the eight year old, and I take the six year old into her classroom. She still has hold of my raw thumb, and I lead her to her chair. I say goodbye cheerfully (vrolijk) and then I head out of the door to relocate the three year old who is light-sabering children with an umbrella. The six year old follows me to the door, where her teacher takes her by the hand.

“Be brave,” says her teacher, in English. I remember the third of my three emotion cards from my lesson the night before:

Schuldig: guilt. What have we done?

But she’s ok; she doesn’t cry. I pull myself together and scoop up the three year old, who is thriving here in the Netherlands, just like his brother, and just like his dad. The three year old was made for Dutch Voorschool, with its emphasis on outdoor play, rough-and-tumble and only a vague nod to health and safety compliance.

“Who’s ready for Voorschool?” I ask him, waiting for validation.

“I hate Voorschoolvoorschoolvoorschool…”

His accent is flawless.


2 thoughts on “Flawless

  1. It will only be a matter of time until your kids are correcting your Dutch, trust me. Mine might be half Dutch (and started correcting me at the age of three) but I know other people who moved here with there kids and they soon started correcting them too.


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