Amsterdam · Family · Life · parenting

Clear As A Bell


It’s schoolreisjedag! When every year group in the school goes on a different school trip, and you have to pick your favourite child to go with! It’s like Sophie’s Choice without the Holocaust, so not really like Sophie’s Choice at all. I pick the four year old – definitely not my current favourite (hi, eight year old *wink*), but he is the most likely to die without constant supervision, so there’s really no contest; that nagging voice of parental responsibility just won’t pipe down. There was a time when I had free will; how peaceful it must have been then, in my head. Only when a bell starts ringing do you realise how quiet it was before.

“You NEVER go on my school trips!” wails the seven year old over breakfast.

“That’s not true!”

“No! Not in Holland you don’t!”

“Okay,” I concede. “That is true.”

“Of course she can’t go with us,” says the eight year old. “He is so little, he can’t go on his own.” There is solidarity here, but also resignation. The longer I parent, the more it feels like the ultimate goal is simply to limit how disappointing you are.

My Lawyer comes in with his work bag and the confidence of a man who has no expectation that he is about to be emotionally berated for school trip absenteeism. I wait for the kids to shine the spotlight into his face, but of course, it doesn’t happen.

“Everyone ready for the school trip?” he says.

“I’m a bumbum!” says the four year old, and off we go to school.


I’m ambitious, so ensuring that my four year old does not die isn’t my only goal today. I’m also hoping to speak some Dutch. The Dutch course I’m following – six months’ free tuition, provided by the municipality of Amsterdam – requires that I provide a portfolio of integration evidence to show that I’m worth the investment. Otherwise, I’ve latterly discovered, I have to pay that investment back. I also now gather that I must fulfil a weekly requirement of at least three months’ worth of work or volunteering in Dutch. Listen, I signed the contract, a contract that was written in Dutch, at the beginning of my Dutch course. Only now that I can speak a little more Dutch are the consequences becoming apparent. Is this what it’s like to have voted Leave?

We gather in the classroom before the Meester, the four year old’s giant Dutch teacher. He nods acknowledgement; we got off to a bad start on the four year old’s first day, when we arrived ten minutes after he had imagined we would arrive. My inability to read men’s minds has been a life-long problem. Today, the Meester sits on the only adult chair available, at the centre point of a horseshoe of children. The parent helpers – all mums – sit on a table at the back of the room. The four year old waves at me from the horseshoe. The children are already ruddy-cheeked; it is a hot day, and there are too many people in the room.

The Meester hands out information sheets with everyone’s phone number on it. Beneath his number, he has written “USE ONLY ON THE TRIP IN EMERGENCIES.” I imagine that, at the end of the day, he will set his phone alight, just to be on the safe side. The Meester allocates three or four kids to each adult. When it is my turn, he says, in loud English, “I have given you four English speaking children. Their English is good. Very good.”

I feign shock. “Mijn nederlands is ook heel goed!”

Everybody laughs; I have made a funny joke. My Dutch is good! Imagine that! But I am annoyed; I wanted to talk Dutch today. And also, I know for a fact that not all of the kids in my group are good at English; one of them is my son, who now speaks with such a muddied accent that he makes Steve Maclaren’s infamous Dutch accent interview sound like Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister’s speech in Love Actually. (“From now onward, I will be prepared to be much stronger, and the President should be prepared for that.” In a matter of weeks, President Trump will be welcomed to the UK by Theresa May, who once ran through a field of wheat. Is anyone out there? The humans need help.)

We travel by coach for an hour to a large outdoor play area near the coast. The Meester chats and jokes with the Dutch parents. I sit next to my friend French Mum, and we swap stories about how long we’ve lived here, how it compares to home and how bad our Dutch is.  I wish I were French. Dutch people love French.


When we arrive, the Meester stands up and announces the trip rules: “Have lunch whenever you like.” That is the end of the rules.

The sun beats down on us, and one of the English-speaking children announces with exquisite enunciation that she is not wearing any sunscreen.

I turn to the Meester. “May I put sunscreen on her?” I speak in English, because when someone expects you to be terrible at Dutch, it is very easy to agree; especially when you are actually terrible at Dutch.

He looks at me, puzzled. “Well, yes.”

“It’s just that,” I say, wishing I was French, “in the UK, you’re not allowed to touch other people’s children.”

“Eh?” says the Meester, and it is somehow comforting to hear that he is equally as baffled at my English as he is my Dutch.

I have two six year old girls in my group, and two four year old boys. Dutch schools have age-mixed classes for the first two years, meaning that the children learn through play until the age of six. The boys (one of them my own) ignore most of my instructions, and I end up asking the girls to tell the boys what to do and this works pretty well. The girls demand to know my age, and then give me, unsolicited, the ages of their parents. They ask if I have any make up in my bag to use; it is not clear if they intend it for my face or theirs. The boys occasionally attack each other and fall over nothing.

I practice a little Dutch with the two older girls. I remember meeting one of them at the beginning of the year, when we visited the class to meet the four year old’s teacher. She’d been reluctant to speak Dutch then, and now, six months later, she seems fluent. I say as much to the Meester.

“Oh yes, she is very good now. She has picked it up very quickly.”

“My older ones have too,” I say.

“Not your younger one though. Sorry! Ha!” he says, nodding at the four year old, who is comparing underwear with his friend.

“He speaks Dutch at home sometimes,” I say.

“Does he?” asks the Meester, surprised, and it occurs to me that maybe it’s not Dutch after all, but some hybrid language that he’s inventing in order to cope with this linguistic ordeal we have set upon him.

The Meester’s comment stays with me for the rest of the day, and I watch my sweet, barely-literate four year old navigate his way around children twice his size speaking another language. I’m annoyed; I’ve been picking him up early three days a week at the vague suggestion of his teacher, who observed that he was tired; now it seems he hasn’t been exposed to enough Dutch. They don’t like to tell parents what to do here. It’s a problem, when you don’t know what to do.

We load the kids back on to the coach, and one of the six year old girls asks if she can sit next to me. She has one Dutch parent and one English-speaking parent, and accidentally starts speaking to me in Dutch. She tells me that her friends often leave her out of games. Right on queue, one of the girls a few rows ahead of us turns around and calls to her that she isn’t part of their group.

Dat is niet aardig,” I snap. That is not nice.

The mean girl looks surprised, then sheepish, then disappears back into her seat.

A Dutch mum nudges me from the seat behind: “You understand the important bits!” she grins. I feel better; it is always other women who buoy me. I wink at the six year old next to me. She smiles and leans on me. I miss my daughter.

We get back to school. I run away from the Meester and look for the older two. I see the seven year old, looking red-eyed. She’s either tired or she’s been crying.

She runs up to me. “Mama, can I whisper something?”

I kneel down close to her. She has been crying. “Of course.”

She holds my head and whispers: “Someone opened the door when I was on the toilet.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, because that nagging voice is back, and it speaks the Queen’s English, clear as a bell: That would not have happened, if you’d chosen her today.





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