It is the last day of 2017 and it is pissing it down. I know, right? Your woman in Amsterdam has the inside track. The weather in The Netherlands is shitty. In the few months we’ve lived here, I’ve known it to rain even when the sky has been completely blue, as if the canals are raining upwards, reloading the clouds. It can be relentlessly, miserably wet here. But today, on the day that we bid farewell to a year that, were it a political box-set, would have been deemed too far-fetched, the rain has a positively cleansing quality, hosing off the Farage, rinsing away the Weinstein, pressure-washing the last graffitied soundbites from the wall of 2017. Goodbye, Strong and Stable. That one was already kind of faded. Goodbye, Grab Em By The Pussy. Oh wait, that was from 2016’s wall. Some of these stains are kind of stubborn.
The six year old and I are in our poshest frocks. You know it’s a special occasion when you call it a frock and not a dress. Our frocks are tucked in to waterproof trousers and we are layered in several additional winter layers. The amount of time it has taken us to get ready is not immediately apparent as we clamber onto my bike in the pouring rain, kitted out like rejects from the Ghostbusters movie. We certainly don’t look like we are on our way to the ballet.
“Can we get popcorn?” asks the six year old from behind me. She is sitting on the back of my bike, above the panniers. I have no child seat on this bike, but we can’t take Steve the Bakfiets because My Lawyer needs it to get the boys to a New Years Eve party we’ve all been invited to later. When we split ranks like this, there is often a complicated division of bicycles involved; enough to get us all where we need to be with or without cargo, and the right person-to-bike ratio to get everyone and everything home again. You’ve heard the riddle about the chicken, the fox and the bag of grain crossing the river? Well this is the one about the blogger, the lawyer, the kids and the prosecco.
“I don’t think they do popcorn at the ballet,” I say, frowning into the rain. In truth, I have no idea. This is her first ballet, aged 6, and my first ballet, aged 37. For all I know, we might not be allowed in without corsages, or monocles, or an opinion about port.
I have over-committed us this Christmas holiday. Back in London, we’d have had a parade of Christmas playdates, Christmas drinks, Christmas playdate drinks. Then, you know: New Year’s playdates, New Year’s drinks, New Year’s…. you get the picture. But here in Amsterdam, faced with two and a half weeks with three kids, shit weather and nowhere to buy mince pies, I panicked. I scheduled art workshops, cinema tickets, and something at the Concert Gebouw called Winterfeest (and at the same time found myself booking tickets for an opera starring a dog in May. (Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same).
And so it came to pass that I thought it would be bonding or some shit to go to a three-hour ballet with the six year old. The ballet is Sleeping Beauty, and the posters advertising it around town are 99% rose-gold, so I was powerless, in the same way that one might be when faced with the opportunity to buy tickets for a dog opera.
We arrive, drowned rats, at the Nationale Opera and Ballet, choosing a corner of the entrance hall to peel off our sodden waterproofs and reveal our New Year’s Eve finery, like modern day Cinderellas. Who needs a fairy godmother when we can transform ourselves into princesses, ready to see everyone’s favourite fairytale of nonconsensual sexual contact? The six year old is wearing what she describes as her “marry dress”, bought for her the previous year by My Lawyer when he was in New York. It is dry-clean only. I hated it. She loved it. Today, she has teamed the marry dress with dark, heavy ankle boots. I hope this lets me off the feminist hook, until I remember what we are about to watch.
The entrance hall begins to fill, mostly with women and small girls, all elegantly dressed. Some little girls have come as ballerinas, with top-knots and a dusting of eye shadow. It is impossible for me to know whether this sartorial effort is for the sake of the ballet, or New Year’s Eve, or both, but what I can tell you is that Dutch girls’ fashion is a lot more glittery than we were used to back in the UK. At least two thirds of most children’s clothing stores heave with sequins, frills and bows. And Dutch girls love their fancy plaits – it’s commonplace for hairdressers to offer a braid and glitter spray to little girls after they’ve had a chop. Boys get a slick of gel.
But for all the frou-frou, girls here are not expected to be dolls. Far from it. Girls here tell it how it is, how it isn’t, and how it should and shouldn’t be. You’ll see girls in tutus up trees, telling boys to rod off. Last summer, when we first arrived, the six year old was chased around a playground by a group of boys who called her a “silly princess”. One of the boys’ mums saw, ran over to give them hell, and then told the six year old that the most important sentence she’d need to know for the Dutch playground was: “Ik vind het niet leuk”: I don’t think this is nice.
“Loudly and angrily!” added the boy’s mum, casting a backwards glance at her sulking son. You don’t need to find a polite way to say no.
The six year old surveys the snacks. “First,” she says, “I’ll have a lollipop.”
We take our seats and I spend approximately six minutes trying to remove the lollipop wrapper. Another mum arrives to sit next to us with her daughter, who is dressed as Frozen’s Elsa.
“I love your daughter’s dress,” she says to me.
“Oh, thank you!” I say. “It’s impossible to wash.”
Of course, what I mean is: “The nuptial connotations of this dress bear no resemblance to my future ambitions for my daughter and are entirely down to My Lawyer’s jetlag a year ago in New York, and also he’s a heterosexual white man so I guess he’s complicit, and actually I’m really surprised that this is Sleeping Beauty because I thought this was the Vagina Monologues. Yes I’d bring my six year old daughter to the Vagina Monologues, because look – she’s wearing heavy dark boots. I think that tells you all you need to know.”
I hope she reads between the lines.
We go on to discuss Boden, in what I think is actually a coded conversation about the uniformity of middle-class femininity. And then the show starts.
I’m no ballet critic, but here is how I would describe the Nationale Ballet and Opera’s production of Sleeping Beauty: Three hours in Lady Gaga’s womb. If that’s not a recommendation then I don’t know what is.
“What was your favourite part?” I ask the six year old, as we gear up in our waterproofs again.
“The gold glitter rain at the end,” she says, tucking the marry dress into her waterproof trousers, “and also the peppermints, and the free biscuits.”
“It was pretty good, wasn’t it?” I ask, because everything I do is for personal validation, even from my children. Especially from my children.
“Yes, Mummy! Although – “ she leans towards me, sensitive to prying ears, “it’s a shame they forgot all the words.”
Outside, Amsterdam sparkles in the early evening dark. The first few fireworks herald the beginning of eight hours of incessant explosions. We have been told that, from 6pm until 2am tonight, fireworks are an unregulated free-for-all. Each street will have its own amateur display. Cyclists will speed past with sparklers. Rockets will shoot from windowsills. We have no idea what is coming.
We cycle over the Magere Brug and along the Amstel river, where the Amsterdam Light Festival displays some of its most popular light installations; Myth, by Ben Zamora, explores our human desire to discern a message, through symbols or through language.
The Whole Hole, by Paul Vendel and Sandra de Wolf, sweeps you beneath a glittering tunnel, as you’re entering a different galaxy. And following us along the river is Ai Weiwei’s Thinline; a 6.5km red light line that loops around the Amsterdam canals, signifying connection, or separation, or segregation. With our frocks tucked into our trousers, Weiwei wants us to ask ourselves: Who can cross the line?
A firework shoots out in front of us, half-exploding a yard or two in front of my bike, before fizzling out in a puddle.
“Wow! A firework!” exclaims the six year old. “We were lucky to see that, weren’t we?”
“Just you wait,” I say, and we cycle to the party.
Main image via operaballet.nl