Amsterdam: Labia Wink

From London to Amsterdam with three kids

Reading Time: 5 minutes

It’s Pinksterdag! That sounds fun, right? All these spring national holidays in The Netherlands keep taking us by surprise, resulting in a what’s-fucking-next anxious disposition, which isn’t, I’m sure, what a national holiday is meant to be about. Back in the UK, we knew what was what; the Easter holiday celebrates chocolate (which is the same here, but the chocolates are smaller. I guess because you have to carry them on a bike, and maybe something else signifying the two countries’ differing attitudes to excess? I dunno, I’m just a blogger). Bank holidays, of course, celebrate banks. Where would we be, without banks? Trading in fucking Easter eggs or some shit, I guess. Who’d have the last laugh then? These Europeans are all smug now, Brexit Britain, but our time could still yet come, one weekend a year, when all they’ve got are these tiny chocolate rabbits and small BMI averages and WE’VE GOT – oh wait, we ate them all. Cheer up, Charlie. There’s no golden ticket, but your grandparents are still bafflingly convinced that this will all work out.

What was I saying? Oh, right; PINKSTERDAG!  I google. Okay, it’s a religious thing. Whit Monday is apparently our British equivalent. In Germany, they call it Pfingstmontag. That’s a real thing. Google it. I pfingsting dare you.

Getting on board with the national holidays of our new home country presents us with some ideological conundrums. We are not religious. Chocolate Easter was fine – I don’t think we were missing anything there – but this Pinksterdag is not, as I’d hoped, a precurser to gay pride. Nor does it commemorate the release of Weezer’s first album. (22 years ago. That album has been drinking in the US for a year, and buying guns in most states for even longer.)

Actually, Pinksterdag is something to do with the Holy Spirit ascending. This doesn’t really tell me anything about the day, though. Will the shops be open? Is that an offensive question? Will everyone go to church? The church bells ring every day at the end of our road; do people drop what they are doing and run? I love hearing the bells – they make me want to scoop up by wicker bag, don my bonnet and dilly-dally to market (“Look-there-she-goes-that-girl-is-so-peculiar”).  But I don’t know what they mean, these bells. There were no bells at the end of our street in London, and all we were asked to celebrate there was chocolate, banks and an old man who breaks into children’s bedrooms in December. You know. Logical things.

Then I see a hashtag: #dagvanhetkasteel. Dag Van Het Kasteel! It’s only Day of the fucking Castle! Castles are something we can be totally down with! We have castles in Britain! We’ve been on school trips to castles! We watched Roy Castle! We built sandcastles! Let’s go to a castle and pretend to be knights, and do swordfighting and invading! There’s nothing religious about any of those things, right?

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We take the train to Weesp, My Lawyer, three children and me, to Muiderslot castle. I have chosen this castle because it looks very like a castle is supposed to – moat, turrets, drawbridge – and it’s only fifteen minutes by train from Amsterdam.

Because of the Holy Spirit ascending, the castle does not open until midday. As we queue, characters appear in historically probably-accurate dress. One is pretending to be a beggar.

“Can I give him money?” asks the eight year old.

“Sure!” I say, rooting around for some change. I give him a coin and he passes it over.

“Shit!” I say to My Lawyer. “That was a euro.”

“Is he going to give it back?” asks My Lawyer.

“Of course not,” says the eight year old, disappointed in us. “He’s a beggar. He’s going to by food.”

There’s a lot going on at Muiderslot Castle; tents are dotted around the moat, with historical happenings happening: burning things, chiselling things, eating things. There’s a smell of camping in the air: barbeques and cow shit. The four year old tries on a knight’s helmet and almost topples over. We walk around to the drawbridge.

“Look! A labia wink!” says the four year old.

We look at him.

“A labia wink!” He points to the garden behind us. We turn; there is a maze.

“Oh, LABYRINTH!” We laugh. This is one of the reasons we had children: they say the funniest things. Also, if you ever run out of trainer socks, then children’s socks are a really good substitute. So that’s another reason.

We explore the castle. The dungeons are a big hit, as you’d imagine. So, too, are holes in the ground that people poo into. There’s a computer game in which you’re required to shoot arrows at invading soldiers, avoiding fair maidens and villagers. The four year old shoots everyone indiscriminately, for a long time.

“I won! I won!” he shouts, shooting real old people around us with his fingers as we drag him away to the final exhibit, which is entitled “Gewapend met Schoonheid”.

“What does that mean?” asks My Lawyer.

“Armed with Beauty,” I say. We read the blurb: this exhibition tells the story of the “often less visible” power of women. What have women done, through the ages, to wield influence?  A lot of it, the exhibition tells us, we won’t know; when men are the record-keepers, guess whose voices slip through the net? But some women were deemed worth remembering: In the 1600s, Maria Tesselschade Roemer Visscher, who was a poet, a musician, linguist, engraver. Oh, and devastatingly beautiful, so “muse” is her given position in the castle. The majority of her own work is gone; she is remembered mostly in the writings of men.

Another woman, Aletta Henriëtte Jacobs, is proudly displayed as the first Dutch woman to attend university in the late 1800s, and the first woman doctor. Aletta set up a free clinic for vulnerable women, supplying birth control. Members of her own family spoke out against her. By the early 1900s, Dr Aletta Jacobs was a prominent voice for suffrage, travelling internationally to promote equality.

“Look!” I say to the seven year old, my only daughter. “The first Dutch female doctor!”

But the seven year old is tugging me towards the next room.

“There’s a wedding dress in here, Mummy.”

Of course, I think, resigned. A wedding dress. But all is not what it seems; this wedding dress was designed by costume artist Ella Siekman, and is entitled “Proud Mary”. The mannequin faces away from us, towards a mirror, in which we see her reflection. Silver, white, feathered and netted, this is a modern interpretation of a medieval wedding gown. Plastic wings on her hat attempt to blinker her, Handmaid-style, but they are transparent. She still sees. We walk around the mannequin to look at her facelessness. She gazes at a huge ring on her right hand. Her left hand, chained, holds a brick-like purse. And she is enormously pregnant. “Motherhood,” says the information stand beside her, “as a woman’s ultimate weapon.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” I think, aloud.

“YES IT DOES IT’S VERY BEAUTIFUL!” shouts the seven year old, indignantly.

Less than a week later, Ireland votes overwhelmingly to repeal the eighth, and I think back to that mannequin, swollen to burst; tick-tock, tick-tock. Her femininity is caged, and is the cage, and is the weapon that needs to be caged. I think back to Dr Aletta Jacobs, fighting for our bodies, over one hundred years ago.

I think back to labia wink, and I smile.

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