Setting aside the incomprehensible language, the wormholes of homesickness and the abject horror of an existence without Branston pickle, there is much to be said for family life in the Netherlands. The Dutch have some ingenious life hacks that at first glance baffled our London-centric mindsets, but are now already so entrenched within our family routine that it is hard to imagine abandoning them.
If it was a menstruating week, I’d probably be entering the eleventh or twelfth hour with same tampon. It is a miracle that toxic shock syndrome has not yet claimed me.
Nothing encapsulates this more than the morning school run, which begins soon after eight in the morning, because school kicks off at 8.15. Back in London, at 8.15 on a school morning, I’d have been half-dressed, digging out passable school uniform from the laundry basket, bribing the toddler to brush his teeth, checking the fridge for any school trip or club notices that I’d forgotten. I’d be looking for shoes. I’d be packing for playgroup. I’d be cajoling to finish homework. PE, anyone? If it was a menstruating week, I’d probably be entering the eleventh or twelfth hour with same tampon. It is a miracle that toxic shock syndrome has not yet claimed me. I should be studied for my immunity. It might in fact be that I am currently in the throes of a toxic shock-induced coma. If you’re reading this, please blink so that I know you’re real.
My Lawyer, however. At 8.15am in London, he was making his way to work. He was either on a train that had been delayed from a previous hour, or he was waiting for his intended (delayed) train. There endeth his plight. He was alone. He’d have had a coffee. He probably had his headphones on, and he’d have been swearing at John Humphrys. To give him his due, he was swearing at John Humphrys before the rest of us were. (But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Whilst I was nine centremetres dilated giving birth to our third child, My Lawyer was googling “Do Fizzy Chewits still exist?”)
But, here in Amsterdam, at 8.15, things are different. One thing remains the same: I may only be partially dressed. But I’ll be sitting at the window, having watched My Lawyer depart with the eight year old on the back of his bike and the six year old on the front. Because – on account of the earlier school start and the smaller city size, My Lawyer – like so many other dads in the Netherlands – can easily ride the kids in to school before getting himself to work with time to spare; guys, he could google candy cigarettes, picnic bars, cherry drops, dib dabs and fruit salad chewies and STILL have an entire day to write some shit about legal compliance. I think that’s called Living The Dream.
Being a feminist housewife in Amsterdam is not as easy as it sounds. If I tidy this shit up, I’m complicit. If I leave it for My Lawyer, I’m enabling the furthering of his feminist awakening. One woman’s negligence is another man’s epiphany.
Of course, I’m not the only partially-dressed lady in an Amsterdam window. Amsterdam has more culture per square metre than any other city, but what it’s known for is ring-fencing its sex workers within geographically defined areas of the city, registering them, legitimising them, keeping them safe. Recognising prostitution as a taxable endeavour. Keeping the pimps at bay. Being seen to keep the pimps at bay. Enabling women to seek a way out of the window with the money they earn from working the window. Qualifying their position in the window. Advertising them in the window. Commodifying them as one of two barrels, the second being cannabis, creating a perfect storm, a tsunami of undesirable tourists, and newspaper headings that ask, Wat Doen We Met De Toeristen? What will we do with all these tourists?
These are the things that go through my mind as I sit at the window, half-dressed, sipping my second cup of tea, not tidying up after breakfast. Being a feminist housewife in Amsterdam is not as easy as it sounds. If I tidy this shit up, I’m complicit. If I leave it for My Lawyer, I’m enabling the furthering of his feminist awakening. One woman’s negligence is another man’s epiphany.
But we don’t always get it right. My Lawyer walks in that evening looking stricken.
“I was sexist today,” he says.
“Christ,” I say. “Are we going to be on the news?”
He tells me no, we will not be on the news. But at school drop-off that morning, he chatted with Cool Scandi Dad, who asked if we might be interested in the judo club that his kids attend.
“I said,” confesses My Lawyer, “that the eight year old would love it.”
I wait. I shrug. “Yeah. He would.”
“And then Cool Scandi Dad said, ‘maybe your daughter would, too’.”
Fuck. I did it too. Shit shit shit. “Well yes, I am absolutely sure she would love judo,” I say. “That was my immediate thought, when you said judo. I thought: I can only really imagine my daughter doing judo. If anything, I forgot about our sons.”
“You did not.”
“You’ll never know.”
We tell the kids that they are going to try judo on the weekend.
“EPIC!” says the eight year old.
“No thanks,” says the six year old, crinkling up her nose. “I don’t like judo.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“I’m worried I might hurt someone.” Says the six year old, who still weighs less than three stones.
“JUDO KARATE!” shouts the three year old.
“Not you,” I say to him for the good of Amsterdam, and turn back to the six year old. “You know, we can’t say that we don’t like something unless we’ve tried it.”
“But I’m already trying sewing club!” she protests.
“Sewing club?” says the eight year old.
“Yes,” I sigh, “with her friend down the street.”
“What are you going to make?” the eight year old asks the six year old.
She shrugs. “A blanket for my toys.”
“My point is,” I plough on, “that it is important, as a woman, to empower yourself with the knowledge that you can defend yourself from being forced to do something that you don’t want to do.”
“I don’t want to do judo,” she points out.
“Is there a sewing machine?” asks the eight year old.
“Listen,” I say to the six year old. “Try judo. For me.”
“If I was going to sewing club,” says the eight year old, “I would make a super hero cape for my baby brother, from two different materials, with a big letter in the middle for his name, and a ribbon around the top to tie it together.”
I close my eyes, my heart heavy. Christ. We did it again.
The next day I find myself in De Pijp, the hip area of Amsterdam, reminiscent of North London with its generous bar-to-household ratio and home to the Albert Cuyp Market, where I can find decent material for sewing club. I survey the options, from unicorn prints, to planets, to stripes, to hearts, to bunny rabbits with stars for eyes.
I try to look at each without thinking girl, boy, boy, girl, girl. I order the material in Dutch, and tell the market trader that my daughter and my son are trying sewing club for the first time. I recognise that I am more worried about my son’s credibility doing sewing club than I am my daughter’s doing judo. Our daughters gain points for stepping up to the masculine arena, but our sons still lose for stepping “down”.
I have time to kill before picking up the three year old from voorschool. I realise that I’ve had no breakfast and I’m metres away from what can only be described as my dietary mecca; a place called The Avocado Show – Europe’s only avocado-based restaurant. It reflects poorly on me that, as Tulse Hill’s most prominent export in Amsterdam, I haven’t reported back from this Instagrammer’s paradise. I find the restaurant – in an unassuming backstreet, with a Minecraft-style avocado on the window, and I fight my way though the heavy, black-velvet curtains at the front door into what is really a very pleasant café; not too dark, avocado-green (of course) on the walls, waiting staff who are so young and beautiful that I might cry.
Toto’s Africa plays on the radio, and I’m reminded of a recent article I read about the origin of the song, described by the singer/songwriter and the guitarist: “It was if a higher power was writing through me,” said the former. “What the fuck are you writing about?” said the latter. For some reason, it resonated. I wonder if My Lawyer would agree.
After Toto, cooler music comes on that makes me feel like I’m in a video montage about what people having a mid-life crisis do in Amsterdam, so I put on my headphones and listen to the Guilty Feminist podcast. The Guilty Feminists talk about their grapples with what it is to be a feminist, or what it is supposed to be, and how our feminism, or lack of, can manifest itself. The hashtag #Imafeministbut is a defining feature of the show. “I’m a feminist,” says one comic, “but I am growing another white middle-class male at home.”
“I’m a feminist,” I think, “but I’m forcing my daughter to do judo so that she can learn to resist force, and I forgot to ask my son if he wanted to do sewing club.”
Outside, two Instagramming teenagers take photos of each other, working the Minecraft avocado window.
Sewing Club Day dawns. The eight year old and the six year old both adore it. When I pick them up, the six year old wants to show me how the sewing machine works. She slides paper beneath the needle.
“Watch this,” she says, pressing down on the pedal. “ STAB! STAB! STAB! STAB! STAB!”
The following day, My Lawyer brings the children back from judo. Again, it’s a hit with both.
“It was so cool,” says the eight year old. “Watch this-“
He steps forward with a kick, and then spins a beautiful pirouette.
“You see?” he asks.
“I see,” I nod.
Let me put you out of your misery: Fizzy Chewits no longer exist.