It is Saturday. A cold December morning in Amsterdam. I am standing in my kitchen pondering this whatsapp message, whilst my children watch contraband American television in the front room. My steadfast rule for the encouragement of Dutch language immersion is that they can watch as much Dutch television as they like. However, My Lawyer was on the early shift today, and he rightly concluded that my mood would be less affected by this American television than it would have been had I been woken by three children loudly lamenting their Dutch viewing fate. The holy trinity of negligence, liability and damage control translate very well from law to marriage.
The text message is from one of my very best friends, Tuckers, who happens to live about forty minutes north of Amsterdam. I went to university with Tuckers. She knows almost twenty years’ worth of things about me, and between the two of us we could write out the screenplay of Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility in a couple of hours. We both cried when Alan Rickman died. Tuckers is married to a Dutch man and they have two bilingual children. There is a word for emigrating to a country where one of your very best friends already lives. That word is cheating.
Should we go for it? Rewind nearly twenty years and this phrase would not have been in our vocabulary. But now we are grown ups; we risk-assess.
We’d planned a trip to Haarlem Christmas Market today, but snow is forecast. “100% chance of snow”, says my iphone, although this is not as conclusive as it sounds. I have 100% chance of starting my novel today, or jumping on a train to Rome, or taking up golf, or getting run over by a redundant snow plough.
What does the Dutch Person say? I reply.
Tuckers speaks to her Dutch Person. He says the trains will still run. But we should go early, just in case.
I consider. A Christmas Market in the snow is Instagram gold. Plus: gluwein. That’s always a good reason to do anything.
I reply: Let’s go for it.
I rally the troops in the front room, who are arguing over what American show to watch next.
“I wanna see Home Alone!” shouts the six year old. Since starting Dutch school, her American has really come on.
“I told her we can NOT,” says the eight year old, pushing his glasses back up his nose. He is, to all intents and purposes, Harry Potter. “Because Home Alone will make you sad about Dead Granddad.”
Dead Granddad is – was – my father. He had a beard and heavy-lidded green eyes. As I became fatter with my first baby, he grew thinner with cancer. He’d have looked like the Old Snow-Shovelling Man in Home Alone now, if he’d had the chance.
“We don’t have time to watch Dead Grand- I mean Home Alone,” I say, turning off the television. “We’re going to a Christmas Market!” I exclaim, deploying jazz hands. A chorus of underwhelmed wails ensue. Children today are impervious to jazz-hands-news-delivery. I blame Simon Cowell. And Brexit.
We get the tram to Centraal Station. Half way there, we know that we’ve missed the earlier train. We get on to the Haarlem train as Tuckers arrives into Haarlem with her two girls, aged five and one. Her Dutch Person stays at home ripping up floorboards, because he took care of the kids yesterday. Today is his day off.
‘This train only takes fifteen minutes’, I text. ‘Grab yourself a coffee’.
The Haarlem train leaves Centraal station and then stops five minutes later, mid-track. A couple of minutes pass. Out of the window we see fields and drizzle. Rewind nearly twenty years and I’d have been in much the same situation, inexplicably halted on the train home from university, willing it to move so I could get home to my mum and dad for Christmas.
A muffled announcement is made.
“Pardon,” I say to an elderly Dutch couple. “Wat zegt hij?”
“I have no idea,” the lady says, chuckling. “I can’t understand the noise!”
Indecipherable train announcements are universal, but the reactions are different. What can you do about a delay? The Dutch shrug. But My Lawyer and I simmer with the impotent rage of Fenton’s owner, who suffered 45 seconds of fame as his dog, Fenton, ran joyously into stampeding chaos in Richmond Park in 2011. If there’s a 45 second clip that more encapsulates the British horror of moments ungovernable, I’d like to see it. Jesus Christ.
We are 40 minutes late by the time we arrive, and the snow has begun. Tuckers has found a restaurant with a large children’s area – not unusual here in the Netherlands, where kids are welcome to enjoy themselves in adults’ spaces, and vice versa. We go in to pick up Tuckers, lose all the kids in the play area, and then spend ten minutes convincing each child that the cold market outside will be more fun than this enormous train track and sorry no, the restaurant has run out of hot chocolate. What, those people over there drinking hot chocolate? They must have brought their own from home. In cups with the restaurant’s logo.
The Christmas Market covers most of central Haarlem, with the Grote Kerk – Big Church – at the centre. The Grote Kerk has been Haarlem’s most striking landmark for over 500 years. The church has huge stained glass windows and houses a small selection of dead people, chosen because they were wealthy, or ministerial, or both. Mozart, Händel and Mendelssohn have played the church’s organ. Heh. I know. Organ.
We walk through the market, smelling waffles and gluwein and oliebollen. There are stalls of religious iconography, of soaps shaped like animals, of stuffed toys and of wreaths. There is a merry band of Santas playing Let It Go. We see a homemade fudge stall and I rewind twenty years, to when I’d join my parents at country fairs in the Westcountry purely for the fudge. Good fudge is hard to get here in the Netherlands. I buy a selection box, and whatsapp my mum a photo of the rum and raisin one. I cannot remember which flavour my dad would have closen. Sometimes you have to make things up for them, to keep them with you.
The snow gets heavier, sweeping into our faces.
“This isn’t Star Wars,” says the three year old, disgruntled.
“No,” I agree.
We dive into one of the many restaurants by the Grote Kerk and order cheese toasties and hot chocolates to warm up. It’s cosy as fuck. The Danish have Hygge, and the Dutch have Gezellig. The British have no word for it, because at any moment Fenton the dog might unleash himself from the shackles of conformity and before you know it there’s a media circus at your Farrow and Ball door. The British won’t be tricked into relaxing, but we have a go. Only one hot chocolate gets knocked over and Tuckers’ one year old steals two baubles from the Christmas tree. I’ve had messier Christmas drinks with Tuckers, some of which I can even remember.
The kids run out to play in the snow. The girls build a snowman together, and the eight year old lets the three year old pelt snowballs at him. It doesn’t get any Christmassier than this. This is peak Christmas. We did it.
And then the six year old, whose coat has flapped open, says: “I’m cold.”
It’s like a yawn; they all catch it. Gloves are wet through, fingers sting. Toes numb. Faces crumple. The wind whips up and suddenly we’re in a Christmas blizzard. The crying starts.
“SHALL WE HEAD BACK?” I call to Tuckers and My Lawyer, over the wind and the shrieking.
Halfway back to the station, the three year old is unable to walk any more, and My Lawyer carries him.
“I think he’s fallen asleep,” My Lawyer tells me as we battle through the icy snow. “Or he has hyperthermia.”
I’m unable to carry the six year old. I hold her hand tightly and encourage, beg and then finally instruct her to stop crying. She doesn’t.
Tuckers’ girls, blessed with Dutch stoicism and appropriate winter-wear, cope better. And our eight year old, ever the cheerleader of the family, says, “If you laugh, it’s impossible to cry. HA HA HA! I’m so cold! HA HA HA!”
We get to the station and say goodbye to Tuckers. We clamber on to the Amsterdam train, with the eight year old laughing, the six year old crying, and the three year old possibly unconscious. We look out of the window to watch the snow sluicing diagonally across the horizon.
“I think,” I say to My Lawyer, “That this was more worth it than not worth it.”
“So – a win,” he says, a little desperately. Lawyers celebrate wins. Parents cling to them.
Back at home, the three year old regains consciousness and the children thaw under blankets on the sofa, arguing over Christmas movies once again.
“We cannot watch Home Alone!” says the eight year old. “Even though it’s very, very funny.”
“You can watch Home Alone,” I say.
“But – Dead Granddad – “
“It doesn’t make me more sad,” I say. To the children, this is reassuring.
They rewind each and every attack on those naughty burglars, and we watch Joe Pesci get an iron in the face several times before I take the remote control from the eight year old.
“No more rewinding,” I say.
I look out of the window. The snow is dwindling. The People Who Live Opposite Us are decorating their Christmas tree. They only put lights on the side that faces their sofa. On screen, Macaulay Culkin looks out of his window and sees the Old Snow-Shovelling Man, embracing his estranged family. The old man gives him a wave.
The film finishes and the children disappear upstairs to get their pyjamas on, leaving me with the remote control. The eight year old runs back into the room, and looks at the screen.
“Hey Mummy,” he says. “I thought you said no more rewinding?”