A national holiday in a new country is like staying over at someone’s house for the first time. You know how you roll out of bed, but how do other people roll? Do they get dressed before breakfast? If you get fully dressed and then come down to the breakfast table to see everyone knocking back OJ and Weetabix in their pjs, well then you’re the kid who shows up at school in full uniform on mufti day. And you can’t even blame your mum, because you’re a grown adult in your Zara best. But if you appear in your pyjamas and everyone else is dressed for the day, then Christ Alive! You might as well be naked! Everyone thought you were normal, and now here you are, pretending to like salted porridge and coffee from a tin (shudder) whilst wearing some long-forgotten ex-boyfriend’s NOFX t-shirt from the 1995 tour. That t-shirt is old enough to drink in America. You’re in no position to ask for filtered coffee.
What I’m saying is, I don’t want to get caught naked by the Easter bunny here in Amsterdam. That’s a pretty niche desire, even for me. We spent Sinterklaas and Kerst – Christmas shit to you and me – in a perpetual state of yuletide suspense that wasn’t wholly relaxing, so I spent most of it very anxious, slightly drunk, google-translating school emails about Christmas secret santas and kerst dinners. (“Cursed dinners?” the six year old said to me, eyes wide with fear. Ah. The magic of Christmas.)
So now it’s spring in Amsterdam, which is like winter but with chocolate eggs. Easter is called Paas. On the surface, things seem the same; I see chicks, I see eggs, I see bunny rabbits. But the Dutch Easter Bunny has a few tricks up his sleeve too. For one, he’s not a bunny rabbit. He’s a hare. A haas. That’s right: the Paas Haas. I feel like they just did that for the rhyme, but who are we to criticize? Our language is responsible for the colossal shag that is Elf On The Shelf.
So at our Dutch basisschool, when signs go up and letters go out about something called Lenteontbijt, I’m there, fully dressed, with my notepad and pen. Forget about roast lamb – Easter Breakfast is how the Dutch roll. And so, now, will we.
We are all encouraged to bring a traditional breakfast dish that is native to our home country. I mean, really, we eat coco pops.
The six year old and the eight year old will pull names out of a hat and prepare a breakfast in a shoebox for an unsuspecting classmate who, one hopes, has no life-threatening allergies. On the last day of school before the Easter weekend, all the kids will bring in a breakfast for their allotted classmate. What could go wrong? Epipens at the ready.
The three year old, who has just rebooted into the four year old, like a small Dr Who reincarnation with a firm grip on zero languages, has now also started basisschool. His teacher, known only Meester, has decided that the Easter Breakfast is a great opportunity to celebrate the international diversity of his tiny students, and we are all encouraged to bring a traditional breakfast dish that is native to our home country. A list outside the classroom awaits our pledge.
My pen hovers over the list. I mean, really, we eat coco pops. But on the list I see Spanish quesadillas, American pancakes, Chinese steamed custard buns, Dutch pannenkoeken… Before I know it, I’m writing hot cross buns on the list, and I’m immediately regretting it as Meester emerges from the classroom.
He surveys the list. “This is a lot of bread goods,” he says, with no discernable emotion.
“Oh, right,” I say, conveying what I hope to be culinary regret. “Should I just bring strawberries?” Please, Meester. Tell me to simply bring strawberries.
But Meester has other ideas. “No – hot cross buns, that’s good! Because, you know. It’s foreign.”
Foreign? Foreign! I’m foreign! I’m from a land afar! I’m exotic! I’m….
“Need a wee,” says the four year old.
That evening, the eight year old shows me the breakfast wishlist of his allotted recipient. The wishlist is a printed checklist of food for the kids to choose from, and the eight year old’s recipient has added to this list “passeitjes” – chocolate eggs – and has ticked it. I find this ingenuity impressive, but it has outraged the eight year old, who is still operating within British propriety, particularly when form-filling.
“You can’t add choices! Imagine if everyone did that!” he exclaims.
I do not point out that she didn’t use a black pen, neither did she write in capitals.
The six year old, however, casts her recipient’s list only a cursory glance as she explains once again her own stipulated dream breakfast:
“Two raisin swirls and a pear!”
“You can’t ask for two,” says the eight year old.
“I did,” says the six year old. No shits given.
My Lawyer arrives home.
“Daddy,” says the eight year old, “they are all asking for things that are not allowed on the forms!”
“Welcome to my world,” says My Lawyer.
I make hot cross buns from scratch. It takes days, more or less, but I am foreign, and that is what we foreigners do.
“You know that the Albert Hein store sells them, right?” says My Lawyer, when I am a few hours into the dough.
I do not reply. I did not know that.
Meanwhile, the big two children have decorated shoe boxes with stickers, Easter chicks and some shredded yellow paper to make the inside of the box look like a nest, because who doesn’t want to eat out of a nest?
The next morning, I load my foreign food into a box alongside a list of ingredients, because I do not wish to kill any children (today).
“This is the best day of my life!” says the six year old, as I load the breakfast boxes on top of her in the cargo bike. “Two raisin swirls and a pear!”
“I hope I don’t get any fruit,” says the eight year old.
“Where are we going?” says the four old. “Is it my birthday?”
The five of us arrive early at school. My Lawyer takes the big two children to their classrooms, and I take the four old and the foreign hot cross buns to the early years building. When we get there, Meester is handing out labels on which parents must write names of dishes and ingredients. I adopt an air of sanctimonious humility, because this might be the first time in The Netherlands that I am in the minority for having done something right. All those years of British-Health-And-Safety-Gone-Mad have finally paid off for this one moment.
I say goodbye to the four year old, who has not even the slight notion of what the merry hell is going on, and I run over to the six year old’s class room to look through the window. The children are not in there – they are in language class before their breakfast today – so I survey at leisure the variety of breakfasts. Everything from hastily-stuffed brown bags to huge Easter baskets are on display. The discrepancy in effort is striking. It’s not fair, I think, but who knows why some parents threw something together last minute? People’s lives are a mystery. I know mine is.
Then, I look over to the six year old’s place, and I see that it is empty. I keep looking at it for a while, in order to will two raisin swirls and a pear into being, but it does not work. I run over to My Lawyer, who is by the bikes, getting ready to leave.
“She didn’t get anything,” I say.
“How do you know?”
“There’s nothing in her place. Everyone else has something.”
“There are still people going in,” he says, uncertainly. “Maybe it’s still on its way.”
You don’t always get what you want in life. People don’t always listen to what you want. Especially when you are a woman.
Fifteen minutes later, I receive a whatsapp from the six year old’s teacher, the Juf. No breakfast arrived for her, says the Juf. Can you remember what she asked for?
Two raisin swirls and a pear, I text back sadly. She will not, I am sure, have a raisin swirl to hand. We are foreign, after all. We have foreign tastes. Could this be why she didn’t get a breakfast? Is the six year old the fall-girl for Brexit?
The Juf does her best, and texts me a photo of the box she has put together for the six year old. It looks fine; a croissant, a satsuma, a couple of mini eggs. Maybe this is a good lesson for the six year old, I think. You don’t always get what you want in life. People don’t always listen to what you want. Especially when you are a woman. I imagine her opening The Disappointing Box, wondering why no one took any notice of her request, when everyone else got what they wanted.
Then I think: Not on my watch.
I spend the rest of the morning searching Amsterdam for raisin swirls, and I arrange them at home on a nest plate alongside the finest pear that my fruit bowl had to offer. I make arrangements for the boys too, because even though life isn’t fair, surely you should at least expect some consistency from your parents.
School ends. The four year old emerges to tell me he’s pretty sure there was a birthday party for him today in class. The eight year old tells me that his breakfast box contained four contraband chocolate mini eggs, but he decided to eat them because the rules seemed like they weren’t really rules in the end.
Then the six year old appears.
“How was your breakfast?” I ask, nervously.
“Great!” she says. “My giver forgot, so the Juf made me a box. It had a satsuma!”
And that’s that. She climbs into the cargo bike and chats to the four year old. I make no further comment as we cycle home. Maybe she’s internalised it, I think. Maybe she will break down at home.
But when we arrive and she sees the table, she shrieks: “ANOTHER EASTER BREAKFAST! Boys! Come see!”
And as the three of them sit down at the table, I realise that I have made this second Easter Breakfast for myself, because only one us here is as fragile as I fear, and that person is not a child. It is me.