Is it safe to skate on the pond?

A few morning’s later, on our way to school, we pass a group of 20 or so people playing an impromptu game of ice hockey on the frozen pond in the park.

 ‘Can we go ice skating now?’ Asks my eldest, zipping her jacket up tight. 

‘We don’t have our ice skates but we can walk on the ice,’ I say, my voice wavering, betraying the thoughts of plunging through the ice.  I cross my fingers as if that will protect us and pull the Bakfiets up to the water’s edge.

Tentatively, we test the ice, none of us quite trusting what we are seeing. A dog sprints out, sliding across the surface in chase of a ball. We take a few more steps. 

‘It’s slippery,’ says my youngest. 

The kids playing hockey squeal and laugh as they chase the puck. I can see the water moving under the ice, several inches down.  I feel invincible and totally vulnerable at the same time.  I grip my daughters’ hands tighter.

‘When are we going to be on the pond?’ asks my eldest.  

‘We’re on it now,’ I say pointing at the water underneath us and around us.  ‘We’re right in the middle.’

My eldest runs and slides and jumps.  

‘Don’t jump, darling,’ I call out, wishing I could just bite my tongue and let her have this.  My heart races.  I remind myself that this lake is only knee deep anyway so even if the ice cracks it will be okay.  The ice creaks and cracks under our feet.  I ignore it.  My youngest slides around like a cat on roller-skates.  The ice creaks and cracks and I see a bubble of water dance in a pocket of air under the surface.  The ice creaks again.  I usher the girls back to the edge of the pond.  

‘It’s time for school,’ I sing-song, pretending this was the reason we were heading back to firm ground.

My eldest stomps her foot in disappointment and the ice cracks.  She jumps onto the ground and pulls the broken shard up out of the water.  My youngest is intrigued by the ice and the two set about collecting shards to make ‘ice sculptures.’  I breathe deeply and let them go, ignoring the fact we are late for school. 

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We discover the perks of a Cold Climate

‘Look, Mama, the fairy tree is frozen! Do you think the fairies are playing in the ground with the root children?’  asks my youngest as we cycle through the park.  The Root children, by Sybille von Olfers, is her favourite book at the moment.  We’ve read it so many times I know it by heart.  There is something lovely about the idea of bulbs resting in the earth, sewing their new dresses as they wait for spring to come so they can dance and play in the forest in a burst of bright rainbow colour once again. 

‘Mama, when are we going ice skating?’ asks my eldest, impatiently, not at all interested in the potential magic happening right in front of her.  Her eyes peek out accusingly from the layers of wool I’ve bundled her up in. 

‘Now, darling, that’s where we are going.’ 

 ‘I love ice skating,’ she tells me when we arrive at the ice skating rink, ‘I want to go ice skating every day.’  She whizzes off around the rink, the chair she’d been using for balance long forgotten.  We do not see her again until it is time for hot chocolate.  

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Is it too much for your kid or simply a new challenge to overcome?

‘I don’t want to go to school,’ wails my eldest.  

‘I’m not going to school either,’ echoes my youngest.

‘Why not,’ I ask my eldest and try to tune out the barrage of whining that comes from my youngest, something about if her sister doesn’t go then she shouldn’t have to go because that’s not fair etc, etc.

‘I want to go to an English school,’ she says and then bursts into tears.  ‘I only have one teacher who speaks English, they all speak Dutch.’

‘Are you having trouble understanding what they are saying?’

‘Yes.’

‘Does it feel really hard?’

‘Yes,’ she wipes her face and then tightens her jaw.  ‘I’m staying home.’

‘You are both going to school.  I know it’s a hard thing.  I have my dutch school today, and it’s really hard.  I haven’t done my homework and I don’t want to go, but I need to.  Sometimes we have to do hard things.  Remember when you started kinder, you didn’t want to go, but after a while, you loved it.  And when you changed classes, you didn’t want to.  That was another hard thing, but you did it, and you know, after a while you loved that too.  And then when we came to Amsterdam, you started at a new school, and you didn’t want to do that either.  But you stuck with it, and now you miss it, that’s how much you grew to love it.  Let’s give this school a little more time, you know, you might grow to love this one too.’

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How to fit dates in with your kids

‘Mama, why are the birds walking on the water?’ My eldest asks as we ride through the park on the way to pick up her sister from school.  The cover is on the bakfiets and I have to lean towards her to hear her over the wind.  She is drawing pictures in the foggy condensation on the plastic windows.

‘Because the water is ice, sweetheart. It’s been so cold the water has frozen.’ 

Groups of Dutch kids stand by the water’s edge.  They are plucking shards of ice from near the bank and then casting them across the iced surface, watching them skid and bounce and shatter. 

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The simple joy of making biscuits

‘Are they ready yet?’ Asks my daughter as soon as she slides the chocolate biscuits into the oven and closes the door.  She hasn’t even taken her oven mitts off. 

‘Not yet, they need 10 minutes.’ I say.
‘Oh,’ she says pulling up a chair and sitting down to watch her chocolate biscuits cook.  The girls have a little oven in their kitchen.  It’s at their height and the dials are easily used by them.  It sits on a cupboard I found out on the street, which has since been painted and repurposed as their kitchen bench.   

She is making chocolate biscuits for when her friends come over to play.  She made invitations for them yesterday and hasn’t quite understood that it can take a little more time than this for her friends to actually appear at our house. 

‘Is it 10 minutes now?’ she asks a minute later. 

‘Lets make the ganache.’  By the time the biscuits are ready, there is more ganache on her face than in the bowl.  She decides not to wait for her friends to arrive before eating the biscuits.

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Are you brave enough to get a Pixie cut?

‘I thought you were growing your hair long’ laughs our nanny as she walks through the front door and spies my hair.  

‘I was….  I am…’ I run my hand through the centimetre of hair I have left, ‘It’s just that I’ve had this bee in my bonnet about a pixie cut, and if I don’t do it now I’ll grow my hair to my shoulders, then get irritated with it because it’s at an awkward length and it’s taking too long and then I’ll cut it all off again.  I figure if I get it over and done with now, then I can let it go.’  I’m really very complicated, I think as the words pour awkwardly from my mouth.  

I’d like to be simple, to ease through life, steady, reliable, consistent.  Instead, I’m up and down like a yoyo.  I’m growing my hair long, I’m cutting it short.  I’m a writer.  Yes.  I’m writing a novel.  Also, I’m writing a picture book.  And, actually, now I’m writing a chapter book for kids.  I’ve also written a ten-minute play, and now, well now it’s time to focus once again on the novel.  

‘I’m starting a blog,’ I tell my husband.  

‘Good,’ he says, ‘I think you should.’  

‘I think I’ll start a blog,’ I say again, a month later.

‘Okay, great.’

‘Do you think I should start a blog?’ I ask him a few weeks after that.

He doesn’t answer.  I’m irritated, but not surprised.

A month later, I’ve started two blogs and am possibly collaborating on a third.  There’s an all or nothing thing about me.  It bugs me, but I can’t seem to find the balance.  I took up salsa dancing in my 20’s.  Some weeks I couldn’t be bothered and I would miss classes for a month.  Other weeks, I was so obsessed, I danced three nights a week until I could no longer stand.  

Sometimes I think I force myself to do things, just to chase the fear into the dark recesses, to prove to myself that I will not be beaten by it.  Eventually, though the effort exhausts me, and I collapse in a heap of fear and self-loathing as I watch too much bad tv and eat an entire block of chocolate (or maybe two, but ssh!).  

I went skydiving once.  It was the most terrifying thing I’d forced myself to do up until that point.  I didn’t really want to jump.  I remember that clearly, but I forced myself to. As if it would prove something. When the door was pulled open and the woman I was strapped to inched us closer to it, I decided I’d changed my mind.  Unfortunately, she didn’t hear me over the raging wing.  There’s a reason they ask you to tilt your head back and stare at the sky above you before you jump, because if you’re anything like me, when you look down at the patchwork quilt of earth just waiting to smash you to smithereens, you’ll never jump.  I didn’t realise until about halfway into the free fall when it occurred to me that I had not only stopped breathing but that I couldn’t actually recall how to get started again.  ‘Scream,’ the young, long dark-haired instructor with the fluoro stars stitched onto her gear told me, as we boarded the plane.  ‘If you find it hard to breathe out, just scream,’

‘Scream,’ the young, long dark-haired instructor with the fluoro stars stitched onto her gear had told me, as we boarded the plane.  ‘If you find it hard to breathe out, just scream,’

So I screamed.  As if I were being murdered.  

‘You’ve got some lungs on you,’ she said as the parachute opened, and the world became eerily quiet.  I’d have felt embarrassed if I wasn’t just thrilled to still be alive.  A friend of mine had also jumped, and when I caught up with her on the ground, she was jubilant.  I’d wished I was jubilant.  

Terror, has been my constant companion for so long, I don’t really know what life is without it.   I wish it had made me more comfortable with its existence, but mostly I just throw myself into awful situations as a way of ‘facing’ the terror rather than running from it.    

So when I rang the hairdressing salon to book an appointment for a pixie cut, and the woman suggested I come in that afternoon, my stomach jumped into my throat as if I was jumping out of that stupid plane all over again.  

‘Okay,’ I said weakly, not really sure now that I wanted to cut all of my hair off, but still unable to let go of the idea.  So, I got on my bike and cycled across town and let a strange man I didn’t know cut all of my hair off.

Do I love it?  I’m not entirely sure, but it’s done now and I feel relieved.  

‘You look like Grandma,’ says my eldest when I finally take the beanie off my head the next day.  

‘Thank you, darling.’

‘You look like Papa,’ says my youngest, touching my hair.

‘Do you think so?’

She nods.  ‘You look like a boy.’

‘You’ve got the face for it,’ I hear over and over again.  So I suspect I’m not the only one who is not entirely sure if they like it. 

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How to know if your child is ready to ride a bike.

I remember my eldest daughters first steps.  She’s always been determined and when she decides she’s going to do something, she dedicates herself to it completely.  A week before her first birthday, we were in the kitchen.  I was tidying up after breakfast, putting the butter away.  She pulled herself up to standing, using her little table.  This wasn’t new, she’d been pulling herself to standing for months now.  Usually, she sat down quick smart, as if something in her brain had just registered the potential risks associated with this new upright position.  She has also always been rather cautious.  Once she knows she can do something though, there is no holding her back.  This day, however, she was done with being wary.  As I bent to put a plate in the dishwasher, I caught a look of intense concentration on her face. 

As I bent to put a plate in the dishwasher, I caught a look of intense concentration on her face.  First, her right foot shuffled forward, then her left.  She still had hold of the table, but she was moving.  She lifted her foot, and took a proper step, and then another.  She reached the end of the table, and paused, seeming to weigh up the distance to the cupboard, and then she stepped.  One, Two, Three.  She arrived at the cupboard, then promptly turned around and walked back to the table.  One, Two, Three.   For four hours, she walked from the table to the bench, back to the table, to the other bench, and back again.  She refused to do anything else.  She was not interested in her lunch, nor was she interested in playing outside.  All she wanted to do was walk.

Her tenacity and her focus inspire me.  Sure, it’s frustrating when we are at a stand-off, but it remains to this day, one of the things I love most about her.  This last summer, she decided she wanted a bike.  She was 4, it was time.  I had wanted to start her off with a balance bike, but my husband wanted a bike with stabilizers.  On holiday in Italy, we happened to be in a sporting goods store where upon the girls pounced upon a couple of bikes with stabilizers and proceeded to race each other up and down the aisles, giggles flying in their wake.  They were so excited, so I surrendered.  

My girls spent the rest of our holiday terrorising tourists in the many piazzas surrounding Lago di Garda.  Fortunately, they are still cute enough to get away with it.  Especially when my eldest, who had decided at some point during the holiday that underwear was not an essential clothing item, stopped her bike just before a puddle, to hoik her skirt up to her shoulders so that it wouldn’t get wet, revealing her dimpled bottom to everyone in the piazza.  

Back at home though, (after my husband had finally figured out how to get the girls’ bikes on the plane to Amsterdam, apparently bubble wrap, miles of packing tape and a sweet smile at the check-in counter will do the trick) I noticed the stabilisers were actually causing more problems than they were preventing.  Both of my girls were repeatedly coming off their bikes because they were turning too sharply.  The stabilizers were giving them a false sense of security and of stability, and consequently, they were not learning how to manoeuvre the bikes safely. 

When my husband was away on a business trip, I took the stabilisers off.  My intention was to turn these bikes into balance bikes by simply removing the pedals.  I’d looked it up on YouTube, how hard could it be?  Hard, it turns out.  Actually, impossible with the bikes we had.  My eldest, having grown frustrated with the length of time I was taking to give back her bike, decided that she would just learn how to ride it as it was.  And so, for the next half an hour, she pedalled and steered, while I ran along behind her till she had a feel for it.

‘Don’t let go,’ she said, glaring at me.  

‘I won’t dare, not until you are ready,’ I reassured, huffing and puffing and wishing I could sit down.

‘Let go,’ she said ten minutes later, as though I were some overbearing helicopter Mum she couldn’t get rid of. 

‘Let go,’ she demanded ten seconds later when I hadn’t let go fast enough. 

I let go, and she was off.  Legs pumping furiously, hands over correcting wildly.  It wasn’t perfect, but she was upright and she was riding.  Two hours later, she was still riding.  Up and down the same stretch of road, over and over and over again, but she had it now.    

‘Mama, Mama, watch me,’ she called out, blissfully proud of herself.  

This morning, when I woke up, I had no idea today would be another milestone day.  Sometimes this job is pretty amazing. 

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Sometimes you can’t be there for your kids.

‘Sint Maarten,’ explains our nanny, ‘is like the Dutch Halloween.’  It has absolutely nothing to do with Halloween of course, instead, it celebrates Saint Martin, a man who took his sword to his cloak, slicing in half, so that he might share it, along with his bread with a cold and hungry beggar he met on the road.  

During the day, children make lanterns and when the sun sets, they take their lanterns out onto the street and go from door to door, singing songs to their neighbors in exchange for treats.  I didn’t love the idea of all of the treats, but I did love the idea of the festival.  I wrote the date on the calendar and then of course, promptly forgot it.  

‘I thought we could go away for the weekend for your birthday,’ I say to my husband.  He doesn’t really care for birthdays, especially his own, and generally, prefers to be on a plane heading somewhere.  For the last four years, he has managed to be on a plane, away from his family.  I love birthdays, but his general disregard for them, along with his tendency to just buy whatever he wants, makes him incredibly difficult to buy for.  So this year, I figured I’d come up with a winner.  This year, I would take him away for his birthday.  That way he would be on a plane, we would get to do something fun, and I’d actually get to celebrate his birthday with him.  Which he would hate, but I would love.  ‘I was thinking we could go to Bucharest,’ I continue, knowing that it was one place he had not been and really wanted to go to.  

‘I was thinking we could go to Bucharest,’ I continue, knowing that it was one place he had not been and really wanted to go to.  

‘Too cold,’ he says, not looking up from his laptop where he is busily typing emails.

I close off all of the open tabs I have for hotels, restaurants and things to do.

‘Maybe we could go to that detox place Jeroen went to.  In Spain.’  Jeroen is someone he works with, and he had come back after four days away raving about this retreat.  My husband loves a retreat.  Somewhere that feels luxurious where he can practice yoga, get daily massages and ideally fast and get colonics.  Not exactly my idea of a good time.

‘Sure…’ I say, figuring I could opt out of the colonics and join him for the massages.

We settle on a place, book the accommodation, book the flights, and organize for our nanny to stay the weekend with the girls.  Everything is set.

My husband’s birthday, it turns out, is the same day as Sint Maarten.  By the time I realise everything is booked.  It is too late.  So I am in sunny Spain when my girls are making lanterns.  I am singing happy birthday with the waitress who has just presented my husband with a candle-lit chocolate cake for his birthday when my girls join the neighborhood kids and sing the Sint Maarten songs to everyone who answers their door.  I am not there to see my eldest’s face light up with delight at all the candy.  I am not there when my youngest, decides she is tired and cold and wants to go home three houses in.  

‘Look,’ I say, showing my husband the photos of the girls as they appear on WhatsApp.  

‘Nice,’ he says, without a second thought.

‘I’m sad.’

‘Why?’ he asks, genuinely confused.

‘Because we’re missing it.’  I wanted to be part of that memory, part of that experience.  It was the same way I’d felt when Mum had sent me the video of my eldest crawling for the first time.  I had barely left her side for more than an hour since she had been born, and she chose the one afternoon Mum had sent me away to buy some clothes that would actually fit, to crawl.   I felt sad and guilty and bad, as though I were committing a major parenting offense.  

‘I don’t,’ he says, completely unfazed and unemotional.  Sometimes I envy him that detachment.  The complete freedom he feels to just do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.  If he was there to share it with them great, if he wasn’t, great.  

Two days later, Sinterklaas arrives.  

‘The girls are making pictures for Sinterklaas to put in their shoe for when Sinterklaas comes tonight,’ messages our nanny while we are waiting at the airport.  

‘I thought Sinterklaas doesn’t come until the 5th December,’ I type back quickly, suddenly confused.  ‘Everything I read said that the shoes were set out on the night of the 5th,’  I say to my husband, as though there were something he could do about it. He shrugs, still nonplussed.  

‘Doesn’t this bother you at all?’ 

‘No.’

‘He arrives in the Netherlands today, but his birthday is the 5th December.’  Says the message from our nanny.  ‘They get the big presents on the 5th.’  

As we board our flight, my phone beeps.  A photo of the girls’ shoes lined up neatly in front of the fireplace, scrolls of drawings tied with ribbon poking out of each shoe.  Next to the shoes sit a block of chocolate for Sinterklaas and an apple and some water for his horse.   It’s darling and I want to cry.

At home, I ditch my bag and race up the stairs to my secret present cupboard, the one I’ve been filling since September.  Christmas thrills me and I select a necklace and bracelet, for each of the girls, some stickers, and new crayons.  Then I sneak back down the stairs.  I take a few bites out of the apple, eat several squares of chocolate, the same way my Mum did when I was young, and become part of an age-old tradition that keeps the magic of childhood alive.  

I take the drawings out and unravel them. Avarose looks as though she’s picked up whichever crayon was nearest to her and scribbled about on the page.  There is brown and blue and a little green.  It looks like she became bored quickly.  Grace meanwhile, has colored every inch of the page.  There is pink and purple and blue and yellow around the border and a picture in the middle, Sinterklaas maybe, and possibly his horse, Amerigo.  Maybe that’s what Avarose was drawing too.  I replace them with the beaded necklaces and bracelets, some stickers and new crayons.  Their favorite things at the moment.  Then I tiptoe back down the stairs to bed, impatient for the morning.

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How to Get Comfortable with Your Own Nakedness

‘I’ve booked us in for a massage at the deco spa,’ my husband says, typing something into his laptop and then turning it around to show me a luxurious Art Deco building with dark panelling, gold, lines and motifs that even Gatsby would drool over.  

‘Yay!  I so want to go!’  I clap my hands together.  I could definitely use this after the morning we’ve had. 

‘There’s just one thing,’ he says to me, winking, ‘it’s a naked spa.’

‘What?’ 

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On Coming to Terms with Your Inner Perfectionist

Thursday before the light festival, I look out the window at our courtyard.  It is filled with autumn leaves.  In my head, I see my girls and I out there, cleaning up the garden, raking up the leaves and then jumping in them again (cue schmaltzy music), before finally lighting a fire in the fire pit to toast marshmallows and celebrate the end of Samhain.  It’s so idyllic I can barely stand myself. 

I’ve a bee in my bonnet about festivals and establishing our family culture through celebrations that reconnect us with nature’s rhythms and cycles.  Probably it’s because I feel disconnected from them.  Days and weeks flow by, and I feel caught up like on a treadmill, with so much doing.  Summer flies by, turns into autumn and before I know it, winter is here, and I feel like I’ve forgotten to make time to connect with any of it.

Of course, this is not entirely true. The girls and I spent much of this summer climbing trees and riding our bikes.  We’ve spent time at the beach, and swum, and collected shells, and we’ve made sandcastles.  This autumn, we have collected autumn leaves, we have danced in them, and rolled in them, and thrown them about.  We have cooked pumpkins and baked muffins and explored painting in autumnal colours.  Yet my inner perfectionist is still not pleased, it’s not enough.       

When Sunday finally arrives though, we are sick, and tired, and ratty.  My husband is due home this morning, but his flight has been delayed.  He’s been gone a week, and I’ve slept maybe 12 hours over the course of the week.  Nothing has gone to plan, but still, I am holding fast to the idea that our family will have a magical time around the fire pit this afternoon.  Instead it drizzles all afternoon, and all my girls wind up doing is snuggling up under blankets reading books and drawing. 

It is lovely but it is not a fire. 

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