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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Does anyone else have trouble Wrangling Kids at Bedtime

‘Okay, pyjamas on please,’ I say for the third time, watching my eldest, jump naked from bed to bed. My youngest is pretending she can’t hear me as she busily closes the blinds.
‘Girls, pyjamas,’ I say, but apparently, I’ve moved to that magical realm where I don’t actually exist right now. 

I go back into the loungeroom.  I light the candles on the coffee table and light the fire.  I burn through 6 matches before it catches.

‘What are you doing?’ asks my youngest enticed out by the light.

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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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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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How to embrace the long and winding road that can be toilet learning

‘I don’t need a nappy anymore,’ chants my youngest as she skips into the room.  She’s been at her first Montessori kinder now for 4 days.  They have toilets and the children are encouraged not to wear nappies from about 18 months of age.  They have special underwear that is more absorbent than normal knickers, but that still let them know when they are wet.  

‘Is that right, darling?’ I say, bending down so that I can celebrate this new milestone.  

My eldest, however, is devastated.  A gastro bug has swept through her school and only ten minutes earlier she had agreed to put a nappy on because she couldn’t get to the toilet fast enough.  She is humiliated and she is angry.  The offending symbol of babyhood is whipped off followed by inconsolable tears.  Sometimes life really is cruel.

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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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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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When Caring and Fear Dance

My eldest places her pink bunny on the toddler swing, carefully doing up the seatbelt that will not hold her bunny until it nibbles the correct side of  Alice’s mushroom, but she does it up anyhow.  Her bunny falls to the ground.  She picks it up, dusts him off and places him tenderly back onto the seat.  

She pushes the swing with all the care and love I used to push her.  She’s bigger now, and no longer needs me, ‘I can do it,’ she insists whenever I attempt to recreate one of those earlier moments.  Now I get to sit and watch her.  I smile, I can’t help it.  

‘Watch her,’ she says to me, running over to get her croissant.  She tears off a chunk with her teeth but she doesn’t race back, the way I used to with her.  ‘Tell me when the swing slows and I’ll push,’ hers is a much more relaxed approach.  I wish I’d been more like that.  Less panicked that something disastrous was going to happen the minute I turned my back.  She eats her croissant leisurely.  

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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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Flowers, candles, cards and chestnuts. Celebrating death and celebrating Life.

It is the Day of the Dead, and it is pouring with rain.  My phone beeps with a message from our AuPair, who was leading us in this Peruvian celebration.  She is not coming.  I contemplate cancelling.  Maybe it is a ridiculously morbid idea to drag two young children to a cemetery for a picnic.   When I’d told my husband about it, he did the weird flappy thing about his ears that he does when he doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying.  He is terrified of death, and absolutely avoids any talk about it.  I have been trying to have the conversation about who would take care of our girls should something happen to us both.  I’ve been trying to have it since our eldest was a few months old.  She turned five this year.  He still cannot have it.  

When I’d told my husband about it, he did the weird flappy thing about his ears that he does when he doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying.  He is terrified of death, and absolutely avoids any talk about it.  I have been trying to have the conversation about who would take care of our girls should something happen to us both.  I’ve been trying to have it since our eldest was a few months old.  She turned five this year.  He still cannot have it.  

‘But we all die,’ I say, trying to understand him.

‘I’m not going to,’ 

I raise my eyes sceptically.

‘I’m going to be frozen, then when technology has advanced they can bring me back.’ 

His answer is so much worse than I thought it was going to be.  ‘Like Disney?’ I ask.

‘Exactly.’

‘But we’ll all be dead.’

‘That’s okay, I’ll just start again.’

‘Glad we can be so easily replaced,’ I laugh.

My tin man shrugs.  

‘Don’t you need to be frozen alive though?’

‘No, they’ll have figured that all out by then.’

‘Will they?’ I ask, curious about this new future world he thinks will be waiting for him.  

‘Yes, I’m going to come back when it’s like Star Trek, and I can travel the universe visiting other planets and galaxies.’

I’ve heard this speech more than once now, and I still do not know what to do with it.

As rain fills the streets, I ask our nanny ‘Should we still go to the cemetery?’ 

She looks up Buienradar, the weather app that governs our lives, she shrugs, ‘it’s going to rain on and off, but if we rug up and take our umbrellas…’

‘How bad can it be…?’ I finish for her.

So we go.  The girls climb into the bike, I secure the cover and our nanny and I follow google maps through parts of Amsterdam I’ve never seen.  We pass a skatepark and I drop a star, we’ve been looking for one ever since the girls got their scooters.  We ride through a really picturesque neighbourhood, and I drop another star.  Just in case my husband and I decide to live out our current fantasy about staying in Amsterdam inevitably.  

At the cemetery, my phone switches itself off.  It still has 23% battery and I’m determined not to make anything of it.   How bad can it be…?

We collect our picnic, paper, pencils, flowers and candles and walk into the cemetery.  The rain has stopped and there is nothing but blue skies and sunshine.  The russet oak leaves glow in the sunlight, and we make our picnic under a tree with leaves that look like fingers.  

‘It’s a, a, …castagne tree, oh I can’t think of the name in English,’  she says, bringing her hand to her face.
‘A chestnut tree?’ 

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘is it the same in English?’

‘No, but it’s the same in Italian.’  

There’s something really lovely about trying to communicate in different languages.  It’s like playing a game of charades, only I really can’t draw.  

The girls eat their snacks, draw their pictures for Gigi and then pick a tree to bury our letters under.   

A leaf mulching tractor screams its way down the path, and my eldest jumps up onto the park bench and refuses to get down.  I love that being in a cemetery doesn’t phase her, but the leaf mulcher does.  It takes me five minutes to convince her the tractor is not coming back before she finally climbs down from the chair. 

The girls race around delivering flowers to the different graves around us.  They pick up the plastic vases that are on offer and proudly fill them up at the tap on their own.  It’s possible they are having more fun filling the vases than decorating the graves.  My youngest pushes her vases in next to her

My youngest pushes her vases in next to her sisters so that we have about three graves that are very well decorated.  I stifle the urge to move the vases.

My eldest discovers the fallen chestnuts and dumps the rest of the flowers unceremoniously into the vase before racing to fill every container and bag we have with chestnuts to roast on the fire later.

There is something lovely about collecting the fallen treats, a symbolic representation of life’s cycle perhaps, and a reminder of the indefatigability of life.   It was the same feeling I’d had when the girls and I visited the monument to the 6000 murdered Jews in Berlin last year.  A place that you would expect to be incredibly somber, and yet, the site remains my children’s favorite ‘playground’ in Berlin.  Flashes of pink appearing between the grey pillars that from the outside all appear the same height, but from the inside tower at differing heights as the uneven ground rises and falls in undulating waves.  Parents chased giggles as kids disappeared, then reappeared and then disappeared again. 

Having celebrated both life and death, we piled ourselves, and our basket now overflowing with chestnuts, back into the bike and attempted to find our way home.  Inexplicably, my phone turned itself back on.  As the rain poured down on top of us, we peddalled as fast as we could, our hats jammed down over our heads, feeling a little more alive, than we had that morning.

How do you celebrate the Day of the Dead?

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