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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Why I Wanted A Piano in the House

I hear the piano being played as I put the vegetables in the oven to roast.  It is rough and loud, it is my eldest.  She likes to take the lid off the piano and hit the keys to watch the mechanisms move inside.  After a few minutes the piano goes quiet.  I put the chicken into the oven, wash and dry my hands and head up the stairs.  The piano starts up again, only this time it is a soft, melodic sound.
When I get into the lounge room, I see my youngest bent over the keyboard, her eyes are closed, and as she plays each key she brings her ear as close as she can to her hands, listening intently to each sound.  It is beautiful to watch.  This is why I wanted a piano in the house.

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Amsterdam, The Reasons We Stayed.

I wake up to the birds singing, and check my clock.  5.50am.  It’s the best alarm clock.  I wonder if they are larks?  I have no idea and it throws me.  It’s a poignant reminder that I’m foreign here.  

I do really like it here though.  I don’t know what it is exactly, something about the lifestyle, the cycling everywhere, the not having to worry about a car, the girls both being in school and the mental space in my head and in my life that that has created.  I feel more like myself again.  And there is something different here, about how you are expected to parent.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s an effortlessness to it.  A relaxed, good-enough attitude.  

Yesterday, as the girls and I cycled around Vondelpark, deciding which playground to go to, I couldn’t help but notice the number of kids out and about, completely unsupervised.  A group of boys were playing soccer in the field, they couldn’t have been more than eight years old.  

The girls decided on the tunnel slide park, and as we pulled up, I noticed once again, that all the parents were seated on the benches around the sandpit, while the kids dug in the sand, or climbed on the bars or chased each other around the trees.  No one was hovering, or even watching.  Two women were sitting, chatting, one of them handed over a drink bottle absentmindedly when her son returned.  She didn’t even pause in her conversation.  Other mothers were busy on their phones or reading.  There seemed to be an assumption that the kids will be fine.  

I watched a video clip on Facebook, it had come out of the USA,  it showed a father sitting on a park bench on his phone while his daughter played.  Unbeknownst to him, a stranger came up and enticed his daughter away, carrying her off without a sound.  When he finally looked up, his daughter was nowhere to be seen.  It’s a fair point, I guess, but watching those kinds of videos tend to make me hypervigilant.  Those are the videos that make me feel like parenting is a relentless 24/7 job.  

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The power and freedom that comes with success

‘Wie kan ik helpen?’ asks the older woman behind the fruit and veg stand. Her long grey hair is plaited over the front of her head, and down into a long braid over her shoulder. It’s the same every week. Her face has the look of someone who has spent her life outside, working too hard. It’s weathered and lined, and a little stern, but it softens into a smile when she tells you which are the best vegetables to buy that week.
‘Mij, bedankt.’ I say, my stomach flipping about, but I am determined to get through this experience using as much dutch as I can muster. I get a smile, earlier than normal, and I feel like I’ve won a prize. As if I’ve somehow crossed over from tourist to tolerated expat.

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Finding the right school when you don’t speak dutch is like finding a needle in a haystack.

My daughters are now enrolled in four schools and on the waiting list for another six. To be fair it’s across two different countries, but still, it’s a lot of paperwork, a stupid amount of money, and a whole lot of stress.

I thought I was done with the school issue. My husband and I have been having the same debate (read argument) for the last four years. Private school versus Waldorf education. I’m pro Steiner, but my husband has equally strong views, both about that ‘hippy school’, and about the superiority of private education. Of course I am the one doing the reading, filling out the paperwork and dealing with the school meetings, so his opinion has very few time constraints, mine keeps encroaching on my day, filling the hours I am supposed to be spending writing.

In Melbourne, we had time to luxuriate about our different opinions, my eldest has been enrolled in both his and my preferred schools since she was a year old. We’ve been more lax with our youngest, because once one is in, it’s much easier to get the other in. Having just moved to Amsterdam, and then deciding we like it here and might actually like to stay, has really made life difficult. Our eldest turns five in September. That’s only four months away, as each school likes to remind me. And each of the schools we want has at least 10 other kids ahead of her. Of course, it’s made all the more difficult because 1) she doesn’t speak dutch and so cannot go to a dutch school and 2) I am really fussy about schools. I eliminate half of them because I don’t believe in their philosophies – where as my husband is inclined to just ‘apply everywhere and we’ll see where the chips fall.’ Of course, I’m the one filling in the paperwork, so it’s very easy for him to say that!

We have success at one school, but they want an immediate payment. It’s not our first choice, it’s not actually in our top 5. We decide to gamble her place, and take another spin on the education wheel. But we are already paying for two different kinder programs, the one she was attending in Melbourne because you have to give a full terms notice and we didn’t know if we were going to need to come back, and the one she is attending now, here in Amsterdam. I’m sure we could have bought first class ticket to anywhere in the world with the amount of money we’ve spent on school application and acceptance fees.

At this point it looks like I’ll be homeschooling, and my sanity is not sure this is a viable option. I call my husband, who has been chasing our number one school option.

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Delicious, Organic Food, Noordemarkt is a Food-Lovers Paradise

‘You’re going to like it in Amsterdam,’ says the text message from my husband three months before we fly out. He is already there, having flown out just after New Years.

Photos of a market flood through, fresh fruit and vegetables. ‘All organic,’ he says. And a butchers display. ‘Organic!!’ he says.

‘Looks good,’ I type back, followed by a list of questions I have for the butcher, about the type of cuts, and the farms he sources his meat from.

‘I’ll do my best to find out,’ says my husband but I know he won’t ask the questions, it’s one area in which he embarrasses easily.

‘This is the organic grocer that’s walking distance from our house,’ he sends a little while later.

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The Venice of the North

‘Lets hire a boat,’ suggests my husband one Saturday morning. Our nanny and her fiancé had done so the weekend before and then her fiance had spent the better part of the last week researching boats to buy.

I looked out the window at the grey sky, not sure if it will be too cold for a boat ride, but the girls are dancing around yelling about boats and pirates and my husband is already pressing buttons on his phone.

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A Perrier Lifestyle…

‘Don’t drink that,’ says my husband shaking his head and screwing his forehead up in distaste at the generic silver and black can in my mum’s hand. ‘Soda Water pulls the minerals out of your body and leaves you more dehydrated. Drink this,’ he hands her a bottle of Perrier.

We are perched on stools in the business class lounge in Hong Kong. It seemed to be the least offensive place for us to perch, given that my girls’ ‘spirited cuteness’ tended to be viewed as a personal affront, in places like this.

Mum laughs and looks around at what has to be one of the largest business class lounges I’ve ever been in. It’s like a luxury hotel, chandeliers hang from the ceiling and people mill about in various states of activity – from those furiously tapping away on their laptops to those asleep on the chaise lounges. Staff stand at the ready behind four different buffet stations, offering a wonka-sized selection of doughnuts, ice cream, noodles, and antipasto.

‘This is my daughter’s life,’ says my mother, waving around the bottle of Perrier, ‘and this is mine,’ she says holding up a silver and black can of soda water.

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How do you feel about living in Amsterdam?

‘So… how do you feel about living in Amsterdam for 12 months,’ says my husband, somewhat sheepishly.

Sure we’d talked about living in Europe for a year, Italy specifically, you know given that he is Italian. But doesn’t everyone talk about living abroad somewhere fabulous? At some point though, we know it’s just a fantasy, a tasty and delightful dream to live inside your own head, you know when the weather is bad, or you’re kids are marathon tantrumming. It’s not real, because then you have to deal with the cold realities of living in a country where you do not understand the customs, or why they have a chemist that is not actually a chemist, or why no one seems to accept credit cards.

‘Umm, what?’ I ask, trying to stall.

‘I’ve been working on a deal for the last six months. We put in a bid to buy a company in Amsterdam, and they just accepted our offer,’ he looks just above my head, as if the way out of this conversation were up there.

He keeps talking and I recognise words like ‘not definite’ and ‘pending due diligence’ through my flaming white rage/panic. I mean seriously, who works on a project that could completely change their family’s life for 6 months(!) without discussing it with their wife?? Special ops maybe, but my husband is no Arnie Swarzenegger in True Lies.

I yell a lot inside my own head, mostly the word No, repeatedly, I yell it a lot at him too. I feel a little better, not great, but definitely more satisfied. I’d spent less than 24 hours in Amsterdam. I knew people went there to get stoned. I knew they had great museums that were impossible to get into without planning, I knew they loved Miffy, because when I was there, decorated statues of the little bunny were everywhere.

‘You can’t get good food there,’ my effortlessly chic French friend, who always looks impeccable at school pick up tells me. ‘But it’s a good lifestyle, you’ll love it.’

‘It’s like the best bits of Melbourne and Byron Bay,’ says my husband, you’re not going to want to come back.

I read a book by an Australian woman who lived on a houseboat for two years.

‘Can we live on a houseboat?’ I ask my husband, looking up from the book. He glances at our 2 and 4 year old and raises his eyebrows.

Fast forward several months through the yelling and the ranting, the indecision and the panic attacks, and there we were, my husband and I, our four-year-old, our 2-year-old, our 10 bags, our Australian nanny, her fiancé (sure, we did not really know him, but she loved him, so he had to be pretty great, right?) and my mother, (because our nanny had injured her back 2 weeks before we were scheduled to fly out and was deemed unfit for work for at least 4 weeks), all of us, blinking in the garish fluorescent lighting at the check in counter at Tullamarine at stupid o’clock in the morning. All of us, embarking on this wild european adventure, together. How bad could it be?

‘It’s just an experiment’, I say to my husband, ignoring the buzzing feeling in my head and trying to remember how to breathe.

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