Category Archives: Family

Alex deduces

Yesterday, Alex turned to his dad and told him there was no such thing as the Tooth Fairy.

Apparently, lying in his bed the night after Christmas, he had started thinking. He knows fairies don’t exist1. The Tooth Fairy is a fairy. Therefore, she doesn’t exist.

But he didn’t stop there. He went on to consider the problem of the exchange of teeth for money. Was there a more plausible agent than the now-deprecated fairy? Of course there was; he knows that I creep into his bedroom every night after he’s asleep to give him one last kiss and tell him that I love him.

So he reckoned that Martin or I would exchange the tooth for money in the night.

Coincidentally, he lost a tooth yesterday evening. He considered setting a booby trap to catch whoever was doing the money exchange3. But he forgot to put the tooth under his pillow last night. I’d left it on the shelf in my bindery.

*** 4

This morning, I was in the bindery getting a hair stick. I called him in and pointed to the shelf where his tooth had been last night, and where a nice shiny Euro coin was now sitting.

He laughed and laughed. He accused me; I said I’d left a tooth there the night before and there was a coin there now. He reckoned it was his dad instead.

He won’t take the coin, either. Principled little guy.

  1. Why? I told him, in the context of Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book, and it accords with his very good reality/fantasy distinction2
  2. Unlike his reality/science fiction distinction, which is weak
  3. He’s capable of it; he has a couple of kiddie spy kits that have motion sensor alarms.
  4. This is a Murder of Roger Ackroyd reference, if you are familiar with the book.

Alex’s First Day at School, Take Three

For the third time in less than three years, Alex spent his first day in a new school yesterday.

Take One

The first time, he was a five year old in a necktie, starting Primary 1 at Gilmerton Primary School in Edinburgh.

He loved his time at Gilmerton, though we didn’t fit into the primarily working-class community. We also had occasional differences with the school administration, but we kept them away from Alex. He learned to read that year, and discovered a real love of maths. But he knew that he wasn’t going to stay; we were up front with him that we were moving to the Netherlands after that first year.

Take Two

The second time was last autumn, when he started school here in Holland*. We weren’t sure how we were going to handle this, since he came here speaking virtually no Dutch at all. After discussions with the schools in our area, we found ourselves with two choices:

  1. Drop Alex back a year to playschool-type schooling in the local village school, so that he could spend the time working on his language skills. All being well, he could then skip a grade and be back with his contemporaries. The American family† in the village did this with their eldest a year before we arrived, and found it a successful strategy. Unfortunately, we knew that Alex would be bored senseless by a return to playschool after a year of sit-down learning.
  2. Put Alex into a school a little further away that specializes in teaching foreign children Dutch in a year, while continuing their ordinary education. (Kind of the reverse of an international school, basically.) Demographically, the school is very different than our village, drawing much of its student body from people who live in the city.

We chose Option 2, and Alex had a fairly intimidating first day at the Kernschool last autumn. He’s a trouper, though, and plunged in wholeheartedly. He worried a lot at first, unsure if he was learning well enough or fast enough, but found his feet academically after the first term. But he never settled socially, making few friends and struggling with the fairly rough and tumble school culture. He has, however, learned a lot of Dutch, and is about half a year ahead of his age group in maths.

Take Three

The Kernschool’s program is designed to slipstream the children into their local schools, once they have the language skills to cope. This meshes well with the local school’s program of settling new children in with their class groups before the summer vacation. So yesterday, Alex went to the village school for the first time, for a half day of sitting with next year’s classmates. (Wednesdays are short days in Dutch schools).

He was nervous before he went in, worrying about his hair and his appearance. I helped him peer into Fiona’s classroom as we went to his (she had no special Dutch training, but started school normally in January; youth is an indisputable advantage to language learning). When he went into the room and his teacher began to speak Dutch to him, I felt a lurch: I didn’t follow everything she said to him. But he did, having already surpassed me in learning the language.

Apparently, he came out triumphant and ecstatic, declaring the new school “super cool”. He liked his classmates, enjoyed the academic work, and had no trouble talking his teacher’s ear off in Dutch. He can’t wait to start.

And then he woke up at 11:30 at night, desperately missing Scotland. I lay in bed with him for half an hour, talking about homesickness‡ and the delights of the Netherlands.

* Pedantic note: Although Holland is not actually a synonym for the Netherlands, we live in the province of Noord-Holland.

† By this classification, we are the English family in the village. It is really not worth trying to correct this.

‡ A matter close to my mind at the moment, since two of my colleagues went to San Francisco last week. One of them even went across the Bay to meet my parents and see my dad’s printing press. My thoughts were often with them, and the world I had left behind to come to Europe.

First Easter in the Netherlands, an act in Three Parts

  1. Alex is fevered for the second day today, and has added barfing to his repertoire. I know he’ll be better soon, but it’s hard watching him suffer.
  2. My first thoughts on waking this morning and looking out at the snow:

    I’m waking to a white Easter
    Staring out at falling snow
    The church bell’s ringing
    Under thick clouds bringing
    More flakes to fall on us below.

    I’m waking to a white Easter
    Where every egg we dyed so bright
    Will not stay hidden
    But will show, unbidden
    We should just have left them white.

    I’m waking to a white Easter
    And feel that something isn’t right
    The leaves that shrivel with blight
    Put all my dreams of sun to flight.

  3. A dialogue between Martin and me:

    A: So what are we going to do with that bacon in the fridge?
    M: Ummmm…eat it?
    A: That sounds like a good idea.
    M: So should go downstairs and put the bacon on?
    A: (looks him up and down) Do you think it’ll cover enough? I don’t want you to be cold.

New dress for Mistress Pink, or, Package tracking as entertainment

Last year, my mother made a [jumper / pinafore] (depending on dialect) dress for Fiona. It was every pink-obsessed little girl’s dream garment, with tier on tier of floral ruffles. From a parental point of view, it’s also very good – corduroy, washable, looks good unironed, long and loose enough that she can wear it for some time before it is too small. Fiona loves it, and has to be wrestled from it when it’s time for a wash.

So in the tail end of the year, with the sewing machine and serger throwing inviting glances her way, Mom asked me if I wanted her to make another one. I thought about it, but Fiona only really needs one obsessive dress, or we’ll run out of shirts and tights to go under it. But I had an idea for the leftover fabric from the first dress. Why not make a matching one for Fiona’s favorite doll, Holly?

Measurements were taken in the dead of night. Guesses were made and rechecked. More measurements were required. Christmas threatened to squat like a toad on the postal services, so the decision was to wait till after New Year’s to send the package. Federal Express then required a crash course in Dutch postcodes (hint: looking at them on the US ZIP code database gets you nowhere). Finally, the thing was sent and all we could do was watch the tracking.

And watch it we did, with versification to keep it entertaining.

On January 3 it arrived in Memphis. Mom commented,

Give me Memphis, Tennessee!
Hep me find the party tried to get in touch with me.
She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
Cause m’uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall!

I replied with a mangling of Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis:

Warehoused in Memphis
Would that I could see the sights outside
Warehoused in Memphis
Waiting for my transfer. Where’s my ride?

Then it was sighted leaving Memphis, destination unknown. I found myself humming:

I’m leaving on a jet plane
At last I’m on my way again.
Fedex can ascertain
Where next I’m set to go.

Paris, as it turned out, was the next step. Mom announced this with:

The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay,
I heard the laughter of her heart in every street café

The last time I saw Paris, her trees were dressed for spring,
And lovers walked beneath those trees and birds found songs to sing.

I dodged the same old taxicabs that I had dodged for years.
The chorus of their squeaky horns was music to my ears.

Holly’s dress arrived in that most magic of all cities at 8 pm today, January 3.

The first time I saw Paris I was 19 years old. We took a train into town, and we got there at about 6 am. (“We” being Mike Thacker and me.) I walked out onto a bridge over the Seine, and the city was misty and quiet still….the cathedral had been there forever. At that moment I fell in love, as one does at 19, unthinkingly. And forever. I can’t see the real city now, when I go back. All I can see is what I saw in 1965.

The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay,
No matter how they change her, I’ll remember her that way.

I Googled for Paris poetry, and settled on one that starts:

First, London, for its myriads; for its height,
Manhattan heaped in towering stalagmite;
But Paris for the smoothness of the paths
That lead the heart unto the heart’s delight. . . .

It swiftly became:

First, Piedmont, for the artistry that creates,
Flat Memphis that still Elvis elevates;
But Paris for its far-flung motorways
That bear the dress to where the dresser waits…

Before any more versification or doggerel could be committed, the Fed Ex van arrived here in Oostzaan. Fiona was delighted.


Thanks, Mom, for the dress and the entertainment.

Them’s the breaks, unfortunately

Just when we thought life was stressful enough…


I was giving Fiona a shower last night when she slipped and fell. When she got up, the little finger of her right hand was at a funny angle. It clearly hurt a lot.

I shouted for Martin, who called…someone (not sure who) in Dutch while I got her dried and redressed. M took her to the emergency room, where after some waiting, she got an X-ray that confirmed that she had a small break in the inner side of the lowest long bone of the little finger. The doctor adjusted it (which she did not like) and put a plaster cast on it. Martin brought our brave and solemn girl home at about midnight.

Fiona showed a lot of courage and class throughout this incident. She stopped crying very quickly, and started to look for upsides almost immediately. “At least I can wiggle the other hand.” “At least I can wiggle the other fingers on this hand.” “At least Alex can wiggle his fingers.” “At least the stars look lovely tonight.”

Alex, too, did a lot of good. He fetched and carried things to get her out the door (socks, things like that). He was then very comforting and amusing when we were alone in the house, and went to bed very easily when it was time.

Fiona is very tired today – she fell asleep just before we had to go get Alex, and I fully expect she will nap at least once more. But she’s being a good sport about asking for help, and eventually took the prohibition on riding her bike in her stride. (Eventually. After some argument.) She will be going to the hospital again on Tuesday to get the break checked and the cast replaced with something smaller and longer term.

I’m exhausted and pretty stressed about the whole thing (as is Martin), but she is doing well. And that’s what really counts.


(at home, in Dutch)

It’s taken us so many months to get to this point that sometimes I don’t believe we’re here. But we’re in our rented house in Oostzaan, with our possessions around us (many of them not even in boxes; some of them even in plausible locations).

One thing we still don’t have is internet connectivity. I’m typing this on my laptop to save on a data key and post from work. If you’re trying to email us, be mindful of this. I can read emails during the day, but my replies will be either short or composed offline. Martin has no net access at all, poor thing.

The move was an enormous effort, but what has really been hard is how much of it we have had to do separately. It started when I went off to work in Amsterdam for the month of July. Though that was pleasant in many ways, it was also profoundy disorienting for both Martin and me. We’re used to having one another as backstop in so many ways. When things went wrong last month, each of us felt so deeply isolated.

The week of the actual removal was more of the same. The schedule was as complex as a ballet:

  • I returned home on Thursday 26 July, and was (as usual for the commuter lifestyle) fried on Friday the 27th. Nonetheless, we packed our possessions into boxes all weekend.
  • Monday 30 July the kids went to their childcare places. I packed, and ran errands in town.
  • Tuesday 31 July started with Martin going to the van hire place to get a van for the move. Although he had arranged it well in advance, it took him longer than we had hoped to get it home, because the paperwork was not in order. Then he helped me with two items I couldn’t manage on my own and went to work, taking the kids for their last days at their childcare places. And I started packing boxes into the van. I had it most of the way packed when it was time to take the kids for a final farewell to Mother Goose, the nursery they’ve been at since Alex was 9 months old.
  • The morning of Wednesday 1 August, we put the last items into the van. Then Martin’s family came over and we had a last lunch together. And in the early afternoon, Martin drove the van away with all of our things in it. That night, he took the ferry across from Newcastle to Ijmuiden. In the meantime, I cleaned the house, packed our suitcases, and played that we were camping out with the kids.
  • It was very early on Thursday 2 August when I got the kids up and into a taxi to the airport. We flew to Schiphol, touching down just about when Martin arrived at the new house from his ferry. So by the time the jet set had had lunch, taken the train to Zaandam, and taken a taxi from there to Oostzaan, he’d done the checkout with house owners. The kids explored their new home, and we started unloading boxes from the van. It was a quick turnaround – three hours later, he was gone, and I was alone with the kids in a strange house, in a strange country. Not that they were discontent – I put the pedals back on Fiona’s bike, and she and Alex spent the entire afternoon playing with bike and scooter in the garden.
  • Friday 3 August was setlling in time. I unpacked many, many boxes, put lots of things away. The kids and I went out to the grocery store (on foot), then they persuaded me to go for a bike ride. We rode for about an hour all told (well, Fiona and I rode. Alex rode his scooter). In the meantime, Martin arrived in Newcastle on the ferry, drove north to Edinburgh, met up with his parents, tidied a few more things in the Scotland house, and flew across to Schiphol.
  • Saturday 4 August was much more relaxing, apart from the two hour bike and scooter ride in search of a bike shop (we were going in the wrong direction entirely!

And what details should I tell you about?

About the house, which is beautiful, but huge? The space is good, but I worry that we will become too accustomed to it; barring a lottery win we can’t afford to buy something this size next year.

I could talk about Fiona, who thinks she’s died and gone to heaven. Instead of only riding her beloved bike when (a) the weather is good, and (b) there’s a parent to keep an eye out for her so she can travel the 30 meters to the letterbox and back, she can step out into the sunshine and ride it all the time, back and forth from the front garden to the back. Alex comes out too, and the two of them play long elaborate secret agent games on their vehicles.

Alex is mostly absorbed in Pokemon Diamond version (at which he is very good, though too hard on himself), but he’s been taking time out to ride his scooter, eat Dutch cheese, and watch Sonic the Hedgehog DVDs (it’s comforting when he’s tired).

I could mention the kindness I encountered from Dutch people throughout the difficult day’s travel to Oostzaan, from the friendly immigration officer to the forgiving train conductor (turns out you need a discount card to get a reduced fare for a child…I didn’t know) and the charming and funny taxi driver. The lady at the Albert Heijn meat counter who started giving the kids lunchmeat (which they loved), and the fellow customer who chuckled at Fiona’s earnest explanation of how “lekker” is “yummy” and “heerlijk” is “scrumptious”, and the meat was “lekker heerlijk” – yummy scrumptious.

I could talk about riding on the road with Fiona, who is remarkably brave for someone whose previous riding experience was all helmets and sidewalks. I keep myself between her and the traffic, of course, and Dutch drivers are very careful of cyclists (I also only allow her to ride on very quiet roads). But she is in transports about cycling next to me on the road, which is a layer of maturity and togetherness she can’t get over.

I could describe my trial of my commute on Saturday evening, when I discovered it takes about twenty minutes to bike to the office and about an hour to walk back with a bike with a flat tyre.

I could talk about our attempt at a Sunday drive, which ended at the side of a road with two children throwing up (carsickness and dehydration, in ascending order of age). We abandoned the trip, but went cycling and scootering instead in the afternoon, and found a little beach on the local lake. It was about 20 minutes’ ride from the house, and the kids gleefully threw off clothes and went in (Alex in his shorts, Fiona in her underwear – there were plenty of little girls there in just bikini bottoms). Then we rode home to where Martin was setting up the office space, all but glowing from the fun of it all.

Or I could describe what life is like in a country where I don’t speak the language – how much it is like being deaf, in that I am excluded from verbal communication. Indeed, I don’t always even hear when people speak to me, since I won’t be able to understand it even if I do hear it. Not everything is easy.

For good or ill, we’re in the house, and this is the new home.

Alarming sounds from upstairs

Martin was running the bath.

Fiona said, “I need to poo!”, and the upstairs reverberated with her footsteps in the hall.

And then it came. A heart-rending howl of horror and despair from Martin, followed by Fiona’s bitter weeping. And I realised instantly that Fiona’s low spirits had been due to digestive difficulties, and that these problems had suddenly become much worse. And Martin hates that kind of thing.

Those of you, dear readers, who have or have had a three year old know what sort of a scene I walked into in the bathroom upstairs. You need no description.

And those of you who do not know, from bitter experience, do not want to know. Please trust me on this.

Schrödinger’s House

After the bad luck of losing the place we’d rented for the next year, we had to go back onto the house hunt. Looking for rental properties from abroad is, at best, difficult, and at worst, soul-destroying. We were not looking forward to it at all.

The estate agent who found us the first place, though, was keen not to lose his commission. So he scrambled around and identified another place that might suit. Maybe. It was more expensive, though he managed to get us a break on the price. But it looked suitable, so we went out to see it (we’d been planning to visit schools on Monday, so we were going to be in the Netherlands anyway.)

The one thing that the estate agent hadn’t explicitly confirmed to us was the rental time. I had asked him to look for a house that was available for a year. He thought (or says he thought) that I meant a maximum of one year. We spoke to him about 15 minutes before the viewing, and he said that the place was only available for eight months.

Our hearts sank.

We went to the viewing anyway. It’s a very pleasant, large place, owned by a nice couple, with four kids (one, a 7 month old baby girl, was there the whole time and flirted outrageously with us). They’re going to the Netherlands Antilles for a while. We talked it over, and they said they would consider whether they could extend their trip from eight months to a year. If they could, we said, we’d take the house.

They said they had to think it over.

We left, feeling deflated. We reckoned we had, at best, a 50% chance to get the place.

So we went to open a bank account for me, which was a whole ‘nother round of trouble. (If ABN Amro treats all its potential customers like they treated me, I can see why they’re a takeover target. ING, though not able to actually give me an appointment, had a motivated and intelligent man who helped me get the paperwork I needed to physically sign. All praise (and all my business) to them.)

And I got a Dutch mobile phone. It’s a prepay phone, bottom of the line, but it’s a phone I can use to make & receive calls without paying a fortune to my British provider. I’ll dual-run the phones for a while, because I’m going to need phone capability in both cultures.

We returned home, trying to turn the few success in the day into cause for some cheer. Not easy

But this morning, I got a phone call from our estate agent. The owners of the house are willing to rent it out for 12 months, less 1 week. 51 weeks is good enough.

So, once again, we have a house. It’s in Oostzaan, close enough to my job that I may cycle on good days; the bus will take me close enough to walk the rest of the time. The school is about 4 minutes’ slow walk away, and the local nursery is another two or three minutes beyond that (though getting places may be a problem).

Oostzaan, as any of my Dutch readers may already know, is notable for voting overwhelmingly either socialist or communist in national elections, and for being the founding place of Albert Heijn, the Dutch grocery chain. Having worked on the legal affairs of a supermarket, and dealt with the economics around staff pay, I find these two facts plausible.

Grrr! Argh!

The house in Wormerveer has just fallen through.

The owner is not going to Mallorca with his family next year, so he is not renting it out. We have to find another place.

This is really, really disappointing. It was a great house, light and airy and well suited to us. And the process of looking for housing is discouraging and frustrating, time-consuming and generally a drag.


Security Theatre, Junior Level

I am seriously annoyed.

Alex’s school is doing a “Keeping Myself Safe” unit, and he brought the first book from it home today. It’s entitled “Laura Goes Home”.

In it, because her mother is late, Laura is left at school. She decides to walk home on her own, but she’s frightened and crying. A man walking his dog stops to ask if she is lost. End of book.

The homework exercise that came with it was a half sheet of paper that said only:

Please read and discuss this book – Laura Goes Home – with your child and then tick the outcome chosen by your child.
1.   Left open ended.
2. a. The man takes Laura away.
    b. Laura’s mummy comes up at that moment.
    c. Laura screams, “I don’t know you” and runs back to school to tell Mrs Smith

We have included the following letter in Alex’s homework folder back.

We have decided to excuse Alex from doing this piece of homework, for two reasons.

1. It’s unclear what he’s supposed to do. He puzzled and stewed over the various options, but we couldn’t figure out whether this is what he would do, what he thinks happened next, or some other answer. He was quite upset by his inability to figure out what the exercise was about.

2. We strongly object to the high level of paranoia that the exercise is designed to build. Although children do need to be told not to talk to strangers, we both found the idea of ending this story with “The man takes Laura away” really repugnant. And the third option, to have the child scream and make a scene, is also inappropriate when the man has does nothing more than crouch down and ask if she is lost, with no contact or menace whatsoever.

Although we appreciate the teaching on well being and safety, we are concerned that this goes too far. Children need to be taught to be cautious – but not to be afraid all of the time.

Would you be available to talk about this at some point on Friday afternoon?

I think I need to review the materials for this unit, because I really don’t agree with the tone they’re taking.

The fact is that stranger abduction is extremely rare (see, for instance, the statistics for England and Wales here – I couldn’t find the equivalent Scottish statistics, but they will be smaller due to the lower population here.) Our fictional Laura was in much more danger from crossing the road than from the man who saw her crying and asked if she was lost. She was in more danger of violence or sexual abuse from people she knew than from strangers as well – the vast majority of these crimes occur in the home. But I seriously doubt that the next book in the series will address those issues – parents would riot, for one thing.

And Martin and I both really object to raising our children in irrational fear. They will have to adopt realistic threat assessment strategies when they go out alone in public, which won’t be for some time. (To go back to the book, I would teach Laura to stay on school grounds and get the office to call her mother. She’d never have gotten to page 3 until she was old enough to make the walk home without her mother.)

But if we tell them that every stranger is out to get them, and they find out that we were exaggerating, then where will our credibility be? How, then, will they believe us when we say not to go out at night, or through bad neighbourhoods, or with an ostentatious display of wealth? How can I teach Fiona the caution necessary for a woman to be safe, if she’s been immunised by cheap scare tactics now?

And what does that do for their fellow feeling with mankind? Are we really trying to build Margaret Thatcher’s world, where there is “No such thing as society”, one isolated child at a time? There are ways for a child to react to – and reject the assistance of, if appropriate – a strange adult that don’t involve screaming and running away, for instance.

I was annoyed enough that the nursery discussed Madeline McCann’s abduction with the kids (as though there was any cautionary or educational element to it – are they not to sleep with the windows open, perhaps?). But to hear this same message of fear from the school, from the official educational channels, really gets my goat.

It seems like we’re protecting our kids from everything but irrational terror. It’s almost like going to the airport these days.