11 April 2017

School daze

Grote Jongen, at age five and a half, was confident and excited about starting school. Waiting in the playground on our first day of being school parents, Ned Nederlander and I were ridiculously proud of ourselves and of our high-achieving (our assessment) first-born. We didn’t want to brag, but we secretly suspected we had produced a social, sporting and intellectual genius. He could write his name, throw a ball and count to twenty with exceptional skill. As far as we were naively concerned, our job as parents was pretty much done. The hard work was surely behind us.

The bell marking the beginning of his school day rang, and Grote Jongen rushed enthusiastically to his classroom. Ned and I followed, expecting him to eventually turn and wait for us, overcome by nervousness and separation anxiety. But he simply strode ahead of us and walked into the classroom alone.
“Hello, what’s your name?” we heard his surprised teacher ask, as we hurried towards the door.
“I’m Grote Jongen, and I’m in this class,” he announced. Ned and I skulked in behind him, trying to look responsible and relevant.
Hours later, the bell marking the end of that first school day rang, and it was me who rushed enthusiastically to Grote Jongen’s classroom, eager to hear his stories.
On the way, I passed the Principal. She was a no-nonsense woman with natural authority. I thought I glimpsed a flicker of admiration in her eyes; an acknowledgement of my substantial achievement in raising a child to school age. I felt unbelievably competent and I smiled proudly at her in greeting, awaiting her praise of my mothering milestone. She’d seen my type before though. Without breaking step, she smiled stiffly and said, “Well then, that’s one day down, only a few thousand to go.”
And with that, my grown-up school-parent bubble was burst, and my legs were knocked from under me. I realised that our parenting job was nowhere near done, and that the hard work was not behind us at all.
“One day down, only a few thousand to go.” Those words have rung in my ears many times over the intervening thirteen years. Somewhat unbelievably, today marks the last of those few thousand days of classes. A two week study break followed by twelve exams in as many days are now all that stand between Grote Jongen and alumni status.

As I reflect on Grote Jongen’s school days on this, his final day of Grade 12, I feel the same sense of pride that I felt on his very first day of kindergarten. Even before he takes a seat in the exam hall or opens the website that will indicate his final grade, I am still ridiculously proud of him. Regardless of his final result – which will be cynically presented as a single number – I never want him to define his success by that number. I already have sufficient evidence, gathered over several thousand days, to declare him a raging success and to justify my maternal pride.
I’m proud, for example, of his emotional agility and resilience. At the tender age of twelve he was uprooted from all that was familiar to him before being deposited on the other side of the planet. He was given no choice but to start again. Because he stepped in to an environment where most students have been similarly uprooted, it has been easy to lose sight of how special it is to be able to balance and pivot competently when one’s life lurches sideways. More than five years ago, Grote Jongen stepped into an unfamiliar schooling system in an unfamiliar country, and balanced and pivoted like a pro. That’s a skill for life, or at least for surfing.
He has vacuumed the language of that once unfamiliar country into his head and his heart, and I am in awe of his ability to converse in Dutch so competently. Recently I sat mutely by his hospital bed while he discussed titanium plates, wound management and suture removal timelines with his orthopaedic surgeon, in Dutch. My maternal pride skyrocketed, even though for all I know they were comparing notes on problematic mothers. Yet despite these achievements, Grote Jongen’s inability to respond to simple requests issued in English remains a mystery. “Please hang up that wet towel” or “Put that plate in the dishwasher,” should not tax a boy of his linguistic ability as much as it appears to.
I am proud of how he has played his heart out in hundreds of football matches, since before he even started kindergarten. I’ve loved watching him be part of different teams, variously pursuing wins or accepting losses. He has captained and been captained with grace, a skill that will surely serve him well throughout life.
When he broke a high jump record that had stood for longer than he had been alive, I wondered if my heart might explode.

The memory of him gathering himself, running purposefully towards the thin metal bar 181 centimetres from the ground and clearing it in one athletic jump will stay with me forever. I know it will not be the last time he runs at a seemingly insurmountable obstacle and lands exhilarated on the other side of it.
He has formed sustainable relationships with people from all over the world. He has ridden the turbulent tides of introductions and farewells, holding firm as his peer group ebbed and flowed with the movements of transient international families. That's a rare strength.
He has developed an enviable depth of character. He shows charisma, intelligence, humour and compassion. Let the record  show that he is also argumentative and stubborn, with questionable time management competencies. But he knows his mind and stands his ground, confident in his own assessments and decisions. He is unafraid to rattle a cage or push a boundary. Certainly, this has not always been an endearing quality, but I increasingly trust him to put those skills to constructive use. As the person who has weathered most of his cage-rattling, boundary-pushing experiments, I feel well-qualified to predict that those characteristics will contribute greatly to his future success.
One day done ... several thousand more also done. NOW is the hard parenting work behind us?
On the last of his several thousand days at school, just as he has done since his first day, I'm certain that Grote Jongen will continue to walk his own path, in his own time, and to announce himself with quiet confidence when he deems it necessary. Ned and I remain ridiculously proud of him.

31 January 2017

A monumental reminder of the need for resistance

On the edge of Museumplein in Amsterdam, about one hundred metres from the American Consulate, is a striking monument. It is a stark metallic structure, comprising eleven stainless steel panels and a tall cylinder, all arranged in a semi-circle. The monument is stunning in its simplicity. It is elegant and graceful, strong, refined, beautiful. Yet at the same time, it is crisp and industrial, suggesting a no-nonsense, sturdy, reliability. It is steadfast and reassuring, and always thought-provoking. I want to be like that monument. So far I have "crisp" down pat. Working on the others.
The cylinder emits light and sounds that are reflected by the metallic panels. The pattern is unpredictable. The effect is powerful.
The monument is my favourite beautiful thing in a city full of beautiful things.
On 21 January 2017, I stood beside it, as I often do. Through the shimmering stainless steel panels I watched in awe as three thousand concerned men, women, children and dogs stood respectfully in front of the Consulate, raising a calm, united voice against an unprincipled, vulgar, discriminatory tyrant who raged an ocean away. For more than an hour we had marched together, standing against the threat we felt he posed to the civilised world. We insisted that decency, fairness and kindness prevail in the world. We announced that we would brook no discrimination or division. We gave unequivocal notice that we would not stand for asinine cruelty or ignorant generalisations.

We made the same points we had been making to our children since they were toddlers. Share. Be kind. Show empathy and compassion. Don’t hit your sister. Listen authentically. Consider others people's perspectives. Don’t tell lies. You won’t always get what you want. Admit your mistakes. Don’t hit your brother. Don’t try to solve a disagreement by yelling. Don’t grab other people’s genitals. Get a haircut.

Even the dog gets it.
His sign says "Even I know that
grabbing pussy is not ok.
The difference, on that sunny January day, was that most of our children had understood the gist of society’s message well before they finished high school. Most of them were responsive and responsible, even if some of them could still do with more frequent haircuts and were still occasionally surly and mean to their parents. Few of us among the three thousand could comprehend why we now had to repeat the same messages to a seventy year old narcissistic buffoon. Could the world really be going to hell in a hand basket simply because one little boy missed the kindergarten memo about playground ethics that was handed out in the middle of last century?
Yet here we were, gathering by the thousands, not just in Amsterdam, but in hundreds of cities across every continent on earth. Millions of good men and women, mindful of the dangers of arrogance, of blind, reactive protectionism, of singling out one group of humans for barbaric and unjust treatment.

The Dutch have seen this sort of caper before. They are familiar with the swaggering bully character, strutting around the playground like a puffed-up little rooster, and they know the devastating havoc he can wreak. They are very aware of the fruitlessness of constantly punching the quiet, sad kid in the corner. They know that nationalistic propaganda can generate fear and uncertainty for decades. Indeed, they have built monuments to remind themselves and the world to remain vigilant against those attitudes.

One such monument is the one standing sentinel on the edge of Museumplein in Amsterdam; the Women of Ravensbruck (1940-45) monument. My favourite beautiful thing in a city of beautiful things. As I stood beside it on the day of the Women's March, I looked at the inscription on one of the stainless steel panels. What a missed opportunity to have gathered so close to this monument without anyone acknowledging its significance or paying tribute to the women it recalled. But how uplifting to realise that, like the monument, most of humanity remains refined, beautiful, sturdy, reliable. And sometimes a little crisp. The inscription, reflecting all the hope inherent in a sunny January afternoon, is more relevant than ever. It reads:

“For she who until the last moment kept saying no to fascism”.
We will keep saying no. And when our last moment comes, others will step in to keep saying no.

And like the light and sound emanating from the monument, our pattern will be unpredictable and our effect will be powerful.

9 October 2016

Force and fortune

On a sweltering Sydney day in December 1993 I stood in front of an overflowing congregation to deliver my father’s eulogy. It had been a harrowing few days, and I was in no fit state for public speaking. I have no record of what I said, but I recall that walking to the microphone was like walking through wet sand. As I waited for my words to find their way up from the pit of my stomach, everything seemed blurry and indistinct . A coffin that I didn’t want to see was the only thing in clear focus. Struggling to make sense of the scene before me, I knew that the chances of anything other than a deep sob coming out of my mouth were slim.

So I well remember the wave of empowerment I felt when my eyes finally settled on the faces of two of my most treasured friends. These two had come into my life via different roads, from different directions, at different times and for different purposes. Both of them were -and remain - essential to my life story. And my ongoing amusement. And my gin intake.

Seeing these two side by side at my father’s funeral somehow amplified the support that either might have given me individually. It was a bit like finding two corner pieces of a jigsaw puzzle at the same time – suddenly, a task that seemed overwhelming became just that little bit more achievable.
After seeing them - my corner jigsaw pieces - emerge from the haze, I opened my mouth to speak. The threatening sob stayed put, and my words found their way into the air.

Later, as my brothers and I shouldered our father's coffin and made our way slowly down the aisle, both of those friends stood tall, strong and reassuring. They held my eye and touched my free arm as I passed their pew. The strength of their stance and the power of their friendship got me outside into the sunshine.
A couple of years ago I stood beside one of those friends at his mother's grave. I watched him drop a flower onto her coffin and momentarily lose himself in  private thoughts and memories. Being there was an honour and a privilege for me. Afterwards, he and I walked together from the shady cemetery into the sunshine, then drove to his childhood home to indulge in a suitably celebratory wake.

Rest easy Gal.
Tomorrow, the other of those two friends will farewell her father. I desperately want to be there so I can hold her eye and touch her arm; to stand solidly in her hazy blur. But that’s not going to happen. Instead, on the far side of the globe, feeling helpless and a long way away, I will think about a dry-witted, open-hearted, multi-talented man who helped raise a remarkable daughter. I will try to stand tall, strong and reassuring for her, as she once did for me, and hope that she somehow senses it. 
And I will make time to celebrate the force and fortune of friendships that carry us through shadows and back into sunshine.

16 June 2016

Blood on my hands: a Shakespearean marital drama.

Ned and I have never made a big deal about our wedding anniversaries. Actually, the fact that we had a wedding at all had quite a lot to do with UK visa requirements, and not so much to do with romantic expression of enduring love and passion. A faceless civil servant, with the terribly English name of Derek Bottomley, signed my visa and triggered a three-year adventure in London and points beyond. For a time I loved Mr Bottomley almost as much as I loved my new husband, such was the impact his signature had on my life.

An ancient visa securement ceremony and the precious visa

To the surprise of many, Ned and my romantic expression of love and passion has proved more enduring than my UK visa. In fact, last week marked the twentieth anniversary of our visa securement ceremony. Ned and I remain staunchly committed to our marriage, even though we have both moved on to second visas (courtesy of a Dutch civil servant who I believe is named Derk van Botomlij).

We agreed that our twentieth anniversary was worthy of a little more fuss than the other nineteen. That was an easy decision for Ned to reach, because we follow a system whereby he organises the odd year celebrations and I organise the even year celebrations. For “celebration” read “last minute restaurant booking” at best. This being an even year, Ned was free of last minute restaurant booking responsibilities and so swanned off to work in the US for the week leading up to our anniversary. He arrived back in the Lowlands around midday on our actual anniversary, eager to participate in whatever constituted a “little more fuss”.
We cycled through parts of Amsterdam we didn’t know existed to the restaurant I had booked (admittedly, only thirty minutes earlier). Ned and I relish our travels through unknown territory, and we have certainly arrived together at some dodgy-looking places over the years.

Another pretty dodgy, but ultimately
fabulous, destination. Bolivia, 1996
However, on this occasion I was surprised to find us in front of a dingy warehouse slouched against a dusty parking lot, pretty much on the corner of nowhere. There, on the wall of the dingy warehouse on the corner of nowhere, was the name of the restaurant I had booked. It seemed that this year’s organising committee might have made a big mistake.

Turns out that the warehouse enclosed a bustling restaurant, marked promisingly by blazing sunshine, waterfront tables, champagne buckets and a lot of hip young things with big lips and even bigger sunglasses. A well-appointed cruiser, possibly featured in a recent James Bond movie, docked in front of the restaurant as we arrived. A camera crew alighted. Several passengers tossed their coiffed heads haughtily as they were filmed striding onto the wharf. There they took turns to shake hands and exchange a few words with a man with a big smile and an even bigger microphone. They all looked very pleased with themselves.

As we locked our bikes, I admitted that this lunch could turn out to be either a comedy or a tragedy. Ned picked up a stick that was lying on the ground. He pointed it at me and shook it from side to side.
“I shake spear,” Ned announced, pausing to allow his wit to settle on me. “This, like our marriage, is both comedy AND tragedy. Or at least drama. Which means that it is a true romance.”
Shakespeare and I sat poetically at a table in the sun, where we revelled in our true romance for a couple of hours, reciting sonnets to one another. Okay, we didn’t recite sonnets. But before leaving we went inside the “dingy warehouse” – turns out it is not so dingy after all – and took a photo that encapsulates the secret of our marital success.

We then passed the remainder of the afternoon rolling through bucolic scenes on a romantic-dramatic-comedic-historic bike ride, worthy of our own personal Shakespearean masterpiece. In total we rode 55 kilometres, no mean feat after oysters, sushi, duck pancakes, prosecco and pinot grigio in the sun. This gave us plenty of time to ponder the remarkable linkages between a Dutch bike path, Shakespeare and our own marriage.

There were a few long, flat, boring sections on our route. This, I recall, is also a feature of many of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ll be honest and say the same can be said of parts of our marriage. Oh come on, you feel the same about your own marriage; you’ve just never written it down quite so bluntly.

Ned Nederlander, his bike and a dyke
There were some disconcerting parts where we teetered along a narrow dike, battling a headwind, with cold, murky water lapping at either side. This is clearly a parenting analogy. Of course there are loads of Shakespearean references to water, wind, waves and possibly dykes, although neither Ned nor I could recall a reliable passage linking these themes to children. We subsequently found a cracker in Act IV of A Winter’s Tale, where Camillo speaks of “a wild dedication of yourselves to unpathed waters, undreamed shores”. For us, this is a clear reference to the uncharted parenting journey, specifically for those of us raising our offspring in the vicinity of the shores of the IJselmeer. Of course more esteemed scholars of the Bard may dispute that connection.
While on the subject of Shakespeare and parenting, it is worth commenting on Ned’s tendency to use King Lear as a model for his paternal wisdom. For the past 17 years and to the extreme annoyance of De Jongens, every time one of them answered a question with “nothing” (which happens on average 100 billion times a year), Ned simply says “Nothing can come from nothing. Speak again” The eye rolls in response are legendary and worth the price of admission.
But back to our anniversary tour.
There were some exhilarating parts of the route, where we rolled along side by side, enjoying the feeling of sunshine on our shoulders. It seemed effortless and laughter came easily, even when we hit occasional potholes. On and on through green pastures, over quaint bridges and around wide curves. Terrific. Love those bits, in Shakespeare, in cycling and in marriage.
"What need the bridge much broader than the flood?"
Much Ado About Nothing (aka the story of our lives)
Our journey last week was also marked by the first cycling accident I have had since we have lived in the Lowlands. We stood in the beautiful village of Uitdam, holding our bikes, looking at a map of the surrounding area. We were – imagine this - in perfect agreement on the path we would follow. I took a single step backward as I turned my handlebars to face the required direction. My heel caught a small unseen bollard, I overbalanced and landed on my back on the side of the road with my bike on top of me. A bicycle accident … while not cycling. How marvellously dramatic.

Uitdam, the small Dutch hamlet that some believe inspired Shakespeare
Shakespeare sprang to mind as I bit my lip and tried not to cry. “Go wisely and slowly. Those who rush stumble and fall” (Romeo and Juliet … how fitting on our romantic sojourn). Friar Lawrence was advising Romeo not to rush headlong into marriage (for a visa, say), but he could equally have been referring to the need to use caution when mounting a bicycle.

Grazed elbows, bruised pride, swollen humiliation, blood on my hands. Pure tragedy.
The damned spot, after
a few days of healing
In the midst of the (melo)drama, I looked at my wounded palm. I looked at my lovely husband of twenty years, my co-conspirator in nuptial visas. Then, with quite some dramatic inspiration I stood in the hamlet (yes!) of Uitdam and in my best Lady Macbeth voice, I exclaimed:

“Uitdam spot!”

With that single comment I managed to prove Ned's earlier point that drama, when combined with comedy, creates true romance.
Back in Amsterdam later that evening, we stopped at the Vondelpark Open Air Theatre. Free performances run all through summer. The scheduled act, on the day of our twentieth anniversary, was a dance called Woke up Blind by the Nederlands Dance Theater. It featured  two Jeff Buckley songs, "You and I" and "The Way Young Lovers Do". Jeff Buckley happens to be one of Ned's favourite singer-songwriters. The dance explored the changing nature of love over time. We know this because the program told us. Otherwise we would not have had a clue. But seriously, how could we not watch and participate in such powerful anniversarial symbolism?  

Symbolic movement by the NDC
It turns out that dance is an art form not yet within Ned's or my orbit of cultural appreciation. For now we will stick to drama. And comedy. Which, as we all now know, are the very essence of our true romance.

8 March 2016

It's all downhill from here

It started with a tiny snow white lie in the early 1990s.

“Sure I can ski”, I assured my vaguely Nordic-looking emerging love interest when he asked about my abilities and my willingness to accompany him on an overnight cross-country skiing expedition. What I meant to say was, “Well, I’ve done it once before, for an afternoon”. But I didn’t.
Truth is, I was so besotted with this enchanting adventurer that I would have said anything in order to spend a long weekend with him. He, bless his trusting soul, took me at my word and asked no further questions; he simply set about organising our expedition with his usual thoroughness and reassuring competence.

I remained the personification of Naïve Confidence flirting with Youthful Arrogance. Embarrassment was their inevitable lovechild. If I thought - as I did – that I should be able to ski, then I was certain that I could damn well ski. So that's what I told him.

It was therefore a complete mystery to find myself some weeks later, face down in the snow; an undignified flailing snow-turtle trapped beneath a bulging back-pack. I’d managed to ski barely twenty metres from our car, before spectacularly revealing that I may have exaggerated my skiing ability to some extent.
That was my first encounter with the Snow Monster, an unpredictable and cruel mountain adversary. The Snow Monster usually lies hidden from view, but from time to time he shrugs or reaches out to grab the ankle of a passing skier and flip them unceremoniously onto their back. Or front. Or side. Or head.

A look of exasperation, intrigue and amusement momentarily flashed across the face of the Nordic-looking love interest as he levered me out of my humiliating position and set me upright again.

It is to that man’s eternal credit that he did not even consider giving up on me or our planned adventure. Instead, with his trademark patience and good humour he coached me up the mountain, across the magnificent tops for three days, and back down to the carpark. Each night we slept in a tent pitched directly on the snow, beneath spectacular twisted snow gums and a star-strewn sky.

The flailing snow-turtle, seen in 1992

He seemed perfect, and so, dear reader, I married him.
That same man has, on many occasions since, levered me out of an uncomfortable position, set me upright again and coached me up and over mountains, both literal and metaphoric. He still takes me at my word, and he still organises great adventures, although interestingly, we have never been cross-country skiing since.

I have however developed a belated passion for downhill skiing. It started in New Zealand in 2011, by which time Ned Nederlander and I had been married for so long that attempts by him to teach me to ski could have been potentially life-threatening for him. Instead, a young Italian ski instructor called Marco led me around the slopes, and I am still secretly chuffed at the memory of him telling me that I had a beautiful body position. Coincidentally, Ned had made a similar comment in the tent under the snow gums many years earlier so I figured it must be true …

I have spent several days in each of the last six years trying to defeat the Snow Monster, and realising in the process how broad is his reach and how ruthless are his tactics. I have encountered him in resorts in Austria, Switzerland and Italy, but never have his attacks been as unrelenting and merciless as they were last week in Nendaz, Switzerland.

In hindsight, I made myself unnecessarily vulnerable to the Snow Monster by agreeing to spend the week in Nendaz with our Dutch friends, the de Swoosh family. It is a fundamental rule in life, or at least it should be, that one does not ski with people who have an additional forty years’ experience when it comes to strapping narrow planks to feet and pointing them down an icy slope. I ignored that rule.

Beware the innocuous-looking Snow Monster of Nendaz
Having earlier experienced the risks associated with overstating one’s abilities, I tried to manage the de Swoosh’s expectations by confessing my relatively limited skiing prowess early. I suggested that they might like to leave me and my dignity to the blue runs while they explored further afield. They dismissed my offer and in a gesture of horrifying kindness and patience, insisted that I join them every day.
I hastily arranged a one hour lesson with an instructor. Tom, a big English bear who looked like he should be in a rugby ruck rather than swivelling his ample hips down a mountainside, was not as impressed with my body position as Marco and Ned had been.

“Mmmm, there’re a few funky things going on there,” he observed wryly after I gingerly proceeded down what was literally my first run in a year. I confessed that my awkwardness was due to the knowledge that I faced certain ignominy and possible injury - if not death - as I brought up the distant rear behind seven competent skiers for the next week. I felt sure that black runs would be involved. I was fairly certain that teenage ridicule was also a risk.

Tom and I paused mid-slope to discuss a strategy for countering my dilemma. As if on cue, Grote Jongen appeared before us, inquiring about the progress of the lesson. His beautiful face was somewhat bloodied, giving the impression that he might have recently been in a rugby ruck himself. Apparently it was the result of poorly adjusted bindings coming unstuck on an icy slope. To my eternal shame, my own beloved first born generated the tiniest feeling of schadenfreude, by reminding me that others could become victims of the Snow Monster too.

My evil thoughts were interrupted by the realisation that Grote Jongen was not alone. Kleine Jongen, Ned Nederlander, Mr and Mrs de Swoosh and their two teenage boys were all watching from a nearby vantage point.

“Don’t move until they’ve gone!” I instructed Tom petulantly, while cheerily waving at them and politely gesturing for them  to keep moving down the slope in front of us. Tom and I watched as Mr de Swoosh performed an effortless triple back flip and Mrs de Swoosh redefined “elegance” before our eyes. All four teenagers demonstrated their belief in the power of speed over style, and were out of sight in seconds. Ned had the good grace to shoot me an encouraging glance before he too was gone with a flick of his Nordic-looking love interest hips.

Hearing me sigh despondently, Tom turned to me.

“I have time to stay for a second hour if you would like,” offered this most sensitive of nimble rugby skiers. Reasoning that the required mountain of Swiss francs could be justified by the maintenance of my dignity, I accepted.

A rather ragtag Snake of Shame
Together we made some marked improvements not only to my body position, but also to my confidence. Before long I had stopped snarling at the Snakes of Shame, those infuriating lines of lithe, high-achieving bloody toddlers in ski schools. Earlier I had fought a strange urge to poke them all with my ski poles and feed them to the Snow Monster, but suddenly they began to look rather cute as my sense of comparative inadequacy subsided.

The rest of the week brought some spectacular encounters between the Snow Monster and me. He stretched and shifted his dormant body unexpectedly on several occasions, causing me to sprawl in a most ungainly manner. He wrapped his invisible tentacles around my legs and tugged maliciously. He upended me and dragged me down Humiliation Hill on my backside, before taunting me with the realisation that one of my skis needed to be retrieved from thirty metres back up the slope. In one particularly nasty interaction, he tackled me while I was barely moving across the flattest piece of piste in the resort. However, he also reminded me of the benefit of being last in one's group; which is that there were seldom any witnesses to my inelegant misadventures. By the time the others realised that I might have fallen, I had generally managed to extract my head from the snow, brush off the Snow Monster’s fluffy excrement and regain an upright position.

But as well as battling the callous Snow Monster, I also experienced some rather exhilarating encounters way beyond the extremes of my comfort zone. The effects of altitude are quite possibly to blame for my decision to join the others in descending an ungroomed mogul-covered black run on our third day, just as the clouds swooped in, the lights went out and visibility decreased to about two metres.

Ten seconds into the run, so eleven seconds after I forfeited any chance of pursuing an alternative descent, a hot flush of hysteria and primal panic took hold of my legs. At least that’s what I assumed it was; it’s equally likely that it was the unfortunate result of my very weak pelvic floor muscles. There seemed little value in evaluating the real cause of my discomfort, so instead I dug my skis into the Snow Monster’s ornery back, plunged my ski poles into his shrugging shoulders and laughed at him. I have no doubt it was not at all pretty, and I will be forever grateful that Kleine Jongen and his confounded helmet-mounted video camera did not capture that particular battle. That camera is a thief of self-esteem. It repeatedly shatters my belief that I could be mistaken for Mrs de Swoosh when descending a slope and instead shows that I resemble a Telly Tubby on sticks. And that is on the easy slopes.
Some centuries later I arrived at the base of the ungroomed black run, my heart thumping, my pride soaring, my breathing rapid, my mask fogged by the tears of terror and frustration I had involuntarily shed half way down the slope. No, let’s not call it a slope; let’s call it a cliff, because I’m pretty sure that’s what it was.

A Telly Tubby on sticks?

I had fought the Snow Monster and won a significant battle, even if not the entire war. We sparred on and off over the following days, and finished pretty evenly poised, although I suspect my bruises will take longer to subside than his. Of course, such battles are not fought without strong support, and I am grateful to have wonderful friends like the de Swoosh family, whose company, generosity, good humour and encouragement underwrote my snowy skirmishes. I should definitely show more appreciation for my trusting, competent, Nordic-looking love interest, who shoots me encouraging glances when I most need them, murmurs beautiful lies about my on-slope ability and compliments my body position with a straight face.  And of course I am both grateful and relieved that the teenage ridicule did not eventuate. In fact, the undoubted highlight of my week occurred on our last day of skiing. Grote Jongen, skiing  just in front of me on our favourite run, stopped to wait for me. I braced for "You took your time", but instead he said simply, and without apparent irony, "Very elegant". There was nobody else in sight, so I choose to believe he was talking about me. I floated the rest of the way down.

So even though it might still not be entirely accurate, the next time Ned inquires about my skiing ability, I will say, with slightly more justification than I had when we first took to the snow together, “Ski? Sure I can ski.”

8 January 2016


Today is A-Day.
That’s how our family refers to January 8. It’s the anniversary of our 2012 arrival in Amsterdam.  Amsterdam Day. Arrival Day. Aankomst dag.

On our first A-Day anniversary I baked an apple tart and decorated it with some Eucalyptus leaves I bought from our local florist. I thought it was a terribly sophisticated melding of cultures. Ned Nederlander, ever the agricultural scene-stealer, pointed out that my thoughtful garnish had probably not come from our Antipodean homeland, but in all likelihood had been imported from a plantation in Africa. De Jongens commented, as they do at almost every meal, that “this would be better without the green stuff". Maybe this year I can take creative cross-cultural symbolism to even greater heights; perhaps a Gouda pavlova or some wattle-seed bitterballen. Chuck another herring on the barbie.
Whatever our family does to celebrate A-Day 2016, the cross-cultural highlight of my time in Amsterdam is (and will likely forever be) my weekly meetings with a small group of parents from De Jongens’ school. For the past few years I have had the enormous privilege of leading an English conversation group for an hour a week as part of a wonderful parent-run program called Let’s Talk.

Participants have come and gone over the years, as is the beautiful, horrible reality of an international community. Each of them has inspired me with their humility, determination, humour and openness. They have graciously shared a piece of France, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Iran, Hungary, India, Germany, the Czech Republic, Catalonia and many other places with me, and made my world so much richer.

They teach me far more than I could ever dream of teaching them. I teach them about irregular verbs; they teach me about the world. It hardly seems a fair exchange. We don’t use a workbook or a lesson plan. We simply talk. And laugh. And eat. We’re proof that if more people in the world sat down and ate together, there would be fewer conflicts. Recently I took them to The Drover’sDog, the best Australian café this side of Boronia Park’s Unwritten, and as a result some in our Let's Talk group are convinced that lamingtons have the potential to achieve world peace.

Together, we navigate vast and frequently-amusing inter-cultural chasms; I come away from every session with my spirit soaring, my sides splitting and my head spinning. Inevitably, I also come away with my own understanding of this ridiculous language greatly undermined.

Try explaining the pronunciation and spelling of ought, taught, taut, and sort and you’ll start to agree. Then clearly and rationally explain why an alarm goes off but a light goes on.

Keep a straight face while you insist that your nose runs and your feet smell, even while your nose is smelling and your feet are running. It’s a ridiculous language, which is partly why I love it.

Our Let’s Talk group talks about everything and nothing: weddings, grammar, national politics, feminism, food, international politics, restaurants, idioms, child birth, food, dogs, moving countries, staying put, going home, vocabulary, food, raising teenagers, past participles, raising pre-teenagers, social blunders, linguistic blunders, food, careers, eating, verb phrases. And food.  Oh, and on one memorable occasion, penises. But that’s a story for another time.

This experience -these people - have changed me. The most tangible change that they inspired is that I have recently become a formally qualified teacher of English to adults. In the process I also became a stark-raving lunatic, obsessing over concept-checking questions, student-centeredness, receptive skills, lexical sets and the phonemic chart.  How hard can it be, I arrogantly thought when I enrolled, to teach a language that you’ve already got covered? As it turns out it’s extremely hard, and very stressful.

On more than one occasion during one of my frequently disastrous practice lessons I wanted to run from the classroom screaming, far from the furrowed brow of my tutor, the sympathetic grimace of my fellow-teachers and the bewildered expressions of the students.  During the course I had to resubmit not one but two assignments, with all the associated loss of dignity that brings. No mother should have to suffer the humiliation of having her own son glance at her desk and say, with a cruel smirk “Resubmit, eh? Who'd have thought?” 

But I passed, and in doing so I was forced to acknowledge that being a “real” teacher involves more than sitting around and talking, laughing and eating (even though I’d had considerable success with that approach for the past few years ...).  I haven’t yet decided if I want to be a “real” teacher or a “talking, laughing, eating” teacher, or indeed whether I can be both. Or perhaps there’s another option that I’m yet to discover. Mid-life career changes raise so many questions ...
But answers must wait because first I have to celebrate my fourth A-Day. I’m going to start it in the best way I can think of; by going to my weekly Let’s Talk meeting first thing this morning. This wonderful, eclectic group has raised cross-cultural symbolism and inter-linguistic hilarity to heights that I could never have imagined when I first lay a Eucalyptus sprig across an apple tart. Of course they must share my A-Day.

Surrounded by inspiring women
Let's Talk. And Laugh. And Eat.

3 October 2015

NOT just another Friday night in Amsterdam

It’s Friday night. I’m home alone. I have a nice bottle of red wine and a big box of chocolates. I have internet access, and I have plenty of time to think. Few combinations could be more dangerous.
Ned Nederlander is playing old man’s football and will be home late, no doubt after enjoying several convivial post-game beers with his Howling Hamstrings team mates. He’ll be a bit sore tomorrow and will do his usual weekend thing of bemoaning his aging body. A couple of hours prostrate on the sofa after his morning coffee and a lazy breakfast tomorrow will help him forget his problems. Dinner at a lovely restaurant tomorrow evening and whatever marital benefits might follow that will certainly help him forget his aching muscles.
Right now Kleine Jongen, after a day innocently kicking a ball and eating junk food with friends is sleeping comfortably in a beautiful house in the canal district, cared for by adults we know, love and trust – in the very heart of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Poor boy broke his arm two days ago. But within an hour of arriving at a clean and modern health facility, he was treated by competent, compassionate, hijab-wearing health professionals and sent on his way. His biggest problem right now is that his injury might hinder his chances of selection in the Junior Varsity football team, and that he has to play Xbox left handed for the next few weeks. His cast also gives him a few toileting challenges. Oh well.
Grote Jongen popped home earlier tonight to recharge his phone and to down a quick bowl of pasta. As he refuelled, he mused over how easy it is to accept quirks and eye-rolling frustrations in friends that add more to our lives than they demand in return. I inquired about the chances of a similar attitude to parents. He smiled. I silently thanked whatever god was listening for allowing me to become the mother of a fascinating and engaging human with thought-provoking perspectives on life. Said child has since cycled off into the autumnal Amsterdam night to do whatever it is that 16 year olds do in Amsterdam on a Friday night. Because Ned and I are utterly opposed to using technology to track our children’s whereabouts, I have only the vaguest idea of where he is. However, I am reasonably confident that he will be home in a few hours. He will fall into his warm bed, with few concerns other than his overdue biology assignment.
And then there’s Petra.
Petra turned up on my doorstep late this afternoon. She lives in the same street as me, but in almost four years here I’ve never met her before. She introduced herself before confirming that 450 male asylum seekers are being temporarily housed nearby. She asked if I could donate some clothing for them.
These men; real live men, with real live children, and real live mothers bereft with worry about them, are ONE HUNDRED METRES from my house. The house where I‘m drinking my red wine and eating the pasta cooked by my happy, assignment-avoiding 16 year old. The house where I hugged my other boy and his plaster cast after we caught the reliable public transport home from hospital together. The house with the internet connection that allows me to post whatever I damn well want on social media. The house where I will sleep soundly tonight.
One hundred metres away from where I sit right now, four hundred and fifty men sit and wonder about their future, and no doubt about their past. If I lean a little to my left, disconnecting myself slightly from my bottle of red wine, and peer out of my double-glazed window, past a charming window box of fresh herbs, I can see the fence that contains those men. If I walked down 34 carpeted steps, onto the footpath, past the Thai take-away, over two tram tracks, across a bike path and through a small gate, I could be amongst them. It would take less than two minutes. When I got there, if I spoke Arabic, I could understand their stories and find out what had driven them to take the unfathomable risks that have landed them there.
I could hear stories of men who have fled their own homes leaving behind their own teenagers. I could find out what drove them to risk their lives and all that is familiar and comfortable and comforting and dear. What unthinkable force caused them to leave the lovers with whom they had shared beds and dreams? What drove them to tread unknown roads and leave sons with broken arms and broken hearts?  What strength was needed to leave an unfinished conversation with their son about friendship and loyalty and tolerance and trust? I cannot imagine.
These men need many things at the moment. At the very least they need a change of clothes, they need shaving cream, they need paracetamol to ease their sore arm, and miracle cures for sore hearts. They need a new toothbrush. They need a conversation about friendship.

Image result for spare clothes
Petra is collecting clothing, toiletries and time passers like chess games and decks of cards for those men. She knows someone who can somehow magically bypass the bureaucracy that seems to insist on regulated giving via well-meaning but cumbersome non-profits. She knows someone who will ensure that our donations are given directly to those men at the end of my street. Come Monday she might also need to explain to Ned why his wardrobe is almost empty, his wife having emptied most of it into a large green garbage bag and handed it over to a woman she just met.

Amsterdam readers - if you have a jacket, a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a scarf, a pair of socks or indeed any small token of friendship and masculine compassion, then please get in touch with me this weekend. I’ll do what I can to ensure that the angelic Petra is able to take it across those tram tracks and through those gates on Monday.