We went to visit friends in the Hague for Easter. The Princess grasped immediately the nature of the Netherlands which is essentially a vast conurbation. As we crossed over the border, she said “we are in the Otherlands we must be in the Hague”. Unfortunately, there was a good forty minutes drive after that and neither her father nor I could convince her that constantly asking “are we in the Hague?” as we tried to negotiate the tricky final miles wasn’t going to help anyone. As we drove along with our three ratty children, Mr. Waffle said wistfully “I don’t suppose you’re ever going to let me go to Baarle-Hertog”. “Why would I want to go to Baarle-Hertog?”. “It’s a part of Belgium entirely surrounded by the Netherlands.”. “Fascinating, you’re absolutely right”.
We arrived safely at our hosts’ house and disgorged ourselves and the enormous quantities of luggage we had brought with us for three nights away from home. We settled in to eat them out of house and home and work creatively on making a mess. Fortunately they have two children of their own, so they were somewhat prepared for the onslaught. In fact, the trip was a great success. The children got on really well together and it was lovely to see them playing together when they weren’t hitting each other. In particular, the Princess got on with C who is the elder of our friends’ two children. C, is a very gentle, charming and sweet little boy who is nearly 5. The Princess loved him. Despite her exterior toughness, I feel the Princess is quite timid and I have never seen her warm to someone, the way she did to C. They spent hours playing together. I heard her diligently trying to teach him some French: “We say ‘Winnie l’Ourson’ for Winnie the Pooh; I know the French for poo is ‘caca’ but we don’t say ‘Winnie le caca’” which is just as well for the marketing people, I suppose. C’s sister E is only just 3 and the Princess enjoyed a more combatitive relationship with her. E is much more forceful and I don’t think that the Princess liked that half so well though they did play together a bit because whatever the Princess considered E’s faults might be, she was, at least, far superior to the Princess’s little brothers. What the Princess particularly enjoyed was teaming up with C and excluding the others, particularly her brothers, if at all possible.
The Linguistic Regime
The Dutch Mama is, despite her name, from Cork as well. As the weekend went on, I could hear both of us reinforcing each other and speaking with more amd more pronounced Cork accents. The Dutch Papa is Dutch. Very Dutch, he’s 2 metres and 3 centimetres tall (nearly 7 feet) and one of my favourite things was seeing him bending all the way down to talk to Michael who was staring up at him with considerable interest (I suppose everyone is tall to Michael, though). The Dutch Papa used to live in Japan; he must have been a sensation there. The Dutch Mama speaks English to her children and I speak English to mine. Both the Princess and C were able to chat away happily to each other in English. They were not at all thrown when one or other of them spoke French or Dutch to another parent. However, E didn’t speak much English to us at the start and she didn’t get very far with Dutch; though the grown-ups and the boys were prepared to give it a go, the Princess certainly wasn’t. It was amazing by the end of the weekend how much more willing she was to chat away in English (to clarify, she had always been able to chat in English but just choose not to, I mean why would you bother, everyone speaks Dutch – you have to see her point, she’s only 3). At one point she said something to me and I didn’t understand “you know, I don’t understand a lot of Dutch, sweetheart”. She looked at me coldly “that wasn’t Dutch, it was Polish”. And, it was true, she’s minded by a Polish woman and speaks quite good Polish as well, clever girl.
Our friends do not, in fact, live in the Hague, they live in the Roman town of Voorburg which is, essentially, a nice leafy suburb of the Hague. Great was the Princess’s delight when she found that I had made a mistake. All weekend long we heard about foolish Mama’s ineptitude. We took a stroll around the suburbs and into the lovely old town, taking in the market. It almost reminded me of holidays before children (what, oh what did we find to worry about on those holidays?) except for the insistent demands for sweet purchases.
We went on a rural walk to look at windmills. Well, as the Dutch Mama pointed out, it was rural, if you could close your ears to the sounds of the motorway and look away from the tower blocks. My God, there are a lot of people there. It’s just as well 90% of them cycle everywhere because otherwise the country would be one big car park. Michael has become entranced by ducks. While the windmills left him cold, he very much enjoyed chasing ducks. “Ack, ack” he said pointing his little finger and trotting off in their direction. The Netherlands is full of open water. The Dutch Papa explained that it would cost too much to fence in all the open water in the Netherlands, so they taught people to swim; the whole law of tort seems to not have taken off there. They’re very pragmatic, the Dutch. Nevertheless, since Michael can’t actually swim, unlike the ducks he had set his heart on, this did present some problems. I was rather taken with the windmills which are inhabited and one of which had a duvet stuck out the middle window to air but I couldn’t really focus on them as I was trying to haul Michael away from water hazards.
We went to the beach; you’re never too far from the beach in the Netherlands. The children loved it, though Michael was scared of the sea. Daniel loved the sea and got his trousers wet chasing waves. The Princess focussed on denuding the Dutch coast of shells. The beach was busy. I couldn’t help comparing it to an Irish beach at this time of year where you would have a half dozen walkers. This beach was full of Dutch people disporting themselves with their dogs. “You asked me what I disliked about the Dutch” said the Dutch Mama “16 million people and they have 16 million dogs”. It really felt like it. The beach was very developed with lots of cafes and stalls. Nice, fine but so different. Obviously, it also had lots of bicycle racks. We went for tea and a bun. Michael took the Princess’s bucket of shells and turned it upside down. The Princess was furious. To my really intense mortification she said “Michael, you bastard, I’m going to pour tea all over you”. All the polite Dutch people looked at their feet. I wanted desperately to explain that really, this was not the kind of language she uses all the time and not me either but, of course, the problem is, she does travel in the car with me. In the past couple of weeks, she has taken to getting out of the bath and wrapping herself in a towel crouching on the floor and pretending to be a green cushion. The cushion says “shag it, shag it, shag it, you bastard”. I have tried ignoring and reprimanding “it’s the feathers in the cushion, Mama, not me” but she knows I don’t like it and she can use it against me. Must try harder either that or we walk everywhere in future.
On Easter Sunday, we all went to mass. I was a bit surprised that the Dutch contingent were coming. “We’re cultural catholics” explained the Dutch Mama. This is a far superior term to “lapsed”, I like it. Outside the church, there were, of course, hundreds of bicycles, all the more impressive when you consider that the average age of the congregation was 65. This was probably why we ended up sloping off early as our children’s were the only raised voices. In fact, C and E were very good and kept quiet by the promise of a further jelly from the supply that their mother had brought. The Princess also enjoyed the Dutch jelllies. She, however, approached matters differently by turning what was intended as a bribe into an opportunity for blackmail “I won’t be quiet, unless I get another jelly”. “My children never thought of that” muttered the Dutch Mama. I am so proud.
The children painted Easter eggs; the Princess discovered that she does not like hard boiled egss, however nicely they may be painted. They all hunted for chocolate eggs in the garden which was much more successful though Michael appears not to like chocolate. Can this be normal? They spent hours playing baffling games together. I fell down the steep stairs which are a feature of Dutch houses but no one else did. As I went bump, bump, bump down a flight of stairs, people came running from all sides. I sustained minor injuries other than to my dignity. The Princess was very thrown. As I sat in a heap on the floor she called “Mummy, mummy”. I thought she wanted something but no, she came wanted to check that I was alright and came running out to give me a kiss. Last night when I put her to bed, she was still exploring matters “You fell down the stairs Mummy”. “Yup”. “But normally, grown-ups don’t fall”. The whole thing was particularly embittering as I had just started to get my stairs legs and the pains in my thighs from climbing three flights were beginning to abate. Three stories over basement brings its own difficulties, I suppose.
The Princess rejected her own bed in favour of sleeping top to tail with C in his and E’s room and the three big children got to bath together which they enjoyed very much and gave us an opportunity to snap photos in our ongoing mission to ensure that no second of our children’s lives will remain unrecorded. After the bath, the Princess announced to C that she would have breasts when she grew up but he would not. She would also be able to have children but he would not. “I can be the Daddy” he countered but they both seemed to believe that she had the better deal. You would think that an inspection of the Dutch Mama who is currently seven months pregnant and not able to walk very far (though she still cycles to work – they’re Dutch) would convince them otherwise but no.
I was chatting to the Dutch Mama about the Dutch and what they are like and in many ways, we think they are like they see themselves. She says that living in the Netherlands has almost turned her into a monarchist. The Dutch queen is so nice. She described watching her going to some god forsaken part of the Netherlands where the locals appeared to have made a sculpture from sewage pipes to greet her. It was bucketing rain. One of the little girls from the band out to play for the queen had started to cry. She arrived and, said the Dutch Mama, you would genuinely think to look at her that there was absolutely nowhere she would rather be, she set everything to rights and also gave the crying little girl a hug. They’re tall, they’re pragmatic, they’re frugal, they’re hospitable, they believe in community. The Dutch Mama says that she reckons marrying a Dutch man has added ten years to her life. Before she met him she took less exercise, she smoked, she weighed more. And she reckons that her kids watch less TV than their Irish counterparts and that they are better served in creches and schools. I looked at her and asked “what quintessentially Dutch emotion are you experiencing at this moment?”. “Smugness” she replied instantly. Having the perfect society does have its downsides.
Prised a howling Princess away from Voorburg and bundled everyone back to Brussels. The Princess and Daniel slept but Michael burbled quite cheerfully to us all the way back. The boys were surprised and delighted to see their home again but the Princess continues to pine for the delights of the Otherlands. Indeed, this very night the last thing she asked me before I turned out the light was when we would be going back to C and E’s house.