Dinner in Amsterdam
It is unlikely that many mothers and daughters go shopping for bras while on holiday in Amsterdam. But that is exactly what my daughter and I do the next morning. After my son disappears on his bike to explore, my daughter, with a determined look in her eye that I have come to respect and fear, tells me quietly what she wants to do.
Her mouth goes down at each side. ‘I’ll never find a bra that fits me. I just know it’. ‘Yes you will’, I reassure her. ‘We’ll just have to look a bit harder’. And that is how, after asking around, we find ourselves in the basement of a busy department store in the middle of the city. I soon realise, however, that the joke is on me. Because it’s not just bras that my daughter is interested in. Leggings and t-shirts are now on her radar too. Everything, it seems, is a possibility.
At last, there they are. Sports bras without underwire in plain colours. After hunting for them in Bath and London we find what she is after in the middle of Amsterdam. There is only one catch. There are no fitting rooms. It just isn’t that kind of store. ‘How’, I ask a young sales assistant, ‘do you try them on?’ ‘Oh’, she replies with a grin, ‘what some people do is to buy a few, try them on in the jeans shop across the road, and then return the ones that don’t fit’. ‘Right’, I say, returning her smile and heading for the till. My daughter, hopeful at last, shows a new tenacity. She promptly finds the jeans shop across the road, picks up a top from a rack as we pass, and makes her way to the fitting room. Fifteen minutes later I breathe a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished.
The next morning I attempt to buy my son some trousers. It is freezing along the canals, and even he is embarrassed to receive so many comments about wearing shorts in winter. ‘But’, he protests, ‘I hate shopping!’ ‘So do I’, I reply, ‘but even you will like this shop’. And he does. As soon as we enter the Swedish outdoor shop I leave him to browse. Before long he has found a number of things that he likes, including a camping stove. But alas no trousers, and certainly not the dull yellow ones that I pick out. And he refuses outright to replace his trusty old rain jacket that no longer keeps the rain out. But he does choose a grey sweater that will keep him warm on his boat in a storm, plus a beanie for his girlfriend.
That evening, after another long day of soaking up the city, my husband and I go out for dinner. But not before I run back to the Swedish outdoor shop to buy a checked shirt for my son and a fox sweater for my daughter – that they picked out that morning but I refused to buy. My husband is upset. ‘Can’t dinner with me be a priority for once?’ he asks petulantly. ‘But’, I reply, refusing to be made to feel guilty, ‘I want to give our kids something that they really want for Christmas’.
The restaurant gives us a table by the window, where my husband is waiting when I arrive. It is the favourite restaurant of friends, one of whom is in bed with flu and so unable to share the table with us, which makes the staff even more attentive than they might have been.
For the first time since we had dinner together in Scotland, my husband and I are alone across a table. Only this time there are no antlers on the wall. And my husband’s family are far away, not even making an appearance in our conversation as the plates are carefully placed down and later taken away. I ask my husband how he feels about being in this beautiful city and he tells me, eyes shining, how much he loves it for its beauty and coherence. He loves that it is no big deal that most people are well dressed. He loves the buildings and bookshops and cafes and the casual elegance of daily life.
‘And how’, he asks intently, ‘do you feel about being here?’ ‘I love it too’, I reply. ‘For all your reasons, and a few more. I particularly love the doors’, I say. ‘I drove our daughter crazy this morning, taking photos of them’. ‘And’, he asks, looking hopeful, ‘would you like to spend more time here?’ I smile, knowing what he is driving at. ‘I really don’t think I’d be good at living in two places’. ‘But’, he persists, ‘it could work’. I look down at the tablecloth, out at the small street, and back at my husband. ‘Perhaps I can think about that when our kids are a bit older and don’t need me. But I really can’t imagine it now.’
‘Besides’, I go on, ‘it’s worse than that.’ Tears shoot from my eyes and I feel grateful for our quiet corner table. My husband waits. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asks kindly. ‘Well’, I reply, ‘when I’m here, and feeling so at home, I can’t help wishing that I was living here all the time.’ ‘But that’s great’, he says, clearly pleased. ‘But it’s not’, I say, ‘because I also want to be thirty-five and living here with no family’. ‘Oh’, he says, laughing. ‘I see’. But it’s not funny for me, and tears continue to roll down my cheeks. My husband gets the eye of the waitress and orders another glass of wine.
‘I get so much from the time I spend with our kids’, I say. ‘But I feel worn down by them too. It’s not that they are unkind. But they patronise me without meaning to. They bring up my age all the time, and imply that they feel sorry for me for being so old, so past it, or simply for not being as young as they are. ‘But’, interrupts my husband, ‘Amsterdam is full of stylish middle-age people. That’s partly what I find so appealing about it’. ‘Yes’, I agree, ‘there is that. But our kids don’t see that. Perhaps the beauty of Amsterdam is that it appeals to a whole range of people in quite a direct way.’
‘But of course’, I say, changing tack, ‘these are only my impressions. Besides, as our kids grow up they will stop having to compare themselves with me all the time. I won’t be the butt of their projections. I’ll still have a few chips and bruises, but I won’t feel them so keenly.’
‘In any case’, I say, ‘I don’t know what it would be like to live here for any period. I might not even like it, even if it were possible. And what would I do? It’s just that I can’t help wondering about, and longing for, the woman I might have been if I had lived here all those years ago and had a quite different life.’ My husband smiles his understanding and my tears stop falling.
It is not such a bad wish to have, I think to myself later that night in bed. Even my kids are old enough to feel sympathy for my vision of my more beautiful life. They wouldn’t tell me to pull myself together, or upbraid me for being ungrateful for the life I already have. And so I won’t either.