Packing up

by haywardhelen


The last two days of our trip are spent with friends who now live in the Netherlands – one in the Hague and one in Rotterdam. The Hague is even more of a fairytale than Amsterdam, especially through the eyes of our artist friend. Wheeling her bike through the cobbled streets of the old city, she points out the café where her paintings are currently hung, the concert hall where her twin boys sing in the choir, and the route through the castle where she and her husband cycle after an evening at the cinema.


Rotterdam the next day is, well, freezing. An icy wind bites through our clothes, soaking us even before we reach an American restaurant that overlooks the harbour. I sit opposite the old friend who once sat opposite me in cafes in London as I breastfed my son. Today he is flanked by his five-year-old daughter, with a smaller daughter at the other end of the table next to his charming partner.


Sixteen years’ worth of conversation doesn’t pour from my lips. I feel irrationally cross at having to share my friend with this table full of families, half of which is mine. My friend, it strikes me, doesn’t seem to mind. He is completely taken up drawing an octopus on his paper placemat. His daughter at his side draws a fairy on hers, and my daughter, his goddaughter, draws a small yacht. Before long we are laughing and eating, having left aside all the things that it is now impossible to talk about, like the coats and scarves we leave at the door.


Amsterdam puts on some sun for our last day. My son can’t disguise his excitement to be returning to his boat and his girlfriend, though in which order I can’t tell. I have started wondering about how the tomato plants in our vegetable garden are faring, and what I’ll be able to get for Christmas lunch on Christmas eve. My daughter is quietly desperate to see our dog, and to go surfing.


Only my husband is in two minds about leaving. ‘Why don’t you stay on for a few weeks?’ I suggest. ‘I have thought about it’, he replies. ‘But I don’t think it would be wise’. ‘Why not?’ I ask. ‘Well’, he says, ‘I think that it’s the kind of place that it would be all too easy to take up smoking again’. ‘Oh’, I reply, thinking to myself that this doesn’t seem a very good reason.


That night, the taxi to the airport booked, I lie awake thinking. It’s a Saturday night, and the odd reveller on their bike makes a lot more noise than they would during the daytime. What, I ask myself, has this trip been about? Why, as my son’s eyes so often asked me, did we make this trip? Did we come to show our kids that the world, their world, is bigger than their life in Tasmania might lead them to think? No, probably not. Did we come for a family holiday, to play board games, hike, and tease each other on long car trips? No, not really. Did we come to find out whether our family would hold up under pressure of travel? No, not intentionally. Did we, as I told friends back home, come to see my husband’s family, knowing how hard it is to keep in touch by phone? Well yes, partly. Did we come to see old friends for the same reason? Perhaps.


But ultimately we came for another reason, the same reason why I have made every bold decision in my life – to leave Australia, to work in the areas I have, to try to conceive, to marry, to move back to Australia, and to write about what I do. I decided to make this trip because I felt that it would be interesting. And, of course, it has been.


My husband has come out of our trip a little worse for wear. He has managed to do some important writing, which is no small feat. But at a price. He has often felt sidelined, even though his need to continue working made this inevitable. Resenting this, he has blown up now and then without seeming to understand why. And the fact that we have largely forgiven him has made him feel even more complicated.


My daughter, meanwhile, has been changed by this trip. She has been wonderful yet demanding company, and has seen what the sting of her tongue can do. She has given up the idea that, like Peter Pan, she will never grow up. She and I have talked through the minuitae of her life, sometimes driving me nuts with boredom, sometimes amazing me with her insight. And she has frequently thanked me for bringing her away, squeezing my hand, describing our every day in her exercise-book diary, and taking copious photos.


Her brother has been less gracious, moaning daily about all the better things he could be doing back home, even while apologising for doing so. And yet I know that he has got things from being here with us. I feel a lot closer to him than before we left, when exams and boats and camping and friends meant that I only ever saw bits of him, and never for more than a few hours. Selfishly, I have relished his company, basked in it even. And I’ve really enjoyed his music.


In the end we made this trip because I wanted to. One particularly gloomy wet Sunday in Hobart, well after my husband had given up any hope of travel, I went upstairs and told him of my decision as he lay in the bath. ‘Really?’ he’d said, surprised. ‘That’s great’. A pause. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘I am sure’.


And now that our trip is nearly over, and we are waiting for our return flight to Abu Dhabi, what, I wonder, have I learned? I have learned that travelling with teenagers and a writer husband is tricky. I have learned that, even as he continues to leave himself out, my husband feels the odd one out in our family. And I have learned that there is a small part of me that would like to be left behind in Amsterdam, where I would never make school lunches again. Most importantly, I have learned that the world is a far more wonderful place than I’d remembered it.


Perhaps, I think to myself, as I count my three carry-on bags and line up obediently for our flight, that was what our trip was for. To remind me that a beautiful life in Amsterdam is still possible to want.