Letters from Amsterdam: Second Letter, February 22, 1979

April 2022

Tales of Transition

By Dianne Apter

Author’s note: Letters From Amsterdam is a recounting of an idyllic time our family spent in 1979 in The Netherlands, in Amsterdam. Although I have taken a few liberties with names and timelines, the stories I tell are all true based on the letters I wrote home to my parents and in-laws. Our kids were 6 and 3 years old and the piece tells of their school experiences and our lives through their eyes as well as my own.  Our day-to-day life related in these stories has come to mean much more than the trip diary I kept filled with appointments, sites we visited, and descriptions.  Those entries one can find in any tour guide book.

February 22, 1979: We’ve really settled in. I do a lot of wash by hand and we are turning vegetarian. Rachel says…”I am bigger. We have to have cornflakes a lot because the others cost too much.” Jennie says “I am wearing braids. We ate yummy French fries but I had mine without mayonnaise.” We are all healthy and rosy-cheeked and happy.

It has been unusually cold and I blow warmth into my fingers as I return from the food shops. There has been snow for the first time in twenty years and the canals have frozen, to the delight of Dutch adults and kids. The ice skaters reflected by the bright sunshine look like paintings, just what I pictured when I thought of Holland before we came here to live. I unload my string bag and manage to squeeze the bowling-ball-sized Gouda cheese with its blanket of red wax into the fridge. That tiny refrigerator is plenty big enough because it isn’t filled with leftovers. There aren’t any. I don’t buy large quantities not only because of space limitations but also because the foods contain no preservatives. It’s fresh food or nothing. We go through 7 liters of milk and
4 pounds of cheese a week. “Vla” turns out to be a vanilla custard, thin enough to come in milk bottles, but more like pudding that hasn’t quite set. We love it and have it often for dessert. “Kwark” is another staple. It’s like ricotta cheese and used in everything from pizza to quiche to desserts or toppings. So many recipes I have collected from friends have kwark in some form or another.

I leave out some cheese slices for lunch, as Steve and the kids will be home soon. I smile thinking how life got a little easier when we changed Rachel’s school situation. Her Montessori preschool had been highly recommended by an SU faculty wife, but Rachel had been unhappy from the start. The school was a far trek away, especially for little legs in cold weather. But the school had looked cheerful and Montessori was a big deal back in the States. Self-directed learning, hands-on play, collaboration … sounded perfect. Our neighbors and good friends, the Tanakas, also enrolled their daughter, Marie. Naomi Tanaka and I were becoming fast friends and our kids saw a lot of each other. Rachel spoke only English, and Marie spoke only Japanese, but they had each other to go to school with, and Naomi and I along with our husbands could take turns for the delivery and pickup walks to the school. All seemed perfect. Except it wasn’t.

“I don’t want to go to school today. My teacher is mean. Can’t I stay home with you?”

We chalked up Rachel’s complaints as adjustment issues. We dealt with her regression of bedwetting by covering her mattress with trash bags. But our usually happy little girl was miserable, and finally I couldn’t ignore it. I made an unannounced visit to the school. She was sitting all alone at a table.

Evidently an instruction had just been given to fetch supplies from various corners of the room. And evidently, Rachel had not understood either the instruction or the organized chaos of kids running all over. No one explained or helped. My precious one was just sitting there with tears trickling. Little Marie was nowhere to be seen until I saw the teacher move toward the classroom’s bathroom. To my horror, I heard her screaming, in Dutch of course, about something Marie had or had not done. I saw Marie flinch as the teacher grabbed her arm to pull her from the bathroom. That was it. I collected both of them, returned home, and let Naomi know what had happened.

Now Rachel and Marie attend the Openlucht (open air) school around the corner. Originally conceived to serve weakened children after World War II, the design of outdoor and wide-open indoor space supports the concept of learning through physical play along with lots of light and fresh air. From the first day, both little girls have come home joyful. There are no more complaints about going to school. Their Dutch-speaking teacher manages to communicate love and caring, and they both adore her. Four afternoons at school are filled with toy trucks and balls and big sheets of drawing paper and laughter. Rachel is excited about an upcoming costume party for Carnival. She’s going as a Wonder
Woman Witch.

Jennie is confident and happy at her school as well. Her teacher is tall, straight, and stiff. When I spot her riding her bike, she reminds me of the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz, riding with packages in her basket instead of a kidnapped Toto. But she isn’t at all wicked. Frouw Eline offers kindness and humor to her students, including Jennie. Victoria, a classmate from Great Britain, serves as her buddy and translator. Yesterday Jennie reported, “Dutch birthdays are the most exciting things for Dutch people. My teacher is making me work hard for Dad’s birthday.”

I hear Steve and the girls clamoring up the steps, which so far have not managed to trip us up. Today we are planning a trip to the Van Gogh Museum, so I want to have their sandwiches (broodje kaas) ready when they get home. We take advantage of the city’s art and visit all the famous museums. The Rejk’s offers surprises in every room. We visit the dollhouse display many times. And a bonus is the cafeteria that serves hotdogs. What could be better? The Van Gogh is their favorite. They take art class there and the small museum is familiar and comfortable to both of them. They are excited for our planned trip.

As we munch on our sandwiches I remember that day Jennie was drawing something when she suddenly burst into tears.

“I can’t make this windmill look right. It looks stupid. I hate this picture.” She crumpled her paper and lay down her head in despair.

“Jennie,” I explained, “did you know there are artists who don’t paint reality? They don’t try and paint what they see, but instead what they feel. It’s called abstract art.” She looked at me suspiciously, so a trip to the Museum of Modern Art went on the schedule. Both girls loved it … Picasso, Mondrian, Pollock and Miro. They understood it all even I didn’t.

Maybe Rachel got a little too inspired by all this art. One morning when Jennie was at school and I was in the kitchen trying to figure out how to convert the ounces and quarts in my recipe into milligrams and liters, I realized it had become awfully quiet. Always a bad sign when a three-year-old is quiet. I entered the living room and there she was, admiring her crayoned creation that stretched across the long, glossy white living room wall.

“Rachel!” I shrieked. “What have you done? You don’t crayon on walls!” Her proud face fell. I think she was too scared of my screeching anguish to cry. She sat on the floor without making a sound, watching as I tried scrubbing and scraping. I soon realized I could not restore the wall and I gave up. I knew the lesson had been learned and she would relegate future works to art class and paper. I sighed and soothed her, telling her how much it looked like a Picasso or a Miro (it did!) and we laughed. Oh well. There goes the security deposit.

To be continued …

Letters From Amsterdam is dedicated to Steve who during his too-short life always led us to see different worlds, and to Jennie and Rachel who now have families of their own and are creating their own adventures.

© 2021 by Dianne Apter. All rights reserved.
Dianne Apter has lived in Syracuse, New York for over 50 years with time out for extended stays throughout Europe as part of academic life. Dianne has previously published in academic journals and in the online journal Dreamers.

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