We have now completed just over a third of our big trip and are looking at when we will fly back to Australia. We are scheduled to fly back just in time for Noa’s 6th birthday on December 10 and despite recent discussions of extending, we are thinking we will stick to the original plan. We have spent the last 12 days in Holland since returning from Israel. It all feels rather strange and wonderful and sad and everything really. And I am daily asking Guy how he is feeling about his dad. I know he has been dreaming about him and I know that grief and loss is so personal and unexpected. He says his childhood memories keep coming back to him in waves. We have lots of reminders of Aaron everywhere especially when eating in Europe. We ate eel and herring in Amsterdam on a street corner (incredibly fresh and delicious) and Guy told the girls and I how his father used to bring him eel and herring from abroad when he was a child and how exotic it was to eat it in Israel. Then last night walking back from the restaurant in the campground Elvis was booming from someone’s cabin. We smiled. And that’s how people live in your earthly world and how I have come to understand when people say that departed loved ones live in your memories. I never understood this until my nana died.
We have been very busy the last 12 days. We returned back to Zwolle to be with Jorien and family and of course this was the perfect starting point to resume our big trip. Friends of theirs were abroad so we parked Danke in a parking lot behind their street and stayed across the road from Jorien in a cute little Dutch house with stairs that really were more of a ladder and rather dangerous for big feet like mine. They have children so Noa and Lina had a good time discovering new toys. These few days in Zwolle were slow and unwinding and allowed us to step back into traveling life and life without Guy’s father alive in a gentle way. We never doubted continuing this trip so mentally we were very prepared and ready to travel again. Emotionally, we just went at our own pace.
On the Sunday afternoon we visited Jorien’s parents and I got to see the house and village where she grew up. I always find it fascinating to visit someone’s childhood place. And I do like Jorien’s parents. They have always welcomed me and been interested in my life. Jorien’s father is Jewish and also lost a lot of his family in the Holocaust. Prior to WW2 there were only two Jewish families living in Hasselt and recently a book was written (edited by Jorien) about these families. I won’t go into detail here but on our way to dinner Jorien’s mum Gerrie took us to see the Jewish cemetery in Hasselt. A plaque and sculpture were erected there last year to commemorate those who died in the Holocaust. Jorien and her family were present at this unveiling. On seeing the cemetery and listening to Gerrie explain the background story I was once again transported back in time and the tears rose up from a place so deep inside me, echoing the magnitude of loss and the disbelief that in this little town horrors occurred not so long ago. When we said our goodbyes Gerrie said, ‘I hope we meet again’ and I was taken aback by her fatalistic comment. But it’s true. The world is big and life moves and people die and stuff happens. And yes I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – do something wild and precious every day. Wild can be taking a nap, precious can be looking at the stars. This trip has been a lot about reconnecting with old friends and I am each day thankful for this opportunity.
The following day we spent hanging out at an old mansion called Hotel Gaia that has been converted into a boutique hotel/restaurant. We sat outside on the sprawling grounds overlooking a waterhole and small forest, drinking rosé, eating and more eating and watching the kids find frogs. I had been aching for this kind of day since our trip to Israel and it replenished me and nourished me fully. Guy pulled his back (well actually a rib?) the following morning (too much relaxation can do that) so we stayed an extra night in Zwolle but slept in Danke outside Jorien’s. Again, small steps to getting back on the road. And then we were off. Sad farewells as who knows when we will meet again but so much gratitude for so much time spent together. Three kisses to all.
Our next stop was a Amstelkade, a farm/campground that my connected and well travelled friend Bianca suggested we book after she had visited there a couple of weeks earlier. It was a good suggestion, apple pie included. All the surrounding towns are built around very small canals and driving around in big old Danke was like stepping into a storybook. So much of Holland seems so idyllic and this smallness and quaintness of the villages epitomised all that we love about the Netherlands. We hired bikes for a day and rode into town. As soon as I mounted the bike and rode out on to the road, canal on my left, I felt utterly alive, the wind in my hair and all other clichés. I love bike riding and am making a promise here and now to get a bike when we return home. We couldn’t hire ‘proper’ aka safe by Australian standards children’s seats so the girls sat in children’s seats that attached at the front of the bikes. No helmets – Dutch style and of course the kids loved riding at the front. Lina fell sleep on the way home and has clearly declared that she can sleep anywhere.
Amsterdam was next. Three days in the big red city. Given we had Danke I needed to find a camping spot just outside the city so we could use public transport to travel in and out of the city. I found a very cool campground Camping Zeeburg and as soon as I entered the reception I felt as old as I am. I could smell pot within a metre of me in a 360 radius and the average age of travellers was about 20. And boy do I remember those traveling days. We were young, we were free, we were poor, we were anxious, we were curious, we were SINGLE, and the whole world was ours for the taking. Of course among these youngsters were a few families like us and a few oldies still living the dream. Our days in Amsterdam were filled with a lot of walking, a Nemo visit, some pancakes with chocolate sauce (gluten free for me!), some herring and eel from Frens Herringhandel, a lovely day with my Melbourne friend Clair drinking bad lattes and hanging out in Vondelpark, and generally just avoiding getting run over by a bike or tram. The hierarchy of city life leaves pedestrian tourists with kids near the bottom.
Amsterdam is the biggest city I have visited since New York in 2010 and certainly the biggest city I have visited with kids. After a few hours on our first day Guy said he felt like a kid in a candy store – so much he wanted to do but couldn’t because we have two small kids. I empathised with his pain as I too was itching to go to the Banksy exhibition or see La Traviata with a DJ, a performance we happened to stumble upon on our first evening in the Dam. But there are limits when traveling with two children – financial, experiential and just plain practical. Maybe because I have been with our kids 24/7 since Noa was born my expectations of this trip are more in line with what is practically possible and also enjoyable. I have learned it is best for all to surrender to where you are at in life – don’t bend over backwards to create something that isn’t. This doesn’t mean have a crappy time or just go to playgrounds all day – on the contrary – this means enjoy your children and enjoy this stage of life with gusto! By all means get a campervan and travel the world. But there’s a fine balance in following your children’s lead and meeting your heart’s desires. You just have to keep finding that sweet spot and navigating your way there with curiosity and foresight and trust. I see many parents suffer because they always want to be somewhere else or at the next stage of parenting or working less or working more. This trip is about enjoying our children at this age and being with them. I know Amsterdam will still be here when the kids are older. After a day or two I asked Guy how he felt about the candy store and he had softened his response and I could see he had relaxed into being in Amsterdam with kids.
Friends from Israel were visiting Holland and invited us to spend the night with them at their cottage half an hour out of Amsterdam. Traveling in Danke allows us to do this kind of thing so we spent the night parked in their driveway and enjoyed the 18 hours or so with two Israeli families. Noa and Lina had an absolute ball with the kids riding all sorts of bikes and tractors and despite Noa getting head-butted by an angry black sheep (where’s the green sheep when you need it?) much fun was had by all. Though the Israeli kids mostly spoke Hebrew I could definitely see how comfortable Noa and Lina were communicating in that language as opposed to Dutch or German or Danish. Hebrew is really their second language despite their minimal use of it and Israeli culture is also so familiar to them. It rained all day and night and the next morning, so we took the day slowly, did some laundry, looked at the rainbow and were on the move by lunchtime in time for the girls’ naps.
Next stop was at my friend Michaela’s place in Hilversum. Michaela and I have been in a women’s group for about 13 years despite her living out of Australia for nearly seven of them. She has two kids, Calder was born two weeks before Noa and Chloe is 9 months younger than Lina. All four of them clicked instantly and Noa and Calder in particular formed a warm connection. We stayed in their big beautiful home and enjoyed the creature comforts a house has to offer including real beds, doing two loads of laundry and Guy watching the Olympics on the couch late at night. It was a quick visit but we are hoping they will meet us in Spain in November.
Our final two nights in Holland we spent edging closer to the dock where we will board the ferry to Newcastle. Guy never mentioned exactly which dock and I just assumed the Hoek van Holland was the only dock. So I booked a night at a lovely nature camping spot just south of the Hoek in Zuidland. At first glance we thought oh-oh we made a mistake, there’s nothing to do here for the kids and there doesn’t seem to be any other kids. But similar to the candy store analogy, it takes time to adjust to new places and find your groove and within minutes the kids were jumping on the trampoline with Guy and I was cooking pasta marinara. Soon, after countless screams of ‘mummy, come, you promised’ I joined the girls on the trampoline, lay down with them and watched flocks of ducks fly overhead as the sun started setting in the distance. It was quite magical and reminded me how important it is to literally get down on the floor with your kids. Later at dinner, I shared that this moment, us all eating together outside in nature just the four of us, was the best part of my day. We all agreed.
Yesterday we met with one of Guy’s old colleagues from Rocket Software in Dordrecht. It was on the way to our next camping spot so it worked out well to meet for lunch after the girls’ naps. Turns out this small city is Holland’s first city and home to the oldest street in Holland. I loved it. I spent about ten glorious minutes in an antique store enjoying every tea cup on show. We then walked around the city and ended up buying scooter/balance bikes for the kids. The budget is seriously under attack but they were on sale and too cool to pass on. I also bought some Birkenstocks so the day in the oldest town became our most expensive day. Will all come out in the wash.
Last night we stayed at a camping ground near the dock. We knew it wasn’t going to be one of those rambling, grassy spacious camping grounds that we have become accustomed to but rather a tight squeeze and expensive. Surprisingly it was okay. Quirky of course and home to an eclectic mix of night trippers, golden oldies and families like us. The kids unsuccessfully tried very hard to connect with some rambunctious, bubble-blowing, wheeling 10 year old boys. The next morning I happily listened from inside the camper while washing the breakfast dishes to Guy retelling Noa stories from when she was around three. Later that morning Noa drew Guy a picture of her and him when he took her to Luna Park on the ferris wheel when she turned five. Such a poignant moment, and again, an indicator of how easy it is to connect with your kids and how much it means to them to have that downtime with you. This is what they remember and they want you to know it too.
An hour before boarding the ferry we went to the beach. It was a hot day and the North Sea beckoned. I find it difficult to not swim in a body of water right in front of me and today was no exception. I even convinced cold water avoider Guy to take the plunge. Would we ever be back on this shore? I asked him. It’s now or never. And the shells! It was worth the effort just for these shells.
Finally here I am on the ferry writing this blog. The ferry is quite incredible. I think I was as excited if not more than the children when we boarded. I have never been on a cruise and this is as close as it gets. We are sailing from IJmuiden Holland to Newcastle on the Princess Seaways. We have a seaview cabin and two bunks. It’s super fun. Kids are having a ball playing, watching Tangled and finding English speaking kids to hang out with while Guy and I take turns watching them from afar while the other one types or watches the sunset. We are making it work.