Friday, 22 August 2008

Oh Amsterdam

With any luck, every parent goes through this. One day, when your kid is old and savvy enough, she will tell you all about a holiday she is planning. She will describe it to you in intricate detail: who she plans to go with, how she hopes to manage her money, the itinerary she wants to follow. She will ask if you think it is a good idea, meaning Do you think I'm ready for this? And you will look at her in all her trusting innocence and picture her out in the large, indifferent world and think Nooo!. She may be ready, but you're not. And yet, that really isn't her problem, is it? What's important is that she is ready and willing -- chomping at the bit, even. So no matter how you feel, if you know that she really is old enough to manage this, you must say Yes.

This happened to us a few months ago. Our eldest and her best friend, who now lives with us, came bursting into our living room, barely able to contain their glee: "We're going to go to Amsterdam!"

We grilled them about their travel plans, and they were amazingly sound. They had contingency plans. They had expectations that were relatively realistic, and they had responsible ways to manage their money. We knew that we could not say No this time; that you protect your kids as long as you can, but in the end, this is really what you're getting them ready for: the big flight. My father-in-law always claimed you knew you'd made it as a parent when your kids were itching to leave home. That when they called you up and told you they were having a blast, you knew your job was complete.

So I guess we've made it.

In another life, I too went to Amsterdam as a young, giddy twenty- something. I found a youth hostel there right in the middle of the red light district in Dam Square. My first week there, I saw an ad written in Japanese tacked to the hostel's bulletin board; a Japanese restaurant was looking for kitchen staff. I called them up, and the next day I had a job washing dishes in this restaurant. After working there a week, I had friends, one square meal a day at lunchtime (leftovers, true, but tasty and nutritious nevertheless), and a place to sleep for free: in the room just over the restaurant where the waitresses changed into their kimonos every evening. There was even a shower there, and a small library of Japanese graphic novels. I learned to read Japanese in America and Japan, but Amsterdam was where I developed my reading fluency. Those were heady days, and if my parents had said No to me way back when, where would I be?

We saw the eldest and her best friend off in Lockerbie at midnight. They were half out of their wits with excitement: two weeks in Amsterdam all by themselves! They had their debit cards tucked into their money belts, carefully-packed duffel bags, travel shampoo and conditioner, and a full complement of traveler's checks, much admired and examined. I resolved that I would not, under any circumstances, embarrass them by admonishing the bus driver to look after them. I would give them a quick, comradely hug; I would remind them to have fun.

It started raining and the bus was late. We didn't have umbrellas, and when a pack of loudmouth drunks hogged the bus shelter, leaving us to get soaked, I felt like shoving them out of the way. I felt like blazing a path before these two kids -- clearing the entire world of all the evil, selfish, hateful, unhelpful people so they could move freely and happily through it. And of course you cannot do that, so instead I gave them bear hugs and sloppy kisses and told them to have a good time for me.

My husband's resolve broke; he told the bus driver to look after them. The bus driver smiled and said he would do his best, and the bus pulled away.

"Well, that's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," my husband said as we watched the bus tail lights disappear. We drove home through the rain and mist and tried not to be too mournful. Kids are lucky. They live pretty much in the here and now. We parents ought to try doing that more.

We've had lots of phone calls and e-mails. They have found every decent Chinese restaurant in town, but they still haven't been to Anne Frank's house or any of the museums. We have been informed that Amsterdam is awash with hot-looking men. The Heineken Beer Factory (highly recommended by me) is sadly closed for repairs, and yesterday, my daughter gave directions to a young Asian man who bravely asked in English, but could not understand her answer -- until she switched to Japanese.

"I knew he was Japanese as soon as he started talking!" she burbled.

"Was he cute?"


"Are you having fun?"

"Yes, yes, yes!"

Looks like we've made it.


Carrie Harris said...

My maternal angst right now is more along the lines of dealing with my son's first day of school, but this still got me. Exactly what I needed to read this morning. THANKS!

Carolie said...

*sniffle* Hurray for Mary, husband and eldest daughter! What a bittersweet wonderful and magical for eldest daughter, wonderful for you to see her spread her wings and remember your own adventures...and yet difficult to let her go and trust. I feel for you!

Christy said...

I'm so glad that she's having a wonderful time! You did good. Really.

Jacqui said...

Oh, hurray indeed. Though my eldest is six and I can barely imagine letting her walk to school a mile away alone. My heart breaks at the understanding that someday soon a day alone with me will be far from her favorite reward!

Charles Gramlich said...

I remember the sheer terror of my son's first spring break. It nearly killed me.

Tabitha said...

Oh, great story!!

My eldest is five, and, like Jacqui, I can't imagine letting him walk down the block by himself. I know the day will come eventually - I want it to come. But I want it to take its time in getting here. :)

AnneB said...

One of the many downsides of being a writer is having an over-active imagination. Add parenthood to that, and kids leaving the country, and we're doomed.

Mary, just yesterday my younger son (20) bought his round-trip ticket from O'Hare to London, and now has to figure out how to get from Heathrow to the University of Lancaster, where he'll be studying January to June.

I keep telling myself he'll do fine. He has traveled some, but only in the US and never solo. I keep telling myself he will figure this out; I do not have to get involved. It's a direct flight. England has good public transportation. He speaks the language. At least a quarter of his genes are going home.

Darn. I want to go too!

Kim Ayres said...

My mother used to say you only really have any idea whether you brought your kids up right by the time they hit 40. Of course by then it's far too late to do anything except nag them about how they're bringing their kids up all wrong...

The Anti-Wife said...

You did very well. Good for you!

Mary Witzl said...

Carrie -- (Sorry! The last thing you need now is to hear that it gets harder!) I remember our daughter's first day of school well! My husband and I were barely able to sleep the night before, while our kid thought the whole thing was a lark. We were nervous wrecks, but we had no idea what watching her board the midnight bus to London would feel like. Good thing, too!

Carolie -- 'Bittersweet' is absolutely the right word for how this feels. You feel so proud and yet you feel so rotten at the same time. It has been said that the only thing sadder than a kid growing up and away is a kid not growing up and moving away. (Sniff) I'm impressed that you get this, though. Before I had kids, when my parent friends told me things like this, they got little sympathy or understanding from me. I cringe to remember.

Christy -- Thank you. I believe this intellectually, but the icky part of me that still wants to be a clingy mother whining about bedtimes and toothbrushing still aches. Probably whining withdrawal or something similar.

Jacqui -- You never know; I never grew out of wanting to spend time with my mother, even when we had the odd spat. My eldest tends to take me for granted: a day alone with me has never been a big deal for her. Only recently has she begun to seek out my company and want to spend time with me.

Charles -- Now I'm wondering what your son was DOING on his spring break. Driving up to Canada, maybe? (That would send me around the bend.) Taking hand-gliding lessons? Please don't tell me; it's bad enough as it is.

Tabitha -- Good for you! It is so easy to push your kids through the various stages without savoring each one; we've known people who've done this. We've always realized how limited our time is with our kids and how the trick is to try and make it go more slowly.

Anne -- You are so right about the over-active imagination problem: I've been avoiding the newspapers for just this reason. I don't need to hear about extra disasters and problems just at this point, as my mind is already teeming with them.

University of Lancaster is a really good school, especially for EFL teaching and linguistics, I seem to remember. Lancaster itself is pretty rainy and I'd do fine there, but I hope your son doesn't mind clouds! I know that trains run from London to Lancaster, but I cannot agree about England's transportation system. Maybe I'm spoiled after living in Japan, but I have little admiration for the train system in the U.K. Bus transport is a lot more dependable -- and generally cleaner, too. But you are right: your son will figure this out and he'll have fun doing it!

Kim -- I do know of one woman who got an angry post-midnight call from a daughter-in-law one night telling her that she should have brought her son up to do household chores properly. Quality control in parenting -- kind of scary, isn't it? I like the idea about nagging your kids to bring up their kids better, though I hope to have retired as a nagger by then.

Anti-wife -- Thank you. But it feels so awful, that's the problem!

The Quoibler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Quoibler said...


My last comment was deleted... so I'll try again! :)

You're a wonderful mommy, and that was JUST the story I needed to hear today.


adrienne said...

Thank goodness for modern means of communication! On my first trip to Europe, I called my mom from a pay phone to tell her my boyfriend had left me stranded. And of course the phone went dead.Didn't think I'd ever feel this way, but hooray for cell phones and e-mail! (And it sounds like your daughter has more sense than I did.)

laura said...

Amsterdam! Oh my. Hans' brother spent a good amount of time there and Hans has visited several times himself. You're right, parents have to realize that kids are only on loan to us for about 18 years and then you have to let them go. Over protecting or calling all the shots is going to make for either over rebelious or very naive offspring. But I have to admit that I'm glad none of my kids have ever expressed a desire to visit Amsterdam!

debra said...

Roots and wings, Mary, it's roots and wings. Out oldest spent 12 weeks in Buenos Aires when she was 19---left without speaking a word of Spanish and came back relatively fluent. Now she is a student in New York City.
So it goes...

ChrisEldin said...

Oh dear God you're making me cry!
You're very brave and grounded to realize all of that stuff. I hope I do and be half of what you are as a mom when that time comes. I think I won't be asking the bus driver to look after them. I'd be paying him his day's salary and driving the bus for him....

Hope she has a wonderful time. She definitely has a wonderful family...

Carrie said...

Just reading this put my heart in my throat. It's so hard, the worrying...

I'm glad your daughter and her friend are having fun, and it's great that you are keeping in touch during her trip.

(When I was in my 20s, I too went to Amsterdam. In the days before Internet and cell phones, I was too cheap (or poor?) to even call my parents!!)

Mary Witzl said...

Angelique -- Believe me, I'm just a garden variety mother, and though my kids think I'm swell much of the time, they also think I'm a nagging shrew. This is partly because they're lazy and partly because I'm a nagging shrew.

Adrienne -- Now that sounds like a story, and yes: thank God for cell phones in times like this. I cringe to remember similar calls my mother got from me. (Getting my traveler's checks stolen in Indianapolis, for instance, in the winter. When I didn't have a coat and was on my way to Chicago.) My daughter, for all of her flaws, has more sense than I did too!

Laura -- I tell myself that it could be worse. It could be Bogota, say, or Mogadishu. We keep reminding her to go to the museums. At least the Heineken Beer Factory had good, wholesome beer, plus complimentary cheese and crackers.

Debra -- I like the idea of roots and wings, and I hope we've given our kids these. But when you are actually forced to watch your kids standing at the edge, ready to fly off, those words really take on a different meaning, don't they?

Chris -- Don't think we weren't tempted! The first time our eldest went off on a school field trip in a school bus, I swear I got close enough to the driver to smell his breath. I looked him in the eye and told him to drive safely. I could not help myeslf. I've done this over and over, every time the kids have had to go on outings in buses and so far it seems to have worked.

Carrie -- Maybe our paths crossed in Amsterdam! I was always a little too cheap and poor to call my parents too, but I made up for it by sending them lots of postcards and letters. And my parents didn't really mind; they were cheap and poor themselves and as calls were reserved for real emergencies, a call from me would hardly have reassured them.

PI said...

Hi Mary!
At last my kids are out of my domain. Oh but wait a sec, now there's the grand kids off to Uni and the like. Hey Ho!
Had to come over when I read about your rejection and here's a big hug. I have just had two - my first for the book and have passed the stage of asking publishers and agents to form an orderly queue. Any way what do they know and at least they were encouraging and courteous.
Remember Sheriff and Rowling - both rejected by most publishers. Onward and upward!

Gorilla Bananas said...

Well, perhaps you should be glad that they didn't want to visit Afghanistan. I heard of some elderly American tourists who did go there a few years ago for a holiday.

Kappa no He said...

Amsterdam, of all places! She's an adventurer like her mom. I know she'll do great, have much fun, and have some great stories to tell. You should be sooo proud!

Mary Witzl said...

PI -- Thank you for that cyber-hug! Yes, rejection is tough, but it's a big part of life -- and an even bigger part of life for us poor old author hopefuls. If I don't achieve anything else, I'll have a tough old hide in a few years' time, and I won't be a sore loser. Still, some rejections smart more than others, and I wish I were entirely past the form ones, kind or otherwise. Onward and upward -- or just onward!

GB -- Boy, I'll bet they were surprised! I wonder if they ended up in Afghanistan because they were naive, or if they were genuinely interested in the culture? And you're right: I'm lucky the kids didn't have a hankering to visit Mogadishu or Bogota. Bad enough that my eldest joined the air cadets and had to be ferried back and forth to rifle practice.

Kappa -- She's back now, and yes, she has some great stories. She and her friend got stopped at the French border patrol and asked if they had grass (they had oolang tea and plain ocha in bags). We've had a couple of great chats and it's fun to travel vicariously through your own kids.

Letty Cruz said...

I love it when towns are awash in hot-looking men, such a sweet rarity!

A Paperback Writer said...

Oh bravo! You are good.
My parents sent me off on supervised trips without them to Mexico (when I was11), to Vancouver, the Oregon coast, and Disneyland (when I was 15), to Europe when I was 16, and to Seattle when I was 17. I was 18 when I went off to Europe to meet 2nd cousins in Spain but traveled alone. I'm sure they must've felt then what you felt.
I have no children, so I'll never really get to see it form the parents' perspective, but it sounds like you taught her well.

Danette Haworth said...

Ah, Mary, a bittersweet post. I feel for you too!

Eryl Shields said...

I remember the excitement of travelling as a girl, and was always slightly irritated with my mother for not being as excited as me, now I know why that was.

Phil said...

A touching piece of writing, Mary.

I'm sure she'll have a great time. -What will you do if she rings to tell you she's landed a job in restaurant?!!


Mary Witzl said...

Letty -- According to our daughter, Amsterdam is a veritable mecca of fine-looking men of all races, but especially Asian. She and her friend were practically swooning over them, but if they sampled any, they were wise enough to keep it to themselves.

APW -- My God, your parents have been a lot braver than we were, for a lot longer! Our eldest has always wanted to strike off on her own, but we've been reluctant to allow it. We did let her go on a five-day trip to the Boso Peninsula when she was three, with the family of a good friend. I would have been frantic, but we were having our number two kid at the time. She had a blast there. She'd have given her eye teeth for parents like yours, so go and thank them right now for being tougher than we were. I can see how you got your adventurous spirit.

Danette -- Thank you (sniff). At least she's back now -- for a while. I'm trying to keep the nagging to a minimum.

Eryl -- My mother had the wanderlust herself when she was young, and even though she was obviously anxious when I traveled, you could see how excited she was too. Now I see why she was anxious. Strange how your circumstances can completely change your perspective.

Phil -- Fortunately, I'll never know what my reaction would have been: she's back! We were pretty sure she'd come back; in a very short time we're leaving the U.K. for a destination that is more to her liking. I'll e-mail you about it!