A nomad mother in Singapore

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Happy Christmas!

I want to wish everybody very happy holidays. With family, friends, teasing smells, scrumptious tastes, merry carols and enticing stories. A touch of magic. And maybe a dusting of snow.

I hope to see you all in the new year, with new energy and new inspiration. Happy 2012!

PS if you want a pretty little gingerbread house just like in the picture, check out my food website, Kamel-food for more pictures and the recipe!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Breakfast talk

‘Tijm, come and eat your breakfast.’
The lego click, clicks.
‘Tijm, stop with the lego and come to the table. Now.’
Step by step he saunters over.
‘Do you want cereals? Or toast?’
He thinks for a moment. ‘Cereals. Weetabix, chocolate stars and raisins, but no milk. And marmite toast.’
Without thinking I mix his usual blend of cereals and put the bowl in front of him.
Immediately he bursts out. ‘No rice crispies, I said no rice crispies.’
‘What do you mean no rice crispies? You always have rice crispies.’
‘I Said No Rice Crispies Mama.’
I try to remember what he said. No idea. ‘But you eat rice crispies every day. Why not now?’
‘Because I said, no rice crispies!’
‘But you like them. Just eat them.’
‘No mama, today I don’t like them.’
‘But yesterday you did like them?’
He thinks for a bit. ‘Yes, yesterday I liked them. And tomorrow I will like them.’ Then, shouting. ‘But today I don’t!’
I sigh.
‘Eat them anyway. They are already in the bowl.’
He screams. ‘No mama, I said no rice crispies today. No!’
‘Tough luck. I am not making anything else. Eat them anyway.’
Tijm squeals, louder, hysterically.
‘Mama, take them out. Mama. I don’t like you today. I said no rice crispies. I won’t play with you today mama. Mahama?’
‘Stop screaming. Eat your breakfast. This is not a hotel. I am fed up with you ordering me about. Eat up!’ Now I scream too.
‘Mama, be quiet. You hurt my ears. I don’t like you today. Stop talking mama. Stop.’
I say nothing.
‘Mama,’ he screams again. ‘Stop talking.’
I still say nothing.
‘Mama. Mahama. I want you to say yes.’
‘I want you to take the rice crispies out. Now.’
‘Mama, I want you to say yes.’
‘No. Take them out yourself. And give them to your sister.’
Angrily, he keeps screaming, muttering away. I leave the room, preserving the very last energy and self-control I have left.
When I come back he has taken out all the rice crispies, one by one.
I stroke his hair. ‘Enjoy your breakfast?’
He nods, his mouth full.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

And now he’s four

In England birthday parties are serious business. It starts with the guest list. Where in the Netherlands the rule is to invite as many as the age of your child, here no limits apply. And once your child has been invited, not asking back would not be polite. Then location. Pokey English rooms would not take an invasion of the kind, so a soft play area or gym is preferred. At the start of the party presents are whisked away invisibly. They will be opened later, in private, so impolite awkwardnesses can be avoided. One should never, like me, forget to attach a card. One also, again like me, shouldn’t forget to make notes while opening. A written thank you will be expected.
Then, it’s playtime. No party will pass without Pass the Parcel, where paper is ripped, presenting layer after layer of little gifts, so no one will feel left out. There is, often, a bouncy castle.
Only towards the very end, tea is served. A birthday tea of white and brown triangles, cheese, ham, jam and marmite. No peanut butter, there might be an allergy. Bowls of carrot sticks, cucumber, crisps and sausages. Pitchers of squash. While the kids fill up on the soft inside of the bread, the mothers watch. Who grabs a carrot that the kids won’t touch can expect avoiding looks. After tea the highlight of the party is brought in. The Cake. Home baked, off course, by any self-respecting mum. After Happy Birthday the cake disappears mysteriously. At the door it is handed out, rolled in a napkin, in a colourful plastic bag filled with sweets and cheap plastic toys, that will hover round the house for a few days until reaching their final destination, the bin.

As a foreigner I was going to do it differently. I thought. Well, I did not want to risk my son’s social status, so I invited all his friends. And more, I realised when I added up numbers. And actually, maybe we should intercept those presents at the door as well. We did hold the feast at home, keeping our fingers crossed that the weather would allow overspill in the garden. After some cursing and swearing at the oven and sticky moulds a few shop bought pound cakes, with the help of eighteen small children, five colours of icing and many, many sweets, transformed in a colourful train with pretty messy carriages. The sun made an appearance and the garden hosted bag and egg races while the mothers made their own tea and ate home baked muffins. During the baking of eighteen pizza’s dressed by as many children a puppet show was staged where Sinterklaas played Father Christmas. At the door no-one was disappointed when they did not get a bag but a book. With on top their own carriage, rolled in a napkin, because we forgot to serve the cake in the merry chaos. We sang Happy Birthday and Lang zal hij leven and it was the best party on either side of the Channel. Said Tijm.

The English mothers complimented, extensively. The Dutch mother flopped down on the sofa and dreamt of soft play area’s with bouncy castles and little white triangles that required no baking.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Cloudy days

A depression hangs over the British Isles. Grey clouds pack together and smother the sun. Tiny drops spit down. The days get shorter and colder. While we press our noses against the back door and stare at the muddy garden I feel trapped in myself. The dark clouds drape a grey veil over my eyes and I am losing myself. Who is this mad, freaky woman? Who lost her patience miles ago, and whirls through the house like a cranky tornado? Who rushes from euphoria to desperation, driven yet stressed, till only exhaustion remains? From a distance I observe, and I think, this should be different. Better.

One morning I come down, hairs still wet, and in the kitchen Tijm bounces towards me. He points. ‘Mama, the sun is shining, look, mama. It’s lovely out there.’
Looking out the window I blink my eyes. A blue sky grins at me. Tijm has his wellies out already. ‘Mama, let’s go!’
I put the kettle on. ‘Shall we have breakfast first?’

Not much later we’re off to the park. The air is crackling, frost glitters on the grass and sunshine polishes the world. We wear hats and mittens. In the park we turn into a muddy track. It is only nine o’clock and all sounds are frozen still. We climb over the sluice, pass the sandy wall and stop at the cascade. Despite the cold the sun beams away the grub from inside my head. I breathe the sharp air and feel my senses awaken. My brain rolls a merry tumble in my head. Hello, it cheers. I’m back.

Tijm scampers away to collects sticks. We play pooh-sticks, we toss sprigs and branches in the water, and see which one is the first swirling down. Linde's stick get's stuck and Tijm wins. We play, again and again. The children run round collecting more. The water sparkles, the trees rustle and the world shines. Linde slumps in the mud and screams. I pull her up and kiss the scare away. Jasmijn whinges in the buggy, with cold fingers. Biscuits buy her peace. Like small white clouds the problems sail through my head. Confident I blow them away and the sky stays clear. We cross the stepping stones, one by one. I hold Linde and Tijm’s hands and step by step we brave the river. I turn back, get Jasmijn, and then the buggy. We fall, tumble and roll. We smile. We are covered in mud but the cobwebs are cleared from my head.

That afternoon the clouds return. The sun is hidden, far away, as if it was never there. I stand in the kitchen, the clock chimes four and I turn on the lights. Night is coming, but bedtime is far away. Tijm and Linde jump from chair to sofa, Jasmijn bawls hungry in her playpen. Slowly I count to ten and try to go back to the park. Back to that place inside me, where I was this morning, where the sun shines. Where I can be a nice mother and enjoy life without getting lost. I know I can do it. It’s just so darn difficult.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

In her shoe

She stops, in the middle of the room. Her eyes stare blankly into thin air.
‘Linde,’ I call.
No reaction.
‘Linde,’ I try again. She keeps staring and bends her knees, a little.
Only when I flutter my hands in front of her nose she looks up. She walks away,
legs astride, avoiding my looks. I breathe in the smell and sigh. ‘Linde, no!’

‘Come on kids, tea’s ready. Do you need a wee first Linde?’
She shakes her head, wriggles out of my grip and runs for it. At the table she wobbles, smears food everywhere and drops peas in her cup. Water splashes on the floor. Only when I return, dishcloth in hand, I notice her cup. It is full of water.
‘Not again,’ I groan.

She wasn’t yet two when she decided, just like that; no more nappies. It went well, reasonably, and we were proud of our little girl, majestically on her potty. Accidents happened, more or less, but with age it would improve, surely? It didn’t. Now, at two and a half it’s worse than ever. Accidents happen, not once or twice a week, but a day. The childminder sends her home in a nappy, pants all run out. At home the washing machine tosses and turns continuously.

We keep smiling. We get angry. Nothing helps. We promise stickers, and for a while it works, for Hello Kitty she’ll mount the potty and the fridge door fills with smiling kittens. Then, it goes wrong, again, and in fresh trousers she stamps her feet by it’s door, screaming for her sticker. We promise gifts, as yet unopened, for one whole clean day. We force her on the potty, every half hour, we urge, persist, and threaten, if you don’t do it you can’t come, watch tv, eat. We punish, put her in her room, where she screams with big wide eyes until I fetch her from her growing puddle. We ignore, let her be, with dirty bum, until I find her in the toilet, pants around her ankles and poop on the walls.
I play my last card. ‘Are you a baby?’ I ask. ‘Do you want to wear a nappy?’
‘No,’ she cries, ‘I am a big girl. I don’t want a nappy. I want pants.’
Reluctantly I put her in clean pants. ‘And where will you pooh?’ I ask sternly.
‘In my pants,’ she grins and runs away.

One night we stand by the fire place. In front of us three shoes, in them a carrot, an apple and a pear. It’s Sinterklaas time, when Dutch children set their shoes out, singing, leaving snacks for the bishop’s white horse. So did we, hoping Sinterklaas will cross the channel, and his helper Zwarte Piet will climb down our chimney to leave gifts in our shoes. He will, but Sinterklaas is cheeky. He does not like naughty children. Sweet kids get sweets but naughty ones find a rod in their shoe. We have filled the big blue shoe, the tiny pink slipper. Then we hesitate, at the turquoise one. We look at each other and grin. We grab some pants from the washing line and stuff them in the shoe. I turn away, ready to turn off the lights but hesitate, again. We look at each other and shrug. She is only two. We add a large, chocolate Sinterklaas figure. She will get there eventually. The question is when. And how.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Sweet dreams

The story is finished. ‘Come on kids, bedtime,’ I say. Linde snuggles up. Only the tip of her chin shows above the duvet. Tijm lies down as well, on the floor, in the middle of the room. I frown. ‘In your bed, Tijm. Now!’
Tijm grins and stays put. ‘Or shall I tickle you to bed?’ I threaten.
He does not move and I attack. I tickle and tease, he giggles and wriggles. His feet in one hand, his hands in my other I pick him up, and I swing him, one, two, and three in his bed. ‘Do you want a kiss?’
‘No,’ he yells and hides under the blanket.
Linde wants one. Sweetly she kisses back, her blond hair spread angelically on the pillow. But twilight won’t mask the naughty glimmer in her eye.
I leave the door ajar and walk down the stairs. Briefly I ignore the mumbling, the sneaking around, the steps on the landing. The drop, drop, drop from the tap.
Then they call: ‘Mama!’
I sigh upstairs. ‘Mama, we were thirsty.’
I know, I see the puddle on the floor and the wet pyjama’s. I dry, mop, dress and tuck in again. I am halfway down the stairs when the yelling starts.
‘Mama, we need a wee.’

Half an hour and many up and downs later I am fed up. I roar up the stairs. ‘If you are not quiet now, you’ll regret it. You’ll, ehm, you’ll…’ They’ll what?
I spit out: ‘You won’t go to playgroup tomorrow. Sleep. Now.’
The door bangs behind me as I realise my mistake. An hour of entertainment for fifty pence each, now gone. I ignore the noise for a bit, beaten up, tired. The racket increases, I hear them stumbling about, I hear thumping, a loud bang. I stamp my feet upstairs, open the door sharply. In the middle of the room is a pile of toys and books. On top lie two duvets and two children. I feel something bubble in my tummy, the corners of my mouth turn up. I stop the laugh. I count to ten and the anger follows easily. ‘In. Your. Beds. Now!’
I push and shove toys in boxes, books on shelves, randomly. I have not set a foot over the doorstep before I hear rumour. I turn around, snatch Tijm from his bed and carry him to our big bed. He struggles and grumbles, doesn’t want to, not without his sister. I say nothing, tuck him in, kiss him, turn off the lights and close the door. Linde lies quietly, with big dark eyes. I stroke her hair and close her door too. It stays quiet.

Not much later I too, worn out by the fight, turn in. In the dark my hands wander through the bed. Where is the boy? I turn on lights. The bed is empty. I sneak into the kids room but find his bed empty too. Stunned I scan the room. Then I find him, in Linde’s bed, brother and sister tightly entwined. For a minute I observe the sweet scene. Then, very mean, I disentangle them.

Friday, 18 November 2011

I want and I shall

I lie on my tummy and push, I push the floor with my feet. My arms pull along. I shuffle. Under my tummy the rug is rough, and slowly, push after shove, I move forward. Then, suddenly, I feel smooth wood, and now I can go fast. I am a racing car, my legs push faster, my hands thrust the solid floor away and speedily I skim the room. Laughing I round the sofa till I feel the brushy wool again. Then I bump my head against something soft. I touch a foot, a leg, trousers. I claw the fabric and hand-by-hand I drag myself up. I wobble, wag my bum, but keep pulling, I want, no need to get there. Wilful my legs kick up and yes. I am standing.
Proudly I look around, gripping the knee tight, so high I can see the world. I wave and grin. Mama does not see me and I slap her knee. She looks up, smiles, pats my head and types on.

The house is quiet, my big brother and sister are away. No one jumps on me, pushes or pokes me. No one kisses me or makes me laugh. Mama is busy, always busy, she works, she types, and only the corner of her eye sees me.
I crawl to the playpen and grab the bars. Again I pull, upwards, but I can’t. My feet push, I go up but not enough, I swing and sway and tumble down screaming. Mama looks up. She helps me and together we grip the bars firmly. I stand for a bit, than she lets me walk, holding tight we cruise the room, until we reach the sofa. She sits me down, a stack of cups in front of me. I mow them over. Ready.
I call mama, come, please. She looks up but works on. I bend over, further, till I fall. I crawl again, grab the trousers and pull up. First I smile happily, bearing both my teeth. Mama smiles back. Then I get angry, I want to walk and mama has to help. I smack her knee. Now she no longer smiles. She let’s me walk, to the middle of the rug where I have to sit. I don’t want to, I stretch my legs, stiff as a board. Cross I bend my back backwards, because I don’t want to sit. I want to walk, I howl. For a second I relax and mama seizes the moment. I am sitting.
A pile of blocks, a tumbling bunny, some animals. I don’t want them, I throw them about and around and scream for mama. She reacts, oh little one, how tired you are, let’s get you to bed. But I am not tired and I don’t want to sleep, I want to walk, mama, hear me now. She doesn’t, she puts me in my cot and I cry. Sleep tight, mama says, sweetly, but I don’t want to sleep, I want to walk and I scream until my throat hurts and mama finally gets it and comes to get me.


There is so much noise. In my house, in my head, in my ears and in my mouth. Just out of the shower, still wet, it starts. They want the blue towel with the orange star. Both of them, and there is only one. He hollers and roars, stamping his foot. She wails, highly pitched, crocodile’s tears jumping from her eyes. Still dripping they fill the landing with wet footprints and a lot of noise. The baby, still in her cot, wakes and joins in. The crying resounds through the house, pressure builds in my head and before I can think I scream as well. I rant, shout and scold. I push children into rooms, naked and wet, and toss nasty words all around me. Now the noise is mine as well.
Somewhere deep down a little voice sounds. Softly, then a bit louder, the little voice tries to speak through the racket. ‘Don’t shout,’ it says. ‘It doesn’t work, you know that. Walk away, go downstairs. Count to ten. Come back calm. Stop shouting. Stop shouting. Stop shouting.’
I hear the little voice, but muffled, and the well-meant advice drowns in the noise, my mouth keeps screaming. The madness ends in a sea of sounds and suddenly I sit, two slippery wet bodies pressed against me. Softly hiccupping she lays her head in my neck. He puts his arms firmly around the three of us. It is quiet and I don’t know what to say. We cuddle.
I dry and dress them. They play, sometimes sweet, sometimes angry and shouting, as children do. The baby cries from lost sleep. With pounding ears I ignore them. The problem is obvious; the baby is teething and our nights too are filled with cries. We are tired, from lack of sleep and from screaming. And I am ashamed. Never again, I say, never again I will lose myself like that. I will be a good mother.

A couple of hours later I am at the door, coat on, we need to go, pre-school waits. They are not coming, I call softly, then louder. They slide down the stairs, on their bottoms, a cheeky glimmer in their eyes. I hurry up the stairs, and on the landing I find a mountain. A very high mountain. All our clothes, from all our wardrobes, are in this mountain. I feel my three childless hours slip through my fingers, taken up by sorting, folding, stuffing, and my fuses blow again. Fragile, in the background, the little voice tries, they are so little, it’s actually funny, but it gets swept up in the swirling tirade that follows.

Later, the children at school, the baby in bed and the clothes back in the wardrobes, the house is quiet. I sit still, on the sofa. In my head the noise goes on, ranting and raving down to my toes and the tips of my shaking fingers. Rest never comes, no work gets done and it’s time to pick them up again.


It is quiet in the yoga hall. ‘Inhale,’ says the teacher, ‘Exhale. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…’
The breath of fifteen mothers rustles through the hall. Again. ‘One, two, three, four…’
The first grizzle starts. A soft cry. Slowly the mothers rise. It won’t be, please? Fourteen mothers settle back down, relieved. Not theirs. One mother pulls herself up. A baby is cuddled, cradled and put back down, on the floor. The teacher continues, imperturbable. ‘Pull your navel down, put your legs up into the air.’
More grizzling starts. A moan here. A cry there. The air fills with little sounds. Yet it stays quiet, peaceful in the hall. We do yoga. The peace is inside us.

Even inside me. I have been on edge all week, bursting at every moan and every scream of baby or toddler, but here I let go. The soft, soothing voice of the teacher, the smell of incense, as soon as I put one foot in the hall my stress disappears, like snow from the sun, in the serenity of the hall. Nothing can disturb my peace.
The babies give it their best shot. One by one they are cuddled, rocked, fed and put down again. I rock mine, my nose in her neck, where her sweet baby scent mixes with the incense, forming a tantalising perfume. Back on the ground, she lies between my legs. My bum sticks in the air, my legs point up, one by one. She looks at me. Was that a smile, a chortle, does she think, ‘Mum, what on earth are you doing?’
She snorts and utters a small groan. I rub her belly and yoga on.

Half an hour later the babies get their turn. We are in a circle, fifteen naked babies, fifteen mothers that pour oil on their hands. We massage the babies, until they slither over the mats and their greasy fat legs slip from our hands. We roll every miniscule toe between our fingers. We rub oil in every crease, every dimple in their thighs. Over their bellies, their backs. My baby gets tired. She does not want to go on. Elsewhere babies get louder too. The naked babies get dressed. Slowly I feed her and cuddle her to sleep. Tea appears, biscuits, the mothers and babies enjoy their snacks. The silence disappears quickly, with fifteen tea drinking and biscuit eating mothers. Chatter fills the hall. Words, sentences, and laughter float around, bounce off the walls.

With mind and body cleared, I step outside, into the sunshine. I look around. Did I forget something, leave something behind? I have my baby, my bag, my buggy. That’s all I need, what I shed in the hall I do not need back.
Cheerfully I leave, to pick up my toddler girl and her big brother. Later that day, they cry, moan, flip and scream, but I don’t scream back. Angry and surprised they look at me. They grunt, frown, and then turn quiet. I smile. I am relaxed.