We arrive in Amsterdam on a sunny Saturday afternoon in December, and go to the canal district to take a walk. Even after a year of constant moving (Paris to Indonesia, then a short stint in Coye la Foret) moving is still hard. We feel disoriented and anxious, worried for the children and ourselves. Theo will be starting another school; Francesca will have to accept the reality of part-time day care. We need jobs and lives and friends and routines…again. We love Amsterdam and are pleased to be leaving France, but we miss stability, and the sensation, however flawed, of having a home.
We walk the canals, aimless and quiet. “I think we should go get a drink,” Florent says as bikes whiz past us and seagulls screech overhead. “We should get a drink and remember why we love this city.”
Before we had children we came often to Amsterdam for quirky romantic weekends. We rented bikes, which we didn’t lock properly and were stolen. We walked the canals after dinner and held hands. We marveled at the height of the Dutch and their willingness to say hello to strangers. We admired the warm and domestic images of European life in the Rijksmuseum, and left with impressions of an equitable society, optimistic and comfortable in it’s own skin. Paris was so serious and adult—severe in its implementation of savoir faire. But Amsterdam was whimsical and forgiving, still figuring it all out. It would be easy to live here, we thought, liberating. So when circumstances allowed, (I’m not at all sure they do, but there you go) we moved here.
Still doubt lingers. What if the health care system is bad? What if the place we liked to visit is a terrible place to live. What if we have become addicted to moving and nothing makes us happy, but that? What if we wake up one morning and wonder why we don’t live in Paris?
We find a little bar in the center that serves pinot noir from Oregon, my favorite. The waiter smiles at us and speaks English without resentment or much of an accent. He apologizes for the messy table and wipes it with what smells like bleach.
“Are you hungry?” he asks. “We have such nice cheese. Wouldn’t you like to have some of our fine cheeses?” It is five in the afternoon, and the sun has already gone down. The city is strangely dark. Now is not the time to eat. Only children eat between meals, and small ones at the that. I feel uneasy.
“Sure,” says Florent gamely. “We’ll have some good Dutch cheese. Bring us a plate!”
He was like this in Indonesia too. Of course we’ll have the river fish! I’ve always wanted civet coffee! “You French are crazy abroad,” I say.
Florent looks uncomfortable. “What kind of cheese is he going to bring, do you think?”
He considers this. “I like Dutch cheese.”
“Um huh,” I say. “When was the last time you had Dutch cheese?”
“A while,” he conceeds. Unhappy.
The cheese arrives. Ice-cube sized chunks of sweaty gouda and Maasdamer and Edam piled on the plate in abundance. By its side lie hunks of bitterballen, deep fried balls of pureed meat and potatoes, and then, huge, incongruous green olives from Spain.
“That’s a lot,” says Florent.
“It’s not very subtle,” I agree. I suppress images of cheese plates at great Parisian bistros–Morbier and Livarot, aged comté, St Marcellin and a Bleu d’auverge. Tiny little slices of refined cheese had by tiny little French people who could span their own waists with their hands. France, for all its faults, has mastered the art of serving farmers food in a sophisticated way. Holland, apparently, has not. “It’s probably delicious,” I say finally.
Florent sighs. He takes a bite of the cheese and nods slowly. He’s trying, but it seems as though part of him is dying inside.
I taste the cheese and am pleasantly surprised. It reminds me of the cheese I ate as a child in Sweden–nutty and rich, full of cumin. I could eat this in the morning by a cold lake with a cup of hot chocolate and be happy, I think. I could eat it with my grandmother and my mother on cold brown bread that a practical Swede has decided to refrigerate. This is the food of my childhood and I know how to enjoy it.
The problem is, I’ve lost my old habits, under the relentless, sneering eye of France. I’ve become as rigid as any Parisian. I expect the Mairie to turn on streetlights at dusk, for waiters to respect my privacy, and the cheese to come after dinner. I have been corrupted, or educated as the French would say, but now I would like my freedom back.
“I think it’s quite good,” I say firmly. “I think this is something that we will do. Go out, have a drink, and eat cheese with fried balls of…”
Florent winces and takes a long pull of red wine. I believe I can see him reconstructing in his head every encounter he’d had with cheese since the age of two. There was that Morbier that came in October and the Mont d’or I had after Christmas skiing in ’78. But then some part of him decides to change course, to embrace the inferior but friendly culture to which he is strangely drawn. He has chosen Holland, as he has chosen so many things that don’t fit the French image of success–business, an American wife…the Yankees. Perhaps he knows it will do no good to fight over Dutch cheese, when he has just tasted it again, after such a very long time.