I’m opening this post with an apology because I said that while we were away last week I’d be over on Instagram – but sometimes you have to put the key people in your life first and we needed a complete break. Life since Christmas has felt pretty non-stop for us. I’ve mentioned a few times that I didn’t think we were going to have the chance for any kind of proper holiday until the autumn… and I know we went over to France for a few days last month which was lovely but we were on the go the whole time. So when, a little while ago, I looked at the calendar and spotted a gap without any meetings I rather impulsively booked a midlife week in Amsterdam.
Why Amsterdam? Firstly because it was the closest destination on our very long ‘to go’ list – I knew we could get there and back quickly so it was the easiest break I could plan. I’d been a few times before for Selfridges photoshoots but always on whistlestop tours. They were always a bit mad and I remember one in particular when I’d booked a crew of photographers, stylists and models to shoot the new spring season in the tulip fields. I’d selected the outfits and had them packed up, planned all of the travel details… but omitted to check that the tulips were in bloom. We rolled up to miles and miles of muddy fields and it felt like a career ending moment. Luckily the power of Selfridges meant that the Gasson diamond factory opened its doors to us and welcomed us in so we styled the models in boardroom poses with various stones (and look at the caption – back in April 2000 a pair of Gucci sandals was £180!)
Mal and I went to Amsterdam together once, back in 2002. We stole a single night away when my parents agreed to look after our then two tiny boys. Funds were tight and as you can see we had to empty our penny jar to see how far we could go. Amsterdam was the answer and looking at this photo I think the middle one had more money in his tiny fists then than he does now!
A midlife week in Amsterdam
So, our plan was to see Amsterdam properly this time and I pulled together a list of all the things I’ve always wanted to see. But on our first evening there I came out of the shower to find this…
… and I knew I needed to rethink.
Mal had worked really hard before we left so that for once, he wouldn’t have to keep going while we were away. He was clearly shattered and I decided there and then that he needed a complete break – when I suggested that he didn’t have to log everything photographically for Midlifechic I saw the relief on his face. And since our trip to the Caribbean last September he’s been jokingly building an album of me in various exotic places glued to my phone so I decided that this time I’d stop too and just enjoy our time together.
It means I’m having to patch this post together by bringing you the few random snapshots we took and the photo above is the only one I have of our first night. We began our stay with a hotel in the centre because we’d had a few accommodation complications and that’s something I should just cover quickly in case any of you are thinking of going to Amsterdam. Since lockdown, the laws for short term lets have changed there and AirBnB owners are only allowed to rent their places out for a maximum of 30 nights a year. It means that accommodation is scarce and three different owners cancelled our bookings as a result. When the fourth one tried to do it just a week before we were due to depart, he sensed our panic and agreed to rent it to us privately which was a bit of a risk but it worked out well because he also charged us less. It does mean that sadly I can’t link it for you though. If you want to go to Amsterdam you need to book early and find somewhere that doesn’t have cancellations in the review section. It’s also a good idea to save a wishlist of places for your dates so that if one does cancel you can quickly move on to another.
Friday – a midlife week in Amsterdam
So, after an early night, the following morning we crossed to the other side of the city ready to settle into our apartment. We’d arrived too early to check in so we sat at a nearby cafe with our suitcases, feeling a bit on edge. You see it was also the day that the middle one was due to receive the results of his university finals so we were expecting an important call later that afternoon.
Without going into too much detail the last few weeks have been a real worry. As you know his Theatre & Performance degree course was changed significantly over the time he was there and his final result which was supposed to be purely performance based now included a long dissertation. Because of his dysgraphia, written assessment is something that we’d searched particularly hard to avoid when we were initially looking at courses but there was no way round it so he spent a very difficult few months getting it done. And he did… submitting it a nerve-wracking ten minutes before the midnight deadline at the beginning of May.
At 10,000 words it was a huge achievement for somebody who finds the written word so very difficult. And then later that week he discovered that the word count wasn’t 10,000 words, it was 6,000 because a 4,000 word essay he’d submitted at Christmas formed part of the total. His mistake I know – but in his circumstances a particularly painful one to make. Northumbria refused to respond to him or tell him what they would do; all we knew from the university website was that it was at their discretion, they might mark the whole thing… disqualify it completely… or maybe mark it up to the 6000 limit.
I had so many sleepless nights over the weeks that followed – more than he did I think… you know how it goes. In the end the dissertation results were released in advance of the final grades. So many students had dropped out of the course that there were only eight left so I’d been hoping the staff might be lenient and read it to the end – but no, they’d marked half of it. That of course meant that none of the questions posed in the title were concluded and so the grade was very low. It was heartbreaking when so much hard work had gone into it and we were really worried about his final degree result.
So you can understand why my heart was thumping and I was feeling a bit sick as we sat with a coffee in the early morning sunshine. All I could think was that at least we’d be in the flat by the time the call came with wi-fi, ready to talk it all through. At one point I heard my phone ping with a text – but I was sticking to my promise of not checking it very often so I left it in my bag. When I pulled it out to settle the bill though I saw that it was from the boy…
… he’d actually received his results the night before…
…and thankfully his performance work had pulled the marks up…
… he’d done fine!
Philip Larkin had it all mixed up with his ‘they f*&k you up, your mum and dad’ didn’t he? He got it completely the wrong way round!
We unpacked and went for a walk in Vondelpark to let the pressure float away. This has been such a great dress this summer and it’s now in the sale if you’re quick.
and this was later on, heading out for dinner feeling more relaxed and uplifted than we had for weeks.
With cause for celebration!
Saturday – a midlife week in Amsterdam
Here’s a quick pic to give you an idea of where we stayed, a rooftop apartment in a pretty neighbourhood just at the edge of the canal rings near to the museum quarter and the famous Vondelpark. It was the perfect size for the two of us and it was actually our very handsome young marine engineer’s home which helped us to feel more like locals than tourists. It was a real bachelor pad though – he’d created plenty of storage for his surfboard, snowboard, sailing and mountaineering equipment but there was only one tiny shaving mirror and nowhere to hang any clothes. No wonder he left quickly when he saw me and my suitcase!
Anyway with a bit of creative unpacking I managed and on the Saturday morning we decided to walk across the city to the De Pijp district and the Albert Cuypmarkt street market. It was the area that I’d booked the other apartments in but when we got there it was so busy I was glad they’d cancelled. We spent a while exploring…
…but were then happy to head back to our own much nicer district and one of the pretty little bars around the corner from our flat.
I don’t have a photo of my evening outfit but we went to a restaurant and a few bars that friends had recommended in the centre. None of them were great though, I guess a lot of places have changed since lockdown.
Sunday – a midlife week in Amsterdam
Each day the weather was getting hotter and on Sunday it was baking so we decided to have a lazy day in Vondelpark with a very nice gelato on the way. I spotted these towelling shorts in the sale before we left, I don’t know how I missed them all season but if you’re quick you might be able to get a pair at 50% off, they’re great.
And so we spent the afternoon relaxing in the sunny park, watching the Amsterdammers at play.
There was a huge open air salsa session going on next to us and there was just so much joy in the air – a mix of all kinds of people of different ages, dancing away together and having fun.
I looked across to see that Mal was rested and coming back to life… and all was good.
Monday – a midlife week in Amsterdam
Although I’d torn most of my initial ‘to do’ list up, there were a couple of things I couldn’t let go. I couldn’t leave a city like Amsterdam without at least brushing up against a bit of history and art. Mal always loves a gallery but he’s less enthusiastic about museums – he knew this next one mattered to me though and I buttered him up with chips first.
Earrings; Me+Em dress SS22
If you’ve been reading for a while you’ll know that I have a strong interest in WW2. I spent most of 2014 researching and trying to write a novel based on a particular incident during the German occupation of Europe. In the end I had to give it up because I just couldn’t get to the bottom of the motivation behind the particular atrocity that I wanted to focus on but it will always have a hold on me and so I like to visit WW2 museums. The Resistance Museum in Amsterdam felt particularly important because one story that my dad used to enjoy telling about his wartime service was his Dutch assistance mission and so I was hoping there might be a reference to it.
As you can imagine most of the displays are dedicated to the way that resistance grew in Holland. The Dutch were initially relatively passive to the German occupation but as soon as the persecution of the Jewish people there began, they very quickly rebelled. I hadn’t realised how much stronger and more unified the resistance in the Netherlands was than in France – there’s something socio-political about it that I find really interesting. Anyway I won’t go on because I know I’m at risk of being a bore but the personal stories that were told were gripping.
And at last we found my dad’s bit. On VE Day, as the rest of the UK celebrated, he set off with Bomber Command to drop food parcels to the Dutch. At that point they were quite literally starving as a result of the Nazi’s tactics to make them capitulate… and their refusal to do so. My dad was a Flight Engineer on the Lancaster Bombers and he said that they flew so low that they could see people’s faces and their relief that help had arrived. It wasn’t easy flying a huge aircraft like that at such a low altitude but he said how much better it was to be dropping food rather than bombs. He had a BBC reporter sitting next to him in his plane so we have the exact transcript of the mission and he kept this same photo in his logbook. For a moment I was able to feel close to my much loved and missed dad and it was an honour to see the small part he played in history recognised here.
After the Resistance Museum comes the Holocaust Museum and the memorial to all of those in the Dutch Jewish community who were killed. It winds round and round… so far.
We were hanging back here because the man you can just see ahead was clearly having a very upsetting moment, he’d brought flowers and was stroking the particular names he’d found with his fingers. People say it’s all a long time ago but it isn’t, some of us are still just a single generation away from it. War and conflict can come very close to us and we mustn’t forget how quickly hatred can be stirred and peace can be shattered.
Me+Em dress (SS22); flyknit trainers
So that was an interesting but gruelling day, we decided to get changed and walk back into the centre of Amsterdam to lighten our mood. This is such a simple but well cut crepe dress – something I threw into a Zara order to hit the limit for free postage but I ended up really liking it. It’s in the sale now so it’s even cheaper! I bought a large but a medium would probably have been better.
And a passerby kindly offered to take a photo of us both. By the way I should add that Mal does change his clothes, he just has lots of textured t-shirts in black and white and lots of pairs of black trousers. He knows what he likes and he sticks to it!
One thing we hadn’t realised is that Amsterdam is vibrant from Thursday to Sunday but then much quieter from Monday to Wednesday. In hindsight maybe we should have saved the relaxing times for the end but we’ll know for another time. It was hard to find a restaurant that was open on a Monday night and by the time we did, we were really hungry. Even so we had a good time. We got talking to all kinds of people as we meandered back, stopping here and there… and we stayed up far too late which was silly because it meant I was a bit weary the next day when…
Tuesday – a midlife week in Amsterdam
… I went to meet my lovely Dutch friend Greetje. I know some of you read her blog and follow her on Instagram (@nofearoffashion) so you’re aware of her adroit sense of humour. What doesn’t always come across in translation is just what a warm and caring person she is with a laser-like instinct. She knows exactly which questions to ask to get to the point of you so there’s no boring chitchat, just solid conversation that swings from being heartfelt to full of laughter. We first met when I’d just started blogging and we’ve been friends ever since. This photo is from when Mal came to meet us at the end of our lunch, not a drop of wine had passed our lips but it looks as though it had! My dress is another one that’s just gone into the sale – sigh…
Dress (now in the sale); Massimo Dutti sandals (sold out); Jigsaw bag (past season)
Wednesday – a midlife week in Amsterdam
So we came to our last day and I was cheering a final chance for some culture. Here we’re in the blustery tunnel at The Rijksmuseum for a quick whiz of the Rembrandts and Vermeers…
… we then spent far more time in the Van Gogh museum where there were so many pieces we’d never set eyes on before. This was my favourite, one of his final works.
One last evening out and I was joking with Mal and some bargemen below us here. I’d seen them smiling as they approached so I couldn’t resist pretending to stumble towards them as they passed us – you should have seen them jump. It was nearly a Ted Lasso moment but not quite!
It’s at moments like this when you know you’ve really relaxed. The dress by the way is from Mango but it’s sold out now.
Mango dress (sold out); Bag (gifted SS23); Massimo Dutti sandals (sold out)
What I’m taking from our midlife week in Amsterdam
I mentioned a little while ago that we’re deliberately trying out different kinds of travel this year as we work out what we like doing most now that we’re less likely to have family holidays. Time and funds are precious so we’re thinking carefully about how we’re going spend them. You may remember that we spent a week in Lanzarote last year and decided that long stays by a beach aren’t what we want to do any more. We enjoyed the adventure of the safari, the freedom of driving through France but Amsterdam was something else. We had the option to do nothing in the park when we needed to rest and everything in the city when we’d recovered. Somehow we found the perfect mix, the conversation flowed and the laughter bubbled up. So I’m discovering that:
as far as holidays are concerned:
- we like to have a mix of things to do but we prefer to set our own agenda and go at our own pace so organised tours or cruises are probably not our thing
- 7 days in a city are great, 7 days by the beach less so
- we prefer AirBnBs with a local feel to a hotel stay
- sometimes it’s good not to set an agenda (a new one for me and Mal will be pleased to see it in writing!)
- we should stop more often. For years we’ve taken our work wherever we go but the break that Amsterdam gave us was invaluable.
as far as Amsterdam is concerned:
- we love it, we found it far more romantic than Paris and will definitely return (I can stick my ‘to do’ list back together – hurray!)
- there’s so much more to it than the stag parties of the red light district that you encounter on a whistlestop stay
- it isn’t a city for foodies (luckily we’re not) most places have a choice of red, white or rosé wine but no specific grape variety and the food everywhere was average. Of course you’ll be able to find great restaurants if you look for them but it isn’t a city that has great local eateries on every corner.
- it’s a great place for shopping if you stay away from the centre, there are beautifully merchandised vintage stores all over the place
- a longer stay is definitely a good idea, it gives you time to get into the swing of things
- Amsterdammers are friendly, I think it helped that everyone assumed at first that we were Dutch (it happens everywhere we go) but it opened up conversations and made us feel part of the place
I’m sure you don’t need me to say that spontaneous and uncharted midlife adventures like this are really good for your relationship. Being together with no plans and no timeframes was really restorative. We spend so much time working, parenting and living together that fun sometimes gets lost with putting the bins out. Nobody makes me laugh like Mal does, he unleashes the lighter side of me and in return I spark up his brain. Spending a week like this reminds us that we’re an unlikely match in many ways – but my goodness it works.
And of course I learned something more about parenting adult children too. You can’t fight their battles for them and it’s especially painful when you see them make mistakes but it’s part of their life’s journey. All you can do is be there behind them as you were when they were little, ready to help them get back up again when they fall. And sometimes you have to trust that their skills will shine through and all will be well (this is a firm note to self for the next stage of the parenting adults adventure!)
Disclosure: ‘A midlife week in Amsterdam – empty nest adventures’ is not a sponsored post
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