Last week I left you just before we went away for the surprise break that Mal had planned. We set off very early on the Thursday to get to Manchester airport and had a rather anxious drive there because the motorway traffic was awful so it was a rush to the gate… and just as we got there the flight was cancelled. Sudden bad weather over Europe was causing chaos. Of the many travel disruptions we’ve experienced this year, a complete cancellation hasn’t happened before and of course when you’re travelling independently the ripples spread over your carefully organised and unrefundable plans. We joined a group of disappointed EasyJet passengers to wait for a solution and it felt almost as if we’d walked into the pages of a novel.

When you stand in a queue for something you just assume that everyone else is on the same path as you don’t you? But when emotions run high people start to chat and you hear the stories behind their journeys. In front of us was a midlife woman who I could see was struggling with a panic attack. We found a quiet corner and as we worked on slowing her breathing she told me that her dad was dying and she was just trying to get there. The flight cancellation felt like one thing too many to cope with and understandably she was just too overwhelmed to know what to do next. So I went back to try to get the information she needed and found Mal talking to a couple who were younger than us. They were telling him about the business they were setting up together and that they were on their way to close their first big deal with a Dutch client who was driving six hours to meet them. As we were informed that there would be no more flights for at least twelve hours, we saw it dawn on them that not only were they going to miss a make or break opportunity, but also their first night away without their children which they’d planned as a celebration. Next to them was the father taking his ten year old son to see his first overseas football match – their tickets for that night’s match followed by a night in a hotel with dad was his Christmas present… and on it went… I suppose even we had a story of our own – the first time in 25 years that a husband had planned a trip for his wife although the blow wasn’t as big for us.

It’s at times like this that you realise what it means to be human and to be older. It’s surprising how easily your heart can go out to people who, an hour before, were complete strangers. But that’s because you’ve been where they are now. You understand what they’re feeling. Empathy is the emotion that finally makes sense of all the difficult times you’ve had to live through. In the space of ten minutes we’d formed a small community of people who were all trying to help each other, genuinely wishing each other the best. And then just as quickly, we all headed off in different directions as we moved on with our lives. I think we all left feeling a bit warmer inside though because despite our various disappointments, there was solace in the reminder that there is a fundamental goodness in most people.

As some of us transferred to a night-time flight with a different airline, others resigned themselves to exiting through passport control and heading home from a trip to nowhere. We had to change terminal and when we got to the desk they advised us not to go through security because more and more flights were being cancelled. So we ended up settling ourselves in the restaurant of the Radisson Hotel and getting our laptops out. I must just say a quick thank you to the reader who came over to say hello – if you read this I hope you’re having a wonderful time in Barbados, meeting you was a sunbeam in our day.

Anyway the highlight of the hours that followed were our regular trips to the desk to see if there was any news, here’s a picture of one of them.

surprise trip to Amsterdam

John Lewis coat (AW22); Jumper; Travel jeans; Trainers

It was a case of ‘no news’, ‘no news,’ until at last Mal came rushing back to say, ‘the flight’s confirmed, we need to go through.’ And just as we reached check-in, it was cancelled. I’m not going to bore you with the rest of the wait. It was long but we managed to get onto the last flight out. Where were we going? Well of course I knew by now – it was Amsterdam. Mal had booked for us to go to all of the places we’d missed when we were there in the summer.

A surprise trip to Amsterdam – Friday

So, I know a lot of you followed the trip on Instagram but let me give you a quick run through of our days. This was Friday morning – we’d arrived so late that I hadn’t unpacked the night before but when I did, I had a sudden flashback of needing to remember to pick my make-up bag up from my dressing table before we left. And I could picture it still sitting there. So, first stop was a dash to de Bijenkorf which I guess is the Dutch equivalent of Selfridges.

surprise trip to Amsterdam

John Lewis coat (AW22); Boden cashmere jumper (AW22); Jeans (gifted AW23); Trainers

I was dreading how much it was going to cost but a very lovely sales assistant on the Laura Mercier counter took pity on me when I told her the story, especially as her Newcastle based boyfriend had been stuck in the fight chaos the day before as well. So I bought eye pencils, blusher and mascara while she filled little sample pots with primer, foundation, powder, perfume and all kinds of things. She explained that they don’t have a big budget for marketing so they would be grateful if I told the story in return. So here I was feeling restored again.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, Amsterdam

John Lewis coat (AW22); Boden cashmere jumper (AW22); Jeans (gifted AW23); Trainers

Poor Mal had done his best to move all of his bookings around. This was a very Christmassy stop for a lovely lunch of green shakshuka which actually worked with the Zoe programme (I left the bread).

surprise trip to Amsterdam

We then had a booking to visit the Anne Frank house, it’s a place I’ve wanted to go to since I read the diaries when I was about eight years old and it’s hard to describe. Understandably there are a lot of people going round and you have a short time to get through everything so it’s hard to linger and really feel the place. However here are two moments that really struck me – the hinged bookcase that was built to conceal the doorway through to the secret annexe where Anne, her family and others hid for so long.

surprise trip to Amsterdam

And this was tucked away in a corner. It’s something that most people with children tend to have in their house somewhere – a height chart. Their parents marked the growth of Anne and her sister Margot while they were in hiding – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more moving illustration of the power of hope over experience.

surprise trip to Amsterdam

Your thoughts stay with you for a while so we walked along the canals to our next planned stop – a canal cruise to see Amsterdam’s famous winter light festival. Mal’s been doing a project with a group who are trying to get something similar off the ground so he was really looking forward to getting some good inspiration. Unfortunately as we set off they explained that most of them were closed off for a private event and the few that we were able to see were very poor so that was disappointing.

As we were trying to catch up with everything we’d missed from the night before, we then went on to the Ice Bar. I think Mal had imagined it would be something like our Transylvania experience – it wasn’t, we were basically on the stag party strip. You queued to go into the bar which was -9 degrees, were given two shots of vodka and then left – uber tacky and not somewhere I’d recommend but it made us laugh.

surprise trip to Amsterdam

So we returned to our Airbnb to get changed. It was a bijou studio with a very central location. It was warm and comfortable and we’d certainly stay there again – lots of people have asked for the link so here it is. We had dinner at a Krua Thai, a superb Thai restaurant that was just two doors away and this is what I wore – it’s difficult to get good photos now that the nights are so dark.

Midlifechic date night outfits

Velvet jacket; velvet trousers (gifted 23); satin shirt (gifted AW23); necklace (gifted Aw23); Hush boots 2019

It was a very popular restaurant and I’d absolutely recommend it if you’re in Amsterdam. This was just the amuse-bouche.

surprise trip to Amsterdam

A surprise trip to Amsterdam – Saturday

After a lazy morning with breakfast procured from the patisserie across the road, Mal had planned for us to spend the afternoon at Moco, the Museum of Contemporary Art and we were both looking forward to it. I guess these outfits are going to get boring, all that’s changed is the top and scarf but I was travelling light. Here’s the pretty bridge that you see on lots of posters for Amsterdam though, just a few yards from our studio.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, Amsterdam

Faux fur scarf; Next sequin top (AW17); Jeans (gifted AW23); Trainers

We had a wander round the flower market…

surprise trip to Amsterdam

Faux fur scarf; Next sequin top (AW17); Jeans (gifted AW23); Trainers

Stopped off for some delicious and Zoe friendly snert (split pea soup) at Stoop en Stoop

surprise trip to Amsterdam

… but as we started walking towards Moco, a storm hit with thrashing rain and high winds. At the same time Mal’s phone pinged with a message from a retailer whose website had gone down so there was nothing for it but to abandon our plans and go back to the studio. He worked and I did something completely out of character – I fell asleep! I never nap, it makes me feel guilty but when I woke up he’d solved the tech issues. The rain was still hammering down so we scuttled down the road to a cafe and spent the rest of the afternoon there just chatting over hot chocolate. I don’t know why but the whole thing just made me feel like a student again – perhaps it was the spontaneity (or the napping in the afternoon) – anyway it was invigorating.

Nikki Garnett

At last the rain eased off so we changed and headed out…

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, leather

M&S tuxedo jacket (AW18); silk halter top; leather leggings (I’ve had them since 2016 and they’re still going strong); Hush boots (AW19)

… with no plans other than to explore the Jordaan which is a chic area we’d missed last time. I would never have expected Amsterdam to be such a Christmassy city but it really is in the very best way. Firstly the lights everywhere are warm white and they’re tasteful – it’s almost as if there’s a rule for simple fairy lights only, everything is bedecked with them but never in colour. You also have the fact that there’s so little traffic in the canal rings and so it feels as though you’ve gone back in time. And we didn’t hear a single Christmas song while we were there – not that I mind them but it was another factor that made it feel as if we were living ‘out of time’. The Jordaan is such a pretty district, in the end we found a table in a cosy bistro and just spent the evening talking over the highs and lows of the year.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic

A surprise trip to Amsterdam – Sunday

Sunday and I felt a bit tired. Mal had found a recommendation for a very Dutch bar that had a Sunday singalong which he was intrigued by so we headed in that direction. I’d done really well at sticking to Zoe up to this point (well apart from wine) but it had meant leaving rice, bread… any of the white carbs that were served with everything. I was suddenly absolutely starving so we stopped for a huge bowl of pasta and I relished every mouthful. This was supposed to be a photo of me looking guilty.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic

John Lewis coat (AW22); silver tinsel jumper; travel jeanssilver boots; snowflake earrings (gifted AW23)

It started to pour down again just as we were passing the ‘red light secrets museum of prostitution’ so we went in for shelter and it was fascinating. The Dutch have such a matter of fact way of talking about sex, it isn’t salacious and it isn’t prurient as it would be in the UK. There was a mix of factual information on the walls that explained things like how much it costs to hire one of the famous red light windows (150 Euros for eight hours) and how long it takes the women to cover their costs (they charge about 50 Euros per session and some achieve into the hundreds of transactions each day which makes you think). There were also video interviews with sex workers and a video wall that gave you a sense of how it actually feels to be the one standing behind the window with people stopping and staring at you as a commodity – that made me shudder. There were mock ups of the different types of rooms from basic to luxury which is where I’m sitting here, listening to one of the funnier stories on the audio guide.

Nikki Garnett

John Lewis coat (AW22); silver tinsel jumper; travel jeanssilver boots; snowflake earrings (gifted AW23)

I left with mixed feelings – it’s good that the industry is well regulated in Amsterdam and reassuring that the women are looked after as well as they can be – but it leaves you wondering where the line is between choice and exploitation. It took about half an hour to go around and although it looks tacky from the outside it was interesting. Do I recommend it? Yes, unless you’re very offended by the thought – it’s a way of learning about a seam of life that you probably wouldn’t otherwise come across. It helps you to understand that for some women it’s a choice that works – and probably better in Amsterdam than anywhere else. And it provokes deeper thoughts about the enduring trade of sex work, answering the hows and even the whys to some extent.

Cafe t’mandje, the singalong bar, was only a few streets away and it was a bit of a tumbleweed moment when we walked in so you can see I was sitting on the edge here, not knowing how welcome we were.

But here’s another lesson about how clothes are more than just something you wear… gradually people were drawn to my tinsel jumper and came over to ask about it. Before we knew it we’d been given songbooks and welcomed into the singing – of course we didn’t have a clue what it was we were singing about – apart from when they did the Dutch version of Tulips From Amsterdam!

As the afternoon went on, it got busier and busier and very animated so it was a really simple but joyful couple of hours.

So, one last quick meal out and we went Hoi Tin, a restaurant that had been recommended in Amsterdam’s China Town. It looked very basic when we walked in so I told myself that I didn’t look a wally and my sequins were fine(!) At least they brightened the place up a bit. It was very like eating in China Town in London with waiters who were grumpy until you coaxed the smiles out of them but the food was speedy and delicious. After that it was back to pack and be ready for an early flight.

surprise trip to Amsterdam

John Lewis coat AW22; satin shirt (gifted AW23); necklace (gifted Aw23); sequin trousers Aw19; gold boots (gifted AW23)

You can tell by my puffy face the next morning that my purified Zoe metabolism had reacted to the pasta and the Chinese, it was a bit of a shock and it gave me something to think about. Anyway here we were up bright and early, heading to the airport.

surprise trip to Amsterdam

John Lewis coat (AW22); red jumper; travel jeanssilver boots; red leather gloves

And that was my surprise trip to Amsterdam, we managed to do most of the things we missed last time so even though it’s a city we love, we won’t be back for a while. One thing I find interesting is that we both agree that the only place that hasn’t stolen our hearts this year is Porto. I suspect it’s because we stayed in a hotel rather than an Airbnb and of course we were with our friends Gilly and Stephen – the four of us had so much catching up to do that we didn’t mix with any of the local people and I think it’s the feeling of living locally that creates a bond with a place.

I’m going to sign off for 2023 now, I have such a short time of having all the boys at home together that I want to make the most of every minute. On the whole we’ve been lucky and had a wonderful year this year. I’m not looking ahead to 2024 yet because I know there are challenges ahead – it isn’t just chill winds that are blowing for anyone who works in retail, it’s a full blown blizzard with a hurricane attached. So I’m glad that we made the most of 2023 because I suspect that next year will be a much quieter one as we’ll no doubt be pulling our belts tight.

All that’s left for me to say is thank you for reading my blog this year. Thank you for your comments, the coffees with your supportive messages, your answers to the survey, for staying at our Baltic Nest and for feeling like a big group of friends out there who share the same state of mind. The London get together is now booked for 29th February and I’ll give you the details in January but save the date. We could only find a venue for 50 that was affordable but if there are a lot of people who don’t manage to get a ticket, we’ll do it again.

I hope you have a happy Christmas. We can all imagine our dream version and I suspect for most of us it stretches backwards and forwards through time and the generations of people we’ve been close to. There’s always a point on Christmas Day when I’m hit hard by the thought of the people I miss and wish were there – I’m sure that by midlife, most of us feel a moment like that. I find it’s best to hold on tight to the image of everyone I’ve ever loved being together… and then send it off with a smile, returning to the joy of the people I’m with.

None of us knows what next year holds – for some it will be good, for others not so – but whichever way it goes there’s a lot to be said for focusing on being happy with what you have. I wish you a wonderful Christmas filled with smiles and I’m going to leave you with a Christmas poem from Donna Ashworth called ‘Forgotten Gravy.’ In our house it’s stuffing that’s always forgotten, NEVER gravy – but the message stands.

I love imperfectly mismatched rooms

homemade decorations

and trinkets

that tell stories of the past.

I treasure impromptu gatherings

with food rustled up from nowhere

it’s always just enough.

I see the beauty in gifts handed over

with words of ‘oh it’s nothing’

for that simply means the giver

cannot begin to convey

how they really feel about you.

I value both the quiet moments

when the lights twinkle privately

and the raucous occasions

when laughter fills the room.

And I can’t get enough of burnt carrots

forgotten gravy

and failed attempts at dessert.

Because that’s where the love lives

in the imperfect

in the messy

in the real

Love lives in the forgotten gravy.

Look for it.

Disclosure: ‘A surprise trip to Amsterdam & goodbye to 2023’ is not a sponsored post

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