x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

With children, cities are different places

Returning to the Netherlands, this time with my daughter, is at once a reminder of what has been lost, and gained.

Last time I was in Amsterdam the sun was shining and people were laid out in the city's Vodelpark like sausages on a barbecue. No surprises there, though. It was July and the weather was perfect and ordinary. February in this northern European city is supposed to be different: a month of rain, wind and gales, anything but sunshine. Yet it was hot and cloudless. This weather - so unexpected for the time of year and so similar to my last visit - gave the impression that nothing had changed in the intervening years.

Cities are like great sponges soaking up memories and holding on to them until you return. Wander the streets of a city you have been to before and there will be fragments of memory seeping through bricks and mortar, lurking on street corners and waiting to pounce from a particular vista. Be it vague knowledge of directions ("It's left then right at the end") or an inkling about where to go for coffee ("There's a great cafe just round this corner"), these moments can feel like snippets of a dream.

Revisiting such places with your children after you have become a parent is a strange experience. It is at once a reminder of what you have lost and what you have gained.

On a practical level, I'd assumed the city would be much more difficult to move around with a small child in a push chair. In some ways it was. Hopping on and off trams was trickier. At one point I was struggling to get off a tram with my daughter, Astrid. The metal barrier swung shut before I could catch it and hit her on the head. Not hard, but bad enough to make her cry for a few minutes and make me feel neglectful. That's the thing about negotiating your way around cities as a parent: they require different skills and different designs than for childless folk. In many ways, they become different places.

The Van Gogh Museum was the same as I remembered, though. People spilling out of tour buses. Hordes bunched on the pavement outside. This thronging mass had repelled me on my last visit and meant I could not be bothered to wait to go inside. It was about to do the same again when one of the staff came up to us and ushered us towards the ticket booth. Another staff member then guided us through security and straight into the museum. Having young children at the Van Gogh Museum appeared to be the equivalent of a first-class ticket. If only a guard had followed us around and cleared people from in front of the paintings, the premium service for under-fives would have been complete.

When we came out, we wandered through the Vodelpark, not really sure of where we were going. We ended up at the cafe somewhere in the middle and ordered apple pie. It was good pie and Astrid ate most of it. I could not remember what I ordered on my last visit, but it did not matter. The city was storing up another set of memories, waiting for Astrid to return.