There are always things it’s not worth shifting from one house to another, and relocation to a foreign country makes for higher-profile casualties than a regular move. The grandfather clock will cost a fortune to insure, and that table isn’t going to fit the dining room at the other end. The broken sofa might make the new place feel like home, but is it really worth splinting it up against the rollercoaster ride of overland haulage?
In our case it was the children’s buggy, a wonderful machine that had been converted from pram-cum-carrycot to pushchair and back again, with the addition of a wheeled platform that enabled the elder child to ride postilion behind her baby brother. It gave us years of noble service, but one front wheel had started sticking, the other was shedding red dust everywhere it went, and something had snapped inside the frame so that it no longer folded up when required. There might be a few months of life left in it, to which anyone is welcome for whatever they pay the charity shop. Parting with it hurt; but it had an even chance of getting crushed in the aeroplane hold anyway.
So we arrived in Amsterdam in urgent need of a replacement, not least because the snowstorm in which we landed was giving way to days of morning fog turning to pitiless rain. For our first week we were to be billeted in a flat smack in the centre, ideally placed for a raid on the department stores. So on day one of our ex-pat life I pulled my cap down low and strode into the tempest in search of wheels. It was a novel way to see the city, but, after a succession of emporia that no longer sold buggies had sent me chasing wild geese in the halls of their competitors, I found I had a pretty good grasp of the local geography. But I still had no means of trundling the brood. Then I happened upon Waterstones, and popped in to get some DVDs for the little girl (a desperate ploy, but her toys and books don’t arrive on the van from London for another week, and she’s been very good about it). There, I was served by a young man from York who arrived five years ago with no plans, and liked the place enough to stay and get a job. Without hope, I asked if he knew of anywhere that sold pushchairs and rear platforms – and he sent me to a shop round the corner from his digs, which turned out to be in a downbeat, bohemian part of town full of street markets and dodgy-looking bars. Bingo. An hour later the hunter was back at the family cave, complete with mammoth.
Since then we have been able to explore a little en famille, though going out and coming back in have been unusually strenuous. This is because old Amsterdam compensates for the national lack of hills with vertiginous staircases in buildings too narrow for a lift, and our holiday apartment house is no exception, which is a bit of a pain when you have a baby, a three-year-old and a folding buggy with rear attachment. But this week we move to our new home, and there the chariot will really come into its own. Thirty years ago our landlord bought a warehouse, erected on an island in the harbour in 1628, and converted it into apartments, preserving as much of the original as the safety and comfort of his tenants would allow, but – wise, blessed man – also installing a lift. And from there I can push the children to, say, Waterstones in about a quarter of an hour, there to thank again the English sales assistant who saved me untold days, even weeks, of back pain and glacial mobility while I waited for the delivery of an online order. It’s true: I would never have found that shop without him, would never have thought have looking in that part of town, or going there even if I’d seen the place advertised. And I really like that. The associations of the old vehicle made it a loved object, and I hated leaving it behind, even though its days were numbered. If I had been able just to stroll into the Dutch equivalent of John Lewis and buy a new one the experience would have tasted sour, almost a callous betrayal of a precious memory. But that I was only able to solve my problem through a chance meeting, a friendly greeting to a stranger and a kind response makes the new purchase a blessing and a welcome in a foreign land. It is a beginning of its own, not a substitute. Suddenly I feel quite at home.