<%-- Page Title--%> A Roman Column <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 120 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 29, 2003

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On My Way to the RIJKS Museum

Neeman A Sobhan

We really must do something…you know… culturally...” “What, culturally commendable, uplifting, meaningful?” I help Taimoor, my younger son, along his drift as I lift my head from the laundry basket where I am playing matchmaker to a dozen bachelor socks, belonging both to my culturally minded 18-year-old and his elder brother Nader whose flat in Amsterdam we are currently enjoying, and which, I am intermittently and surreptitiously re-organising while he is at work.

“Yeah! Enough of this lazing around.” Lazing around? Moi? I have been up and out since daybreak, have made friends with the Pakistani dry cleaner up the street with whom I have left a year's supply of my elder son's mouldy clothes and linens, done a brisk walk around the neighbourhood, bought eggs at the El Noer Arab grocer around the corner and some Dutch bread at the bakers. “Yup! Enough of this lazing about. Let's do something, cultural, even touristy.”

Taimoor proclaims, decisively taking off his ear plugs, putting down his book, and swinging his legs off his brother's leather sofa revealing the scotch tape I have been looking for with which I am going to put curry spice labels on Nader's brand new spice jars to hang on the brand new spice rack which I bought at the local Ikea yesterday. I know that the neatly marked 'Coriander (Dhoniya)' or 'Cardamom (elaichi)' jars will remain untouched till my next visit, but at least the Bengali aspect of my job as visiting mom will be done.

“We could visit Anne Frank's house.” I mutter from the depths of the floor level kitchen cupboard where I am making friends with the landlady's leftover cleaning products which only speak Dutch, I mean, what the Helsinki does vies mean, or schoon or zich voorstellen in relation to detergents, ummm…actually in relation to anything? I see no family resemblance to English in these toothsome Dutch duds, which normally make me squeal in comprehension when faced with stuff like de werkgever. Ah! That one I had deciphered immediately. Don't you see? Werkgever: Work-giver: Employer. Cool! In fact, I was so lulled by the pidgin simplicity of Wat is uw naam and Dank u, I thought this language was just a baby talk variant of English, no different from the special 'mother tongue' I had indulged in not that long ago with my zoon (son).

“Anne Frank Huis? Maybe. Or, perhaps the Van Gogh Museum?” Taimoor counters.

“Or Rembrandt-huis?” You don't have to be the Flying Dutchman to guess that mother's partiality veers towards famous people's habitats rather than to art galleries and museums.

“Or the Rijk's Museum?”
“Or a canal tour?”
“Or hey, how about a tour of the Heineken brewery?”
“Rijks Museum it is.” Thus spake the Mater hastily, as she puts aside the hefty consonants of a Nederlander Mr. Muscles back into the cupboard.

An hour later mother and son are ready to leave the apartment, arm in arm and at their chummiest. Then, as soon as the door bangs shut behind us, we turn to face each other, and our smiles vanish while sweat breaks out. Well, it is hot in the stairwell, but additionally, we have left the keys hanging inside the door: we are locked out. As soon as the initial tidal wave of panic subsides, the shouting match starts. “I thought you had the keys.” “But you always lock up.” “Yes, but just a moment ago I specifically asked you to do it.” “You were not clear.” “Well, if you would…” Back and forth. Suddenly, a young lady clatters down from upstairs and appears from the gloom, angel-like, asking if she can be of help.

Marta introduces herself as Nader's co-landlady. She is Dutch, speaks excellent English and has already assessed our situation from overhearing our exchange. But she cannot guess the full tragedy of my situation: not only are we homeless, worse, I may never live this incident down with my elder son. I can hear Nader's teasing: Offo! Mummy! Can't take you anywhere!

No, definitely, he must not know and we must gain access to the flat by hook or by crook or both most likely. Marta promises to help, and gets all her hooks ready: ladders, rods, coat hangers and pliers, while Taimoor climbs crook-like onto the first floor balcony. It's a narrow affair with a French door opening on to it, but now locked from inside and closed tighter than the Vestal Virgins, if you will excuse my Surinamese. The balcony is flanked on both sides by two large windows whose panes, thank God, have been left open at an angle sufficient to permit air, though not enough to get a locked-out visiting relative's arm to snake in and grope for the handle of the French door.

Still, Marta and I stand below the balcony and direct Taimoor as he stands with one leg on the wrought iron railing, his arm stuck inside the window, blindly hitting at the door handle which he can't see, with a rod. Meanwhile passers-by of various race and nationality stop and in various languages express their curiosity and sympathy. I have found a stick on the pavement with which to point and guide my gatecrasher. The cell phone rings just as Taimoor gets the handle up a notch and a cheer goes up among the lookers-on. It's Nader calling to find out what we are up to. “Oh!” I freeze for a second. “Oh! Just this and that, nothing much.” The handle moves another fraction of a millimetre. Cheers. “What is that noise? Where are you two? What about your plan for Rijks?” “Its good, its good.” I say distractedly while mentally saying 'Bit more to the left, and down', my eyes following every tension in Taimoor's arm. “What's with you, Mummy, are you guys going or not?” “We are...actually on the way.” Well, technically it is true, I silence the god of small lies. “Listen, as soon as we are finished with the door… I mean the museum, we will meet you for lunch.” I quickly switch the phone off. Lying is worse than standing in the sun; I'm drenched in sweat.

“So close and yet so far.” Taimoor shakes his head sadly after half an hour of valiant effort. Suddenly a rotund, pink-faced Dutch worker from across the street walks up and suggests taking off the window hinges, permitting more room for the arm to manoeuvre. He joins my son on the narrow balcony and starts to unscrew the hinge. The cell rings again. It's my husband from Roma, keeping tabs on his wife and younger son. This time I know my lines better so I don't give the poor man a chance to suspect foul play “What are we up to?” I attack: “What makes you think we are up to something?” He chuckles and repartees. “Correction, why aren't you up to something? You and Taimoor can't be left to yourselves without getting into some mischief.” Oh! Another time, another place, and I wouldn't let that pass. Right now I'm close to tears. “For your information we are going to the Rijks museum.” “Well, that's pretty staid for the two of you!” I look at my precious son at a precarious angle helping a beefy but kind stranger to break into his brother's flat, while his errant mother stands below with skirt hitched around her knees, maniacally waving a stick and shouting advice. I manage a sigh: “Yeah! We are feeling a bit staid today.”

Soon, Nales, the kindly Dutch worker, has our problem nailed as he finally wedges the window that extra bit and, reaching for the handle, untwists it to open sesame and applause! I hug Marta, who has been with us throughout the operation and when I try to repay Nales, he won't hear of it. I offer him a beer, but the man, who could easily be a walking ad for Heinken, doesn't touch the stuff. After everybody disperses, Taimoor and I leave to meet Nader for lunch since it's too late for the Rijks. Once we have ordered lunch, I break the news to him casually, gently, like folding the whipped cream into a soufflé: “By the way, this morning, it was quite amusing really, we had a slight problem with the keys, which, of course we sorted out. Mmm… this chicken is good.” Nader wades through my verbal soufflé and explodes: “You two managed to get locked out! Offo Mummy! Can't take you anywhere!”

Next week: Going Dutch


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