The Dutch Dream

Now didn’t I say on my newly launched website that you don’t need to know much about me? But of course, with the website comes the proverbial blog, and I didn’t feel for blogging about refugees, or the latest psychology model – another time. I asked my son what I should write about. “Your life in Dublin,” he said. So I did, and threw in a bit about disparity in Dutch education and the immigrant’s dream for good measure. Refugee-related, kind of. A true story.


The Dutch Dream

Two things I remember vividly about my father.

The first is when I was a little girl walking together through Stoneybatter, an inner city area in Dublin with rows of terraced houses. It was the early 1970s, and we had just come from my granddad’s.

There was a wino, dribbling and dirty, sitting in a corner drain. He called out to my father, and asked to help him up. My father bent down, and grasped the tramp under his arms.

“Be-dah hokey! God bless ye now, sure I’ve a terrible throat on me.”

Then my father chatted with him for a while about this and that, the price of porter, some aul’ good-for-nothing politician – sure if he had half a brain, he’d be a complete eejit – before discreetly passing him some money.

The second memory is towards the end of the decade. We take the bus from our north side neighbourhood into town one Sunday afternoon, and stroll over to elegant, Georgian streets on Dublin’s south side. Colourfully painted doors with fancy knockers and fanlights.

But it was not a leisurely stroll. My father had a pen and paper with him. He walked up to the brass plaques, examining them closely, and jotted down some of the names. When we came home, he quietly handed one of my older sisters the piece of paper. She was in her final year at secondary school, and had announced she wanted to be an accountant. The paper was a list of firms where she could apply for an apprenticeship.

He was proud, the electrician who had left school at fourteen. My sister was in her second year at the Institute of Chartered Accountants when he died.

As ever, I turned to the street where we lived for comfort. I had always loved its freedom, even if I was starting to outgrow it. Dozens of kids, dozens of games: piggy beds, Kick the Can, Relieve-e-o, kerbs, A Penny a Packet of Rinso, conkers, marbles or swinging from lamp posts. Used to love that! Stray dogs would band together, some of them limping. There were poor families, too. You always knew; I still remember their smell. Some of the mothers with worried looks would knock on our door begging for money to pay the milkman. Our street was a dead end, too.


My mother was anxious when I went to university, afraid of what could happen at “those posh people’s parties.” On one of my first days at University College Dublin, I sat in the canteen in my stiletto heels and watched the tanned faces – returned from the continental sun – queue up for lunch, and I felt a bit like Julie Waters in Educating Rita. For us, going abroad had meant the Isle of Man.

Nowadays, I live in Amsterdam, still on the north side (rapidly turning into a ‘hipster hotspot’, say the travel reviews). I’m a mother, too, and I’m trying to guide teenage sons through the Dutch secondary education system. It started with the national entrance test they had to take when they were eleven years of age. The results seemed to determine whether they’d go to university or not; I felt the pressure a hundred thousand times more than any exam I’d ever sat myself.

My sons were football crazy as young children, and played at one of our North Amsterdam clubs. When my youngest, Finn, was in his final year at primary school, we visited some open days to help us make a secondary school choice, and he had to miss a few football matches.

One crispy-cold Saturday morning, we went to the Barlaeus Gymnasium opposite Amsterdam’s pop temple, Paradiso. I had called the football coach – a born and bred North Amsterdammer, and avid Ajax supporter – well in advance to let him know the team’s full-back defender wouldn’t be at the match. The following week, he and his mother (an equally avid Ajax supporter) came over to me on the sidelines, she with her cigarette, and quizzed me caustically about the school we’d been to the week before.

“Barlaeus? Wat heeft Finn nou daar te zoeken? Zijn de scholen in noord niet goed genoeg dan?” What would Finn be bothered going to Barlaeus for? Weren’t the schools in the North not good enough for him, then?

The other parents looked on in silence.

At home, the phone rang. An ethnic Turkish woman who I’d never met said she was ringing on behalf of other Turkish mothers from the football team. They wanted to talk to me about secondary schools, and, if I were willing, she was going to be the interpreter. Their Dutch was very basic, and their English virtually non-existent, I knew.

About a week later, a group of four mothers and the interpreter arrived at my house, laden with trays of food. The meeting began. The interpreter, who had grown up in the Netherlands, remained composed throughout the inquisition and the gesturing. Could I explain the points system? What recourse did they have if their child didn’t do well in the entrance exam? How did the lottery system work? What happened if your child didn’t get placed in the first round? Which schools were the best?

Raised voices, loud hopes. They all turned to me, offering their trays: Could their child go to a gymnasium?

The köfte tasted good in any case. Parsley, rather than mint, the mother told me. Her Dutch was good enough for that.

At the time, the father of one of the Turkish boys worked as a security guard at the local Albert Heijn supermarket. I had noticed, after the whole school enrolment phase was over, that he had begun dodging me behind the stacked shelves.

Then, one day, when we almost physically bumped into one another as I swung my trolley into an aisle, he looked away as he told me that his son, Arjun, had got in with a bad crowd, and hadn’t done well in his entrance exam. But there was always Güzide, his daughter. Next year.

Zij gaat gymnasium doen, zeker.” For sure, she’d go to a gymnasium.

My sister got her picture in some local Dublin paper when she qualified back in the early 1980s ahead of all the lads she’d started with. She had an accountant boyfriend to boot, a south sider with a Ford Cortina, who took his mother to early morning Mass each Sunday. She still had a thing, though, for one of the guys she’d hung round with outside our local fish ‘n chips shop; and I know she met up with him years later on several of her visits from South Africa, where she lives.

Her house is on a golf course, and she has a swimming pool and a well-stocked wine cellar.

Finn ended up at Het Amsterdams Lyceum, a fine school in a kind of Harry Potter brick building with arches and stained glass windows a few minutes’ cycle from Amsterdam’s Museum Quarter. A lad he hung round with in first year is a neighbour of Marco van Basten: that was cool! A brown-eyed redhead, he gets into trouble at times, but he loves his school, and the girls love him. He’s joined the debating club, but decided against hockey. This year he started back at football in the North, though at a different club.

There are no ethnic Turks in his class at school.


© 2016 Jacqueline Nolan

2 thoughts on “The Dutch Dream

  • Jacqueline is a great people’s writer who likes to blend her characters in strong and recognizable cultural and social backgrounds..
    She also relates to her own life as a support and to all her observations and memories of events and special moments. I love the way she can go forward and backward in time, and tell you two anecdotes, or even more, at the same time, describing with sincerity and humour passages of one’s life.
    I have also seen some of her plays where she reads her own text, sometimes in situations, but always with the simplicity and accuracy of her writing.
    For me as a Frenchman, she tales me back to great social writers such as Zola or Balzac.

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