Thursday, 18 March 2010


The other day I went to buy some logs for the hearth.

That meant a trip to Purmerend, some 20 kilometres from Amsterdam. I lived there when I first moved to Holland, and later in life too, for a while.
I go back there for wood, I like the ride and I like the place where it is sold.
It's an institution for the mentally handicapped, or mentally challenged as we are now supposed to say.
I think that sounds odd, so I looked up 'challenge', just to check.

The Oxford dictionary says: an invitation or summons to engage in a contest, duel etc; provocation, a calling in question to prove one's ability, skill etc; summons to justify one's presence.
Excuse me for laughing but I don't think my friends there would think much of that if they had the foggiest, and they haven't, but they would laugh their heads off if they had.
These men don't have to prove or justify anything, they are fine just as they are.

A motley crew, if ever I saw one. If I were an artist I would ask them to sit for me, their faces, bodies, their whole demeanour is so fascinatingly off beat, surprising and strangely alluring.
It is always a great pleasure to spend some time with them.

I used to take the kids along when they were small, thought it would be good for them to get to know people who were, uh, challenged, learn to appreciate we are not all the same.
The first couple of times they stayed in the back of the car, a little afraid, a little shy and timid, big round eyes taking it all in, and quiet too. Until we drove off and the questions kept coming - I answered as best as I could.

I was teaching them respect.

Were they once reluctant to abandon their play and accompany me on these trips, soon they began asking when we could go again, bolder now they would leave the car, though sticking close to me.
Eventually they started to talk to the gawky men, giggling when they realised they were smarter than these adults, catching each others eye, trying not to burst out laughing.

Whoa, this was not what I had in mind.
On our way back home I gave them a good talking to and said if they couldn't behave they must stay in the car next time.
And they did.
As the men carted the heavy sacks to the car, my boys knelt back-to-front on the back seat, ready to watch the show.
The loading is a serious matter, they have to count how many go in and need to concentrate hard for that. The men count out loud, hesitant, squabbling, correcting each other, and checking until they feel sure enough to call the therapist and give him their best guess.
Once he agrees we proceed to settle the finances. Slowly and deliberately we work out the price, for the benefit of the men, but they are more interested in the cash.
Who do I hand it to?
They exchange glances, shift from foot to foot, cough, nudge; a silent inside bartering - who may take the money?
It is solemnly collected, fumbled and smoothed, gazed at by all, then suddenly, as if in a hurry to get rid of it, passed on to the boss.
A done deal, they amble away, the big moment already forgotten.

But this time our pleasant routine was disturbed.
My sweet little boys, who could already count to ten and more, were extremely amused by the spectacle.
I mean falling about laughing, faces lit up with glee, as they randomly called out numbers, counting backwards, imitating the men's gruff voices, causing total confusion and upset.

The poor fellows were most disturbed, unable to hold on to their adding, they decided to haul out the lot and start all over again.
Angry, shouting at the kids to shut up, they plod on:  1, that is 2, and 3, uh, 4........
13, 8, 27, 5, 4, 3!!!! the children shriek, hiccuping, almost choking on their merriment.

This is not on!

I am not in favour of hitting your children but at this point I could have happily bashed their heads together.

Still, it taught me something.
My children were not poking fun at my friends because they were handicapped,  they just found the situation comical and acted on that, unhindered by what was correct or not.
And it was, very amusing, truth be told.
So you try teaching respect and get shown up for being double.

Kids - now that's what I call a challenge.........

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