had always loved the mountains, they made me feel both small and great at the same time. The forests, tall rocky tops and little rivers that flow down into lakes in the valley below. It was a place far away from home and the normal world and it’s where I could really recharge my battery. Every morning I swam in the lake and we'd go hiking following endless trails. My parents, sister and I had been camping in the French Alps and I couldn’t get enough of it, but before I knew it, three weeks passed and the holidays came to an end.
On the way back home I sat in the back seat of the car staring out of the window. I felt sad. Outside the majestic landscapes slowly changed and I knew the green valleys and snowy tops would soon be turning into the flat planes of the Netherlands, that to me were all too normal and boring.
The drive would take two full days, which felt like an eternity to be locked up in the car. To pass the time my mom initiated some funny games like quizzes and sing-a-longs. Most of her life she has been an elementary school teacher so she had endless creative ideas. The games helped although the best way I found to let time pass quicker was by trying to nap. This also became kind of a game for me, to sleep for as long as possible. But that wasn’t easy not being able to lie down in a hot car that didn’t have any air conditioning other than an open window. If I could manage to fall asleep it would make time disappear and I hoped that suddenly mom would wake me up telling we had arrived.
I was already looking forward to be back home because I always had an unfinished creative project waiting for me or I would invent something new. At home things were good. My parents have always been very loving and they hardly ever had a fight. My two year older sister and I sometimes had our quarrels but nothing more then in other families I imagine. Most of the time we were good buddies. I loved being in my room and could spend hours, days on end playing just by myself. Being at home felt safe.
Despite that the mountains were nowhere near to where we lived, I was blessed to have the country’s biggest forest region starting right at our doorstep. And boy, did I know how to get the most out of that… For as long as I can remember I wondered off into those woods on countless adventures. They were a place for inspiration and my refuge whenever I was down.
The surrounding neighborhood we lived in was wonderful as well. With small blocks of terraced houses around squares that each had a huge tree in the middle, and there was greenery everywhere. It was —and up till today still is— one of those neighborhoods where the people knew each other and when they crossed paths they’d greet one another warm heartedly. Often people ended up talking for an hour on the spot or would invite each other over for coffee. Everywhere the back doors were left unlocked and neighbors could come over unannounced but if it wasn’t a good time they would also tell each other, without any fuzz. In summers we had barbecues with the entire neighborhood and we’d sit around a bonfire in an open space in the forest. Those nights were the best because I was allowed to stay up very late with all other kids in the neighborhood. There were always many children and we all played together. Growing up there, had all I could wish for.
Without noticing I had fallen asleep. I opened my eyes to see where we were but hills covered with sunflowers gave away that we were still somewhere in France. Several hours had passed but there was still a long way to go. It got really warm in the car and I opened a window to be greeted by a nice breeze that carried the smell of dried grasses. I saw endless rolling hillsides of yellow wheat fields topped with round bales of hay that were so typical for the northern regions. I closed my eyes and took in the amazing view and air.
Then suddenly an idea struck me. Instantly, it had me all excited and I felt I couldn’t allow the idea to fly away. I began to fantasize about what I could do with it and all of a sudden I didn’t mind the long drive anymore!
For the night on the road, we left the highway to search for a calm place to rest. As a symbolic closure of the holidays, we tried to find typical French bed-and-breakfast’s to spend the night. Mom had marked a place on the map but somehow we couldn’t find it and ended up in a creepy road hotel near the highway. I noticed my parents were disappointed, but I paid no attention to any of it. I was off in my thoughts chasing that idea from earlier and began hatching a plan.
The day after, in the evening we finally arrived home and everyone was exhausted except for me. I was unstoppable, grabbed my bike and disappeared into the forest where I searched for fallen trees and big parts that I could break off. Soon I found something that fitted my requirements, and after kicking off several branches I ended up with a nice long thin log. With a rope, I tied it to my bike and although it took some effort I managed to drag it all the way back home. Next morning I woke up early to continue my mission. In the little shed in our backyard, my dad had an arsenal of construction tools that I made eager use of, often even without dad’s permission. In the open place between our house and the forest, I began drilling holes in the ground. Soon after in each hole stood one of the logs I collected the night before. By then my sister had noticed along with some kids from the neighborhood and they wanted to join in on what I was building. The days that followed we together painted the poles in bright colors, stretched a large tarp between the tops and from the sides we strung lines with tent stakes. A huge tent, that’s what I had planned to make.
That is what struck me on the drive from France, the idea to build a special kind of tent. Not that I knew what it was for —that the idea didn’t say— only that I had to build it. But as it turned out my big sister would soon have an idea where to take it from there.
My mom and dad always encouraged our creativity. In their parenting they gave us freedom where it suited our age but also drew clear lines when needed. We had set bedtimes and each year we were allowed an extra fifteen minutes. We were only allowed to drink one or two glasses of juice a day, same was for cookies and candies. After that it was water or tea and fruits for snacks. Things like potato chips or pop soda were kept special and were only allowed on the weekends when we could also have television and movie night. The rest of the week watching tv was quite restricted. Of course as kids my sister and I had our moments of protest. We envied the kids of the neighbors who were allowed to watch television also on weekdays before going to school. But my parents kept their heads cool. Looking back I very much appreciate these things about how they raised us.
On Friday and Saturday nights we watched our two favorite shows. The first show called Never Give Up made children’s dreams come true in the most creative ways. I believe once my sister even wrote them a letter asking for her dream to be made possible but obviously the show was overrun with similar letters from all over the country. The second show was a contest where in each episode the host would invite several guests from the audience up onto the stage. One by one they were then asked about their favorite pop or rock star after which they stepped into some kind of elevator. Then something magical happened that I found most interesting. One moment we saw the guest waving goodbye to the audience as the cabin doors closed and bright lights started flashing and a second later the doors opened and out came walking a complete lookalike of Michal Jackson, Maria Carey, or John Lennon. The guests had gone through a full makeover and now proudly ascended the stage to perform a famous song while doing their best to mimic their idol and meanwhile lip-dubbing the song lyrics. “That’s it!” my sister exclaimed one night. “We can use your tent to have our own contest!”
The day after, we rounded up all the kids in the neighborhood and everyone was excited about the plan. Altogether we were quite a large group so we could turn it into a real event. The best part, was that my mom was in too and ready to help us and because my dad was on a work trip for the week, our house became the base for the preparations. Everyone in the group chose a song to perform while my sister and her friend supervised the dance moves. We all made sure we knew our words and my mom came up with all sorts of clothing to combine into fitting outfits. The news quickly spread through the neighborhood and people got curious. One neighbor, an old lady, had been in the show business for most of her life and apparently she had a number of costumes stashed away in her wardrobe. All excited she came in with a pile of extravagant items and the most awesome were two shiny jackets with little sequins sewn all over. We gathered any microphones we could get our hands on —real and toy ones— and the girls raided my moms jewelry box. We made little violins out of cardboard paper and meanwhile I got busy collecting large leafs for my big act…
We went door to door to make sure everyone knew to save the date. On the evening before the event my mom backed pancakes for the entire group and we ate under the tent that was dressed up as the stage. We all felt most satisfied with all our preparations and looking at the tent I was so happy with how things turned out, somehow it felt meant to be.
Then the big day came. The last rehearsals were done, the tent was decorated with strings of colorful garlands, and a large number of chairs was collected from the backyards and nicely lined up for the audience to sit on. Mattresses and pillows formed the first rows for the children. A neighbor who was into filming had agreed to bring his equipment and would document the whole thing. Seven o’clock, showtime. I had found an old construction pylon that served as a megaphone and on my bike I race through the streets announcing that the event was starting.
Loud music was playing out of speakers, we were ready and all was set. Anxiously we waited to see who would show up but soon people came walking in from all directions. Parents, grandparents, older and younger brothers and sisters, and even relatives who lived elsewhere. Slowly but surely all the seats were filled. We reserved two places in from for an elderly couple who were known as the grandpa and grandma of the neighborhood. All the children were used to come by their place and we could always count on a smile and a sweet treat. They were our guests of honour. More and more people kept coming and many even had to stand in the back. Such a crowd had shown up!
Once the cameraman signed he was ready, I got on the stage to open the show and announce the first performance.
Four girls came up and a song started playing that had been on the hit parade that whole summer. One girl dressed in a white suit and golden glitter head, was the lead singer and the other three —all in black dresses with white gloves— were the dancers and did the back vocals. My sister was one of them. They really knew their moves as well as the words of the song, although the one in front missed a few lines but no one noticed because of the huge microphone, which she kept safely close to her mouth. Anyway, the audience was thrilled and cheered when it was done.
Next up was a girl doing a solo of a famous children’s song. She was the best when it came to miming the lyrics.
Then my mom walked on the stage explaining that the hosts of the night had other obligations so she announced the next performance, which were me, my sister and her close friend. We did our version of Hakuna Matata, the well-known song from Disney’s The Lion King. My sister at that age was even skinnier than me and made a perfect resemblance to the meerkat character Timon. Her friend played lion Simba and I was the left to be Pumba the pig. I took my role very seriously and put special emphasis on making dramatic faces, which was greeted with laughter from the crowd. “It means no worries for the rest of your days, it’s our problem free philosophy…” we sang and had so much fun.
Two more songs followed and then it was time for my big act. Together with another boy I took on the monkey song from Jungle Book. He was originally from Shri Lanka so had a brown skin, while I was clumsily skinny plus I had a bowl haircut, so this really even made us look like two monkeys! He was the king of the monkeys and I his servant. I had attached the bundle of large green leafs to a stick to wave at him and he wore a banana peel on top of his head. We danced and jumped around on the cheerful melody and the whole thing must have looked adorable.
Several songs followed and then came the final. I came up with five of the youngest in our group, of around four or five years old. Like we rehearsed they lined up while I climbed on top of a chair. Then a famous classical waltz began to play and the kids pulled out sticks and the cardboard violins. They were the orchestra and me, wearing a top hat, white scarf and my dad’s black jacket —which was way too big so I had to roll up the sleeves halfway— I was the conductor.
The little violinists were looking a bit lost and stood there staring at the audience. Probably it was all a bit overwhelming to them and at first they even forgot to play their instruments. However one girl was deeply focussed and didn’t even seem to care whether her violin was real or not. Passionately she drove her stick over the paper cutout really doing her best to keep up with the music. So was I; while swirling around a chop stik and waving my arms in the air. When we reached the chorus the entire audience began humming along. Oh how I enjoyed the moment. One voice in particular stood out. It was the bariton voice of the neighborhood’s grandpa. Apparently this was totally his song and he was in trance by the whole performance. Seeing him put a big smile on my face, which revealed my missing front teeth because I had exactly the age of changing teeth.
On a table at the side sat three neighbors who were the jury panel; the showbiz lady together with her husband who had a career as pianist in up-level hotels and the third, a lady who was amateur opera singer. After each songs the jury had given their impressions and now it was time for the final scores. My monkey performance had made it to second place, with special mention of the banana peel. First place, because of terrific lip sync and character impressions, went to our Hakuna Matata. All winners got flowers and then each of the contestants received a big medallion from my mom. In no time half of the group put them in their mouths, as it turned they were made of licorice. That’s typically my mom, to come up with something like that! A neighbor who used to sell at flea markets also wanted to contribute and brought in a huge box with all sorts of trinkets and everyone could choose a little prize for themselves. “Now we have one more surprise…” the old man from the jury said. “A symbolic gift to the two organisers of this fabulous event.” My sister and I were called forward and he handed us two little trophy’s upon which the closing tune —copied from the tv show— started playing. We all together sang along, lined up for polonaise and popped fire crackers.
Several hours later, the crowd had left, the noise was gone. It was quiet at the open place behind our house except for the sound of burning wood in a large bonfire we made. Cool air now came from the surrounding forest, which was a relief after a warm day. With all the children we sat snuggled up around the campfire nicely wrapped up in blankets. I looked around at all the tired faces. Some had already fallen asleep and the rest of us could hardly keep our eyes open and quietly stared at the fire. Looking at the dancing flames I felt so satisfied, so fulfilled. What an unforgettable celebration it had been.