27Dec2013

Astronomy in Amsterdam

Zac at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

“Wow,” says Zac, meditatively. “Amsterdam really is a very liberal city, isn’t it?”

Since the queue for the Anne Frank House stretches in a weary, painful line around several substantial blocks, Zac has opted, instead, to spend the day at Amsterdam’s science museum, NEMO.

I hit my personal science museum threshold twenty or so science museums and a good couple of years ago, so I’ve dumped him in the teens section and retreated to the sunny, deckchair-scattered roof with a book. Well, no one really wants their mother looking over their shoulder while they’re reading about sex stuff, do they?

“Well, umm, yeah,” I say. “Why do you say that?”

“Because they don’t tell you not to take drugs,” he says. “They tell you how to take drugs SAFELY.”

Zac has been underwhelmed by the coffee shops of Amsterdam – “They’re for tourists, right?” – and we’ve both concluded that, should he feel the need to visit the Red Light District, that’s something he can do with his mates when he’s older.

But NEMO, with its incredibly Dutch approach to everything from sexuality – there are simulation machines like something out of Sasha Baron-Cohen’s worst efforts in Brüno – to drugs and pimples, has hammered home the liberal message.

If anyone had told me in 2009 that I’d be making friends with people I’d never met on Twitter and Facebook, it would have seemed beyond bizarre.

It’s being, to be honest, a science-y day. Next up? The Science Park, in the canal-strewn flatlands outside Amsterdam, where my Twitter friend Yvette has invited us to come and see her astrophysics lab.

I can’t overstate, by the way, how handy it is to have an astrophysicist Twitter friend when you’re as weak on maths as I am and endeavouring to world school a child who’s actually quite good at science-y stuff.

Yvette has helped us out with calculus in Jordan, and provided invaluable assistance during the unbearable mathematical horrors of Zac’s first week in Chinese school.

And so, it’s kind of exciting to be finally meeting her. Even though we’ve turned down her sofa because – well, because we don’t really know her yet.

It’s odd, this online, connected, globally mobile world we live in. If anyone had told me in 2009 that I’d be making friends with people I’d never met on Twitter and Facebook, it would have seemed beyond bizarre. But, here we are, and, just as with our Vagabond friends in Singapore, we’re about to make friends.

Lego has been, pretty much, the one material possession he has missed in over three years living out of a backpack.

First up? The lab. We toddle up to the observation dome on the roof, inspect the telescope, practice our Dutch on the constellations – one benefit for Zac of having been flung headlong into one of the planet’s most difficult languages is that, after Chinese, any language with cognates becomes instantly accessible – and admire the work of Yvette’s students.

Undergraduates today, thanks to gigantic telescopes and Moore’s Law, are doing things, like finding planets and quasars, that would have been quantum leaps for professional astronomers a generation ago.

Zac finds the telescopes good, but, neither Yvette nor I can escape noticing, finds Yvette’s Lego collection even more appealing, not least since Lego has been, pretty much, the one material possession he has missed in over three years living out of a backpack.

Next up? Steak!

We head to Loetje, the Amsterdamer’s steakhouse of choice, for gigantic, bleeding steaks and a sticky toffee pudding that Zac demolishes in nanoseconds.

And then…. More lego!

Yvette has a Lego collection, purchased for an activity date with a fellow geek, but also absolutely perfect for passing tween boys.

For, yay, Yvette doesn’t only have an apartment with a roof terrace on one of the most cutesy, gabled, picture-windowed, historic canalside streets that Amsterdam has to offer….

… She has a Lego collection, purchased for an activity date with a fellow geek, but also absolutely perfect for passing tween boys.

Wine is drunk. Lego is built. Yvette and I compare notes on bloggers we have met, and bloggers that we haven’t met, and chat about Zac, who has big, if rather vague, aspirations for his future, currently encompassing Oxford, Cambridge, Yale or Harvard.

World school, in the patchy way we do it – some books, some writing, ongoing Chinese, lots of historical, geographic and cultural learnings, intermittent attempts at maths and science – has worked out wonderfully to age 12. And, say what you like about Chinese school, three months of that is worth at least a year of British school.

Still, we’re now entering the stage where real world school would be getting serious, where content starts to kick in, and it’s fairly clear to both of us that, if Zac’s going to have a chance of achieving his goals, and particularly if he wants anything to do with sciences when he’s older, he’s going to need school. Either that, or the type of rigorous, focused, organised home school that I am constitutionally incapable of providing.

Toddling towards our tram, however, in the liquid dark, full moon and streetlights reflected in the canals, the quiet ping of oncoming cyclists reminding us that we’re in Amsterdam, that sort of reality seems a long way away.

We head to Milan in the morning, for the next step in Zac’s edutational mission of the summer: “Eat Italian food in Italy”. Milan, I am told, also has a science museum.

7 Comments

  1. Astronomy and Lego? Now that’s an unbeatable combination. Aside from a good beer with dim sum dumplings: yeeaaaaahhh …

  2. No Beaten Path says:

    We came to the same conclusion about homeschool & moving about – esp. regarding Science & music. The fact our son is an only child also lead us back to the ‘perhaps school is right now’ view. It is actually really hard, because we had invested a lot in being a homeschool family, and as much as you don’t want to admit it, while you are doing the best for your child, it can feel like you are saying what went before was a mistake or you are admitting defeat or something daft like that.
    It hasn’t been the easiest of changes, esp. for him, but I think we made the right choice for our family and our situation. Feel free to email if you feel like sharing perspectives.
    Natalia

    • Theodora says:

      Oddly, I don’t feel conflicted about the school thing. Probably because I’d always thought school would reappear at some point, and qualifications, and teen relationships, and university track — I still feel he’s learnt phenomenal amounts through what we’ve done, and more that he’d do in school, but IMO homeschooling is much, much easier at the primary/middle school age than at the HS age. Not least because at primary school, teachers can have any degree and teach any subject, pretty much, and in high school you’re looking at academic specialists. Being fixed, however? That’s a different issue…

  3. Theodora says:

    I’ve heard of these schools — a friend in Harbin sent her daughters there, and I think they’re an absolutely lovely option, in fact. Thank you for reminding me of them!

  4. Having my 14 yr old son in HS I can say definitively that there is no way I could homeschool him at this level. My husband who has a phd in molecular biology says what he is learning in 9th grade science is what he learned in university. DE is as advanced as Zac in math and so would have needed a full time tutor to compete kwith what he doing in school. Fortunately his school takes an integrated approach to history & literature so he learns everything of an era at the same time – art & politics together which mimics what you learn on site by visiting a country. Finally, teenage boys need their friends. 5 yrs is not a long time and you can always travel during the three months of summer break!

    • Theodora says:

      Interesting that even with a scientist in the family you find the prospect of HS science daunting… I do think the majority of parents stop homeschool/world school around the high school age for good reason — most people with a decent degree can cover elementary everything, but things do get harder as they get older. And — AMEN to friends. Really HUGELY important at this age…

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