Van Gogh Repetitions

Booking two interconnecting rooms at the Holiday Inn in Leiden, Holland, seemed so perfect at the time. Although the Innocents Abroad travel guide—which was my Bible for living and traveling with two young children in Europe—didn’t mention the hotel, all of my ex-pat friends had assured me it would be the best place to stay during our upcoming trip to the Netherlands. And they were right…sort of.

Almost three years earlier, my husband John and I had moved to Belgium with our newly two- and six-year-olds in tow. His law firm wanted him to represent clients in their Brussels practice. So after a bit of trepidation on my part, we found a house and a school, and the kids and I tagged along for the adventure.

We were determined to make the most of those three years in Europe by scouring the continent and beyond as much as we could, taking into consideration work and school schedules and the young ages of our children. First stop: EuroDisney in Paris, the carrot we dangled to get the kids to move. Then, it was the canals of Brugges and the sidewalk performers in Antwerp. In Rome little old ladies would stop us in the street to run their fingers through our children’s white-blonde hair, exclaiming, “Bellissimo!”

The kids learned to ski in Austria and rode an overnight train to Switzerland. They zipped to London on the EuroStar and saw the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. There was Portugal, Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Greece, and perhaps best of all, the Arctic Circle in Finland—that final Christmas—to see the real Santa Claus.

During our last spring living in Belgium, we had one more trip to make. We had to see the millions of tulips in the Keukenhof Gardens one last time. We had to see the Anne Frank museum now that the kids were a bit older, and we had to see my favorite artist’s work in the Van Gogh.

Amsterdam houses many wonderful art museums, but I knew the kids, then aged 4 and 8, would likely withstand only one, and the Van Gogh was the winner. He had been my favorite since high school, when my artist boyfriend introduced his paintings to me. I knew his colorful, bold paint strokes appealed to my children—they loved to imitate them in their coloring books and read about them in Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt. I had bought the storybook for them a couple of years before, and I read it aloud to them every night the week before we left for Holland.

Out itinerary was set but we still had to make our hotel reservation.

“You have to stay at the Holiday Inn in Leiden,” so many friends said. We had been to the Netherlands previously but had never stayed in Leiden, a centuries-old university town. Why is there a Holiday Inn there? I wondered to myself.

“The kids will love the hotel!” we were assured.

It did look appealing from a kid’s point of view. It had an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, miniature golf, a movie theater, and a food buffet with options that would appeal to my carbs-only eaters. It even had a life-sized chess set in the lobby, right next to the buffet restaurant.

The open plan of the main floor was a godsend for parents wanting to keep their eyes on their children. The place was a kid’s heaven and a parent’s purgatory, kids running around loose everywhere. But they were happy, very happy.

Our friends and neighbors, the Finnegans, happened to be going to Leiden the same weekend and had been to the hotel before. I didn’t know their itinerary, but I did know that while we were at the hotel, Daniel would have his friend, Ryan, to play with. That would be a plus…or so I thought.

When we arrived Friday night, Daniel and Ryan quickly disappeared to explore the hotel’s offerings. Ryan’s mom stayed close to them while I got our things settled in our two rooms and explored with Nicole. John found the bar.

Ryan and Daniel were beside themselves with excitement. There was so much to do!  They watched a cartoon movie, went swimming, ate macaroni and cheese, and then bowled. That first night, my calm, mild, reasonable Daniel, was a wound-up spring ready to uncoil at any second. It was time for sleep.

He was so exhausted when we returned to the room that he fell into the twin bed next to Nicole without complaint. I told him our plans for the next day as he dozed off, foregoing his usual reading of Camille and the Sunflowers. 

He woke early the next morning, so excited to join Ryan at breakfast in the lobby. We quickly got dressed, Daniel found Ryan and his family, and we all ate together. While the parents were finishing their coffee, Daniel asked to be excused from the table. He and Ryan ran over to the giant chess set. The pieces were bigger than the kids, and they struggled to slide them across the painted squares on the floor.

The Finnegans informed us that they were planning to spend the morning at the hotel, and I told them we were off to see the sights. After breakfast, the Van Gogh Museum would be our first stop. We called Daniel over so we could leave, and he came bounding across the floor. “Here, sweetie, put your jacket on. It’s time to go.”

I had always taken pride in the fact that Daniel was such a reasonable child. Even if he didn’t like something or didn’t want to do it, as long as you explained the reason, he would comply. I never had to resort to the fallback parental retort ‘Because I said so!’

“I don’t want to go,” he told me. “I want to stay at the hotel.”

“But we’ve made this trip to see fun things,” I implored, “not just hang around the hotel. It’s time to go look at the Van Gogh paintings.”

“I don’t want to go, ” he insisted. “I want to stay here with Ryan. He’s not going anywhere and I don’t want to either.”

“But then you’d miss seeing ‘Starry Night’ and the ‘Sunflowers.’”

I hoped to appeal to his rational side. He loved those paintings in the books. I knew he’d love the real thing.

“I want to stay here,” he insisted. “Ryan’s parents can take care of me. He said so.”

Daniel had it all figured out. He and Ryan had probably been conspiring as they took turns moving their rooks and bishops. It was then that it hit me: Van Gogh’s masterpieces were no competition for bowling, swimming, mini-golf, cartoons, and life-sized chess with another 8-year-old boy. Duh.

But I remained firm: “I’m sorry, Daniel, but you have to come with us. Ryan will be here when we get back, and you can play with him then.”

Daniel wasn’t happy, but to his credit, he didn’t scream or yell. He came along peacefully, albeit begrudgingly. I would learn that he had another plan, one he knew would gnaw at me more than any verbal protests.

In the car on the way to the Van Gogh museum, Nicole chattered and sang in the back seat next to her big brother. He was silent. His little sister’s attempts to engage him in song were for naught. My attempts to cheer him up and assure him he’d have a fun day—and my promises that he could play at the hotel as soon as we returned—had no impact. He stared out the window in silence at the old university buildings and the red tulips lining the road until we arrived at the museum about 45 minutes later.

John bought the tickets, and I held Daniel’s hand as we walked in. I was thrilled. Here they were—live—the paintings I had loved all these years. John held Nicole in his arms so she could get a better look. I squeezed Daniel’s hand.

“Look, honey, look! Aren’t these magnificent? Look there’s the painting of the sunflowers! Oh, and look over there! There’s ‘Starry Night.’ Isn’t this great?”

I tilted my head down to see the excitement in his eyes, but the only thing Daniel would look at were his black-and-white sneakers.

“Daniel, look up, honey. See!” He refused. Through three floors of the museum and over 200 paintings, he never once looked up. My heart sank thinking he might never again have the opportunity to see all these incredible paintings in one place, but his gaze held steadfast to his sneakers. This was my punishment.

When we returned to our home in Waterloo after that weekend, I was tempted to write the authors of Innocents Abroad to tell them they were right to have excluded the Holiday Inn in Leiden. It was too much damn fun.

Many years have passed since then, and I’ve told the story of Daniel and the Van Goghs whenever the subject of art or travel with children comes up. Daniel once told me he really did look up at the paintings that day, only not when I was looking at him.  I suspect he only said that to try and make me feel better.

Now, Daniel is 25. He recently graduated from law school and moved back to DC. A few weeks ago, I read a review in the Washington Post of the new Van Gogh exhibit at the Phillips Collection, where multiple copies of his work—his variations on a theme—were displayed side by side. I knew I’d have to go.

On October 11, Daniel and I were text messaging about car insurance. As we wrapped up, I said: “On another note, everyone doesn’t get a second chance in life, but you may. There is a Van Gogh exhibit in town at the Phillips. Remember how you refused to look at the paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam because you were pissed that we made you leave the fun at the Holiday Inn? Wanna go some time? No looking down at your sneakers though.”

My phone dinged seconds later.

“Haha yes I would like to go.”

And then after a few days, when I hadn’t gotten back to him with any arrangements, he nudged me: “When do you want to see the Van Goghs?” I bought tickets for the next day.

The name of the Phillips exhibit has special meaning for us—‘Van Gogh Repititions’—and this time Daniel never looked down.

Van Gogh Repetitions runs at the Phillips Collection until February 2, 2014.

Desirée Magney is a lawyer for the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project. She is married with two adult children—she writes about her daughter here—and she lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.