Finally Answering the Question “What Did You Even Do For Fun?”
If you’ve ever grown up in a small town where nothing ever happens, you know what it’s like to have to get creative with your free time.
Until the age of 24, I never lived in a big city. My parents, ever the introverted hermits, loved being left alone, far from civilization. There were varying degrees of middle of nowhere. From a lack of paved roads with farmers as neighbors to having a playground to terrorize and a Chinese restaurant that we were pretty sure was a front for some illicit activity because no one we knew ever ate there, but no high schools or supermarkets.
Growing up in small towns in Europe in the early 2000s, meant growing up far away from the trend of helicopter parents who thought that children needed to be kept busy every single moment of the day. The statement “I’m bored” was never met with a suggestion or eagerness to entertain, but instead with a “What do I look like, a clown to you?”. Our Internet connection was as unstable as my slightly psychotic ex-stepfather’s moods and our TV maxed out at 10 channels – all public broadcasting, of course – with only two for children. While some channels provided the option to view the programming in English instead of Spanish or Dutch, this did not extend to cartoons.
My siblings and cousins did our best to fill our free time with creative and chaotic activities that I’ve only realized in retellings during adulthood were maybe a little strange. Here are the highlights.
Find the source of the river
The premise of this game was simple: we live next to a river, therefore we must explore the river. Because neither my brother nor I paid much attention in geography and had little to no understanding of how far away it could be, we were convinced that if we followed the river upstream, we’d eventually find its source.
Every weekend, we’d take our German Shepherd and Boxer mutt with us for protection in case of wild boars – an actual threat to be wary of – and head off to the river bed. If we got hungry, we’d eat the blackberries growing everywhere. If it got too hot, we’d jump fully clothed in the water to cool off. On two occasions we were chased by river snakes, leading to a cacophony of panicked screeches echoing across the valley.
Parts of the riverbed were dry, which made for easy trekking. We’d hop from one patch of dry riverbed to the next, dogs trailing behind us. Bamboo grew on the sides, framing the river, making it even more secluded. The bamboo turned out to be multipurpose: they made great walking sticks and impromptu dueling swords.
Unsurprisingly, we never reached the source of the river, although in our tiny child brains it felt like we were close. This was definitely not the case because in reality, the source was a 23-hour walk and 117 kilometers away.
Dirt track racing (for kids!)
When my little sister and cousin each turned three, they were gifted a motorized plastic car they could physically ride, each. They never got to play with them though, because my older cousins found that it was much more fun to use these cars to propel themselves all the way down a steep dirt road.
Always the worrier, I proceeded with caution. There were enough reasons to be worried. There was only one place to safely stop the car at the end of the road. Thorn-filled blackberry bushes flanked both the sides and the end of the slope. And if you avoided these, you could still drive straight into the river. All this, with your only brakes being your own two feet. Considering this was early summer in Spain, this meant shorts, tank tops, and flip flops so forget about padding.
We’d race each other to the bottom, purely for bragging rights. By the end of the day, our shoes were covered in dirt, tiny thorns sticking out our arms and legs, and half of us were caked in mud, hair dripping. We did not succeed in avoiding any of the obstacles but kept on going at it, again, and again, and again.
Unfortunately for us (and fortunately for the neighbors hearing our shrieks of joy for hours straight), we had to stop once the toy cars got trashed. Once steering wheels began disconnecting during descent and wheels falling off, we accepted it was time to let go.
To this day, nothing has given me as big of an adrenaline rush as that prepubescent scream of “DE BOER!” (“THE FARMER!”) rippling across the cornfields during a heated corn wars battle.
Corn wars combined “capture the flag”, with the potential wrath of a disgruntled Dutch farmer, and the heavy bruising of paintball. Far away enough that the adults couldn’t see what we were doing, but close enough that if we got into serious trouble we could run home, the cornfield was the perfect battleground for our ragtag group of neighborhood kids.
To get into the cornfield, all we had to do was hop over the waterway next to the bike path. Once in, we’d split up into two groups, make a base each by patting down the corn stalks, and stockpile the rest of the corn as projectile weapons. From there, it was divide and conquer – half roaming to capture the other’s base, the other half ready to defend it. In a rudimentary and brutish effort to echolocate where the others were, corn would go flying in the air until you finally hit something. If you followed the “OWWW!”, you’d find your enemy… or your ally, it was hard to tell who was who.
The farmer found out what was happening after the first few editions of the corn war. Understandably, he was not thrilled with us turning his crops into a playground and would chase us out. We’d dart in every which direction, like rats being smoked out of a cellar, trying to catch your breath because you couldn’t stop laughing as you ran. That sort of delirious laugh you get as a kid when you know you’ve done something naughty and are on the verge of getting caught.
Years later, when talking to the adults about the corn wars, they confirmed that the farmer did confront them, trying to convince the adults to punish us. Unluckily for the farmer, the reason they didn’t stop us is that many of them had dealt with the same farmer when younger, during their own corn wars. Apparently, we weren’t the first generation to duke it out by chucking corn at each other.
LEGO creations and invoking the wrath of God
Not all our activities had an element of danger to them. On rainy days you had to find what to do inside, and sometimes you’d already read every book in the house. For times like those, LEGOs were a surefire hit.
My brother and I were always making up characters and stories. Instead of building the LEGO kits as instructed, we made strange dog-inspired characters who went on a myriad of adventures. Of these adventures, I only remember two details:
- One of the characters we made had legs that were too tall and skinny, making him too fragile to play with after we built him. Instead of redesigning the character, or inventing any other excuse to keep him in the story, we murdered him in a ski accident instead.
- We had so many characters to keep track of at one point (a good 36) that we killed them all in a freak accident. This freak accident was caused by God wiping them out, as well as their entire world.
God was our Deus Ex Machina. A beat-up Husky plushie with scratched-out eyes that we’d stolen from our older sister that doubled as an erase button. Any time we thought that the story was becoming too complicated, instead of paring it down, we’d smash God into every character, effectively murdering them all.
This was around the time we were foraying into becoming Jehova’s Witnesses and our understanding of God was not per se as a benevolent creator. Morality did not play a part as to why this big reset would happen. Rather than taking the lessons learned during the congregation sessions to create a just and fair God, we thought it much more convenient and accurate to have a random and chaotic one, guided more by whims than morals.
Both of us grew up to identify as atheists.
Hollywood’s recommendation to “never work with children or animals, if you can avoid it” doesn’t apply when you’re halfway through the summer holiday, running out of ideas, and are a child yourself.
The summer we became filmmakers was a grey and bleak one, like many Dutch summers. We’d cycled through the usual card and board games, even coming up with new ones, but needed more. As a last-ditch effort, we asked one of our parents if we could borrow their camera and they relented. Over the next weekend, we’d gather the rest of the neighborhood kids to film “Twinky Gets Kidnapped”. In this riveting tale, Twinky, my cousin’s dog, has been kidnapped by an unknown entity and needs to be rescued. Despite what started off as a straightforward plot, we had a vision that descended it into chaos. We had plot twist villains before Disney was pulling plot twist villains, and tongue-in-cheek fourth wall breaks.
This was also the first time we tried our hand at video editing, without actually editing the video through a computer. In a now-iconic-amongst-the-family scene, the villain and hero were negotiating how much the ransom would be. We sat each character in a different room and ran back and forth, filming their parts one after the other. No re-takes. We thought we were film geniuses. Only once we played it back, we realized half the dialogue was cut off. Instead of “one million euros”, the new answer to the question “How much do you want for her” was just “-euros”.
By the end of the filming, we all got bored with the script and ended up improvising most of the last scenes, including a sprawling fight scene and a song break. That video still exists somewhere in my aunt’s storage and we talk about it often. Part of me wants to see it, while the other hopes it never sees the light of day.
For years, I hid these stories because I wanted to fit in, to be normal, to have regular childhood experiences – whatever those were supposed to be. Experiences like going to Starbucks with your friends or to the mall to kill time or having sleepovers where you watch scary movies and try to stay up all night. Ignoring the fact that even as an adult I hate scary movies, all-nighters, being too long around fluorescent lighting, and think Starbucks coffee never tastes right.
As an adult, I’m happy I had the hands-off, learn-to-entertain-yourself childhood I did. We weren’t always technological Luddites. We still watched cartoons and played shitty Flash games, but we weren’t pawned off or pushed in front of a screen by the adults. They didn’t plan out every second of our day, to make sure we were kept busy or productive. If we were bored, we were responsible for figuring out what to do ourselves.
That might mean you end up scraped, bruised, running away from river snakes, or questioning God.
That might also mean making great memories, a lesson or two learned, and one-of-a-kind stories to share later on.
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