Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Bikes of Amsterdam

 Ah, Amsterdam, city of canals, quaint houses and fewer windmills than you might expect. A city of shimmering water and worn cobbles, where—with no fear of legal repercussion—you can smoke hash, rent a prostitute and visit a world-class art exhibit all within comfortable walking distance from your hotel. (For the record, we accomplished one of these three; you should have no trouble guessing which it was.)

My wife, redundantly reading The Light of Amsterdam while actually
in Amsterdam, and giving me inspiration for the title of this post.
The first thing about Amsterdam that impressed me was how easy it was to get there. I haven’t flown anywhere but to the US in years so it came as a pleasant shock to learn that—outside of a police state—you are actually allowed to lock your suitcase, and that border guards are not constitutionally required to treat you like criminally-inclined flotsam. Smiles, pleasant conversation, helpfulness—it was so startlingly surreal I was giddy by the time we checked into our room.

We snagged a room with a balcony; a great place for traffic-watching.
If you ever visit Amsterdam—and I thoroughly recommend that you do—be aware: there are bikes, lots of them. The Dutch are way ahead of most countries when it comes to green transportation and, in Amsterdam, bicycles outnumber cars by a very wide margin.

They are stationary now, but wait until the get moving.
These are not your hi-tech racers or rugged off-road models, these are work-a-day bikes, the type of bike you probably had as a kid, with upright handle bars, a single gear and a bracket over the rear fender to carry books or bags or your friend who needed a lift. They commute to work on them, they visit the market on them, they go out for the evening on them. They ride them effortlessly, with consummate skill, supreme confidence and, curiously, no helmets. But the most important thing for you to remember, however, is that they ride them everywhere.

Bikes being well behaved, but you should see them when they think no one is looking!
You would be safe on the sidewalks, if the bikes kept to the cycle lanes and roadways (I have to add that we also found ourselves dodging vehicle traffic on the sidewalks so I can’t lay this one totally at the feet of the cyclists.) You might be safe crossing when the “walk” sign is green, if the bikes did not routinely ignore traffic signs. And you could be safe on a one-way street with no oncoming traffic, if the bikes did not also ignore traffic laws.

When we visited some years ago and I saw everyone riding bikes, I found it at once quaint and forward thinking. The cyclists were orderly then and I never recall having to dodge them. This time, however, I was in fear for my life any time I was outside.

They zipped through intersections, they whizzed across pavements, they slalomed around busses, trams ad pedestrians, they darted through cross-traffic like a shuttlecock on a loom, weaving a traffic tapestry that was, at once, mesmerizing and frightening.

When crossing a street, or a pedestrian area, or a sidewalk or, well, anything (I even saw a bank lobby with a sign “no bikes!” posted at the entrance) you have to look in every direction but up, and then you have to check again because the bikes are not only swift, they are silent. And in Amsterdam there are only two types of pedestrians—the quick and the dead.

So, with more trepidation than I would have liked, we wandered the lovely lanes and scenic streets of Amsterdam, took in a few museums, sampled the local cuisine (I had the best calzone ever at the little restaurant next to our hotel), did our bit to stimulate the local economy and generally enjoyed ourselves.

Amsterdam has its own flavor, a little sweet, a little saucy, but always pleasantly palatable. The pictures don’t do it justice; you must go there, really, I mean it.

Really, can you think of a more tranquil and beguiling scene than this...

...or this...

... or this ...

... or this ...

... or this?
Just watch out for the bikes.

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