Amsterdam on Two Wheels

I slept through most of the long overnight train from Prague, waking to the golden light of a late winter morning in the Netherlands. As the trained pulled into Amsterdam Central railway station with unceremonious promptness, I braced myself for the chaos and confusion that so often accompanies arrival in a major transportation hub. My expectations were confounded when that chaos never came.

Amsterdam’s streetcars stop directly in front of the train station, ferrying commuters off to every corner of the city. The distance from the front doors of the station to the streetcar stop is about a hundred paces, which is good news for anyone dragging a heavy flight case. Within ten minutes of exiting the train station I was boarding a streetcar and leaving the bustle of tourism in the city center. Five minutes later I was standing at my stop on Overtoom Boulevard, in the Oud West neighborhood, calling my old schoolmate Dave to let him know I had arrived. He gave me walking directions to his flat, situated a mere three blocks from the streetcar stop. Before I knew it, I was handing my high school chum a kitschy souvenir from the Czech Republic.

In the time between boarding the train in Prague and greeting Dave at his flat in Amsterdam, I had walked less than half a mile. Had Dave really positioned himself so strategically that he could step outside his front door and be in another country without effort? Granted, Europe is quite advanced when it comes to transportation infrastructure, but most of my time in Europe has been spent researching cuisine in Croatia, a place where efficiency and simplicity have yet to be invented, or even considered. There is confusing paperwork that you must personally fill out and sign at the moment of your own birth in Croatia, but the big cities there are still light years ahead of most of America with regard to public transportation. Experiencing a city where cars are almost entirely unnecessary wasn’t new to me; I was unprepared for the coup de grace of culture shock that Amsterdam was about to lay on me: bicycling.

Interlaced with the streets and canals of the Netherlands’ capital city is a network of impeccably paved bicycle paths. Dutch people of all ages and walks of life consider the bicycle their primary means of transportation and it’s also the best way to explore Amsterdam. Dave had given me the key for the extra bicycle he keeps locked up in front of his flat for guests, but I took the city on foot for a few days before working up the nerve to begin pedaling the paths. To see people zipping along, as if they were each born into the manner, was oddly intimidating; I thought it best to observe their habits and glean some awareness of the rules of the road. It turns out that there really aren’t many “rules” to learn.

Since common sense and consideration for others are large parts of Dutch culture, the only rule of bicycling seems to be avoiding collision with other cyclists. The paths are at least twice as wide as a typical suburban sidewalk in America, and traffic is policed by little more than the Dutch social contract. Everyone rides at roughly the same moderate speed in single file. If you’re about to be passed by someone wishing to go a little faster, you’ll (hopefully) hear them ringing their bell behind you. You should take that bell very seriously, though, and immediately move to the right of the path so that they can pass on the left. Bicycle routes do have their own separate system of traffic lights, but they’re really only considered loose guidelines for those who don’t exhibit common sense. If you can pedal yourself along at about ten miles per hour without weaving around wildly, you’ll be just fine.

The remainder of my stay in the Venice of the North was full of new sights and sounds, but more indelibly etched into my memory than the physical content of my days was the rhythm of life on two wheels. There is a palpable connectedness with the world one feels from the seat of a bicycle, a serene state of non-separation from the people around you that’s rivaled only by walking. That connection precipitates an inimitable quality of life that can’t be had while sitting behind the wheel of a car in traffic. I find myself yearning for that quality of life here in the U.S., often feeling that I am wasting time, rather than saving it, whenever I drive.