Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
The plan: Holland, children, bicycles. We figured the rest would evolve on its own.
“Flat,” my husband said. “The whole country is flat. Bike paths all over the place.”
A landscape materialized at once in my head. You can imagine the particulars: windmill, tulips, cow, canal, pedaling 12- and 16-year-old. Sunshine. Waving farmer. Cheese.
“Legal weed,” the 16-year-old chipped in.
“Not for you,” I said.
We bought a Holland guidebook, with many photographs of Rembrandt paintings and elaborately gabled canal-front brick houses, but the Bicycles section was only two pages long and commenced with a photograph of a bike helmet. Ha! (We’ll get to that in a moment.) We found what seemed to be a suitable Holland Tourist Board Web site, animated on-screen by a little mustached man who pedaled along as you plotted out various rural cycling routes, but every time I tried to download the maps my computer snarled at me and dumped the site.
So we gave up on the advance details, arranged for an Amsterdam apartment that came equipped with the owners’ bicycles and landed on a breezy July morning at Schiphol Airport, which is grand and clean and extremely efficient; by lunch time, our bags piled up at the top of the apartment’s staircase landing, we were bicycling. Before sundown the next day, we had grasped the essentials.
The essentials were — startling.
By that second day, I had began composing my own introductory bicycling brochure, to be handed at the border to uninitiated Americans with tulips in their heads.
“Bicycling in Holland: The Essentials”
1. The Bicycles. The bicycles are hardy. Black, mostly, or faded gray. No gearshifts. Rust on the fenders. High handlebars. Smooth fat tires. Coaster brakes. When you hit the cobblestones, things rattle; the bell dings of its own accord; small parts fall off and have to be jammed back into place. The bicycle you learned to ride on felt like this. At the central Amsterdam train station the outside walls are ringed by vast thickets of rusting dark metal, bicycle after bicycle locked in tight succession along the long metal parking racks, and at the fringes of the racks, scores of spillover bicycles are locked to fence posts, lampposts, grillwork, tree trunks, drainpipes and each other. Some of these bicycles are lying at peculiar angles and appear to have been stripped of seats, fenders, pedals or front wheels. There are locked bicycles rusting together in front of every restaurant, storefront, apartment house and playground; any fixed outdoor metal tubing, regardless of its intended purpose, is likely to have a bicycle locked to it. Fietsenstalling means bicycle parking. Fietsenstalling with a red line slashed through it means: For God’s sake, give me a break, just put the damn thing somewhere else.
2. The Terrain. In Holland the intersections have three sets of traffic signals: lighted spheres for the automobiles, lighted walking men for the pedestrians and lighted bicycles for you — red two-wheeler for stop, green two-wheeler for go. On many streets you get your own lane, too, with its own yellow line center divider. This would make your inaugural bicycle ride, which will almost certainly take place in Amsterdam, quite charming and tranquil except for the motorcycles and the buses and the delivery trucks and the map-reading tourists and the honking Minis and Fiats (which look like those tiny cars from the Richard Scarry children’s books and drive very rapidly down brick-paved streets, with three centimeters of clearance on either side) and the horse-drawn calliope wagons and the ambulances going beeee-booop-beeee-booop and the lollipop-colored streetcars bearing down on you broadside.
There are windmills, by the way. Also farmers and cows, and drowsy sheep, and dawn mist off the still canals, and thick green meadows out to the flat horizon. But you have to bicycle through Amsterdam to get to them.
3. The Road Company. The population of Holland is 16 million; the total number of bicycles, according to official counts, is slightly over 16 million. More than one bicycle per citizen, that is, including the newborn and the infirm. While you are on your bicycle you will be overtaken by the following persons, all of whom will pedal more aggressively than you and will clang their handlebar bells impatiently to shoo you over to the right: leggy blond women in miniskirts and four-inch platform shoes; businessmen in pressed white shirts and ties; teenage boys with girlfriends balancing sidesaddle on the back; teenage girls with boyfriends balancing splayed-legged over the handlebars; pale Turkish grocers carrying full crates of bottled beer; coffee-colored Indonesian women carrying full sacks of market vegetables; black boys in soccer jerseys arguing furiously in Dutch; elderly white-haired men with their wool trousers tucked into their socks; elderly white-haired women with long-stemmed gladioluses pinioned under one arm; Orthodox Jewish boys in yarmulkes; Islamic ladies in chadors; and a 300-pound tattooed man, bare-chested under his denim overalls, with one child on his handlebars and another clinging to him from behind.
Note: None of these people will be wearing a helmet.
I didn’t mention rain yet, did I? When it rains people pull on hooded slickers or unfurl umbrellas and go right on bicycling. I watched one matronly looking lady, in her wool blazer and sensible shoes, pedaling briskly along an Amsterdam street while balancing a purse, a full sack of groceries, a bouquet of flowers, an opened umbrella and a live puppy peering out from inside the handlebar basket. I never did figure out how she managed it. I felt quite at my limit just trying to negotiate the rain-slicked cobblestones in the voluminous plastic poncho I bought in a tourist office for six guilders — that’s $3, so actually it was more of a cellophane poncho. My husband and children had the rain jackets we had packed with us, but I chugged along inside the flaps of my cellophane Dutch tent; for my birthday, a week after we arrived, my 12-year-old daughter drew me a Batmom card with an illustration of a determined caped crusader on wheels (quick as a flash, the ponchoed bicycle appears out of the mists, to battle the storm in her billowing dark green armor).
Fortunately, the rain came only on days three, five and 12. For the rest of our two weeks the sun shone, or at least the gray sky held off for most of the day, and every morning we made our way from our apartment down three flights of narrow, twisting Dutch steps — apparently this is a nationally cherished architectural detail, the ankle-killer staircase composed of steps so squashed that your toes stick out over the edge — and unlocked our bicycles from the long metal rack on the street. We never walked anywhere. Why would you want to walk when you have to dodge all those manic people on bicycles? We pedaled Amsterdam, which became somewhat less harrowing as we grew more adept at working our way through town on the gorgeous narrow canal streets laid out in concentric rings around the city center. On the canal streets there were no streetcar tracks, only the vrooming little Richard Scarry cars, and in all directions the side-street glories of a city laid out 300 years ago to display its merchant wealth: the arched stone bridges, the flowerpot-decorated wooden canal boats and the high, narrow buildings of red and ochre brick, each topped with a different flourish of showy cornices and gables.
I don’t think we ever covered the length of one of these city streets without slowing to admire the view or peer up at the rooftops. Except for the briefly aerobic rush of terror as the streetcars lurch by, seeing Amsterdam on two wheels feels more like strolling than bicycling, and for convenience it’s unbeatable: While the other tourists walked, or waited for streetcars, or shelled out their guilders for the Mercedes taxicabs, we glided along on our black clunkers and engaged in creative fietsenstalling whenever we wanted to visit indoor sights. Outside the Rijksmuseum, the massive 19th century neo-Gothic palace housing the national art collection, we used an ornate iron fence. Outside Kantjil & de Tijger, the sleek and crowded restaurant where we ate ourselves into a stupor on Indonesian food, we used some random outdoor plumbing affixed to the building next door.
And once we got into the countryside — which began, as it turned out, about eight minutes’ ride from our apartment — we barely locked the bikes at all. We pedaled along at our same indolent pace; we dumped the bicycles on the grass while we pulled cheese and oranges out of the backpack; we sat on village curbs, the bicycles on their kickstands beside us, while the kids ate from paper cones full of patates frites (which sounds grander than french fries, even if the Dutch do have a mysterious penchant for eating their patates with a large lump of mayonnaise on top). The countryside looked exactly the way it was supposed to, except for the tulips: wrong season — no tulips in July. But the black and white cows, as my daughter observed, shone as though someone went out and waxed them each morning. The pastures spread around impeccably tended farmhouses, with vegetable gardens and flower beds out in front, where you could inspect them from the bicycle path. Often the farmhouse front room was left curtains-open and perfectly arranged, which we were told is a long-standing Dutch custom, the display of order and prosperity to impress all passers-by. The farmers didn’t wave, exactly, but from time to time they pedaled their own clunkers out to join us on the fietspad, the bicycle path; once we pulled off to the side while a cycling farmer herded his whole flock of sheep out of one pasture, down the fietspad a few hundred yards and back into the next pasture over.
These fietspaden, by the way, really are a bicyclist’s dream — bicycle-only roads, paved, some of them wholly separate from the road for the cars and trucks. A web of fietspaden spreads out from Amsterdam through the surrounding villages, and the Dutch train system is designed to encourage ambitious cycling trips; you can either put your bicycle on the train, which is the more expensive option because you essentially have to buy the bike a ticket too, or for about $5 a day you can rent a bicycle at your destination train station, as long as you call in advance to make sure they haven’t run out. We were briefed on the mechanics of this process by a solicitous Amsterdam train station clerk, who like almost everyone else we met spoke courteous and nearly accent-free English, and with the clerk’s help we reserved four bikes one morning at the station up in the northwestern town of Den Helder, which is the takeoff point for a popular Dutch vacation area called the West Frisian islands.
Until we began examining maps of Holland in some detail, we had never heard of the West Frisian islands; they curve out along the North Sea in a long narrow arc, accessible only by boat — which in our case turned out to be the giant car and bicycle ferry that made the crossing to Texel, the closest and largest of the islands, in just enough time for us to stash the rental bikes (fietsenstalling: a momentarily unoccupied horizontal metal pipe) and climb upstairs to the open decks to watch seagulls and breathe in salt air. The ferry docked at a long sweep of sand and farm fields and we pedaled straight out into the open country of Texel. We had in mind an all-afternoon loop up to the seaside village of De Koog, which is where the Dutch people go to set out their beach umbrellas, and both De Koog and the villages en route turned out to be charming little places, with wrought iron fences and pointy-roofed brick and wood cottages. But it was the pastoral fietspaden up to De Koog and back — some of them curving deep into the woods, with no automobile road anywhere in sight, and then back out along the inland slope of deserted grass-topped sand dunes — that were the real glory of the trip.
We put in some terrific excursions over our weeks in Holland — there was a train-and-bike arrangement that wound us through thickly wooded countryside into Gouda, with its grand Gothic red-shuttered town hall; there was a serene two-windmill ride (the old ones don’t rotate any more, but they’re splendid to look at, especially from a distance) that started 10 blocks from our apartment and ran south along the banks of the Amstel River. But that ride around Texel turned into one of those afternoons when you keep grabbing each other and pointing at things that look too flawless to be credible. Thatched-roof farmhouses, I remember those, and the birch and dogwood trees, and the smell of hay, and the single church steeple rising from the expanse of pastures gone to wildflower. We watched a baby goat suckle its mother. Farmers leaned against a tractor and talked seriously to each other. The light was smoky and golden and made me understand why Breughel paintings look the way they do, and when the kids clanged their handlebar bells at each other it was just a noise of pure joy.
Some day that was — and it wound on, long into the late-night hours, in what we came to think of as peculiarly Dutch fashion. A valiant final sprint to the dock got us onto the last ferry back to Den Helder, at 9 o’clock and in the midst of a deep midsummer sunset; we returned our rental bikes to the Den Helder train station as night came up, and for the hour’s train ride back to Amsterdam the four of us slumped contentedly in our train seats and passed around our now-familiar supper of bakery rolls and Edam cheese.
We got back late to our neighborhood train station in Amsterdam, wondering what the urban bike paths would be like in the middle of the night, and there we experienced our first and only encounter with Holland bicycle mischief: We had all parked very responsibly, in the station’s outdoor fietsenstalling, but as we were unlocking the bikes to go home, a fellow cyclist who was examining her own bike exclaimed something to us in agitated Dutch. It was not until we tried to ride home that we saw what she had been trying to tell us: Someone, evidently for no purpose other than general bad behavior, had flattened every rear tire in the Amstel Station bicycle lot.
As acts of vandalism go, this one turned out to have been so contained as to be almost charming: Where I live the tires would have been slashed, if not stolen outright, requiring a high-priced replacement. But the Dutch bad guy, perhaps bowing to certain regional standards of civility, had let the air out by removing every rear screw-on valve in the fietsenstalling, which left each tire intact and must have taken quite a long time. All we would need for our repairs was an air pump and four new valves, and walking the bikes home at midnight, with the city streets quiet and the moonlight shining up off the river, it was not so hard to forgive him
Cynthia Gorney is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of "Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars."More Cynthia Gorney.
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