Thursday, June 14, 2007

Vacation 6: Amsterdam 1

Sunday night. Turns out we needn't have fretted too much about Amsterdam, as the place seems quite fabulous. Of course, we've only been here for about three hours, and there's a question about how busy we'll be able to keep ourselves for nearly a week; but in the short term, the place seems magical and unlike anyplace I've seen before.

Our train pulled into the station right on schedule at 5:04 pm, and by 6:05 we were out of the hotel for a walk. We're on a quiet street with loads of character in the museum district, just a block or so from one of the major concentric canals in the city. It seems that nobody, at least in the old city, is very far from water, and it gives the city an aspect like what I imagine Venice must be like. Every block or two you cross over a waterway, and today they were all fairly busy with tour barges and taxis and private boats and tourist pedal boats. Off of the major canals are spokes of varying sizes, some of which prohibit powered boats, and all of which lead to private residences or other waterways. So the city is shot thru with water. The architecture is quite different from Paris, with the houses seeming older and smaller, but with great variety and character.

And bicycles. Though our little guide book said this is one of the most bicycle-friendly places on the planet, I was not expecting the locust-like swarms of bikes that we found in the cab ride from the station to the hotel. They are everywhere, in much greater proliferation than cars or scooters or anything else. Everybody seems to get around by bicycle. And they are parked in tens of thousands along every street and waterway, sometimes in huge tangled piles. About one in five or six seems not to be in working order--flat tires, mostly, but some missing chains or wheels or seats or whatever. And everything is chained up with a huge security chain or Kryptonite-like lock. Our guide book says that theft is a big problem in the city, and there was graffiti everywhere on the train ride in, though I don't see much around the old part of town that we're in (Susan and I argued about how one should deal with this, me advocating that the rail security and police should be authorized to shoot tranquilizers at anyone caught in the act of tagging things, and her thinking that was barbaric compared to the relative innocence of a bit of spray paint. I was not--I am not--convinced.) The book says that if you buy a bike, be careful because the cheap ones on the street are almost certainly stolen, and the expensive ones from a shop will almost certainly BE stolen. So go middle-of-the-road, I guess. But the bikes are everywhere in amazing variety, and most of them are of a type you don't see in America: single speed with tall handlebars which bend back 90° like pictures from the 1800's (when the "safety bicycle" took over from the big-wheel). There is a proliferation of bags and kid carriers and racks on the bikes, and one sees every kind of commerce taking place by bicycle. The street musicians who serenaded us during dinner tonite rode down the sidewalk with their guitars and accordians in cases on their bikes, and we bought a couple cool street paintings from a guy in a nearby square who clearly got there by his bicycle.

I have to wonder what this mode of transportation does to the economics of getting around. Clearly, a bicycle rider would have a way, way, WAY lower monthly outlay for transport costs, and parking and insurance would be a breeze. Additionally, there is so little capital involved that no one need worry too much about theft and vandalism, since a new bike every month would still fall well short of my current car payment. There is no gas cost, and repairs are very cheap. Our guide book says that automobiles are at a distinct disadvantage here in town, and that visitors should consider leaving their car in secure parking for the duration of their stay. The surface trams and bike lanes make getting around a breeze, with bikes having dedicated lanes everywhere with their own signage and traffic controls (though no one seems to obey these lights). I'm sure there will be more to say on this subject as we go, but for now it sticks out (along with the canals) as something distinctly different from any other place I've visited.

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