Thursday, June 14, 2007

Vacation 7: Amsterdam, Day 2

(A corner market)

Monday. We didn't do anything too noteworthy today, opting to spend the day walking around and becoming better oriented with the city. It's definitely smaller than Paris, at least the central part of it. Our hotel is off near one of the edges of the old city (well, about 4/5 of the way to the edge) and were able to walk to the train station at the opposite border in under an hour. Our tickets to London are in two parts, with the second part from Brussels to London and all ticketed normally with seats and a schedule. But the first part of our journey, from here to Brussels, was ticketed entirely open: we have from June 16 thru the end of August to use them, and there is no seat assignment. So we needed to figure out what is what with that, and to decide what train to catch out of Amsterdam to make our Brussels connection.

(Breakfast by a canal)

But we began the day by having pancakes by a little shack in a nearby park overlooking a canal. The food was so-so, but the setting was fabulous. Then we walked over to the nearby Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam's biggest. We didn't go in, but we're planning to in the next couple of days. From there we walked past the Van Gogh museum over to the Concertgebouw, where it appears Evgeny Kissin was playing last night while we lounged in our hotel room unawares. We weren't able to get into the concert hall itself, though we saw the ticketing area, which is a new add-on to the historic old hall. I looked at a brochure for their great pianists series, which included a veritable who's who for this year alone: Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, Kissin, quite a few others.

(The train station is the background)

After this we walked in meandering fashion to the train station, stopping along the way at a Birkenstock store for a new pair of sandals for Susan. The store was about the size of our master bedroom and was jammed to the rafters with people. I asked if it was always this way, and the clerk said no, it was busier on Saturdays. Honey, you need more real estate. Every street and canal seems to beg to be photographed; it all looks so different from anything else one sees in, say, Chicago. We passed thru the famed red light district where, as advertised, buxom, barely-clad women were sitting in windows for our viewing (and tactile) pleasure. I'm wondering if it was significant that one woman I looked at made eye contact with me and promptly snapped her curtain shut! While I was about the fattest thing to be seen on the streets of Paris, I'm not quite in such rarified company here. But I must admit that I surely appear less... tantalizing than many of the college boys roaming the streets. But it's all about money, no? Maybe I'm just a lot fatter than I'm admitting. Speaking of prostitution, I have to think this is responsible for the much larger number of men in town, wandering around in packs and sitting around groups of tables in the cafes and squares, than women. There are women, of course, but there are clearly more men. What other explanation?

We had random snacks during our walk to and from the train station (see comment about rejection by a prostitute above), and came back to the hotel for a short nap (this is kind of a daily thing--it's hell to get old, I guess) before walking to the nearby square in search of dinner. There is a crowded public square about three blocks from here with 10-12 sidewalk cafes / pubs ringing it and spilling into it, and streets heading off in all four directions crowded with restaurants. They seem to have a thing for Italian cuisine, as one in every three places is a pizza and / or pasta joint. They also seem to like Argentinian steak places. Last night it was pizza, and tonight we opted for a cheeseburger for me and onion soup plus corn chips and guacamole for Susan. Our waitress was a young woman from Israel traveling on an Austrian passport, in Amsterdam for a month or so before moving on to the next place. She was previously in New York for a while, and fears she must soon return to home to go back to school. So we peppered her with questions about how she found a place to live and what it's like to travel in this way with no firm agenda.

(This is a Diet Coke? Puh-leeze. This is a shot glass.)

It was another beautiful day, weather-wise, and we definitely soaked in something of the flavor of the city. Having so much water definitely informs everything, and I was especially taken by the houseboats. While none of them seem quite as elaborate as those we saw on the Seine in Paris (and most are not really seaworthy; they're floating houses rather than boats per se), some are still quite atmospheric. Reading our guide, it says that the houseboats have permanent addresses and are hooked up to the city's water supply and power grid. But without sewer, life could be rather inconvenient--unless one's toilet just emptied into the canal. Ugh.

(Yes, those are all bicycles)

And I still can't get past all the bicycles (sorry). Over by the train station we saw a hotel or parking ramp thing with, literally, tens of thousands of bikes tied up there. I could see them from half a mile away. And there simply isn't a street or canal or square or house without bikes from several to thousands locked up. Some squares are so clogged with thousands and thousands of bikes such that it really takes you by surprise. And a goodly percentage of these are always broken and / or abandoned. Crossing a street is quite a task, since even the little narrow ones will have cars in one or two directions, and bikes going both ways as well. The wider streets have dedicated lanes in both directions for bikes and cars, and there's often a set of tram tracks in the middle, with the trains approaching silently. The bikes, as I said above, don't really obey their traffic lights, yet they expect pedestrians to get the hell out of their way. So even a simple roadway may well have six separate lanes of travelers on it, from both directions. And sidewalks are usually divided into the bike section and the walking section, and, again, the bikers do not take kindly to walkers straying where they're not supposed to be. And to make it even worse, sometimes the scooters use the car lanes and obey these rules, and at other times they barrel down the bike lanes and characteristically ignore the rules.

Take the above picture. The gray at far right is for pedestrians. The reddish pavement to the left is for bikes, and you can see there is a thru lane and a right turn lane. To the left of that is the auto right turn lane, and next to that both directions of thru lanes, which are shared with both directions of trams, which all make the same right-hand turn from our perspective. On the far side, these lanes reverse themselves, with car lanes, bike lanes and foot lanes. Often there are little islands between these sections of roadway, where you stand in the middle of the road and wait for one set of lights or another--often, crossing in a single go is quite impossible.

Most people have bells on their bikes, which they use as a heads-up, which is kind of amazing to me. I'm used to having a bell on my bike as a novelty when I was five years old. The idea of thousands of adults getting around by bicycle, and of them having these little bells on the handlebar as a necessary safety device just puts some little part of my world on its ear. Likewise fenders. If you use the bike as your car, the fenders are a practical necessity, and not the affectation they seemed on old peoples' bikes when I was a kid. It rains a fair amount here, and without fenders you'd have to take the bus. Numerous times we've seen very well-dressed men and women roll up on their bike to an office or a cafe for a professional engagement, which requires shifting several points of etiquette from our culture. First, nobody had better mind the occasional mud spatter or a few bugs in your outfit, no matter how carefully you dress. Second, you're bound to be a bit sweaty on a warm summer day. I can't imagine either of these things flying in an American corporation, at least most of them.

(A printshop with indoor parking)

But there's also the death of the whole concept of car as status symbol. Nobody judges a person badly who shows up to any engagement on a bicycle, and no part of that person (I surmise) is wrapped up in the expense or exclusivity of their transportation. Amsterdammers would seem to bypass that whole morass. (It strikes me as I write this that New York City is a place that also bypasses this car obsession.) I don't think I've ever been caught up in the status of cars--indeed, none of my 25 cars has been of more than modest expense; but I expect my car-nut friends to perk up when they see my latest wheels, not as a measure of some essential part of my person but because cars are just cool and I know I'd be eager to learn the details of their new wheels. This all just seems gone here, and it's not translated to the bikes which take the place of cars; no one seems to revel in the coolness of bikes generally or their cool bike particularly. There is no push to replace an old ratty bike with a nicer one. It's just how you get around, nothing more. But that being said, it's still a ubiquitous necessity. We talked to a woman tonight after dinner who was bringing a tub of water outside to her front steps, and her dog was on a leash nearby. "Bath time for the dog?" Susan asked. "No, it's for the bike!" the woman smiled. She had her old, rusty bike overturned with a flat rear tire, and she was about to find and fix the leak. So we talked a bit about bikes in Amsterdam, and she said "It's a DISASTER to have a car in the city!"

(Transport for the whole fambly)

Virtually every single bike as this integral rear tire lock attached to the frame at the seat post just above the rear tire and extending partway around the back tire on both sides. Then, when the bike is stopped, a little slider is extended with a key to connect the two sides THRU the back tire. This keeps the bike from being able to roll, and locks the back tire to the bike so it can't be stolen. Then, a VERY heavy chain or cable is used to tie the frame and front tire to something fixed. This is the standard thing. And then there are a zillion little other things that differ in this bike culture. First, there are all manner of kids' seats, and we even saw a bike with a kid's seat behind the main seat and a second one up by the handlebars! So mom or dad gets to pedal two kids along with them. (I'd be afraid to have my unprotected little kid on my bike's handlebars as I rode thru chaotic Amsterdam traffic.) There are these odd delivery bikes, long low bikes with a big wooden box in front of the rider. Sometimes there is a kid's seat in the box or a bench seat for two. The frame runs under the box, and a tiny front tire extends out the front, connected to the handlebars far behind with a tie rod or two. We saw several three- and four-wheeled pedal devices, either for taxis or for delivery.

(These piles are all over the place)

I just have this recurring question about what it means economically, both individually and on a larger scale, for bikes to play such a large role in a culture. Are people healthier? Most people don't seem to ride athletically, and indeed it's surprising to see people talking on their cell phones as they ride, something we see five hundred times a day (as you'd expect when these are their cars). I saw a couple bike couriers with their cell phones jammed into their helmets, talking as they rode. Other people have bluetooth headsets. I think part of the reason there are so many abandoned bikes is because it's just so damn cheap to buy another if too much effort is needed to fix one. There must be a thriving used bike market, and I bet $50 or certainly $100 will get you fine transportation. I don't know if the whole thing is presenting itself to me clearly, but it seems significant that I can think of no other culture in the West where so little is spent on cars and gasoline and all the stuff that goes along with them.

Three things Susan reminds me I've forgotten: a Belgian waffle w/ chocolate, a little foam rat snack, and a hash bar. The Belgian waffle came from a little fast-food thing on a corner of a busy street, where the waffles are made to order, put like a chunk of thick bread dough onto a hot waffle iron to order. Then you pick your topping. Susan opted for chocolate sauce, and the combination was so good as to almost make an atheist steal somebody's rosary to beg forgiveness. We stopped a couple hours later at a candy store to look at three hundred candy variants, none of which we have in the states except for chocolate-covered raisins. And we decided we HAD to try things that looked unfamiliar. Susan chose a weird little chrome-colored pellet, which looked like a ball bearing but turned out to be a jawbreaker (which she later spit out--I maintain that's cheating!). My choice was this odd little blob that looked like a bleached rat fetus--it was a bit bigger, like a small mouse. It was so grotesque that I had to try it, and I bit into it expecting the worst. But it was like marshmallow with the texture of puffed leather, and actually tasted kind of... well, OK. Susan wants more of those. Lastly, our hotel wants something like a thousand dollars for a day's internet service (OK, only $20), so we decided to check out an internet coffee house after dinner, where the rates were a much more reasonable 1.60 for 20 minutes. But the place turns out to be a hash bar. We knew the city was full of them, but it was only when I began to hallucinate that I realized what was up. Actually, Susan saw the prices on a board--per joint, based on the origin and quality of the shit inside. I decided that if I wanted to pass my next random drug test, I ought not go back to that place.

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