A Look Back at Amsterdam

2617_536888868371_7675669_nInsanely, this is the five-year anniversary of my departure to the Netherlands—what began a blissful, highly educational study abroad period that showed me a wide swath of Europe, gave me some new friends to treasure, and exposed me to an array of culture, history, and art. (Hey, Holland is the Original Cool, remember?) I try to encourage everyone I know to study, live, or work abroad—because why not? You learn so much about yourself and the world once you push yourself outside of the norm. In honor of that time of my life, here’s a reflection on Amsterdam from my 20-year old self’s point of view.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands—2009

We arrive in Amsterdam by way of two coaches—and let me tell you, unloading eighty plus students outside of Vondelpark at noon is neither easy nor fun. First and foremost, in this particular city, there are four modes of transportation to take into account: cars, obviously; the great blue and white trams that barrel through the streets, looking like toys strung together on metallic links; pedestrians (none of whom look too pleased to see the hordes of us); and, perhaps most famously, the innumberable bicycles that zip past with much more edge than in the little town of Well. It takes over fifteen minutes to try and cross the street, making sure to get every student (and every student’s water bottle) safely through the haze of oncoming traffic.

Our hostel is situated at one of the largest parks in Amsterdam, close to the Hard Rock Café (“Oh my God! I have to get a pin!”), and also to the Museumplein, home of the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum as well as the gigantic, postcard perfect block letters that spell out “I AMsterdam,” allowing any one of the many tourists that flock to this city to claim its aged brick streets and narrow houses as their own. Our hostel, Stayokay Amsterdam Vondelpark, is cheery, full of others our own age, and features a pool table as well as its own bar.

Barely through the check-in process, we split into groups and shuffle out into the frigid weather for a walking tour of the city, bag lunches in hand. I trade my egg sandwiches for a whole wheat roll on the walk to Museumplein, munching away as our guide and professor, Chester Lee, tells us the importance of open spaces in Amsterdam, and why Museumplein was created. The Rijksmuseum rears up behind us—an extraordinary creation of brick and gold, draped with banners proclaiming: “We’re Open!” (The Rijksmuseum—a sort of Dutch Smithsonian, housing art masterpieces from centuries ago until now, is undergoing an extensive renovation. Only one wing of the massive structure is open to the public, though fortunately, the famous “Nightwatch” is accessible to visitors.) The rolls of chicken wire fencing and the clouds of dust billowing from the heavy machinery moving outside do nothing to disturb the museum’s image of grandeur, and I find it rather hard to keep up with Chester as he takes off through the city streets, my head still tilted up and back to the museum’s façade.

There’s more to see, and we rush over the small bridges spanning the canals to take it all in. There are three main canals in Amsterdam, the Prisengracht, the Kaizersgracht, and the Herengracht—one each for the princes, the kings, and the gentlemen.

As we tear through the city we note the triple X logos that ornament everything from the massive flag of the city to the smallest hitching post, an iconic image that cannot be dated or traced to any particular origin. Also noted are the shopping areas, the flower market, where tulips sit in white plastic buckets that seem undeserving of the beauty they contain, and an amazing amount of public places to urinate (all for men, and most in use). And of course, chained to every available metal post are bicycles.

Bike culture here is very different than from any city I have ever been to. Berkeley loves their bikes as well, but not with the same fervor, and certainly not with the same unanimous acceptance as the Dutch. They own the road. They own the sidewalks. I’m told the rules of the bike in this city are thus: never own a mountain bike in the city, someone will steal it. Keep your nice bikes at home in the country, and chain to the canal a junk secondhand bike that no one will look twice at. Bikes of all colors—from the classic black and silver to neon oranges and greens. Some are draped in saddlebags (red canvas, brown leather, a plastic material decorated in pink paisleys or huge cow spots), some sport little wooden wheelbarrows in the front (confusion resulted until a small child was seen holding onto the edges and screeching with delight as a father wheeled past). More than a few are decorated with fake flowers and greenery, a fitting tribute to the environment. Parked, they clump together like little clubs, their front wheels tilted together like so many secretive heads. The air teems with the light and airy sounds of their bells, the churning spokes, and the laughing conversations the float from rider to rider.

The main thing about bikes in Amsterdam, however, is knowing where they are. Often they make no sound, so if one is walking at the wrong space in the road, one is very likely to be mowed down by a Dutch rider, and no amount of hand-waving or “Sorry!” screaming will make up for the experience. In our huge groups, we are often the unwitting participants of these awkward situations, and more than a few bikes slam to sudden stops in front and around as we herd ourselves through the narrow streets. Our guides are frantic, shepherding us through and shrieking: “Bike! Bike!” as we Frogger ourselves across intersections. Lucky for us, the Dutch are fairly tolerant of tourists, and though their faces express their annoyance with our slow movements and ignorant walking patterns, rarely are there verbal altercations. Toto, I’m sure we’re not in America anymore.