Amsterdam Update December 2015

David Small

I haven't driven a car in five months. I sold mine the day before I left Portland, along with many of my things, paring down and getting ready for the efficiency of European living. I remember fondly how people lived in Spain: minimal possessions or material concerns, reserving energy to be present in the moment, for living now. I tried my best to take that with me when I returned to the U.S. in 2008, but it faded away. I remember now that's one reason I came to Amsterdam. I've always wanted that back.

After eight years of commuting in Southern California, I vowed to never do it again. I lived car-free for five years after that, but my job outside Portland eventually drove me to back to car-dom. I still have to commute here, but it's not the stressful life-sucking experience of stop-and-go freeway traffic. 

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Instead, I ride my bike, take two trains, then walk to the office. If I leave my apartment at 8:15 a.m., I can get to Amsterdam Centraal Station for the 8:31 train. First I scurry down four flights of impossibly steep Dutch-style stairs. Then I unlock my bike from the rail along the river out front and I’m off, cycling down Amstel Street on the brick bike path and then right along the Kloveniersburgwal Canal (pronunciation unknown), ringing my bell at any early-rising tourists who wander into the street.  

Just before I reach Nieuwmarkt (New Market—they’re not big on naming things here), I'm hit with a pungent fish odor from the TEL fishmonger shop. After the daily delivery, the manager hoses the street with soap to wash the smell away. If I’m on time (and I’m almost never on time), he hasn’t started yet and the street is dry and I keep moving at full speed. If I’m late, I have to slow down to keep the soapy fish water from splashing on my clothes since my rear fender fell off my bike two months ago and I'm a terrible procrastinator. The man doesn't stop his spraying for passing cyclists, and I can't blame him; there are just too many of us.

At Nieuwmarkt, I hit a busy intersection. There are few cars, but the morning bicycle commuters merge and intersect like schools of fish. There are no traffic control signals to interrupt their fluid stream. I time my entry to turn left without interrupting the flow or losing my own momentum. This takes practice.

Cycling through the city, especially at rush hour, will seem like chaos to the uninitiated. I cross twelve intersections on my morning commute and only one has any type of traffic signal. Yet the people make it work. How? Keep moving. Cycling is about momentum, so everyone just keeps moving, timing each turn and crossing perfectly. No stopping. No hesitation. Eye a way through and move forward with confidence. You're nearly running into someone or being run over at all times. I love it.

When I arrive at the train station, there are thousands of parking spots for bicycles, including a three-story garage, and almost all of them are occupied. I used to park my bike just down the road and walk the rest of the way to cheat the system and save time, but that was before my bike got stolen.

Every bicycle I’ve bought since I was 12 has been stolen, except one. But my last bike was stolen twice, so let’s just call it an even one-to-one purchase-to-stolen ratio. It’s common knowledge that your bike will eventually get stolen in Amsterdam. It’s part of the circle of life for Dutch bikes—some 75,000 disappear every year. Stolen bikes are sold back into the market by junkies or flea market vendors, only to be stolen again and the cycle continued. It's easy for bikes to get lost in the cycle as most look alike: semi-dilapidated black antiques with few modern advancements.

So when I got back from work one night and my bike was gone, I decided not to get upset. It was my turn in this rite of passage. The circle of life, I reminded myself. Hakuna matata? It was around 8:30 p.m. I’d had another bad day at work, which has gotten progressively worse since I started, and it was raining heavily. Like a good Portlander, I don’t carry an umbrella, so I slipped into the café (bar) right behind me for shelter. I ordered a heavy Belgian beer, took off my wet jacket and wet scarf and wet hat and drank the beer as quickly as I could. I was toasting my lost bike but also my will to stay calm and not get angry about it. Usually a stolen bike sends me into a vengeful rage. Not this time, I decided, what's the point? 

Back in August, I’d bought my cheap bike from my former boss who transferred to Brazil the week I arrived. For 50 euros, I got a shitty bike with a heavy chain lock and a Nespresso coffee machine. An Amsterdam-proof bike lock costs at least 60 euros, so I felt pretty good about the deal.

The bike cost 25 euros and was ugly and in poor condition—twine-holding-parts-together poor—but this is exactly what you want here to deter thieves. But that 25 euros didn’t just get me a shitty bike, it brought the city closer. I had a bike. I was in. Suddenly Amsterdam got smaller, became more digestible. Nothing is more than 10 minutes away, and the city's biking infrastructure is astounding, with over 300 miles of bike paths lining almost every major street. Fostering a bike culture saves the City and its taxpayers millions on car infrastructure and public transportation. 

There are as many bikes as there are permanent residents, which puts the bike population around 800,000, compared to only 263,000 cars. There are 150 bicycle shops, and every year the city scoops over 10,000 rusty bikes out of the canals. 

Almost every post, bike rack, railing, tree and fence has bikes locked to it. When there's nothing available, Amsterdammers just throw a heavy chain around the front wheel and frame, pop the kickstand and hope nobody walks away with it. This requires an unspoken trust shared by everyone.

The chaotic flow of moving bikes also requires you trust others. While near-collisions are common, serious accidents are not. Unlike car commuters—or perhaps unlike Americans—nobody really gets angry or aggressive or yells "fuck you, idiot" if you nearly crash into them. Even accidents are dealt with calmly. If there's no major damage or injury, you just move on with your life; few, if any, words are exchanged. 

You OK?
Yeah. You OK?
Yeah. 
OK.

No angry yelling or cursing, just a sense that if we all look out for each other, and for ourselves of course, we can move along without interruption. And they do. We do.

This functional chaos—I've seen it in Mexico and Spain as well—is proof that a tolerant society can function in a more self-governed manner. We don't need so many rules and laws telling us precisely how to ride our bikes or live our lives. Do what you want as long as it doesn’t bother anyone else, and we'll all be fine. 

The chaos of Amsterdam cycling is a beautiful example of this. There’s also very little police presence here and even large festivals and concerts have no security. None.

The underlying question is why we trust that the other person will look out for us as we look out for them; because without this, it doesn't work. I think that's why it wouldn't work in America. The me is too important there. Everyone else is a bad driver. That's simply asinine. We are the bad driver. 

Here the me seems to be a smaller part of the equation. Granted, I say this with only five months of observation, but it's more of a communal thinking: Let's get things done efficiently and let people do what they want as long as it doesn't harm anyone else, and everything will work out. Same-sex marriage? Amsterdam did it 15 years ago. Decriminalization of soft drugs? Check. Legalizing prostitution to reduce exploitation and sex trafficking? Check, though many believe this failed to protect or empower sex workers. Behind all of this, though, is that same idea of tolerance. Do what you want. You do you. 

I like this philosophy and the lifestyle it fosters. For many Americans, it's one of Europe’s main attractions. It's a generalization, but people here seem to live more in the present and worry less about things that don't really matter (see: the past, the future, money, material possessions). What's not to like about that?  As a new transplant, I'm still a bit too uptight (American) to live that way. I need to let go. Something I'm working on.

I'm feeling really good about 2016, like I'm finally gaining momentum again. I just got back from a week in South Carolina visiting family, eating good food and not thinking about work. Just the reset I needed. Yesterday, on the train home from the airport I watched the city pass by the window. I told myself that this is Amsterdam Take 2. We'll see what the new year brings. 

On another positive note, I got my bike back. It wasn't stolen. Apparently the City impounds bikes that aren't parked correctly. As punishment, you have to take a train to the Fietsdepot (Bike Impound Lot) in the middle of nowhere, where thousands of orphan bikes await retrieval. They impound 75,000 every year. It costs only 15 euros to get your bike back, yet half the people don’t bother retrieving theirs, so they get sold for scrap, resold or shipped to developing countries. It's a one-hour ride back to the city, which gives you plenty of time to think about what you've done—and what you're going to do.