Friday, July 1, 2016

Amsterdamned.

One of the things I love the most about the Netherlands is its strong bicycle culture.  I've lived in a country where people ride bikes (ahem, China), but it's more by necessity than choice, and you can tell that although people ride bikes the practice is not revered by the fact that EVERYONE violates the sanctity of the bike lane...pedestrians, motorcycles, and even somewhat cars.

That is not the case in the Netherlands.  Bicycles outnumber cars by about a million to one (rough approximation), people stay the hell out of the bike lane (except tourists and they're hardly people)...hell, there are even special bike traffic lights.  Cycling is respected here.
I planned to rent a bike, like, every day I was in Amsterdam.  That did not happen.  For starters, my first few days my hotel was outside of the fray, and then I was taking an IB workshop, and then...yes, I know the saying about excuses and assholes.  I'm also kind of...how should I say it?...fat.  Apart from teaching my ass off (unfortunately, not literally), I haven't gotten a lot of exercise this year, in spite of starting it well and being put to shame by Engrish, who has been known to run in blizzards with six centimeters of snow caked on her body.  So I spent the first week here walking past bikes and cyclists and rental shops without taking part.
To be honest, it was a little intimidating.  For so many people to ride bikes, and everything work in such an orderly way, there must be a ton of rules, and the more rules there are, the likelier I am to unwittingly break them.  Also, I'm not the most coordinated person, and I was imagining that a 17-bike pile-up would not be a pretty sight.  I did NOT want to be THAT tourist, the one who threw a wrench in the works and made the whole system go to hell.  In the end, my bike envy won over my fear and I went to Green Budget Bikes to see about renting one for Wednesday.

It seems like renting a bike should be pretty straightforward, and in theory it is.  You go in, leave your passport as collateral, and ride off on whichever bike they give you.  The problem was that I'd left my passport in my room.  On the top floor of the Hotel de Westertoren.  There are 37 stairs in the pictured flight alone (up to "reception") and another 35 more total in the next two stairways up to my room.  I was not going back up for my passport.  So I asked if I could leave a driver's license instead.  Yes, was the answer, with a 100 euro deposit.  Okay, I thought, I can live with that.  Better than climbing up all 500 stairs (especially since the steps are narrow so I have to go down in reverse, because I have a reasonable amount of fear when it comes to stairways).  Then I came to the clincher - I wanted a bike with a basket or a little rack on the front, so that I could keep my eye on my backpack and not have to wear it.  The problem was they only had one that wasn't a kid's bike, and it was 3 euro more.

I asked myself over and over in the following hour what was the big deal?  Why didn't I just say, "Sure, I can live with that."  3 bloody euro for an hour of my life?  No problem.  Instead, for some reason I said I'd go look elsewhere.  After all, I'd walked past about two dozen bike rental shops over the last several days.  Surely somewhere else had what I was looking for at a better price!  It's a buyers' market, after all.  Well, I'm an idiot.  Not because I was wrong...because I could not, for the life of me, find even a single other bike shop that morning.  So I stomped and fumed and kicked myself in the ass a little, and ended up back at Green Budget Bikes again, asking (very politely), if it was fine with them, could I still please rent that very lovely bike with the rack on the front?
So finally, around 11 o'clock, I got on my way for real.  At one point early on in the bike rental dance, the lady I was talking to asked if I wanted foot brakes or hand brakes, which were 3 euro more.  I thought foot brakes were fine, and it turned out that the bike I ended up with had foot brakes, so I guess it's good that that's what I'd wanted.  My first ever bike, back in the dim years of my childhood, had been equipped with foot brakes, after all.  In fact, there is a story about the time I missed a day of third grade because I forgot where the brakes on my brand-new Street Machine were...and I went flying off the end of the dirt road to land in the field.  Since then, as it turns out, I have gotten used to hand brakes, and it took me a few tries to figure out why it was hard to stop by dragging my feet.  Huh.  Go figure.  Luckily, I was able to get through the day without a complimentary story about the time I hurt myself because I forgot the brakes were on the pedals, but it was close a couple of times.

Anyways, I pedaled along Singel Canal, then followed the tram tracks over to the museum square.  I knew I wanted to spend a good long time cycling, but there were a couple of things on my agenda that day as well, starting with a visit to the MOCO (modern/contemporary) museum, which had Banksy and Warhol on exhibit.  After that, I biked over near Rembrandt Square (yes, that is a complete sculptural arrangement of all the figures in "The Night Watch"), to check out a burrito shop I'd been eyeing every time I passed it on the tram.  It's called The Salsa Shop, and it's kind of a Chipotle knock-off, but I didn't care for it - the barbacoa was a little too chunky and chewy, and the flavor was too sweet.  I preferred the California Burrito Company just in and up from my hotel.
After lunch I booked it over to Buikdanswinkel, where I had a belly dance lesson that afternoon.  I found Shaheen listed on Oriental Dancer (although she turned out to be listed on Shira, as well - I just like the format on Oriental Dancer a little better because it has photos).  I gave it a good hour, even if I am out of practice - I really liked Shaheen's choreography and she was really encouraging.  And then I got back on the bike...  I can't say that the bike robbed me of my virtue, because you may be assuming too much by thinking I have any in the first place, but it was not pleasant.  I had not ridden too far, but I've been out of the saddle a loooong time.  As in, I'm not sure I've been on a bike since Bagan.  Which is sad because I actually own a bike, but since its tires went mysteriously flat two years ago I haven't actually cared enough to deal with it.  Hopefully that will change since I bought some kickass saddlebags at the VanGogh museum that I'd been lusting after since I first saw a bike whiz past with them.  If not, maybe when I land that dream job in Japan, which also has a definite cycling culture.
Anyways, despite my legs and other parts whining at me, I got back on my bike and rode around some more, partly because cycling around Amsterdam, over the canals and along sun-dappled tree-lined streets was fun, partly because I'd paid for 24 hours and I was going to make my 12 euros count...but mostly because I was quite a ways from the shop.  I ended up on a street that I knew would lead me into Chinatown, and figured it would be interesting to see it again (since it wasn't pissing rain this time), but when I got there, I actually didn't care.  I'd accidentally wandered into the red light district, which was fine on that account - the hookers aren't that provocative and I don't really mind the smell of pot smoke, it's preferable to tobacco (at least when I'm on the street - in my home I'd better not smell any smoke unless the place is on fire).  The problem was all.  The.  Bloody.  Tourists.  Even if they hadn't been idiots, there were just too many of them to fit on the sidewalks, so the streets were clogged with them.  I had to actually get off my bike and walk it around, and that was more annoying and exhausting than anything.  So I ended up taking the bike back.  Because you know what's better than cycling over canals and along sun-dappled streets?  Not wanting to smack people who desperately deserve it.

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