I traveled to Amsterdam to spend nine glorious days in the land of bicycles. Here bicycles are king!! Even the Dutch king and queen and their three small daughters ride bikes on the streets regularly.
Having just finished thirty lessons of Dutch using the Pimsleur audio method, I wanted to show my Dutch aunt and uncle that I now can speak a little Dutch. Ik kan nu spreek een beetje nederlands. I timed my trip to be there for my uncle’s 86th birthday and to have the opportunity to see my five Dutch cousins, their spouses and children.
Every day I chronicled my adventures. Many people I met told me about President Obama’s recent visit to the Netherlands. President Obama said two things in Dutch. One was Hoe gaat het met u?, How are you/ How goes it with you? The other was Gezellig. Gezellig is a word that has no equivalent word in English. It means cozy, pleasant, friendly, convivial, quaint, fun, sociable, delightful, togetherness, belonging. It is a word that I heard all of the time when I was eavesdropping everywhere I went, listening for words that I recognized in people’s conversations.
Friday I arrived. Every tram I took was filled with people. I was lucky to get a seat. On many streets in central Amsterdam, cars are not allowed, just bicycles and feet. Some streets just allow walking. This may be why there are few automobiles in Amsterdam. It is difficult to get around by car. It gave me a good feeling to be in a city and to see so many people outside.
Saturday – I asked my Airbnb host to show me the free bicycle I was promised in the ad for the room. There were two bikes to choose from. The bikes were both one-speed with coaster brakes. I was fine with it being one-speed. I wasn’t comfortable using a coaster brake. I don’t think coaster brakes are good enough for Amsterdam cycling. The tires were soft, though my host said that it is OK for Dutch bikes to have soft tires! One of the bikes had such a soft tire that it was not rideable. I was told that I could take it to a bike shop five blocks away to put air in the tire. The wheel locks on each of the available two bikes were not screwed to the frame of the bike, so it was a pain to use and to carry the loose wheel lock around. The wheel lock on one of the bikes had a cable attached to it for locking the frame up. It was very fiddly and mickey mouse. The biggest deal breaker for me was the way the bike handled. The handlebars were narrow which caused the bike to have twitchy steering. There is heavy bike traffic in Amsterdam, a complicated dance of crossing canal intersections with bikes going in all directions and biking alongside autos who pass, within a foot, on the narrow roads alongside the canals. I am an excellent cyclist (I was told that by an Amsterdamer!), though the Amsterdam cyclists are beyond compare. That bike would not have been safe for me to use in city traffic. I may not be able to fix the mechanicals on a bike but I am married to an excellent bike mechanic and after thirty-five years of marriage I have a critical eye and know how a properly functioning bike should perform. I did not take either of the bikes. I decided to rent a bike at Bike City where we have rented twice before. The bike was an Azor, a dutch bicycle, and it was lovely! The handlebar grips felt good. It was easy to steer. It had three-speeds. There was a front and rear rack. There was a handlebar bag for carrying the heavy lock. The wheel lock was attached to the frame. There were bungie cords attached to the rear rack. There were working lights. Finally I had a bicycle for riding around Amsterdam for the next eight days. I had freedom to roam!
On Friday I signed up for four Dutch lessons at a school called ‘Easy Dutch’. The first lesson was on Saturday. The teacher was not interested in speaking Dutch with me to assess my level. He was interested in promoting himself, and he only wanted to teach me verb constructions. I wanted to have conversation lessons which were not going to happen with him so I cancelled the next three lessons.
I spent Saturday afternoon at the American Book Center, the Athenaum and the Kinderbookwinkel, a children’s book store in the Spui. Spui is pronounced somewhat like spow. We have no equivilent sounds in English for the Dutch dipthongs – ei, ij, eu and ui.
“The Spui is a square in the center of Amsterdam. The Spui was originally a body of water that formed the southern limit of the city until the 1420s, when the Singel canal was dug as an outer moat around the city. In 1882 the Spui was filled in and became the square that we know today. In 1996 the square was renovated and is now largely car-free.” – Wikipedia
With bags heavy with books it was time to return to the apartment where I was staying. Road construction going on at one rotary prevented me from taking the desired route. I had the hardest time finding the right direction to travel in. For an hour I wandered the circuitous streets of Amsterdam, circling round and round using a map, my reading glasses and the navigational app on my phone, trying to make my way back to Granaatstraat 38 in de Pijp area of Amsterdam. Pijp pronounce like pipe.
My cell phone charger was dangerously low, daylight was dimming and I was afraid that I was going to need to find a toilet soon. And then I got a flat tire! As two young women cycled past, I yelled out, Can you help me? They cycled on, stopped and came back and put me in the right direction. Phew!
The windows of a bike shop that I walked past were dark and there were a bunch of men standing in the open doorway. The bike shop was closed but I was told to bring the bike in. Initially, I was told the bike could be repaired in the morning and it would be ready at 1 o’clock. Oh dear, that is when I was supposed to be at my Uncle’s house. But then, one of the shop workers, who told me that he was from Columbia and that we were both American, took a look and noticed my valve had disappeared! They gave me a new one and filled the tire with air. I was good to go!
My cousin told me the air would come out right away when the valve is opened or removed. I had ridden the bike for quite awhile from the time it was last parked. How could the valve have come off while riding my bike I wonder? All I can think is my small duffel bag (with all the books that I had bought) on the rear rack slipped (which it had done several times on that ride), and knocked it off.
My daughter, Susannah commented on Facebook, “Whoops! That was probably a Woods/Dunlop valve. They have replaceable valve mechanisms so probably what came off was the valve (or part of it), not the valve cap.”
My cousin, Reinout gave me this app for a mobile bike repair service in Amsterdam. We could use this in Boston! Good business for an entrepreneur to start! I sure could have used this when I got a flat tire last night!
I went out early on Sunday morning to check if the tire had held air. And what did I discover? The bike that I had rejected as being dangerous for me to ride in Amsterdam traffic; the bike with the very soft tire with the mickey mouse lock was not where I had left it the morning before! It was there Saturday night because I locked my rental bike behind it. I offered to pay for the stolen bike because I was the last one to lock it and I assumed I was responsible. I reimbursed my landlord 135 euros! 90 for the junky, unrideable bike, 25 for one mickey mouse wheel lock and 20 euros for the cable that attached to the wheel lock. I wonder if the bike had been here there when my landlord had returned late that night? I found out later from an Amsterdamer that it is illegal to lock bikes to railings and bikes were being removed. However, that is not what could have happened in this case. There were still bikes locked to the railing. Interestingly, there was plenty of room in the bike racks for bikes. Some of those bikes had no air in their tires.
Sunday – Gefeliciteerd! – Congratulations, was said to everyone, My uncle, aunt, five cousins, spouses, seven grandchildren, and mother-in-law at the birthday party this afternoon. The Dutch congratulate everyone not just the birthday person. All of the children came across Amsterdam by bicycle to their grandfather’s birthday celebration. His thirteen year old granddaughter and her eight year old sister and eleven year old cousin took my go-pro camera for a bike ride around the neighborhood. Watch the video and see bicycling through the eyes of a Dutch child!
I have now celebrated a Dutch birthday! By the way, my uncle still rides his bicycle in Amsterdam.
Monday – Who says The Dutch will not speak to you in Dutch when you attempt to speak Dutch! I asked for directions many times today. I asked two workmen outside their respective shops, one was sweeping the sidewalk. Hoe kom ik naar het Spui? How do I get to the Spui? – a square where the American bookstore is. They each gave me directions in Dutch which I understood. I used a tiny bit of English. The older man, older than me, tried correcting my pronunciation of Spui. I hear Spouw, but apparently that is not quite correct. He kept giving me other words like huis, (house) repeating them multiple times, and showing me how I should round my mouth but I just couldn’t get it. He was hilarious and I thought quite nice. I feel so welcomed by the Amsterdamers encouragement at my humble attempts to speak Dutch!
Had lunch with my friend from Boston, Mike, (a former student of Peter Furth, who is a bicycling infrastructure professor at Northeastern, and an acquaintance of mine) and Mike’s brother who teaches English at a French University. Mike and I share a interest in bike infrastructure. We ate at a great, inexpensive restaurant, that used locally sourced food, at Herengracht 598 called Buffet van Odette. My cousin Rojier recommended it. We sat outside, facing the canal, boat traffic and bike traffic. It was gezellig! Mike’s brother and I had a delicious salad plate with asparagus, small amount of lentils with a dressing, other humus and a few other things. Mike and I had tomato soup and Mike had a very tasty looking steak sandwich. I’ll go back again this week. It was easy to find bike parking!
On Tuesday, Myriam, a film maker and the Director of the Fietsmuseum, (bike museum) gave me a personal architecture and history tour of Amsterdam. She felt bad that she neglected to tell me the dates of the Fietsparade had been moved to July. Because I had registered a long time ago she made it up to me by giving me a bike tour. And it was a spectacular tour! We circled Amsterdam on our bikes, stopping at the Oost Church where The Fietmuseum exhibits and where I tried out her two speed (automatic shifting) wooden bike. Myriam was a student activist in Amsterdam during the 80’s & 90’s. She told me interesting history about the buildings we passed and about the occupation of empty buildings that were occupied by squatters
We had lunch in Westerpark. She took me to Chopperdome a bike shop Paul likes. They remembered me from our visit in 2013. I gave them my SCUL stickers that include the link for the website. I bought some skull dust caps and other bling and I was given some small things. We went to Myriam’s house and had tea. Myriam’s apartment building had been a firehouse. I don’t remember what it had been before that, but in her garden were bodies of people buried hundreds of years ago. Flat headstones from long, long ago were in a pile, and there was one small monument. Myriam rode with me through the rainy streets back to my room. I appreciated that because I so easily go in the wrong direction. It began to rain a bit more heavily so we stopped at a cafe next to a theater for a glass of wine and a popular Dutch snack bar food called bitterballen, small, round deep fried balls similar to croquettes. There we ran into some friends of hers. The rain let up and we continued on our way stopping at a popular large restaurant for dinner in de Pijp. Spending the day with Myriam was gezellig!
On Wednesday in het Spui I bought enough books to fill my suitcase. I bought books for studying Dutch, fun books on Dutch culture, bicycling photo books and children’s books. I collect children’s books and I thought they would help me learn Dutch.
I was to meet my aunt at the convalescence hospital at 4pm. Taking several wrong turns I got there 30 minutes late. Uncle Wolfgang was also there and my cousin Saskia showed up with her son who had not been at the party. After my visit, Saskia guided me to Vondel Park and I rode my bike through to the other side and on to the house of my cousin Reinout who lives in an apartment overlooking a canal and park.
I ate dinner with Reinout, his wife and their eleven year old daughter, who is an excellent artist. She had given to Uncle Wolfgang, for his birthday a picture that she had drawn from a photo of him. It was very, very good! We ate a traditional Dutch supper – white asparagus, potatoes, rolled up cold ham and boiled eggs sliced in half. This is how it is eaten – the egg, ham and potatoes are cut up and melted butter is drizzled on top. A green salad with thin slices of fruit and cucumbers was served first and strawberries with home made “funny” yogurt finished the meal. “Funny” yogurt is yogurt that is placed in a sieve or bag and allowed to drain into the sink, removing the whey. The meal was completed with excellent wine. My cousin and his wife own a business importing fine wines directly from vineyards in France.
Good conversation and a good time was had and I biked home in the rain, consulting my map at least a dozen times!
Thursday’s adventure in the Netherlands – Wyb and Bep
My friend Holly met Bep & Wyb, at the Juke Joint (Blues) Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Holly told Wyb & Bep that she had friends who were moving to the Netherlands. They told her that I should contact them when I was in the Netherlands.
They are the best people ever!
They met me at the train station in Leiden which is next to their town of Oegstgeest, a very difficult word for foreigners to say. Click on the link to hear how it is pronounced by a native! We went to see the beach in nearby Noordwijkk. Wyb and Bep treated me to lunch at an elegant restaurant on the sand dunes. I had a Niçoise salad.
Next we drove to Leiden, where Wyb had done his graduate studies. Leiden University the oldest university in the Netherlands, was established in 1575. The motto of Leiden University is Bastion of Freedom. From the street, Wyb pointed out to me, the room where he and all graduates write their signatures on the wall after they have completed all their exams. He told me that the names of historically important people have a frame put around their signatures to prevent their names from being covered over with ever more signatures.
St. Peter’s Church was open. We were very lucky to see the rehearsal of a choir for an evening performance.
The Pilgrims set off for Massachusetts from St. Peter’s Church. We had tea at a cafe at the church. We continued our walk through beautiful Leiden. We walked up to the top of the fortifications where we had a view of the streets and rooftops. We walked past a statue of Spinoza. Spinoza is an important philosopher in the Netherlands. “Spinoza preached a philosophy of tolerance and benevolence….. His way of living was exceedingly modest and retired”…..Spinoza is an important historical figure in the Netherlands where his portrait was featured prominently on the Dutch 1000 guilder note until the euro was introduced in 2002. The highest and most prestigious scientific award of the Netherlands is named the Spinozaprize. Spinoza was included in a 50 theme canon that attempts to summarize the history of the Netherlands.– Wikipedia
After visiting Leiden we drove back to Oegstgeest, had a glass of wine, chatted some more and then walked to a near by restaurant where I had another spectacular meal.
Wyb and Bep drove me to the Leiden train station, walked me to my train and waved good bye as my train pulled out of the station.
As hosts, Bep and Wyb were nonpareil!!
I had to change trains and all went well until I got to my station Amstelstation I was the only person exiting my car. I did not know at first that I had to push a button to open the door, so I stood and waited for a tiny bit. I saw several buttons to push but none would open the door. Oh horrors, the train was pulling out of the station and I was still on the train! The next station was ten minutes away. I got out there at a different door along with some other people. I called Bep and Wyb, who helped me, though it was nearly midnight, to find a new train. I located the correct train, returned to Amstelstation, successfully disembarked and walked out to the bicycle parking area. But it didn’t look familiar! I found two more bike parking areas none of which were correct one! Finally I headed out a door that I thought would only lead to platforms. To my great relief it led me to the area where my bike was parked! Fortunately, I had taken a photograph of where I had parked my bike. That helped immensely. I left the train station bike parking area, by a different street from where I had entered in the morning ; adding to my confusion about the direction I should take. I had to ask some people to point the way to the Amstel River which I had to cross to get back to my room. I consulted my map at least twice. But I finally got back to my room after a very enjoyable day!
Friday afternoon I took the train to Den Haag to visit my cousin,Tatiana, her husband, their 18 year old daughter, daughter’s boyfriend, daughter-in-law, her son and daughter.
I rode Tatiana’s husband’s Dutch electric assist bike (nice!) on a tour of the city. The Hague is the seat of the Dutch parliament and government, and the residence of King Willem-Alexander. This is where the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial body of the United Nations, is located, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and, since 2004, the International Criminal Court. The old part of Den Haag is beautiful! I saw the Peace Palace. Tatiana pointed out the horse stables for the horses that are used on ceremonial occasions. We saw Noordeinde Palace, where the business end of running a kingdom is situated. The royal residence is on the outskirts of the city. We rode our bikes down narrow streets, that to me looked like alleys. The narrow sidewalks came right up to the sides of the buildings. Behind the walls, hidden from the public, were gardens. At a big map in a town square Tatiana showed me the canal which circles the city. The canal is still used today for bringing goods into the city by boat rather than by truck. Geologically, Den Haag is made up of marshy and sandy areas.
We returned to Tatiana’s house, had dinner with the family, a green salad and spaghetti with home-made sauce, fresh green beans, strawberries and chocolate mouse. After dinner we played a game. called Rummikub It is not surprising that I won, considering all the help I was given. I liked the game so much that it was given to me, everyone autographed the inside of the lid of the box. I wrote down in my journal a few Dutch words, such as ‘your turn’.
I carried on a very simple conversation in Dutch. I understood some of what was said when everyone spoke with one another at normal speed. The assembled guests tried to help me with pronouncing ‘UI’ as in Spui or thuis. The sound just does not exist in English. I got it right a few times. It’s hard when my ear just does not hear the difference. I seemed to be most successful when I pronounced ow!! as though I had just been hurt!
Tatiana drove me to the train station and walked me to the correct platform. I had to change trains once, I found my bike when I arrived back in Amsterdam.
A very nice day!
Saturday I went to the Noordermarkt at Westerstraat, an organic market. My cousin’s son Gideon had told me about it. At the entrance and inside the market musicians were playing. At one stand bread was being baked.
The market, abutting a church was a mix of food, clothing, old books and bric-a-brac.
After visiting the Noordermarkt, I rode my bicycle to the American Book Center, theAthenaum and the Children’s Book Shop in het Spui for one last visit. These photos were shot en-route to the Spui.
Read more about The Moped Menace in the Netherlands here.
Sunday in Amsterdam – The Last Day. I packed my suitcase with books, a flat box, and duct tape. I took a tram and train to go to the airport. I made my way to the storage lockers where I filled the empty box with books. The night before, I had determined how many books could fit in the box, so I knew how many to take to the airport on the first trip. I sealed up the box and stowed it in the locker. I returned to my room with the empty suitcase. I packed the suitcase with clothes and the remaining books. I returned to the airport. I put my suitcase in the locker with the box. I returned to my room. I retrieved my carry on bag and bicycle.
I had a few hours to enjoy Amsterdam before I needed to be at the airport! I rode my bicycle to the same restaurant on the Prinsengracht where I ate on Monday with Mike from Boston, and his brother. I ate an elegant three course meal with a glass of white wine, sitting at a table facing the canal and bike traffic.
I returned my bike to the rental shop in the Jordan and continued by foot to the train station.
I arrived at the airport, retrieved my belongings and checked into my flight back to Boston.