It’s said that we travel to open our eyes, stretch our minds. I wouldn’t have thought this to include adjusting to days of rain until it becomes, as for the Amsterdamers, just a slight hitch in planned activities, not a day-altering event.  Meet for coffee at 10? Sure.  Rain coming down, wind blowing in gusts? Not a problem: step over puddles, aim the umbrella at the wind and carry on.

Amsterdam bike with double barrow + fancy side bags.

Amsterdam bike with double barrow + fancy side bags.

For a first time visitor anywhere in Amsterdam’s central canal district bicycles are the first change in the mental map.  Everywhere.  Locked in rows, tied to railings, leaning from stand-poles.  Rushing by with riders sitting tall, at their ease as it were, not bent over in showy bike-tights and pedal-locking shoes as in Marin County or Boulder Colorado.  These are transportation and working bikes, not recreational bikes.  A bike carries the postman, large rubber bands looped over the handle bars.  Some tow a small wagon.  Others have infant seats on the handlebars, toddler seats behind.  I saw a few with a seat clamped tight on the cross-bar in front of dad.  Very fine “barrow-bikes” as I call them have a a 2’x3′ wheel-barrow ending in the front wheel, a steering shaft running under it so the handles control the direction of the wheel 4′ in front. Into this two kids can ride, side by side, or the groceries, or the delivery of tulips.  Wonderful.


Postal bike complete with package bands

Postal bike complete with package bands

While American cities have reluctantly put in bike-lanes, simple markings with paint at the edge of roads, the Dutch have long installed two-level sidewalks, one for pedestrians, one for bikes — and in fact, scooters and other low powered wheeled vehicles.  It takes a day or two for visitors to keep from wandering into the bike lanes where riders come flying through in singles or large groups, bunched up behind a slow poke or riding with friends.  Sweethearts hold hands, cell phone users tempt the devil, texting as they go.  One young woman we saw was riding ‘no-hands,’ one occupied with her umbrella and the other sending a message.  And, by the way: no helmets.  In six days we saw one –on an infant. Statistics of injuries show they remain low — years of practice, a general bike-awareness and tolerable city-sidewalk speeds account for it I suppose.  We saw no one bent, sweating and pulling for a position on the Dutch cycling team.

When the rain stops, it’s fabulous to be walking! (Touring by bike, maps in hand, seemed too dangerous for amateurs.)  It’s a cool 55 or so in mid-May.  The sunlight shakes through the green of chestnut and linden trees.  The tulips are on their way out; rhododendron are in full bloom in parks, large and small.

Kooler-Muller park near Amsterdam

Kooler-Muller park near Amsterdam

If the rain gets to be too much, or the distances too great, or the feet too bruised (10,000 steps a day, normally a high mark for us, became common and one day only the half-way mark) buses, trams and trains are everywhere.  They not only run often, quiet and clean, the routes and numbers are understandable to a newcomer after several small moments of study. Every driver, who sells tickets and makes change, speaks impeccable English.  And all the rolling stock has free WiFi!  We followed the iPhone map as we rode, found the Portuguese Synagogue and a small, out of the way Indonesian restaurant.  Though people are happy and generous in reply if asked  — with the added benefit of any conversation that spools out of  that.

The second Amsterdam adjustment to our mental maps of everyday life has to be the canals.  There are some 165 of them in the city.  The oldest “grachts” named Prinze, Kaiser, Herren (Lord or Gentleman) and the Sling, are hung like 4 shimmering loops from the neck of the Centraal Station.  They soon become familiar, locating us on the grid and promising directions to explore. Everywhere are canal-boats, some in shabby disrepair, others clearly made with modern materials, all open to the eyes of curious tourists passing by.  The canals no longer have locks, and run to the large lake called the IJ (pronounced ay) which was once a bay, now sealed off from the sea by the enormous dike system that protects all of the Netherlands.

The Netherlands Without the Dikes

The Netherlands Without the Dikes, Amsterdam in the center, under water.

Unfortunately, closed water is stagnant water, made more so by the centuries old habit of dumping waste into the canals.  While all land construction has long been piped to city sewage, the state of the house-boats is mixed.  Some do septic; some don’t.  The canals are flushed 4 times a week in summer months, and twice in winter.  You don’t want to lose an iPhone taking a great shot from one of the eye-compelling bridges.

The last thing of note is smoking.  For Americans, and many Europeans now, smoke-free is the norm.  Amsterdam, and I suppose all of Holland, has taken half a step.  No smoking indoors; outdoors –sidewalk cafes, parks, sidewalks– hey, exhale as you please. All our beer stops, often, mind you, were inside.  Not unpleasant but on the days of glorious, rainless spring, we would have liked to find some smoke-free outdoor spots.  No such luck

So that’s how we began.

What to say about the Rembrandts, Vermeers and Van Goghs? The justly honored Dutch tradition of tolerance and religious freedom? Or the incredible flower auction complex in Aalsmeer, 40 minutes away, or the fine national park in Otterlo which hosts a museum, the Kröller-Müller, with its own priceless collection of Van Gogh, Picasso, Leger and others, surrounded by a lush green and flowering sculpture park.

More later, perhaps.  For now, absorption. Reflection.



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