Monday, October 30, 2017

Somewhere in Amsterdam

Bike Parking at Amsterdam's Centraal Station
photo by author
Somewhere in Amsterdam
by Gregory E. Larson

          I don’t know where I lost it. It fell off the cuff of my left pant leg on the first day in Amsterdam. I had two of them, and now I have just one. “What was it?” you ask.  It was a simple little neon-yellow strap with reflector tape and a Velcro strip.
A simple strap for the pant leg
photo by author
          Before my bike trip to the Netherlands, I found the straps in Gretta’s bike accessories, and I marveled at their simplicity and functionality. In the past, when I needed a strap for my pant legs, I’d used a big rubber band or a tiny bungie cord with a ball. But those items weren’t as nice as the yellow strap. It not only keeps the pant cuff from flapping in the wind but also has reflector tape to give visibility when riding in the dark. Most importantly, it keeps the pant leg from getting caught in the chain. I looked at the colorful straps that Gretta had used and thought they would be just the ticket for riding a bike in the cool and damp spring weather in the Netherlands. Besides, I hoped I could blend in with the natives while biking amongst the crowds.
          Most recreational bike riders in the U.S. don’t wear straps because they don’t wear long pants while riding. They wear outfits similar to those worn by Tour de France racers. The clothing basically consists of padded black underwear for shorts, a bright jersey, and a Styrofoam cup strapped to the head for safety. The shorts don’t have pant cuffs that flap in the wind, but if a leg touches the chain at a stop light, it will get a greasy “chain tattoo.” The racing threads work great in warm weather, but not in the winter, especially on cold days in the Netherlands when the wind comes off the North Sea.
          European riders, and especially those in Amsterdam, wear everyday clothes but no helmet, and they ride their bikes everywhere. To them, bikes are an everyday part of life. In Amsterdam, cars are a liability, because there is nowhere to park in the concentrated area of streets and canals.

Amsterdammers ride bikes of all shapes and sizes.
photo by author
          The city is flat, which makes pedaling easy. The steepest inclines are on the bridges that cross the canals. Persons of all ages and occupations are seen biking in every direction, on contraptions of every shape and size. There are seats and boxes for parents carrying children, and there are large containers built on the front and back of bikes for painters and carpenters to haul their tools and equipment with them. Some workers are dressed in suits and carry briefcases. Many are talking on their cell phones.
          Amsterdammers on their bikes believe they can do whatever they want. Many ignore the traffic safety laws, but accidents are rare. I learned very quickly that it wasn’t a good idea to slow down and stop at an intersection when the traffic light turned yellow. The first time I did, at least fifteen bikes swerved to miss crashing into me, and I’m sure that I heard Dutch cursing being muttered as the riders sped past to get through the red light.
          Back at home, whenever I put on the single strap that lost its partner, I always wonder where the other strap might be. It probably fell off at one of the busy intersections in Amsterdam while I was in deep concentration attempting to learn all the right-of-way rules for bikes vs. pedestrians, cars, and streetcars. I hope the strap has found a new home and has been liberated to someone else’s pant leg—someone who travels frequently across Amsterdam and the countryside.
          My mind wanders to the possibilities of where the strap might be. 
The Rijksmuseum and famous bike tunnel through the building.
photo by author
          I hope it has gone to the Rijksmuseum and along the historic bike street and tunnel that passes through the middle of the building. The tunnel has a storied history and is a famous symbol of biking independence in Amsterdam. There has been a long, drawn-out struggle between the museum and the city. It seems the museum has always wanted to take back the space of the bike street/tunnel and have it become part of the gallery space. The bikers have fought many times to keep it from happening.
          As recently as 2011, the Museum director attempted to convince the public and city officials to allow the museum to eliminate the bike tunnel. He said:

Bike traffic doesn’t belong here anymore. We’ve invested [$500 million] in this building; we didn’t do that to accommodate a covered bike path . . . For too long the discussion has been dominated by—not to say, held hostage by—the cyclists.

Not a wise thing to say in a city of bike riders. In July 2012, the city council voted to keep the bike path and tunnel. In the museum’s recent renovation, they made a feature of the bike by using big plate-glass windows in the lobby and galleries to allow the museum-goers to see the cyclists pedaling through the museum. I viewed it as true kinetic sculpture.
          I wonder if the strap will find its way down Prinsengracht, past the townhome where Anne Frank hid during the German occupation of World War II. In her diary, she recalls the happier days of riding her bike home from school, and of her concern that when a boy would ride alongside he would almost always become enamored and want to spend every moment with her.
          Before she went into hiding, her bike was stolen, and her parents gave their bike away to a Christian family to prevent it from being confiscated by the Germans. In one of the most memorable lines of her writing, she expressed her wish: I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I'm free, and yet I can't let it show.
          Now, in 2017, I see the strap as a small symbol of freedom. Sadly, freedom and life was taken away from so many people in the Netherlands during the German occupation.
          I can picture the strap in heavy commuter traffic, weaving and turning on the web-like network of canals and streets, negotiating the bumpy cobblestone pavers and rail lines, giving the streetcars the right-of-way and plenty of space.
          Maybe the strap is worn by a commuter who lives in a small townhome in northern Amsterdam, and it takes a daily ferry ride with its owner in the cool, morning darkness to cross the harbor waters where the Amstel River and the North Sea merge. Once the rider disembarks onto de Ruyterkade, the strap would reflect the light of the early morning traffic of cars, pedestrians, and public transportation around the Centraal Station.
                If someone in a family has the strap, I hope they use it on their weekend outings, to go on a picnic or just to enjoy the big green spaces and children’s activities in the huge Vondelpark.
          Following a long-time tradition in Amsterdam in the Spring, the family might take an all-day ride out west of the city to enjoy the tulip fields. Couples in love could take the strap with them and ride all the way to the Keukenhof Gardens in April and May, where thousands of people from all over the world flock to see the explosion of tulip color.
Keukenhof Gardens in spring.
photo by author
          Who knows, it might be on a rider that travels all the way to Rotterdam, passing the swans and windmills along the canals beside green fields of sheep and cattle.
Dutch countryside
photo by author
          I’ll never know what happened to it, but I’m beginning to think this is one lucky little strap, even though I don’t possess it anymore. I can only hope it is out there on some cyclist’s leg, crisscrossing the countryside. Gretta would be happy, too, knowing that the strap is somewhere in Amsterdam, free to roam a continent that always had a piece of her heart.

Information source:

Jordan, Pete, In the City of Bikes (The story of the Amsterdam Cyclist), New York, Harper Collins, 2013.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Colorful Landscape (seen and unseen)

View of Kansas City skyline from Penn Valley Park
watercolor painting by author
The Colorful Landscape (seen and unseen)
by Gregory E. Larson

           Sit in one spot, for three hours or more, within the confines of the city (and with your cell phone turned off). Find a park or a good vantage point where you can observe man and nature. “Are you crazy?” some would ask. In today’s fast-paced world, it seems totally contrary to everyday life.
          But that is just what my friend, Kirk, and I have been doing. We’ve started painting outdoors on a regular basis. It’s called plein air watercolor. We’ve taken our chairs, palettes and supplies outdoors a couple of times in the cool of the morning as the sun comes up in Kansas City.
The Scout in Penn Valley Park
photo by author
          Our first time out was in Penn Valley Park on a spot near the sculpture of The Scout. We found a gap in the trees that provided a hillside view of greenery, with the city skyline beyond – a view where the colors in the foliage and the buildings mixed with the morning air, and the dreamy landscape was filled with the sound of bustling, rush-hour traffic.
          Thankful of the luxury of a gorgeous view on a pleasant morning while the world rushed around us, I said to Kirk, “Heck, I just want to sit here and have my bagel and drink coffee for a little bit. What a great day!”
          The sunlight touched the trees on the hilltops, reflecting a golden green, and the dark-blue shadows of the skyline began to brighten. As we sat and observed, more and more detail began to strike at our senses – a shadow here, a reflection there. The sky above the buildings was a collection of pale streaks of blues, pinks, and yellows. The change in light was slow-paced, but fun to observe. I began to think how different the skyline must have looked fifty years ago, and of all the life, business, and work that has transpired over the landscape. It made me think of a Beatle’s song, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. Life goes on, braaah!”
          Having brushed and daubed the paint onto the thick watercolor paper long enough, we abandoned our vantage point. It was late morning, and the city looked totally different. I’m sure a lot of business had transpired in front of us that morning inside the man-made edifices, and the trucks and cars were noisily going about their everyday routine.
          I thought about what happens through the course of time on one spot on the landscape. What looks peaceful one moment can totally change in an instant or a day or a year – a sort of now you see it, now you don’t syndrome. The river of time prevents us from seeing all that transpires.
          The next trip, a couple of weeks later was a visit to Loose Park, one of the jewels of the Kansas City Parks system. It’s a large swath of ground steeped in history, a place which has been the site of a civil war battle, a farm, a golf course, and now a park. Being in an urban area, it is a popular spot at all times of the day. I’m sure the list of activities and events (both legal and illegal) that have transpired in Loose Park would boggle the mind.
          Kirk and I decided the peaceful setting of the scenic pond with an arched bridge and willow tree had good possibilities for a watercolor. We selected our vantage points and began sketching and painting. While we worked, a slow but steady stream of people walked by us. Some stopped to look at what we were doing. Some talked. We discovered that’s one of the benefits or hazards of plein air painting. There were a couple of peculiar happenings while we were there. A woman asked Kirk if he had seen a cell phone she lost there on Sunday. She said she was with a “wedding party.” We also noticed two park employees floating in a small aluminum boat, criss-crossing the area around the arched wooden bridge. Kirk and I commented to each other about the two men and how they didn’t look like they were doing much work. At times, it was hard for me to see the calm reflection of the pond because they were stirring up the water. It made me think of when I played along creeks and ponds as a kid. We walked away from the morning session not knowing what had transpired there over the last two days.
Loose Park pond and bridge
watercolor painting by author
          That night I lay in bed, listening to the news, and my ears perked up when I heard a story about a local couple who went to Loose Park on Saturday afternoon.  The guy (Seth Dixon of Warrensburg) had planned to propose to his girlfriend (Ruth Salas of Liberty) out on the bridge. But once he bent down on his knee and looked to his sweetheart, things went awry. He opened the lid on the box, the ring popped out and dropped onto the bridge planks, fell through a crack and plopped into the pond faster than you can say, “bye-bye bling.” Once the shock hit him, all he could say was, “Oh . . . my . . . God.”
          They spent all evening wading in the pond, reaching and fishing for the engagement band, but came up empty-handed. The next day at church, they shared their sad story, and a whole group of church folk volunteered to help search for the lost ring. There were so many people wading in the pond at Loose Park that Sunday afternoon, they could have had a mass baptism.  But the ring remained elusive.
          On Monday, while Kirk and I were sitting at the bridge all morning, the story got on the news. A cell phone video, which their photographer friend had taken when the mishap occurred – well, it went viral – a hundred thousand hits in two days. Social media at its finest. The peaceful setting in Loose Park began to take on a life of its own.
          The couple was invited to be on national TV and share their story on ABC’s 20/20 show (or so they thought). The network had them flown to California and tricked them on the night before the interview by giving them tickets to go see Jimmy Kimmel Live. Before they knew it, they were invited up on stage, not knowing the surprise that was hidden behind the stage curtain. Jimmy showed the video of their bad fortune on the bridge in Loose Park, and he had them share their story.
          Voila, the curtain opened and revealed a stage set with a wooden bridge and a photomural of the weeping willow tree. Jimmy and a jeweler gave the couple a huge engagement ring set with a medley of diamonds. He talked them into recreating the proposal in front of a cheering studio audience and national TV.
          But wait, there’s more.
          Several divers had attempted to find the ring to no avail, but while the couple was in California, a Missouri truck driver (on his own time) felt sorry for the couple, and brought his metal detector to Loose Park. He searched in the pond for four hours, and found the ring! Now the couple has two rings, one small and one large.
          It appears the park is peaceful again and life goes on in Kansas City.
          Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.