Monday, October 30, 2017

Somewhere in Amsterdam

Bike Parking at Amsterdam's Centraal Station
photo by author
Somewhere in Amsterdam
memoir
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.

No comments:

Post a Comment