I realise that I haven’t used this blog to vent in quite a while. Believe it or not, I have experienced some moments of culture shock (like the other day when I had a very minor bicycle collision and got yelled at by a Dutch guy who was late for work and in a bad mood, and then I went home and cried and for the next hour and a half hated Dutch men). But mostly I am just so in love with living here that everything makes me happy. And possibly the thing that tops the list of happy things (even taking into account the above unfortunate encounter) is the fact that my main means of transportation these days is bicycle. How I absolutely adore traveling by bicycle! It’s good for the environment, good for one’s personal health, and a great way to reduce traffic congestion. No matter how packed the bicycle rack is, it’s always possible to squeeze your bicycle in somewhere. And yes, they are ALWAYS packed, although I suspect that 85% of the bicycles on any given rack haven’t been ridden in months; the city theoretically tags and removes these bicycles on a regular basis, but in practice I think it mostly happens in very high traffic areas like Central Station.
We sold our car when we left the United States, and we have no plans to buy a car anytime soon. So buying bicycles was one of the first things we did when we arrived here. We go pretty much everywhere by bicycle. Axa and Raj cycle to school each day. Either Tony or I accompanies them to and from school, since it’s a fifteen minute ride, there are big streets to cross, and you would not believe what morning rush hour looks like in the bicycle lanes of Amsterdam. Here they are on Raj’s very first day to ride his own bicycle to school, back in April.
Tony’s work is about ten minutes by bicycle. My yoga class is 20 minutes away, or fifteen if I just finished yoga, am experiencing an endorphin high, and don’t care about getting really sweaty, because I already am. In general, though, people don’t tend to cycle terribly quickly here, preferring a measured pace that results in the fewest stops at lights and gets them to their destination still looking put-together. It’s common to see men in business suits and women in nylons and heels riding their bicycles; it’s simply the done thing here.
Amsterdam is built for bicycles. Most streets have dedicated bicycle lanes, often separated from the car lanes by a curb just like the sidewalks. The city itself, although it has a definite city vibe, is actually quite small. It’s possible to bicycle from one end to another in under 30 minutes, so anywhere you need to go is generally within striking distance. One of the fun things about having bicycles is that (at least in theory) having a viable vehicle from a young age affords kids greater independence than they would otherwise have. In practice, Axa and Raj have two places they go alone: the park (sometimes with ice cream money) and the bread shop. Both are about a five minute bike ride away. Axa is right at the age that’s generally accepted as normal for kids to cycle to school by themselves, so we’ll probably start letting her go to nearby play dates by herself soon.
There are some challenges to using bicycles as one’s sole means of transport. When you’re grocery shopping by bicycle, you can’t fit as much as you can fit in the trunk of a car or the back of a minivan. While one option to ameliorate this problem is a cargo bike (exceedingly common here, but almost exclusively for families with multiple small children), we opted instead for saddlebags. Tony has a white plastic crate on the front of his bike as well. When he adds a large duffel bag slung over his shoulder, he can fit quite an impressive amount of groceries. He goes twice a week, and it works out pretty well.
You might think that the inclement weather during much of the year would inhibit bicycle riders. But it doesn’t. People have all sorts of solutions to riding in the rain, from holding an umbrella as one cycles (yes, it’s possible; I have done it, but on a windy day you’d better have a fancy Dutch umbrella specially engineered not to fly off or turn inside out) to a voluminous rain poncho that covers everything (again, in theory). We opted for rain suits (pants and a rain jacket) plus wellies. Cycling thus attired through a drenching Dutch rainstorm makes me feel rather invincible.
My work commute here takes the same amount of time as my work commute in Florida, but I like this one so much better. I take a train from here to The Hague. Technically, our apartment is within walking distance to the train station (it takes about ten minutes to get yourself from our front door onto the platform without running), but I usually cycle anyway. My work, on the other hand, is a 25 minute walk from the Central Station in The Hague. I used to take a 5 minute tram, but they’re now working on the tram line, and I hated riding the bus. And I prefer cycling whenever possible anyway. So now I cycle to and from the train station both ways. There are two ways to accomplish a commute like mine. If you want to take a normal-sized bicycle on the train, you have to buy your bicycle its own ticket, which would quickly become prohibitively expensive, as well as being a huge hassle.
To get around this rule, a lot of people here who commute have small fold-up bicycles. They are pretty nifty, but a nice one is quite expensive (much more than a normal bicycle), and I don’t really fancy carrying around what still amounts to the size and weight of a small suitcase, besides the fact that I imagine they’re a little weird to ride as well, since they’re basically the bicycle equivalent of stilts.
So I decided to get a regular bicycle to keep in The Hague. In fact, my beloved first bicycle that I got in Amsterdam off of Marktplaats (the Dutch equivalent of Craigslist when it comes to buying and selling stuff) was relegated to commuter status, and I got a snazzy new (to me) bicycle. So in the mornings I ride straight from yoga to the train station, where I lock my Amsterdam bicycle and get on the train. In The Hague, I get off the train and unlock my Hague bicycle (I still am not sure if I can use Hague as an adjective without the definite article, so I am always rewriting sentences to avoid the question. Let me know if you know) and ride it ten minutes to work. In the afternoon, I reverse the process.
Here I am on my Amsterdam bicycle, all tricked out with saddlebags, bell, front and back lights, a special mounted lock for the back wheel (everyone has them here), and a normal lock, which cost almost half as much as the bicycle itself. What you can’t see clearly unless you look closely (and it’s awkward to tell you to) is my waterproof seat-cover, another beautiful way to cope with the weather. A more normal thrifty Dutch solution would be to use a plastic bag, but Tony got it for me, and it makes my life so much better.