Monday, November 17, 2008

On Wheels and Walking in Amsterdam

Amsterdam. What a great place. Seriously, I loved it! (More in upcoming posts.) But beware: if you’re not careful, walking in Amsterdam can be hazardous to your life.

Sure, jaywalking and reckless drivers can cause a smack-down anywhere, but in Amsterdam, it’s walking where you think you’re supposed to walk that can kill you. Not counting water taxis on the canals, there seems to be a different traveling pecking order in Amsterdam, and from my point of view, it goes like this:

  1. Bicyclists (absolutely first – jingle-jingle)
  2. Trams (ding-ding)
  3. City buses (hear the engine)
  4. Cars (an occasional honk)
  5. Motorcycles and scooters (vroom-vroom)
  6. Pedestrians (“Yikes!”)

The first in my series of near smack-downs arrived as I was walking between the Hotel Okura (more in an upcoming post) and a salon. (Notice there is only one o in that word.) I was in a hurry because I'd just been struck with one of my I-need-a-haircut-right-now attacks.

With desperation in my eyes, I asked the concierge at the Hotel Okura, “Is there a nearby beauty salon where I might get a quick haircut?” He nodded, flipped through his giant stack of business cards, pulled out the one he was looking for, then gave his choice a quick call and query. “Yes, she can be there in five minutes,” I heard him say before he hung up. Then he jotted down an address and handed it to me.

“Go out the front door, turn left till you reach the street, turn right, cross the canal, and in about a block, it will be right there on your right.” (Man, I wish I had a personal concierge on my staff. Better yet, I wish I had a staff.) "It'll only take you a minute," he added. Nice. Four leisurely minutes to spare.

Who would think that in two short blocks, I could nearly do myself in, all for the sake of vanity? (I heard that!)

I set off like the Chicago Suburbanite I am, mindlessly sauntering into that right-hand turn. Oh, I love the canals! Oh, the architecture is so awesome here, and so European. And oh


Elbows of two bicyclists all but skimmed off my ears when they whizzed around me, then I heard the sounds of skidding bicycle tires behind me. I jumped to the left—only to hear a bicycle's jingle-jingle, which I quickly learned is a polite yet unmistakable Dutch version of GET OUT OF THE WAY RIGHT NOW, TOURIST! So, I lurched to the right and … JINGLE-JINGLE! Finally I realized that what appeared to be a sidewalk was instead a dedicated bicycle lane.

Now, this does not mean that bicyclists stay in the multitudes of designated bicycle lanes that look like sidewalks. They also ride the actual pedestrian sidewalks, the streets, and slingshot in front of the buses and trams, all while talking on their cell phones, carrying passengers (sometimes a couple/few children at a time), briefcases and groceries. Truly, it's amazing! For them, it is as natural as, say, walking on something that looks like a sidewalk.

Let me share a perspective-slamming stat from the Amsterdam Tourist Office: “Nearly half of all traffic movements in Amsterdam are by bike.” I would add that while I was there, one-third of all the remaining traffic “movements” was me leaping out of the way of the bikes, the trams, other motorized vehicles, and, in case I didn't make myself clear, more bicycles.

In truth, Amsterdam has a marvelous public transportation system, and their bicycle prowess is utterly inspiring. But for this foreigner, it was a harrowing task to figure out the natural Dutch order and speedy flow of things.

For instance, while dodging bicycles, cars and motor scooters to get to where I thought I was supposed to be standing (feel the wind-up) to catch a tram, I nearly got pegged by another tram. Eventually I learned I was supposed to be standing on this teensy “island” (honestly, it was barely as wide as me) that was hardly obvious, yet was located smack in the middle of all those “movements.”

As you can see by my pictures, there is a chorus of “movements” in Amsterdam, which to the untrained eye --and especially the slow moving body--might at first (and second and third) seem a bit chaotic. If you can just sit and watch it from high above, it is mesmerizing. However, when you're down in it, well . . . .

This is of course why I decided to catch a ride with a horse. Because I could. Surely an entire gigantic horse wouldn't get pegged off as quickly as the pitiful me. And honestly, a HORSE?! There are also HORSES clomping through all this “movement?”

The Amsterdam Tourist Office touts that there are “no less than” 600,000 bicycles for 730,000 people who live in Amsterdam. That is some statistic. It is also my observation that everyone is in good shape. While taking a night-time canal ride (wonderful!), our host explained that native residents get their first bicycle when they turn three. She said it comes with a tall orange flag to let everyone know there is a beginner nearby. She also said, “We are very good on our bicycles.”

To which I would add, unbelievably good. The fact that I am alive to write about it is living proof. And the next time I visit Amsterdam, I'm taping an orange flag to my body.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Security Blues

For my recent week-long trip to Amsterdam, with a night in NYC tacked on to each end, I determined that I would not check a bag. Sure, I had a couple "fancy clothes" business meetings, and I needed to take my jeans in order to exist in the manner to which I am accustomed. And a girl needs at least one extra pair of shoes to coordinate outfits, and her creams and potions, deodorant and charging cords, a laptop and camera, her data base and a few lip glosses, an inch-thick folder with business and tourist information, and okay, a couple clothing options. . . . But I am living proof that one CAN travel for nine days with 2 carry-on bags filled to the brim, and still clear security without a hassle.

At least on the way out of the country. (Feel the wind-up?)

In Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, you don't pass through a full-blown security check-point until you enter your gate area. (Yes, they are set up with security measures at each gate!) All it takes to cruise the concourse is a boarding pass and your passport. Piece of cake. The whole facility is so filled with opportunities for pleasure and entertainment that it's easy to forget you still have Security Work to do before boarding. After all, here in the United States, we're used to having that behind us by the time we go browsing, or speed-racing--whichever suits the day's agenda.

Imagine the freedom to shop (bought me some excellent Dutch licorice), get a massage (20 minutes' worth, I did), browse a museum (which I didn't, but I could have), eat (bought a sandwich to take on the plane, which I never ate because OpenSkies served me two great meals) without first having to prove you're a safe, secure and compliant 3-1-1, liquid-and-gel-toting person!

Eventually, I dragged my way to my gate, which meant I'd finally arrived at the Gotcha! point of my long journey. No, they didn't "get me" with the questions, which were rigorous; thankfully I had the right answers. But the next step was like a double-gottcha since your bags pass through the X-ray machine about the same time as you do; like in the states, these elements are side by side. However, at Schiphol, the next folks don't pass through until both you and your stuff have cleared security.

But no problem-o, right? I had nothing to hide. I removed my jacket and put it in a bin. When I started to remove my shoes, I was told there was no need. "Try getting through with them on. If you buzz, then you can take them off." (WOW! Now there's a concept!) Shoes on, I removed my computer from my smaller bag and put it in a bin. With a great grunt and heft, I got both my bags up on the conveyor belt. Then, through the machine they signaled me to walk, and through the scanner my bags traveled.


"Remove your shoes, please." I passed through again without them.


And guess what else? The X-Ray readers were hot on the trail of a suspect something in my bag!

I shall herewith promise to never again complain about getting wanded at O'Hare, my home airport. At Schiphol, they used a wand, sure. But after I set off the wand, too, the female security person checked me out. Thoroughly. And that's all I'm going to say about that.

While she was checking me, the X-Ray man was communicating with another security person who now had my green bag in front of him, unzipped--stuff exploding out of it every which way. X-Ray man was pointing at his machine and verbally trying to describe exactly where in the bag the suspicious item resided, which was down in the bottom near a wheel.

Released from the pat-down person, I donned my shoes and jacket and stepped up to my suitcase, which I'd been requested to do. The Very Serious gentleman was attempting to slither his meaty hand down into the bottom side of my suitcase to locate whatever they were excited about, but his hand would not fit. My dirty socks, laid across the top like noodles since, what with the purchase of a few souvenirs, prohibited me from fitting them in any other way, were crawling out of the bag this way and that. I could not imagine what they were after--unless it was the USB mouse I use for my laptop. I remembered tucking it in that bag at the last minute. I asked if that could be it.

"No. We see that."

The X-Ray guy kept pointing at something on the machine, while the rest of the folks backed up behind me. Finally, I leaned around to look at the machine's X-ray to see if I could figure out what on earth they were searching for.

"Oh! That's my harmonica!"

Without smiling, the man at my suitcase asked me if I played. I explained that I was teaching myself, and mumbled something like, "You can file that where you will." Bag-search man did not look convinced or humored. About anything.

"You won't feel the harmonica with your bare hand," I finally said, noting his digging was fruitless. "It's wrapped up inside a hat."

He withdrew his hand, then stared at my bag and the predicament for a moment. "I'm not supposed to let you do this," he finally said, "but in this case, I think it would be best if you retrieve it, since you know exactly where to find what we're looking for."

After a quick prayer, I jimmied my hand down inside my suitcase, hoping to recognize the feel of my hat on the first try. Otherwise, I'd have to disassemble my whole bag. Not pretty.

AHA! Got it! I came up with the hat, unfolded it and presented my harmonica, which is one step up from a dollar store version. He took a quick look at it, then handed it back to me.

"QUIET, EVERYONE! QUIET!" he yelled throughout the entire gate area. (I am not exaggerating!) Then he stared at me. "Play."

Oh, Lordy.

In a panic, without first looking at it, I put the harmonica to my mouth. I didn't notice that I had the high "keys" to my left, which was all wrong, so when I attempted to play "You are my sunshine," it came out a chaotic, non-melodious, dog-toy squeaky mess instead of the bluesy rendition I've been working on. But apparently, it was good enough for security. Both men broke out in laughter and told me I could move on.

All that was left for me to do was to pick up my ego, repack my bag, and body slam it back into submission -- and tuck my harmonica away, where it belongs.