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.

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