I have spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I have decided my favorite thing about Amsterdam is the bike culture. I will never NOT find it endearing when two people on bikes are holding hands, or when a man has a baby on the back of his bike, a baby strapped to his chest, and a dog running long beside his bike, or when a woman has a gaggle of kids in her bike cart. I love riding my bicycle, especially with all the boys. Derek likened us to a middle school bike gang, and I believe the analogy works quite well. Who needs beer to have fun when you can race bicycles with your friends? Of course, racing bikes with your friends to get beer, or better yet, after drinking beer, takes the cake every time.
The worst thing about riding a bike in Amsterdam? The tourists. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that tourists are the most dangerous thing in Amsterdam. They have absolutely no concept of where the bike lines are, and why they should stay off of them. Here’s a clue: bikes have the right-of-way, not pedestrians. Even bells don’t really help that much. Twenty angry Amsterdammers clanging their bells at the tourists in their “Amsterdam” hats, clutching their Van Gogh Museum bags and their cameras, and still the tourists just look around dumbfoundedly. There should be some sort of tourist safety test prerequisite before visiting Amsterdam. Question 1: When you hear a bicycle bell you should ___________? Answer: Immediately jump from the red concrete to the grey concrete. Do not look around for the source of the bell, do not run further into the red lanes. It’s like “stop, drop, and roll,” except it’s “stop, move over, get the hell out of the way.”
Even though I have lived in Amsterdam for a few months now, I don’t presume to know everything about biking in the city. I mean, I know enough to be frustrated when people won’t get off the bike lanes, but other bicycle questions come up that I just don’t have the answers to. Like, for instance, is it appropriate to ring your bell when someone is in your way, even if you are not on the bike lane? If you are on the road, or the sidewalk, or the wrong side of the street? Can you just go ringing your bell whenever you damn well feel like it? Is it wrong to ring your bell at old people, even if they are totally in the bike lane, and totally walking soooo slow. Is there some sort of “respect your elders” rule even if their decrepit asses are wearing Ugg boots and literally standing in the bike lane with their oxygen tanks? This actually happened to me today. Sorry for the bitterness. The wounds that the Ugg boots on an 80-year-old woman caused to my psyche are still fresh.
So you know how travel guide books advise travelers on how to be culturally sensitive in a foreign location? Like, never use your left hand to pass food in the Middle East, or always accept tea when offered, or always take off your shoes in Asia (and Norway ;) )? Well, I think my advice for a guidebook on the Netherlands would be to include how to be sensitive to the bicycle culture. My friends and I debate a lot whether or not you should ask someone if he or she speaks English before you just go right into saying something. While we agree that in most countries, you should most certainly ask if a person speaks English, I say that in the Netherlands it is unnecessary. If I were a Dutch person, I would be offended if someone asked me if I spoke English. EVERYONE speaks English. Even the extremely old man at the post office who answered me when I asked where I should drop off an international letter. Anyway, I say all this to explain that maybe guidebooks, who devote so much space to cultural sensitivities like language, should devote some space to the cultural sensitivities that come with biking in Amsterdam.
It makes me incredibly happy when tourists are aware of bikes. Today, I saw a group of tourists look both ways across the bike lanes, and even pull some of their group members back onto the sidewalk so they would be out of our way. In the same way that one would accomodate other cultural differences, I believe tourists should make a greater effort to accomodate the bike culture of Amsterdam, and I like it when they do a good job of it.
Of course, all of these suggestions go completely out the window when you see someone on a Mac bike. If you see someone on a red bike with a sign on the front that says Mac Bike, run. Run (or bike) as far away as possible. A tourist on a Mac bike is like a walking (or riding) disaster waiting to happen.