I take it all back, that is, what I said in my last post about Europeans being so much like North Americans in appearance and dress. That was before Amsterdam. My first clue that we were in a different environment was a comment my husband made shortly after our arrival in this city of canals, bridges and bicycles. We’d walked around for only an hour trying to get our bearings when he said, “I feel short here.” That night’s television news confirmed that his observation was on target. Dutch men are taller on average than American men. Is it the milk and cheese?
There are also more blondes here. Not as many as in Scandinavia, but more than in Madrid and Paris.
Most Amsterdam natives don’t text while they cross intersections, a phenomenon which sets them apart from young people in the U.S., France and Spain. Perhaps this is because half of them are traveling on bikes and regularly confronting intersections that put them in direct competition with other bicycle riders, motor scooters, trucks, cars, buses and trams, which makes texting risky. We did see a few riders trying to steer with one hand and scroll through phone messages with the other, but not many.
There are so many bikes in Amsterdam that there’s no place to put them all. We saw a bike parking lot located near the old city center, a four-story concrete structure that held about 2,500 bikes, a fraction of the spaces needed for the 600,000 bicycles reputed to be found here. Bikes are chained to racks on every side street, to bridges (more than 1,250 bridges to choose from) and all other available upright stone or metal constructions. The presence of thousands of locked-up bicycles didn’t cause us any anxiety. We only became nervous when there were cyclists present.
After our first day, my husband wanted to know how many Amsterdam cyclists died from encounters with cars, an understandable question since cyclists wear no helmets and most bikes have no lights. An on-line search revealed that only about six cyclists are killed each year. I decided we were asking the wrong question. We needed to know how many pedestrians were killed by bicycles.
When we checked in, the hotel front desk clerk let us know that we could rent bikes on the premises. A few minutes out on the street on foot and we knew that riding bikes in Amsterdam would provide more thrills than most of Disneyland’s scariest rides. Walking while the bike riders are loose seemed almost as terrifying as perching atop a bike seat. We confessed to the driver who took us to the airport that we were afraid of bike riders. “I am too,” he said. “I used to ride, but at age 75 I’ve stopped.”
The Dutch speak better English than we do and switch comfortably among three or four languages. They also produce Dutch pancakes — small, light and puffy morsels– and mouth-watering pastries, drink whole milk and eat whole-milk yogurt, while still managing to say slim. One possible explanation is that they’re always in a heart-pounding state as they pass through intersections on their bikes, or as pedestrians trying to dodge the on-rushing cyclists.