in old amsterdam
The day before flying to Europe, I was trying frantically to finish stacking two and a half cords of firewood—not a lot by south shore standards, but several days of hard hauling when you're on your own. One stack tucked in in the lee of the shed, another along the outer edge, and the last small bit wrapping around the front. I was bruised and bashed and for days, every time I woke up, I couldn't move until I wiggled every joint like a tin man low on oil.
Then I got on a plane and flew across the Atlantic, and got onto a train, and emerged into the sun again in front of Amsterdam's Centraal Station. My GPS pointed at my hotel as being 'across the street', a high-speed cobblestone dodgeball game of hopping from one concrete island to the next across a dozen every-which-way lanes of bikes, Vespas, little cars, big cars, delivery trucks, streetcars, buses, and canals. It took me fifteen minutes to get from one side to the other. It was Richard Scarry’s Busytown. An 800-year-old Busytown. And I was Lowly Worm dragging a suitcase.
Was that me just the day before, sweating in the woods by the creek?
I stayed in the attic. It was up some stairs, then through three doors. Then up two more flights of stairs. Then two more doors. Then up two floors in a 2-person lift. Then three more doors, and one more steep set of winding stairs to the end of the hall. It was the littlest hotel room I've ever seen, with giant beams and rafters within inches of my head. The windows opened all the way, swinging out over a courtyard several stories below, with no screen, no stopper. I left them open all day and all night long.
The window framed thousands of terracotta shingles in a maze of steep-slanted roofs and cathedral domes with glass toppers and widows’ walks. James Bond chasing henchmen. That sort of thing. The church bells started playing sometime after dark, and they'd go intermittently all night. Not just dong-dong-dong, to announce the time, but songs. I’d drift in and out of sleep, a bit mixed up with time. I’d wake up at 4 AM like I’d just had a nap, the pigeons cooing outside my window, and the churchbells, and I’d drift off again.
Landing in Amsterdam was landing inside an infinite diorama, yet with real roses on vines, and the indecipherable, en masse murmur of another language all around. It was the first time I was an outsider. It was the first time I wasn't sure how to move without being in someone's way, or without looking like someone who doesn't belong. It unfolded around me like a giant pop-up book, like magic.
THE DUTCH. THEIR BIKES. This is what everyone at home had said, rubbing their hands together when I told them where I was going. Ahhhhh! You will love it so much. I loved it so much! You will love it so much.
From five minutes in I was in a daze, a philosophical state of shock. Why does one place develop one way, and another doesn’t? Where do our values come from? Who dictates our sense of aesthetics, our philosophy of development and human health and quality of life? Since the 1950s, North American infrastructures and habits have been manipulated to sell as many cars as possible. We are the lost souls in WALL-E, sipping from drive-thru big gulps.
As a whole—perhaps not as individuals, which is an interesting discord—western culture rejects personal thrift and minimalism and humility. We feel entitled to what we think is decadence, but it's a trick. Our definition of decadence was designed not by us or for us, but by and for corporations.
This is what the opposite looks like.
I sat there for a long time that morning with an oven-warm croissant and hot milk with a drizzle of honey, daydreaming while the most immaculate, most romantic wind-up moving picture box rolled infinitely in front of my eyes. There is no world that's better to watch go by than the world in Amsterdam. Parents bring little ones to school, whole families on two wheels. These are the luckiest kids in the world.
In Amsterdam, everyone gets everywhere “in twenty minutes". If they tried any other way, it would be an hour. Do I have a bike? Of course I have a bike. A neverending stream of them go every which way in an highly organized system that has language and flow. Bells trill constantly, keeping peripheral visions alert for pedestrians and cyclists alike.
In six days, I didn’t hear a single shout or horn. Cyclists swing within inches of front and back tires. Some are hell-bent, others are pokey. But there’s hardly a single objection, ever, except for a gentle “Oop!” or what I imagine to be a “Sorry!” in Dutch, upon a close call, or a greeting from one cyclist to another. Hallo! thrown over a shoulder, with a wave that waggled back and forth until they vanished down the street.
They moved too fast. I froze them all in my mind, willing them to stay. A girl of 5 or 6, with white-blond mermaid hair swirling in slow-motion around her face as she perched on a crossbar. Her eyes were closed, her mouth a soft o as she whistled. Her father pedaled.
A man in a tweed jacket rode casually, if there’s such a way, down Harlemmerstraat with his arms folded across his chest like he was in an easy chair. A little girl, maybe two years old, with brown skin and blond cockscrews sitting in a handlebar seat with her hands folded in her lap, blinking in the mist. A lady, cycling and humming. A little boy in a wagon, humming.
One of two expressions, always: either a rosy smile, or a rosy contented blankness. They are all burnished, somehow, in that Dutch way. They are good stock, tall and substantial and sensible, with fortitude. We are Calvinists, they say. We used to be quite dour. Now we are just blunt. They smile. Ahh, this is us! This is the Dutch. It is just our way.
I walked three or six or seven hours a day before and after work, with no destination in mind, through an interconnected corn maze of circles and bridges and lanes so narrow that facades on one side and the other lean in to touch foreheads.
People told me to go to the Rijksmuseum, to see the Vermeers and the Rembrandts; the film museum; the photography museum; Anne Frank House. They said You'll need at least a day there, and you won't even see a quarter of it... and You'll need to stand in line, everyone wants to see where she hid... and There's this place and that place... not enough time... and the days slipped by.
All I wanted was the whirr, the fog in the mornings, cafes and bakeries, corner shops for a bottle of wine and cheese and dark chocolate. I walked the canals, peeking through open doors to stairs like ladders and through four-hundred year old glass. I fell hard into an insatiable love with this city. If I went inside, into any building, I wouldn't be out in it anymore, you know? So I didn't.
I followed that little black cat to yet another vintage shop, this one with a treasure chest full of vintage corsets and silks. I bought a satin slip from the 1930s, a long, deep-backed, lacy rose bit of deliciousness that was waiting for me.
Outside of work, I was so happy on my own—finding a little Peruvian restaurant and ordering a glass of wine, gazing out the window at the canalboats going by. Walking and walking, carrying a little delicious bag, not speaking. I'm sure I smiled for six days straight. But it was the vintage shops that made me a little lonely. If I had have been there with you, we would have squealed and sighed. There was so much to touch, so much to gasp at and play with. By myself, I had to keep it all in, though I'm sure I didn't. I dragged my fingertips over old fur stoles and cashmere and tiny buttons and muttered and whispered at it all, smiling, smiling.
Somehow, all the vintage shops have agreed to an unspoken rule of colour. Each one—many specializing in party dresses, lingerie, hats, boots—was organized like a dressing room, with rows and rows laid out by colour, not by sort. So you enter and it's a rainbow, soft pinks drifting into dark pinks drifting into soft purples and like that. Tulle and satin and weathered denim, and basements with a tasselled rope to drop down into a pit of crinolines. I've never had so much fun by myself, but I missed you, too. I wished you were there.
I didn't need paintings, you see? I was already in one.
I know there's the phenomenon of travel goggles. I know what novelty does to our sense of everything. But I still swear that everything is better over there. There are no franchises! No vinyl signs, no televisions blaring in bars and restaurants. Food is real food made by a real person. There's no junk. The little pats of butter, the tea, the quiche, the menus. Even the plain old apartment blocks that I wandered through when I lost my wallet. I loved everything I saw.
After I came back I chattered on uncontrollably and a friend said, They're a funny bunch, you know. They lean so far to the left that they almost veer back around to the right again. They're completely intolerant of intolerance. They are libertarians to the point of fanaticism. They won't even entertain anything other than everyone minding their own business and taking care and respecting one another.
Like I said. A dream.
You know, that ZZZZZT city-energy? That growl? I am making a gesture with my hands. Two fists shaking. Shoulders clenched. A grimace. What you see in Toronto, and even, sometimes, in Halifax. The baseline is a frown. Everyone’s pissed. Sick of the traffic, sick of the noise, sick of hurrying and waiting and hurrying. All of it shouts.
It’s not here. Not at all.
It’s not a matter of scenery or history or architecture. It’s a matter of design. They built their cities to be this way. It’s a choice we assumed we would never have, and so we never made it, and so we have never had it. Is it too late? Are we too wintery? Too hilly? Too sprawled? Too shackled by the legacy of our car-centered infrastructure? Can we institute a mandatory class trip for everyone? Just come and see it. See how it works. You’ll want it too.
The Dutch are not ‘exercising’. They are simply Getting There In Only Twenty Minutes. They are wearing bright red lips and stacked heels, wide belts, hats, backpacks. And they pedal. Everyone rides at least 40 minutes per day. Not strenuously—not a spin class, and not all geared-up with any sort of sporty flash. It’s broad, cushy seats and low crossbars. They hop on and off. A bike gets folded, sometimes, zip zip, just like that. They simply move, all the time.
I was just as awestruck six mornings later as I was the morning I landed at how Holland's cyclists change the urban as well as the human landscape. Even more than the physical, it's the mental. It’s 40 minutes of spinning meditation, in fresh air, for everyone, young and old. It’s both social and softly quiet. It’s clicking and whirring and the glow of self-sufficiency. It's why they don’t shout.
I go on and on, I know. I can't seem to help it. People here who have been there told me that I'd never be the same, and they were right. I wandered for my last hour and took photos like airport hugs. One more, please. One more lane, one more walk. One more moving picture.
I thought a lot about luck and fortune and autonomy. I wished for three plane tickets and three bikes and Evan and Ben, to show them. I bought a tin of stroopwafels and went back across the street to Centraal Station with a wet face and that rose satin slip tucked into my camera bag. The days would be getting chilly at home. I hadn't quite finished the stacking. My little house in the woods would need battening-down. The fires would start soon, and we would snuggle up with books and sharpie markers, and my dreams would be of pulling into this place rather than away from it.