This is a revised version of “Amsterdam II.” I’ve completely restructured the piece, which will hopefully help to give a much better idea of the contrast I was trying to show; I’ve also included a quote at the beginning that should make that contrast much clearer. Other major changes include a completely new introduction and an expansion of the section about bicycles. And it has a new title!
I could take the old draft off of my blog, but I’m going to keep it here because I think it’s kind of a cool way to show some of the developments that my work goes through.
Also, I finally learned how to create spaces in HTML, so there will now be proper section breaks instead of asterisks to separate the sections in my writing on here.
And I do plan on eventually writing about places other than Amsterdam: I have a piece on Paris and London in the works, which will hopefully be up here soon.
But anyway, here’s the latest (and probably final) draft of my Amsterdam piece:
I Am Not Sterdam
“Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour.”
- Jamaica Kincaid, “A Small Place”
I am convinced that tourists are a species despised all over the globe and that by traveling all over the globe, they ensure that everyone gets the chance to despise them.
But regardless of how much I may not have liked it, I know that I was a tourist in Amsterdam. I stopped at street corners to take a big map out of my pocket and clumsily unfold it. I spoke English. I walked down a street in one direction, realized I was going the wrong way, and awkwardly turned around and headed in the other direction, letting everyone around me know that I was lost. I ate at a McDonald’s once. I took photographs, but bad ones; I didn’t want to have my camera out for more than a few seconds at a time because I wanted to try to hide the fact that I was a tourist.
Instead of traveling, I wish I could live in places for a few months at a time.
It is very difficult to avoid getting run over in Amsterdam—not by cars, but by bicycles. Almost everyone here rides a bike. As a foreigner, I have not yet gotten used to the fact that the sound of a ringing bell indicates that a bike is right behind you and will run you over if you don’t quickly move out of the way. Of course, upon moving, you will probably crash into one of the many crotch-height poles that line the sides of Amsterdam streets.
Navigation in Amsterdam is kind of exciting.
In a suburb of Rochester, New York, I step through the front door to the outside of my house. I take a few steps to the driveway, open my car door and step inside. It’s about a ten minute drive to Wegman’s, upstate New York’s premier grocery store establishment.
When I arrive, I park near the front of the large parking lot—it would easily fit a whole block of buildings in a city—and I step outside. I walk briskly to the store’s automatic doors that slide open for me.
A sweet blueberry smell immediately hit me once I opened the door to a small bakery in Amsterdam. On the left side of the bakery, big windows let bright light in; against the windows were three tables with vases of flowers set in the middle. No one was sitting at the tables at the time, but they were inviting, and I wondered how often they were used. I’ve always thought of bakeries as the sorts of places where you bought your bread or whatever and brought it home, not ate it there.
Everyone stood in line instead of browsing the bakery’s selections, which must have meant that they were all regular customers who knew exactly what they were going to ask for when they got up to the counter. I was in line for several minutes; it wasn’t a long line, but it went at a slow pace. Everyone was chatting quietly in Dutch. I didn’t get the feeling of impatience that I get from standing in line for a ride at an amusement park; instead something felt right about this wait, like it was deliberately leisurely.
By the time I was second in line, though, I realized that I still wasn’t sure what to buy. I tried to look around and figure out what I’d ask for, but I got a little intimidated. All of the products were bread-based for sure, but they were odd Dutch variants on the things I was familiar with. Up until this point I hadn’t revealed my status as a non-Dutch-speaking tourist, and I didn’t want to give it away when I got to the counter and had to engage in a confusing conversation as I attempted to ask in English for one of these pastries or pies that differed slightly from the ones I’d find at home. I turned around and navigated my way to the front of the bakery, weaving between the people in the line that had formed behind me. I stepped outside.
Inside the suburban Wegman’s, a blast of air conditioning makes me shiver, and it smells like sterilized fruit; dim yellow lights don’t help to brighten the store’s brown displays. I pull a shopping cart from a long row and push it into the store. Its wheels rattle loudly on the store’s hard tiled floor. I move into the familiar aisles, passing by others with their rattling carts, and I take some food down from the shelves and put it into my own cart.
Eventually I push my cart back toward the front of the store to the checkout lanes. I stand silently in line for a few minutes; the people in front of me stare straight ahead. After a quick transaction during which the cashier and I barely share a glance, I cart my groceries outside to the parking lot.
Seas of parked bikes can be found all over Amsterdam. The sidewalks are practically littered with their tangle of metal and rubber. Sometimes you will find bikes attached upside-down to railings and hovering precariously over canals—don’t worry, they’re locked down by the strongest bike locks on Earth—bike locks that are, imaginably, a necessity in a city where bikes could otherwise be picked off the street as easily as cherries from a tree. When you see so many bikes lying around, it might at first be hard to believe that people are actually using them to get from place to place and not just, say, discarding them on the side of the road; but you will quickly realize that bikes are, in fact, not only in constant use, but also tend to be directed toward you by madmen bent on killing you with them.
Some of these wild bicyclists include those who fly along the city’s extensive bike paths wearing bright yellow and sunglasses and looking a lot like Lance Armstrong. Others, however, pedal along at a more leisurely pace. You might expect to see mainly young adults on bikes, but an afternoon in Amsterdam paints a comprehensive picture of bicycling as a lifelong means of transportation: you will frequently see older people riding bikes, as well as children, accompanied by their parents and growing accustomed to pedaling from place to place with a trusty pair of training wheels.
Where I grew up, I learned to ride a bike at a very young age, too, but it was something that was strictly a part of childhood recreation. If workplaces and schools and stores and homes weren’t so far apart from each other in the suburbs, bikes might serve a practical purpose beyond youthful recreation; but, for most suburbanites, bicycles quickly become the rusted relics of long forgotten childhoods, when you used to spend whole days with friends branching out along the paths through the woods nearby your home or practicing how to ride the whole length of the street without holding onto the handlebars or building a tiny ramp out of a plank of wood laid diagonally on blocks of concrete to give you the chance to fly in the air for just a brief moment. After all this is over, bikes are dusted off only on rare nostalgic summer afternoons.
In Amsterdam, you can tell the difference between the tourists who haven’t ridden a bike since they were children and the natives for whom bicycling remained a constant part of their lives. Rented bikes tend to come standard in one solid color, usually red or yellow, and the tourists are always moving very slowly and seem not to have complete control over their handlebars, and the front wheels of their bikes are wobbling back and forth a little, and the person riding ahead is always turning around and looking back at the other person and laughing, and you get the feeling that they’ve both somehow forgotten how to ride a bike even though there’s that idiom about how you never forget how to ride a bike.
In the parking lot, the warmth and brightness of the sun is easy to appreciate after the chill and muted yellows and browns of the interior of Wegman’s. The cart moves differently along the parking lot’s flat pavement; it doesn’t bounce up and down and there’s just a consistent droning sound instead of a rattling.
After I’ve unloaded my groceries into the car and returned the cart, my hands feel numb from all of the cart’s vibrations, and it seems like I should still be holding on to something. When I get into the car I grasp the steering wheel and drive home.
Amsterdam has these nifty fast food establishments called automaats where you can buy food out of a wall. They’re sort of like big vending machines, and you can get whatever you want without having to interact with another living person. So, at an automaat, I bought a kaassoufflé, which I guess translates to “cheese soufflé,” although it’s not a soufflé. Someone told me it was a “cheese puff,” but it definitely doesn’t resemble any Cheeto I’ve ever seen. I might describe it as breaded cheese, more or less. In any case, it’s not bad.
But so while I was eating a €2 kaassoufflé (it should have been €1.40, but no machines in the Netherlands will ever, ever give you change), a group of drunk Dutch girls my age were yelling.
“I fucking hate tourists! I want to stab them! Go back to where you came from!”
She was speaking English, undoubtedly to ensure that any tourists around her understood her desire to stab them. She was leaning backward into her friend, who was laughing while holding her up. But then the girl who was yelling stood up straight and started singing.
“Go shorty, it’s your birthday!”
I finished my kaassoufflé.