I have lived in Amsterdam a couple of years already but this is my first winter back in the port city in two years. It struck us hard this year with what I like to categorize as blizzards.
Quite windy at any season of the year, due to its proximity to the sea, rain and snow hit you even harder as both whip through your best winter clothe and maltreat your face, so that after a few seasons already you’ve earned the much- romanticized sailor’s weather- beaten skin.
Not so romantic for a woman in her 20s.
Maybe I should state first that I’m not a big fan of winter in general (But maybe you’ve guessed that from the self- pity loaded description already).
Despite the seasonal obstacles—fresh snow, I was going to bike to Uni today. That might seem quite absurd and plain stupid considering the paragraph on terrible weather conditions beforehand. Well, when I discovered it snowing this morning, I looked outside my window and saw a few, no a couple, no in fact: many! people riding by my house on their bikes. Wrapped up in scarves and gloves and hats, but it seemed doable enough.
Bundled up myself like the Michelin man, I got on my Dutch grandma bike (“oma fiets”: the most comfortable there is and only bike that allows you to remain looking like a lady, if you wish to do so on a bike), and quickly realized panicky: This is a lot harder than it had seemed!
My bike wobbled and slid over fresh snow and through wet mud with me trying to go fast enough to fly over slippery puddles and slow enough to make it into curves. You cannot ride your bike through fresh snow.
Why did I think this was a good idea, not to say: Even possible? Because everyone around me was biking. No pedestrians, few cars, but very secure bikers passing me left and right.
Amsterdam is a bike city –maybe THE bike city. This has always struck me as odd that a place with 2-3 months of summer tops (and I’m counting any time above 20° C) is one of the most biked cities on earth.
Maybe it’s due to the country’s notorious flatness.
Then again, biking through the city, every tourist would question the Dutch landscape paintings of smooth fields under endless skies and cows that can be inserted in the same position in any spot of the picture, because it is all level ground. Don’t get me wrong the Netherland’s overall flatness is undeniable and its lack of mountains scientifically proven, so actually very suitable to ride your bike between sunny tulip fields. In reality: two months of the year, tops, and the city of Amsterdam is a whole different story: Every speed reducing bump in the road, the numerous pretty arch bridges over canals feel like a small Everest to the expat biker.
So while climbing one of these felt Everests on this winter wonderland morning in Amsterdam, it happened. I slipped and landed full length in the cold, wet mud. A Dutch woman stopped her bike and came running over, picking up my bag that had rolled on the road and asking if I was okay. The Dutch are very helpful and kind people when encountering others and especially helpless foreigners in the street. You can count on that. However, this lady –on a bike herself—also added, “This is dangerous!”
All I could respond was to agree and cry out, “Why is everybody biking?” That’s what had lulled me into false safety in the first place.
When falling, I wasn’t even very surprised and could expectantly catch myself quite well avoiding greater harm like broken bones or snow-mud entering my boots. However, I did rip the leg of my trousers and got mud- splashes over them. Have I mentioned I had a job interview that afternoon?
And this brings me to the motivation of this essay: Why is everybody biking? It is one of my favorite things about Amsterdam. The town is small enough to get everywhere on your bike; the canal-side streets and winding alleys are often too narrow or crowded for cars too pass; and biking gives you a feeling of freedom, independence and self- confidence. It also creates a sense of community among the people, as you join a swarm of other bikers at traffic lights and comment each other on the amount of cargo or family members you are transporting, or complement each- other’s drunk- biking skills on a Friday night.
Usually, I blend in very well. A biking enthusiast, speaking the native language, and generally socializing more in expat and traveler circles, I take part in the local culture unblemished.
This January morning though, something else outed you as a foreigner on the streets of Amsterdam. For once it was not the Moroccan or Polish second- generation immigrants that were branded “obviously not Dutch”. All similarly disguised in scarves and hats, only expats fell out and literally off their bikes, as they attempted to match the locals’ natural winter biking skills.
Throughout the struggles of this day, I was able to experience another important part of life in this little melting- pot, Amsterdam, that contributes to its uniqueness and charm.
My day only brightened when I observed a much more Dutch- looking girl than me (blond, tall, UGG boots, white-and-pink bike) struggling even more biking through the snow. Not out of glee I cheered up, but because we shot each other smiles, shaking our heads, “Why is everybody biking? I’m part of this foolery!” I felt international and typical Dutch.