Author: Pete Jordan
Title: In the City of Bikes : The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist
Publication Info: New York : Harper Perennial, c2013.
Previously Read by Same Author: Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States
Pete Jordan’s book serves three purposes: first, it’s a memoir of his coming to Amsterdam in 2002 for a five month urban studies program and ending up staying for over a decade so far and raising a child with his wife. Second, it’s a distillation of the ideas behind what makes a great cycling city. But mostly it is a detailed history of over a century of cycling in Amsterdam based on deep archival research. Jordan focuses on the rise of cycling in Amsterdam and the many aspects of the culture that makes it successful but also chaotic. The occupation by Nazi Germany leads to attempts to ban the Dutch from biking and the bike becoming a symbol of the resistance. The bike is also central to the counterculture movement of the 1960s (although the famous White Bike program was more powerful as a myth than in reality). And in the 1970s and 1980s, when Amsterdam became overwhelmed by cars, there was the fight to reclaim the city for bikes. There’s a downside to biking in Amsterdam with the high levels of bike theft, and Jordan also ponders why so many bikes end up in the canals (and admiringly watches the city employees who have to fish them out). Even a bike tunnel through the Rijksmuseum is a constant source of wonder and conflict.
It’s a wonderful and engrossing book filled with humor and smart observations and it makes me want to pack up and move to Amsterdam right now.
It was past midnight. What the hell were all these people doing out on their bikes? Why were they all moving so unhurriedly? And why were they in my way? That’s when it struck me: It’s the middle of winter; it’s past midnight—and I’m stuck in a bicycle traffic jam. My haste vanished. I decelerated, accepted the pace of the others and appreciated the rest of my ride home. From then on, whenever anyone asked why I had immigrated to Holland, I didn’t hesitate to reply: “So I can be stuck in a bicycle traffic jam at midnight.”
The most gender-neutral characteristic noted: the carrying of ironing boards. Of the 16 people spotted with an ironing board, 8 were female, 8 male. Far from being an ironer myself, the meaning of these stats is unclear. Further study on this topic is required
The most gender-neutral characteristic noted: the carrying of ironing boards. Of the 16 people spotted with an ironing board, 8 were female, 8 male. Far from being an ironer myself, the meaning of these stats is unclear. Further study on this topic is required the lingering animosity toward the Nazis for all of their misdeeds. Over the next few years, whenever a German tourist in the Dutch capital asked a local for directions, the Amsterdammer was apt to either give false directions or ask for his bike back. If a German requested service in an Amsterdam café or restaurant, oftentimes the response was: “First, return my bike.”
A car is acceptable as a means of transport only within thinly populated areas or from a thinly populated area to the city. Cars are a dangerous and totally unsuitable means of transport within the city. There are better ways of moving from one city to another. For these purposes, the automobile is an outdated solution.
The film drew the audience’s attention to each renegade cyclist, leading us to overlook the obvious: the vast majority of the cyclists were actually obeying the traffic rules. Later I watched the film again. The number of cyclists highlighted as lawbreakers? Nine. The number of cyclists in the film who broke no laws (that is, stopped for the traffic signal, rode within the bike lanes)? One hundred and seventy-four. By featuring the 5 percent of the cyclists in view who were scofflaws, the film helped to embellish the image of the Amsterdam cyclist as out of control. Yet if the film had highlighted the law-abiders, the message could just as easily have been this: 95 percent of Amsterdam’s cyclists obey traffic laws. Maybe we aren’t such a bad lot after all.
Recommended books: Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City by Geert Mak, Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne, and Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes
Author: Russell Shorto
Title: Amsterdam : a history of the world’s most liberal city
Narrator: Russell Shorto
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2013
Shorto’s history of the Dutch city of Amsterdam is built on a principle that the city defines liberalism in both senses of the word. There’s economic Liberalism – the principle of laissez-faire in free market capitalism, and there’s social liberalism – which values communal action and individual liberty. While these two interpretations of liberalism are at odds with one another in much of the world, Amsterdam is a place where individual enterprise and community spirit work together surprisingly well. This may have its origins in the creation of the city itself, literally reclaimed from the water by dint of communal work, and yet the new land became property of individuals at a time when most land was owned by royalty or the church. Shorto describes how the notable Dutch tolerance is based on the idea of gedogen, turning a blind eye rather than strictly enforcing the law.
The history of Amsterdam is broad and Shorto both compresses a lot of detail and tends to overstate Amsterdam’s significance, but appropriate to Amsterdam’s characteristic of establishing individual identity, he focuses historical periods through the eyes of specific historical Amsterdam personages. These include:
- Rembrandt van Rijn – the portrait artist who explored human interior life
- Baruch Spinoza – rational philosopher who foresaw modernism
- Frieda Menco – a contemporary of Anne Frank who also went into hiding in Amsterdam and then to concentration camps. Shorto refers to extensive interviews with Menco
- Robert Jasper Grootveld – anarchist organizer of the Provo movement who helped make the 60s counter-culture a permanent facet of Amsterdam
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a feminist activist known for her outspoken opposition to Islam
I found this an engaging history of this fascinating city.
Recommended books: Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City by Geert Mak and Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner
Amsterdam-based DJ Shinedoe (aka Chinedum Nwosu) provides the groove with Karin Dreijer of The Knife providing the vocals on this dance-able, but somewhat eerie, track “Discourse My Romance.”
Song of the Week has not been weekly lately, but hopefully this will tide you over until I get my act together.
Here are a few beers I sampled on our recent travels in Amsterdam (not counting the six-pack of Grolsch I bought at the Albert Heijn store).
Beer: Hertog Jan Pils
Brewer: Hertog Jan Brouwerij
Rating: ** (6.7 of 10)
Comments: A bright gold beer with a must pilsener aroma and a crisp, dry taste. Foamy lace lines the glass. A nice, drinkable beer.
Beer: Wieckse Witte
Brewer: De Ridder Brewery
Rating: ** (6.3 of 10)
Comments: This is a cloudy, blond beer with a citrusy aroma and a dry, fruity taste. The head evaporated quickly and did not leave much lacing. Not my favorite style of beer, but not bad.
Beer: Budels Pils
Brewer: Budelse Brouwerij B.V.
Rating: * (5.8 of 10)
Comments: “Just Beer,” a pilsener with a foamy, flat, golden appearance and a dry, grainy flavor. The beer retains its carbonation and leaves a light lacing on the glass. An OK, everyday beer.
Beer: Hertog Jan Springbier
Brewer: Hertog Jan Brouwerij
Rating: *** (7.0 of 10)
Comments: A deep amber beer with a fluffy head. The scent is musty, like cannabis, or perhaps the scent pervades everything here? Sweet & malty with fruity highlights. Sporadic lacing lines the glass and the head disappears quickly. A decent beer for the season.
Sunday morning we woke up pretty early. Peter slept all the way through the night. I think we finally adjusted to the European time zone. Must be time to go home again.
After packing up our stuff and straightening the apartment as best we could, there was still an hour until the bike rental shop opened. I wanted to get out and see Amsterdam one last time and I knew Peter would enjoy another bike ride, so we went out while Susan took a nap. It was quite a joy to be out in the city when everything was still and quiet. We also were actually able to ride the bike fast.
So fast we were at Centraal Station within minutes. Only the sanitation workers were out with street sweepers and hoses and even garbage trucks (the strike must be over). I decided to pedal off to a more residential area and promptly got lost. I knew where I was since all the signs said Westerpark but couldn’t figure out how to get back to the Centrum. Finally I followed a bus heading back to Centraal Station. Safely back on Prinsengracht, a group of tourists from Italy stopped me for directions to the Begijnhof which was actually quite a distance from where we were.
Peter & I rejoined Susan and we returned our bikes to Mac Bikes and then had breakfast at a neighboring bagel shop. Then we went back to the apartment and brought all our stuff out on the stoop and flagged down the Stop/Go Bus to Centraal Station. While I paid the fare, Peter rather hilariously climbed on the bus and found himself a seat in the back row. He enjoyed the ride too, pointing out sites we passed and singing “Stop and go, stop and go; on to school — take it slow!”
We took the train to Schiphol Airport, flew to Keflavik Airport in Iceland, and after a delay onwards to home.
Friday got off to a slow start after a rough night’s sleep. By Peter’s request we visited his favorite playground so he could ride the teeter-totter and play in the sandbox. Then we went to the Van Gogh Museum. Apparently everyone else in the Netherlands and some surrounding countries decided to visit as well. It was hard to see much of the art as people stood six deep at the popular works. It got all to overwhelming for Peter so he and Susan went to the museum cafe and I continued on my own. My tall genes helped me peer over to see Vincent’s great works.
Susan had her turn with the art and I took Peter out to the Museumplein where he asked to walk barefoot in the grass (such an artiste). On the way home we watched some more baby coots. Peter watched a video while I made sandwiches and then Susan came home and we all took a long nap.
Post-nap we took a stroll through De Pijp. This neighborhood was built in the late 1800’s an was originally a red light district but today is Amsterdam’s Latin Quarter, home to students, artists, and immigrants from places like Suriname, Morocco, and Syria. De Pijp means “the Pipe” possibly because of the long narrow streets. The tour started by the former Heineken Brewery. The building is still there for administrative offices and a tourist attraction called The Heineken Experience. For 15 euros we took a pass. Heineken is a bad beer and I’ve been to St. James Gate which is much more interesting.
Along the walk we saw the former homes of artists and cabaret stars, houses built a acute angles called “slices of cake,” and returned to the Albert Cuyp street market which was rather noisily being cleaned up for the day. The tour ended and the lovely patch of green called Sepharti Park. Peter discovered two playgrounds along the walk – one on a street corner and one in the park. The park was also home to a wide range of birds splashing about in the man-made stream.
We returned home and Susan made a lovely supper and then to bed for a much-needed rest.
Thursday was Ascension Day, a public holiday in Amsterdam. Susan went out to get croissants for breakfast only to find all the patisseries closed. Susan wept. The bagel shop was open but their bagel oven was out of order. So we had yogurt and coffee for breakfast.
We decided to travel around the city like true Amsterdammers and rented bikes from the Mac Bikes outlet near the Leidseplein. The staff were really friendly and Peter was super excited to be riding on a little seat behind Daddy. We toured through Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s largest park where we found not one but two playgrounds. Peter played in both of them, enjoying the type of playground equipment that seems to be no longer allowed in the United States. The second playground was adjacent to a cafe called the Groot Melkhuis where we were able to acquire the desired pastries.
We ventured out of the park for a longer ride around the west of Amsterdam where we saw apartment blocks and schools and other aspects of the day-to-day Amsterdam not geared to tourists. The city is very flat but the bridges can be very steep, especially on a big 3-speed bike. Peter was very encouraging: “You can do it Daddy!” He also kept an eye out for Susan making sure she didn’t fall too far behind.
We returned to Vondelpark for lunch at the Kinderkookkafe, a restaurant where children can cook for themselves. Peter made himself a funny cupcake and then a mini-pizza. Apparently older kids can actually work in the kitchen on projects together. We had a long wait while the pizza was in the oven so we played on yet another playground out back. Too bad we are not entrepreneurs because we think a place like this would be a big hit in Jamaica Plain.
For nap time, we pedaled back to Prinsengracht. When we went back to our bikes we found that all the bike seats in our area had rain covers with an advertisement on them. This is the Amsterdam equivalent of sticking a flyer under the windshield wipers. We took a another nice ride down the narrow lanes of the Jordaan. By serendipity we passed St. Andrew’s Hof, a hidden garden surrounded by small residences. We took turns walking around while the other one watched the bikes. Peter spoke with hushed awe at the beauty of the little garden.
Peter loved the bikes so much he was sad when we had to turn them in at the end of the day. For dinner we had pancakes again (we can’t help ourselves) at the Pancake Corner by Leidseplein. In the evening, Susan took Peter to bed while I went to visit the Anne Frank House. I figured it would be best to go without Peter since his jovial and energetic demeanor would not be appropriate for a cramped and somber place. The house was indeed crowded, with tourists. It’s hard to get a sense of the hidden annex with so many people, plus the transitions from the modern museum space to the actual house were somewhat awkward. Still, it was a very moving site and worth visiting to appreciate the horrors of war and the Holocaust.
I left the Anne Frank House at 9 pm to discover that it was sunny out. It had been overcast all day so it actually felt brighter this late at night than it did during the day time. Because we’d been going to bed early because of Peter I hadn’t realized how late the sun was staying out. I walked around to enjoy the sunshine, and then when it finally got dark, I got peckish and looked for the perfect falafel and vlaamse frites. I found them. Yum!
The day started out cold and wet (and remained cold and wet) so it was as good a day as any to visit the Rijksmuseum and see the Dutch masterpieces of the Golden Age. En route we saw a pair of coots building a nest with sticks and litter on a tree branch in the canal. Along another canal we saw a flock of baby coots and Mama Coot came up to tell us not to get any closer.
Having purchased tickets for the Rijksmuseum online we were whisked to the front of the line and went through security. The security guard smiled and gave me a thumbs up when he saw James the Red Engine among the things taken out of our pockets.
Highlights of the Rijksmuseum:
- A seated cupid with a mischievous grin who resembles our own mischievous little boy Peter.
- Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters – Peter enjoyed finding the horses, the dogs, the man who fell on his face, and the little girl running to her daddy’s arms.
- The Dancing Lesson – children teach a cat to dance. Followed by Steen’s next masterpiece, “Children bandaging up scratches to the arms and face.”
- The Threatened Swan – this was Susan’s favorite.
- And of course Rembrandt, Rembrandt, Rembrandt! We’d prepared Peter for this trip by getting a child’s book about Rembrandt from the library. We brought the book along so he could match the paintings to the book and he was very excited to find The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild and The Night Watch. I was showing Peter one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits and Peter surprised me by saying “and there’s his mother reading the bible” which indeed it was.
Despite his precocious interest in Rembrandt, Peter is still a toddler so soon he was most interested in riding the elevator. Then things got all confused in the museum because “someone took ill” according to the guard and paramedics rushed in. All very exciting for Peter. I went to the coat check and Peter lay himself down on the floor besides Susan in the lobby. A woman asked if he was worn out and Peter said “The Night Watch!” Peter’s reward for good behavior in the museum was to be able to run around the Museumplein and stomp in puddles.
Next we walked to the charming De Pijp district and found a kebab shop where we got two falafel plates and a pita kaas (cheese pita) for Peter. Peter enjoyed singing “Peter’s Pita!” as he ate. He also worked his charm on the man running the kebab shop who gave Peter a lollipop. After lunch, we strolled through the Albert Cuyp street market, Peter chanting “lollipops for everyone!” The market tents had a great variety of foods, clothing, shoes, handbags, and tourist junk. We stocked up on strawberries, broccoli, and Dutch cheese. Peter enjoyed the very large birds (herons?) who were stalking the fishmonger stands. After that we returned to Peter’s favorite playground and then went home for a nap.
In the afternoon/evening we took a walk from Dam Square to the Jordaan neighborhood. A man fed pigeons in Dam Square and brought some close to Peter to check out. Later we saw the pigeon man throwing seed at unsuspecting tourists so that they ended up getting flocked by pigeons. In the Magna Shopping Center we sampled some free green cheese (it was good) and Susan and Peter rode up and down the escalators. A highly-energetic Peter ran circles around us while I tried to read the descriptions from the tour book. At the Homomonument, a marble triangle dedicated to the persecuted homosexual people, Peter walked around the triangle singing and dancing. We finished up in the quiet Jordaan where we dined out at a charming restaurant called Restaurant Vliegande Schotel that specializes in vegetarian cuisine. Susan tried to order in Dutch but the woman told her “Oh no, you must speak English!” Nevertheless the food was delicious.
On Tuesday afternoon while Peter took his nap, I took a little stroll along the Prinsengracht. This is one of the major canals in the canal belt or Grachtengordel and the longest canal in Amsterdam. We’re staying in a little studio apartment in the basement of a 17th-century house facing the canal. There’s a lot of charm and scenery just between the two nearest bridges, so the slideshow below is a little photo tour of our neighborhood.
Our second day in Amsterdam started off rough as Peter felt cranky and didn’t want to leave “our little compartment” as he calls our studio rental apartment. We went for a walk over the Amstel River on the famed Magere Brug or “Skinny Bridge” to the Waterlooplein. Here is located TunFun, a children’s play park located in a former highway underpass. Peter had been longing to go to the “underground playground” since he first heard about it a few weeks ago and asked about it all day on Monday. Unfortunately, he was still subdued and a bit overwhelmed so while he played with little cows and pigs and did a little bit of climbing he was not his usual active self.
We walked back by way of Rembrandtplein where Peter climbed up a jagged rock. For lunch we went to a pancake restaurant called De Carousel. The pancakes were yummy and Peter enjoyed climbing on the carousel horses with another American boy named Owen. It’s pretty evident that Peter misses his friends from child care. Nearby the carousel was a free, outdoor playground which proved to be much more enjoyable than TunFun. There were little red tricycles, a teeter-totter, a trampoline, and all sorts of things to climb on. We’ve made a mental note to return here every day.
After nap we rented a canal bike – what they call pedal boats here – and pedaled through the picturesque canals of Amsterdam. Steering proved hard, although I eventually got the hang of it, but it seemed at any moment the canal bike would veer off toward a houseboat or a bridge. We pedaled around for about an hour singing “Two fools and a toddler on a pedal boat down a canal.” We docked by the Westerkerk and then stopped in a brown cafe (aka pub) for beers for the grownups and a hot chocolate for Peter. I believe it was his first hot chocolate and he loved as much as siting on the big bar stools. Then we strolled back down the Prinsengracht to our apartment for dinner and bed.
After a tiring day of travel we enjoyed our first full day in Amsterdam today by going a long walk through the city center.
Highlights of the day:
- We started the day by stocking up on food from the Albert Heijn grocery store where they seem to specialize in various forms of yogurt. It’s fun to shop in a different language.
- We took a tram to Centraal Station and began a walk down the Damrak, the historic central canal now lined with cheezy tourist shops.
- Peter’s hands were cold so we stopped to buy mittens. Peter chased a kitten around the souvenir shop.
- We discovered how the clean the windows on those tall skinny buildings. With a very long pole.
- Peter was impressed by the ponies (large draft horses, really) pulling a Heineken wagon around the city and wanted to see more.
- At Dam Square we had a coffee break. The barista wisely prevented me from accidentally buying a hot chocolate with coffee for Peter and got him plain hot chocolate. Later, when Peter knocked over my cappucinno, she helped us clean up and gave me a free refill.
- Peter enjoyed chasing pigeons on the Dam Square but then was terrified by “performance artists” wearing spooky masks. We talked about the silly people in costumes for a long time afterwards.
- In the courtyard by the Amsterdam History Museum, Peter likes exploring the archways and discovers a little garden of tulips.
- We walked through the Civic Guard Gallery, a collection of stylized group portraits from the Dutch Golden Age. Peter surprises us by enjoying the paintings and saying “It’s Rembrandt!” (It wasn’t Rembrandt but close enough).
- The Begijnoff is a lovely collection of house around an enclosed courtyard originally a built as a community of lay women dedicated to religious life and service. It also contains the small English Church where the Pilgrims worshipped while in Amsterdam prior to going to Massachusetts. A friendly woman showed Peter where her children liked to play, in the Burgomasters’ Pew.
- We ate lunch at an Indonesian restaurant called Kantjil & de Tijger. I enjoyed a yummy Paksoi Tofu and green beans. Susan had a pumpkin soup. A sleepy Peter fell asleep in his high chair.
- On the way back to our apartment for a nap, I discover ducklings swimming in a canal and the house where John Adams lived when he was ambassador to the Netherlands.
- Resuming our walk post-nap, we walk along the Bloemenmarkt admiring all the beautiful flowers for sale.
- At Metz and Co, Amsterdam’s classic department store, we take the elevator to the top floor cafe and enjoy rooftop views of the city and some yummy cake.
- Amused by a store that specializes in food from the U.S. – including Marshmallow Fluff, Pop Tarts, Fruit Loops, Concord grape jelly and all sorts of other processed junk.
- Peter discovers that the circle on the ground in the middle of the Leidseplein is a fun place to run and spin until you get dizzy.
- We run around in part of Vondelpark until our little boy got tired and cranky.
- Back to the apartment for supper and early to bed for all.
Author: Guus Kuijer
Title: The Book of Everything
Publication Info: Arthur A. Levine Books (2006)
This short book is a brutally honest work of young adult literature set in Amsterdam a few years after the liberation and end of World War II. Thomas only wishes to be happy but has to deal with his fundamentalist and abusive father. The book is colored by magical realism and a touch of surrealism as Thomas is aided by witches, calls down the plagues of Egypt, and converses with a lonely Jesus. A powerful and touching book that touches on a lot of issues: childhood, family, religion, community, and kindness.
Recommended books: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle and Wise Blood: A Novel by Flannery O’Connor
Publication Info: Harvard University Press (1999)
This is a highly-readable history of eight centuries of the history of Amsterdam. Dutch journalist Mak makes great use of hooks upon which to build each chapter of Amsterdam’s history such as an archaeological artifact, a sketch by Rembrandt, primary source writings, paintings and photographs. I get the sense that the translation is a bit off in places and the place names are hard for an Anglophone out-of-towner to keep up, but these things largely do not impede my reading or enjoyment of this work. This is a good introduction to the city I hope to visit next month.
For other reviews check out The Hieroglyphic Streets.
Recommended books: Dr. Johnson’s London: Coffee-Houses and Climbing Boys, Medicine, Toothpaste and Gin, Poverty and Press-Gangs, Freakshows by Liza Picard