February 20, 2017

Navigating Amsterdam

Sally Rifkin

Amsterdam’s geography is strongly influenced by canals, which make concentric semicircular belts that surround the medieval city. There are more than 60 miles of waterways in the city. I used to think it was a pretty big deal to have a property with a waterfront view, but that was before I saw both a copy center and a Subway sandwich shop that overlooked canals.

Streets are parallel and perpendicular to the canals, traversing them with bridges (over 1,500 of them throughout the city). If you don’t know what you’re doing, crossing the street is a dance with death. First, you have to cross the bike lane, which runs alongside to the sidewalk. Then, you must check that no cars are coming; cars drive next to the bike lane, separated from cyclists by a curb or a median (it is a lot safer to bike here—no one wears helmets—and there are special laws protecting cyclists so they are never at fault in an accident). Then you have to cross the tram tracks. Watch for taxis too—they have special permits to drive on the tracks. Bikes, cars, and especially trams, won’t stop for pedestrians unless they have a light. Now you are in the middle of the street and you must repeat that whole process in reverse to get to the other side. It is a true testament to Dutch organization that I haven’t witnessed any accidents yet.

To get around, I mainly make use of two methods of transportation: taking trams and biking. There is also the Metro, a faster train which runs underground, and many people drive cars and take taxis. And there are intercity trains that take you swiftly around the Netherlands—I’ve traveled to Leiden and Rotterdam so far. But biking and the tram are the fastest and cheapest options for local travel. The trams are aboveground electric streetcars which run frequently and reliably. Biking is the best option because you don’t need to be committed to a particular schedule; you can go wherever you want whenever you want.

All my days in Amsterdam start with a vigorous 25-minute bike ride from my homestay in Slotermeer to the SIT office in Centrum (the city center). I often bike to class and around town at Wash U but balk at any ride that will take over 15 minutes. Exercise at nine in the morning is a relatively foreign concept to me; I’ve been known to go entire semesters at Wash U without going to the gym. To my dismay, the first half of my ride to SIT is characterized by a subtle but persistent incline. The other commuters are in better shape than me so I try not to breathe too heavily as they pass me—maybe I can make them think I want to be going at this leisurely pace!

The first couple of times I biked to SIT, I relied on Google maps to get me there, but I’ve since become more familiar with the route. I have a terrible sense of direction and I can never remember any of the street names, so I’ve devised some more “creative” ways of remembering where I’m going. Here is how I remember my route, in eight simple steps:

  1. Enter the bike lane adjacent to Aryan’s house. Take a left. Go under the tunnel and take a right at the first opportunity.
  2. Go straight for a very long time.
  3. After crossing the tram tracks, take a left.
  4. Go straight for a long time. Cross two canals. When you see the big brick building on the left (it might be a brewery? Need to confirm this), make a right. If you see a Texaco station on you right on the other side of the canal, you’re going the right way.
  5. Make a left at the spot where you almost fell off your bike the first day.
  6. Go straight past the little garden. When you get to the canal, make a right.
  7. Bike straight for what feels like a very long time (because at this point it’s been 20 minutes and you feel like you should have arrived by now). When you think it’s time to turn right, actually go one more block, and then turn right.
  8. Turn left after you pass the parked car painted with puzzle pieces, bike to the playground and park by the fence. Congratulations, you’re there! I know you’re panting and sweating profusely at this point, but remember to double-lock your bike and save some energy for the three flights of stairs up to the SIT office.

Cyclists here are bold and unapologetic. They lack hesitation as they weave around each other, swerve around parked cars, and cross against the light (if no cars are coming). They yell at me when I accidentally stray into their lane. I’ve seen some crazy things—a woman walking her dog while biking at a slow speed, a man biking with a cat in a milk crate, a couple biking side by side and holding hands on Valentine’s Day. If you, too, can be bold and unapologetic, then biking is exhilarating. Most of the time here I feel painfully American, especially in shops or restaurants, where I can only communicate in English. When I’m on my bike, I use the same hand signals and follow the same traffic rules as everyone else. I weave around the slower cyclists (though there are few) and ring my bell when pedestrians walk in the bike lane. For at least 25 minutes, twice a day, I pass as Dutch.