I (quite) recently moved to Amsterdam to work in a hostel, with the dream of getting to know a new place more slowly and bond with fellow travelers. When most (non-Dutch) people think of the city of Amsterdam, there are three main things that probably come to mind: weed, the Red Light District, and BICYCLES. It’s said that there are more bikes than people here, and I can definitely believe it. It’s known as the most bike-friendly city in the world for a reason, and the infrastructure is spectacular.
Don’t expect to feel the “friendly” part of “bike-friendly,” though, if you, like me, are an absolute noob at city biking. I know HOW to ride a bike, but I didn’t learn on a city bike (they’re different than mountain/hybrid bikes, I swear!) and I certainly didn’t learn while dodging pedestrians (read: tourists who don’t know what the red paths mean), cars, buses, trams, scooters, and the myriad of other bikers. The Dutch have no time for my bumbling starts and wobbly turns, and rightly so; they have a reputation for efficiency, and biking is a regular and respected form of transportation here. Imagine getting stuck in your post-work commute behind a girl who panicked and swerved out when a motorcycle came up beside her, and then struggled to regain a straight line of travel afterwards. You’d be frustrated too.
With that in mind, I try not to inflict my biking on the people of Amsterdam too often. Sometimes I can’t avoid it, like when all my coworkers make plans to go out (and just imagine me coming home from BARS on my bike!) When this happens I am truly filled with stomach-clenching trepidation beforehand and shoulder-clenching minor panic during the actual event. True fear is being sandwiched between a curb and a city bus, simultaneously trying to avoid the tram tracks where your tires will get stuck. I really thought my family was going to receive tidings of my death in Rembrandtplein.
But I survived, largely due to the efforts of Sophie, my coworker, confidante, hostel-work mentor, and personal twerk-hypewoman. Her patience with me has been unending. And at the same time that I wish I could be magically and instantly good at this, I’m also appreciative of the struggle, because it’s brought us closer together.
My very first night in the city, I arrived, disoriented and ready to make friends at my new place of work/residence. Most people were headed out to celebrate a coworker’s birthday, and I, naturally, did not have a bike to call my own yet. Sophie, basically a complete stranger at that point, gallantly offered to bike me to the bar.
If you’re picturing a bike-with-an-extra-backseat-attachment situation, think again. I sat on the seat and clung onto her fleece for dear life, while she was standing pretty much upright on the pedals and occasionally sitting on my lap after pedaling us up a hill in an impressive display of strength. Y’all, I’m pretty sure it’s impossible NOT to bond with someone after they’ve pulled your body weight around and sat on you while the canals and illuminated bridges of Amsterdam whiz past you. There simply is no get-to-know-you awkwardness after that.
That was about three weeks ago, and I already feel like I’ve known her for years. Our friendship is obviously about more than biking but it does come up: we laugh when I crash into her from behind after she forces me out on two wheels again, and prove our incredulous Dutch acquaintances wrong when they claim there’s no way I “backed” her on my first night here (and we’re weirdly graceful at pushing off together, so that’s always satisfying to show off.)
So, you could say I have a love-hate relationship with biking here in the Netherlands. Everyone says I’ll get better, but right now it’s hard to face down the well-deserved Dutch judgment I receive when I venture out. But an insider’s tip to anyone else lacking the confidence to navigate these streets on a bicycle: try hopping on the back of someone else’s bike for an ego-boosting night ride. In stark contrast to the disapproval aimed at me during the day, strangers will go out of their way to shout encouragement at us when we double up.
Plus, you might make a fabulous new friend in the process.
Leave your favorite mode of transportation in the comments!