Bikes of the Netherlands

As an enthusiastic urban cyclist here at home in SF, I’m quite ashamed to admit that I never once rode a bike during my week in Amsterdam last October. This was due to a combination of not-great weather (I did actually have a bike tour scheduled on the coldest, rainiest day of my trip – cold I don’t mind, but riding in the rain is no fun, so the tour was on-foot instead) and the fact that it took me most of the week to become comfortable with my navigational skills in the city (“These canals all look alike! Where the hell am I? Oh, right, lost – again…”).

Nevertheless, it was quite fascinating to observe how integral bikes are to life in Amsterdam. There isn’t a bike subculture, as in SF – bicycles are an essential component of the culture of Amsterdam. It’s great! And when I go back (soon, I hope), I promise to ride… Well, unless I stay too late at the discotheque…

And though I didn’t ride, I did take a few photos…

Party Knaks!

Well, my trip home from Amsterdam was rather more eventful than I might’ve hoped: about an hour into my flight from O’Hare to SFO, I started feeling achy; then chills; then fever. By the time I actually arrived at home, my temp was over 103° – and then my body started attempting to purge whatever poison I’d ingested, if you know what I mean (if you don’t, it means that I had the explosive diarrhea…)

This lasted a couple of days and was miserable. I did recover, though remained exhausted from jet lag for at least another week. And then, on Thursday afternoon, I had my visit with the oral surgeon for a biopsy of my palate – that is, he had to hack a chunk out of the roof of my mouth and I can only eat pudding, yogurt, soup and mashed potatoes for another few days.

So, as one might imagine, I’ve not been much in the mood to post. But I’m going to try to catch up over the next few days! And to start, here are a couple of photos from Albert Heijn, the Netherlands’ most ubiquitous supermarket. I love visiting supermarkets when I’m in another country. They are in many ways identical all over the world – save for an array of products that is fascinatingly foreign.

I Amsterdam

Well, clearly I’ve been too wrapped up in my visit to spend any time posting!

Anyway, I arrived on Sunday afternoon after a very nice train ride from Paris. I found the apartment I’m letting with no problem – and it is really lovely, with a charming, plant-filled terrace.

I was in desperate need of a beard trim. My host suggested a place right up the street, but it wasn’t open until Tuesday – so I found Strong Young Urban online (and yes I realize I am none of these things) was just a short walk away.

When I found the place, I asked if I could get a beard trim. Answer in the affirmative – with a price tag of €30. This seemed steep – but it was Sunday afternoon, I really needed to be de-scraggled and spending money on vacation isn’t real (until one gets home and receives the bill).

WELL! This was no mere beard trim. First he got my beard in tip-top shape with clippers and scissors; then a face-and-beard wash-and-scrub; a hot towel; a straight-razor shave of my neck and cheeks; and finally some skin conditioner. It was fantastic and worth every penny. Thanks, Ian!

After some dinner (I’ll be posting separately about my Amsterdam eating experiences), I decided to check out a few gay bars – though with so many, it’s hard to know which ones are “good” – or at least suitable for a cranky old tourist. Stopped by a couple of spots and wasn’t a lot going on. Finally ended up at Café Chez René. And, yes, I was the only patron there – but I really had to pee. Happily, the bartender, Bos, was extraordinarily friendly and chatted me up and gave me plenty of advice on other bars in the city. The place slowly filled up and I spent much of the evening talking with a local fellow. There was also another young man who was practicing his close-up magic skills – he was impressive. It wound up being a super-fun time and I was very happy I decided to stop in…

I didn’t get home too late, but I had definitely had too much beer – and paid dearly the next day. Besides waking up quite late, I didn’t feel so great. This turned out to be the theme for the day…

I left my apartment off to a place for lunch that sounded reliable. I got lost almost instantly and eventually discovered I’d gone the complete opposite direction the moment I walked out the front door. I did finally get myself turned around and arrived at my destination – to discover they are closed on Mondays. As were options B & C on my list…  So, starving, hungover, crabby and dazed, I wandered in search of lunch. Eventually found a café that served me a decent smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich. Did quite a bit more wandering about before heading back home.

Oh, did I mention the weather? Gray and rainy – not pouring, but pretty consistently wet. Didn’t do much to improve my mood – and I felt horribly guilty for not “doing” anything on my first full day here… Though in fact, I covered quite a bit of territory, including the Nine Streets and Leidseplein.

Since I behaved myself on Tuesday evening, I was up early and presented myself at the Rijksmuseum before 9:30AM. The museum is undergoing extensive renovations and most of it is closed right now (I was aware of this, so it did not come as a surprise) – what is on view is “The Masterpieces,” representing some of the finest work in the museum’s collection. The accompanying audio tour was really excellent; I saw some as-always breathtaking Frans Hals paintings (“Married Couple in a Garden” is astonishing); and certainly fell in love with Rembrandt. Frankly, having just the cross-section of the museums work on display made for a great visit – it was not overwhelming and I felt like I saw the things I was most interested in.

Next stop, the Stedijkmuseum, the just-reopened modern art museum here in Amsterdam, complete with a new large, very contemporary new addition to the building. They still seem to be working out the kinks in managing the crowds – getting a ticket was pandemonium… But once inside, it was a fairly reasonable experience and the new wing is impressive. The site-specific installation by Barbara Kruger was a highlight.

Wednesday morning I’d signed up for a bike tour, praying for good weather. Alas, my atheism came home to roost and it was the wettest, coldest morning of my trip. I showed up at the appointed hour at Dam Square and met my guide – he said he’d be happy to give the bike tour in the rain, though he also offered a walking tour as an alternative – which I accepted. Sigh – I guess I can ride at home…

Walked around the center, got some decent background on Amsterdam – but it was not in the pantheon of walking tours. Eh, what’re you gonna do? He did treat me to a stop at cheese shop (with samples!) and a Dutch pancake with cheese and ginger marmalade. Yes, please.

Visited the Amsterdam History Museum on my way home and quite enjoyed it. Dinner later (though per usual got lost on the way – but only a little…) and an early evening.

Thursday I took a short train ride to Haarlem for a visit to the Frans Hals Museum – it’s charming and of course his paintings are magnificent. The civic guard paintings are just so marvelous – his “loose brushwork” is wondrous in its vibrancy and modernity. As has been said of his work, it’s so incredibly lifelike it seems to breathe. I would go anywhere on earth to look at his paintings… I made a point of not bringing my camera with me – no photograph could even give a hint of what it’s like to look at these masterpieces in person.

Haarlem itself is charming, though I only really saw a bit of it as I ambled to and from the train station.

That night, I decided to try happy hour at one of the local boites and while there, struck up a conversation with two local gents. They were jolly and kind and insisted that I go to De Engel bar – to the point that one of them grabbed my little notebook to write down the address and directions.

And so, after dinner, off I went. A small, friendly place – and that night was “Deal or No Deal (German Edition).” I didn’t have a particularly clear idea of what was going on, but the host of the show was dressed in lederhosen and and was assisted by “Heidi”, a hairy and pneumatic Alpen maid. And, of course, at some point, my number was called (with each beer, you get another number to get drawn to be a “contestant”) and I was forced (hahah – I’m so shy) to appear on stage. It’s always risky trying to be funny the emcee who does this for a living, but I held my own. When I was asked if I liked porn, I said “no” and was roundly booed – until I added I like it if it’s art. When the emcee asked my favorite “art,” I responded, “Anal Invaders 5.” The emcee and the audience thought that was hilarious. Of course, I was also helped immensely when one of Heidi’s boobs popped during my Q&A. This was unintentional and the place was roaring.

Frighteningly, my “category” was to sing along with kitschy German pop songs. Mein gott in himmel! But the whole audience helped me out and I won my prize – a collection of kitschy German pop CDs. I guess now I can practice for my next visit..?

Believe it or not, this turned out only to be the beginning of the evening. Four other guys I’d been chatting with insisted I go with them to Church – a small dance place around the corner from my apartment (and no it was not underwear or naked night – I’m too shy for that!). Oh man. I haven’t been clubbing like this in years – drank, danced, met lots of nice guys and didn’t get home until 4AM. And I assure you, I was as shocked by this turn of events as you, dear readers! The last time I was up at that hour was to go to the airport…

Now, granted it was a great time – but last night’s revelry had a significant impact on my touring today – that is, there was none. Spent the day relaxing in my charming apartment – sure, I felt guilty about not going to look at a museum or rent a bike or anything. But I’ll have to save something for my next visit…

Drinks tonight with a couple of new friends – but I’ll definitely be behaving tonight. Still a couple of must-sees for tomorrow, then to the airport early Sunday morning. Darn…

Bicycles in the Netherlands

This is a fascinating overview of how the Netherlands transformed their transportation infrastructure for bicycling. One of the most interesting things to me is that it was partially in response to the oil crisis of the ’70s (which ushered in car-free Sundays in city centers).

I especially love this image of protesters occupying Amsterdam’s Museumplein – which is now closed to automobile traffic.

The other day, I took a different route to work, traveling via Market St. after taking The Wiggle (can I just say that I love the fact that SF has a well-known bike route called The Wiggle?) from the DMV. Market St. is probably the most heavily traveled bike route in SF, especially during the commute hours. And I must say, it was pretty great traveling in a pack of cyclists on the way to work (my usual route down Post St. is generally just me, cars and buses).

As a cyclist it made me feel safer and more visible – and frankly it just made the ride more fun. Of course, just as with automobiles, there were a couple of jerks on bikes, who felt the need to squeeze past me at a red light so they could be 4′ closer to their destination. And this pack of cyclists obeyed all traffic rules for the entire trip, stopping at red lights and yielding to pedestrians – which, despite all of those who will shout their anecdotal evidence to the contrary, is more typical than not.

I should also add that the traffic lights on Market St. are not timed for bikers, which seems ridiculous. And that on at least two occasions all 20 or so of those in my pack were forced to squeeze past double-parked cars dropping off a single passenger somewhere on Market St. Not only does this slow everyone down, it forces cyclists to interact too closely with buses and streetcars, as well as the treacherous tracks and grates in the transit lane. And this is all on top of the typical but no less dangerous potholes and half-assed repairs that make Market St. into an obstacle course for those on two-wheels.

The current Better Market Street planning seems to be headed in the right direction. It will be interesting to see what actually gets built – though I’m hoping that (finally) Market St. is closed to private automobile traffic, with dedicated transit and bike lanes and improved sidewalks for pedestrians. We shall see.

from SFist