Tuesday, April 18, 2006

#21: Amsterdam

Think Amsterdam, and I expect it conjures up a number of different images. Different people, different kicks.

There’s the wholesome stuff – the canals, the flower market, tulips and so on. There are museums, displaying Van Gogh, and other grand figures from our artistic past; though we shouldn’t forget Anne Frank, either (whose life and Diary are memorialised in the house where she hid from Nazi persecution, surviving on silence and movie magazines until an unidentified source revealed her and her extended family to the occupiers, leading to concentration camps and death).

In a slightly unfortunate juxtaposition, Amsterdam is also full of diamonds; more museums, shops, the opening scene of Snatch. And beer. Big red Heineken signs are everywhere, glowing on the building tops like some kind of dubious halo. A pointer perhaps to the seedier side of the Dutch capital. Amsterdam to some will spell legalised cannabis consumption, fellows furtively hawking “charlie” on the street corners, sexual freedom, and a red light district of dubious distinction. There really are girls in the windows – more like patio doors, actually – but if that concerns you, maybe you’ll be comforted to hear that they mostly looked more like movie starlets than crack whores. Maybe not.

Annyway, I skipped something in the wholesome section. You probably spotted it, something Amsterdam has in common with, say, Oxford – and I don’t mean academia. Yup, bicycles.

I like bikes. There’s something extremely satisfying about propelling yourself along – at speed, obviously, if you’re me – under your own steam. Big cities in England, though, you’d also have to be of uncertain mental solidarity to consider the pushbike a serious means of transport. Coventry is bad enough; I can’t contemplate the bravery you’d need to cycle in London, even if they have painted the tarmac green in places, popping a little symbol on the ground there suggesting self-propelled friendliness.

In Amsterdam it’s completely different. Bikes are everywhere, so many in fact you’d be forgiven for thinking them the dominant lifeform in the city. Cyclists not only have their own lane – often protected from the other road users by substantially built-up curbing – but their own traffic signals and congestion problems; parking a pushbike in Amsterdam must be a nightmare.

Ranks and ranks of them are stacked together like a more complex variation of pick-up sticks. Heaven help you if yours is the one in the middle. The crush is so bad people will chain them up anywhere, much to the disgruntlement of many businesses, finding them attached to their shutters and railings preventing access for customers; I saw one bar owner outside taking an angle grinder to chains and locks in order to clear the two-wheeled clutter away from her doorway.

This probably explains the strangeness. For a city obsessed with the cycle, I was amazed at how few decent bikes I actually saw. In fact, I was there for four days, and I don’t think I saw a single bicycle I would actually have wanted to own. There were a couple of custom-built looking low-riding choppers (meaning West Coast, not Raleigh), which were ok cool, but not exactly my kind of two-wheeled transportation. There were no disk brakes, no carbon spokes, and hardly any suspension forks.

Everyone was riding around on the stylistic equivalent of the Austin Metro – old beaters based on an ancient design, scrappily painted and badly maintained. What’s the point, I guess, of owning anything new and shiny looking if it’s just going to get stolen or busted to bits in the maul of metal occupying every pushbike parking space? Just a tool, and who needs new one when the old does just the same job?

Outside of the bicycle, transport culture in Amsterdam has its other intricacies. Adding to the “alternativeness” offered by a canal network, the Dutch capital has a pretty excellent tram system. Trams are cool – I even know someone who is about to become a tram driver – what’s scary about them is that they can’t swerve out of the way, and I’m not all that convinced about their stopping distance either. However, a cheap way of experiencing the thrill of the fairground is to sit in the very back of one late at night, when the driver hasn’t got so much traffic to worry about. Excellent rail holding…

The other unusual sight on the Dutch streets are these funny little vaguely two seater cars, about half the size of a Smart ForTwo. I can’t say for certain but many of them seemed to have a vague resemblance to Commuter Car’s Tango – a high performance electric vehicle of diminutive proportions. (However, given the price, I imagine the Tango is somewhat better built. You can look at it here.)

Only saw one modified car the entire time (if you discount sporty tailpipes, of which there were many – on everything from the humblest Suzuki to SUVs), but that probably comes down to the high curbs as much as anything. Lowered bodywork would be asking for trouble; you’d make good friends with your nearest paint shop, that’s for sure.

Ok, so that’s a brief glance at Amsterdam from the perspective of an automotive enthusiast. Sorry if it wasn’t “exotic” enough for you…


Blogger Willem said...

Come to Holland. Learn more at: http://gotoholland.blogspot.com

8:27 pm  
Blogger InfinityReversed said...

Fantastic! Post specific spam!

Thanks, Willem!


9:16 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home