Monday, June 17, 2013

It's a Dutch Thing: Amsterdam and Bicycles

           As promised, I’m now going to spend the week gushing about Holland like a lovesick teenager. From the beginning though:
           In my last year of high school I had the opportunity to participate in an international academic competition run out of Athens, Greece. For those of you familiar with it, it was a Model UN conference. (That’s right, there are travel perks that come with being geeky like me.) Anyway, being as it was an international conference I got to meet and work with other teens from literally all over the world, and that was pretty cool. Of the people I met at the conference I’ve only really kept in contact with one, this Wonderful Dutch Gentleman currently based out of Rotterdam (henceforth referred to as WDG). The last time I was in France we meant to meet up, but things fell through at the last minute. Ah… c’est la vie. This time though everything mostly fell into place, and I caught a flight up to Rotterdam.

The Crooked Cosmetics Shop
            You can’t really visit Holland without going to Amsterdam; the city is just too infamous. So on Saturday morning we headed off to Amsterdam and spent the day walking through the city center, eating really tasty open-faced sandwiches, viewing the art of the Rijksmuseum, touring the canals on a boat and walking through the Red Light District. During all of this I learned a great deal, including things like; my Dutch pronunciation is questionable at best, you really do have to watch out for the bicycles, and there are canals in Amsterdam. (Yeah… I didn’t know there were canals in Amsterdam… wait until you realize what I didn’t know about windmills on Wednesday.)
            The bicycles were initially a huge point of fascination for me. There are separate bicycle lanes throughout the city, but you don’t have to be a bicycle to use them. For example, scooters and mopeds with blue license plates are only permitted in the bike lanes, and can’t be out in traffic on the main roads. Now don’t get me wrong, in Canada we absolutely train children to look both ways before they cross the street, and I was no exception. The catch is that we’re taught to look for cars. You’d think that checking for bicycles would be part-and-parcel of the car-check/look-both-ways thing, but it very much isn’t. Areas of the road you think of as being safe to step out into for the purpose of looking for cars aren’t safe, and therein lies the problem. I can’t tell you how many times WDG caught me before I stepped out into bike traffic. Surely we broke 50.
            Once I’d figured out that spending the day in WDG’s back pocket was my best method of survival, I was distracted by the sheer variety of bikes that people ride. Just like in Vancouver, your best choice is to find yourself an old ratty bike so that no one steals it. Barring that, you should just find yourself an odd  (but very functional) bike. Nearly every bicycle I saw had a flat on the front for carrying a basket or a milk crate. I’m pretty sure every bike had a pannier rack, and many had child seats (sometimes on the front and back). If you wanted to be really efficient about it though, you could have a bike that was a family vehicle.

This is a Bakfiets, for the efficiant Amsterdam-dweller.
          In the Rijksmuseum I was treated to all sorts of beautiful works of art by all sorts of Dutch artists, including the Night Watch by Rembrandt, and several paintings of Amsterdam before trees decorated the sides of the canals.

Amsterdam: Before the Trees

Amsterdam: After the Trees
          Once we’d covered all the culture we could fit into one day, WDG asked if there was anything else I really, really wanted to see before we left. The Red Light District, of course! I don’t know anyone who majored in Criminal Sociology during their undergrad (including me) who would turn down the chance to walk through the Red Light District in person. You can’t help it! After reading so many studies on the place for research papers, how could you not be curious? Well, I have to report that there were skulls along the way, lots of pride flags and enough ‘Coffee Houses’ to numb my nose, but the street itself was actually pretty normal. The Coffee Houses are artfully graffiti-ed in every colour of the rainbow, there is a wide variety of lights, and yes, there are busty women standing in windows, but it’s not exactly a pit of sin and sexual depravity.
          The only thing that really surprised me was the type of depicted nudity. What I mean by this is that the signs advertising the various services of each shop were visually more explicit than expected, but they were also fairly small and not displayed very prominently. There were whole window displays of heavy bondage toys and tools, but the cartoon pin-up nudes, photo pin-up/BDSM nudes, etc. etc. were mostly on 8.5x11 paper by the doors of the establishments. I think what I’m trying to say is that there was actually less nudity than I was expecting?

On the way to the Red Light District
            The street itself is also not very long. It’s funny; everyone makes such a big deal about the Red Light District, but it seemed pretty normalized by its surroundings. We walked from one end to the other in less than 10 minutes, and WDG laughed when I realized that it’s called the Red Light District because there are actually red street lights to light the street… I just thought ‘red light’ was a metaphor for a traffic light, and meant something like ‘don’t go here, it’s less than safe’.
            Oh come on, it makes sense but I’ll bet half of you didn’t know about the lights either. Go on now, listen to Roxanne and giggle. I even left you a link, complete with an old, cheesy 70's music video hahaha!

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