I Have Seen Things. Tunnel Things.
N picks me up promptly (and rather perkily considering those mosquitoes) at 10:15 for our trip to Antwerp. We’re not bringing our bikes. This is actually the train we would have taken to Paris (quick thinking N!), we’re just not going that far today. It never occurs to me there could be any other reason to go to Antwerp, aside from a work-around to my hotel reservation disaster.
We board the train.
Upon arrival, the Antwerp train station is breath taking.
With three levels for arrivals and departures.
There are also benches for the weary (or just bored) traveler.
I have to mention this because this means in Belgium, everyone has a place to live – they’re not living in the train stations. In all major cities in the US, we have increasingly large homeless populations. Rather than allocate resources for support and rehabilitation, we have chosen to treat them as an embarrassment, and discourage homeless people from taking comfort anywhere in public spaces. The result: no one gets benches in our train stations (or our airports). We have a lot to learn in the US about what it means to be a civilized society (end of rant).
As if to demonstrate, outside the train station is a handsome dock of city bikes to connect people to this transit hub.
Dig the docking set up:
And I much prefer their bells to those of NY CitiBikes.
Of course if you want to ride your own bike to the train you’re more than welcome.
Antwerp also has some great mixed-use space.
There is even designated scooter parking:
But what about emergency vehicles, you say? OK, what about them?
All of which goes to show how many amenities you can have for people, when you keep cars out. Sometimes I just wish our elected officials would come here and see for themselves what’s possible.
We wander first through parts of Antwerp, which has a beautiful entry to their Chinatown.
We stop for lunch, then head west towards the Scheldt River where N points to a building across the street.
“I’ve always wondered about that building,” he says.
“It looks like an old movie theatre. Shall we take a look?”
I’m so trusting of N at this point, it’s just not on my radar that he could be have an ulterior motive for bringing me here. But when we get inside, it’s not a movie theatre at all. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. There are these descending escalators that look like the top floor escalators at Macy’s (the wooden ones).
But there are two stories of them – they go down deep – and people are going down them with bikes.
Wait a minute - N, you sly devil, you planned this: it’s a tunnel under the Scheldt River! It’s free, and used daily for cyclists and pedestrian commuters, to get to either side of the city. To say I am surprised is an understatement. The chain ferry was one thing. This is spectacular! And N just steps back, and lets me discover it for myself:
Here’s a confession. Last summer, a friend and I returning from a ride, found ourselves at the bottom of a very long escalator with heavy bikes – and no alternative but endless flights of stairs. We had no idea how to manage. She took a chance on the escalator and made it up, but watching her struggle deflated my courage. What to do? I snagged a cop, and asked him if he could take my bike up for me, which he did. I was impressed – he made it look easy.
But now I see it is easy.
And whether you're walking or riding, everyone has equal access.
I'll leave the experts to work out the details, but what this tells me about, is the possibilities for bike and pedestrian commuters from NY and NJ: no car needed - and no major real estate grabs for car on-ramps. This is the on-ramp for the Manhattan Bridge in NYC for example:
This is the onramp for the GWB:
That’s a lot of real estate. But here? Just a simple escalator down (there are also elevators) and everyone could use it.
Kids, pedestrians, cyclists
Plus, if I’m allowed to say it: it’s also fun:
I am in heaven.
Afterwards, N tells me we took a tram to a café for a drink. He says we had dinner at one of his favorite restaurants in Antwerp, Horta. He says we had a wonderful time. I believe him, but to be honest, my only memory is of that tunnel and the fact that N of all the places he could have taken me, brought me there. I thank him profusely, but he won’t hear of it. He’s just happy that I’m happy.
On the train ride back, I fall asleep with my head on N’s shoulder. But when I get back to my hotel (I arranged to keep my hotel room), I am so jazzed I’m up till 2am tweeting about it. What could top this?
Well, we are planning a trip to Utrecht...
To every pair of traveling companions, there comes that moment when you realize it’s going to be great, or a problematic trip you’re going to have to suffer through for the duration. Because travel always involves the unexpected. Flights are missed, luggage gets lost. You get lost. I actually have a friend who travels hoping to get lost, because she considers this part of the discovery and adventure of traveling (not for me). It’s hard enough to handle this while traveling alone. Traveling with someone else has its own set of complications. Complications that invariably lead to a moment I've come to call The Test. And sooner or later you're going to hit it.
I hit it when I am finally dozing off, the night before we are supposed to travel to Ghent. That’s when I decide to double check our hotel reservation - and find out we don’t have one. In fact, we’re not leaving Amsterdam at all, for four days. Then we’re going straight to Paris, with Ghent tacked onto the back of it. This was not the plan. I do a double take and my palms begin to sweat.
The change in logistics is terrifying, but more than that is my fear of N’s reaction, because he booked all our train tickets. Is he going to flip out at my incompetence? Why didn’t I check earlier? What’s wrong with me - do I expect him to do everything? He already built me a bike, took me over a chain ferry and two bike bridges. And by the way, his place is filled with mosquitoes I let in, thank you very much (I can't argue with this).
But then there’s the other part of it. N and I had arranged this trip - but I have choreographed it carefully - one might say too carefully - with my travel agent (N is unaware of this), so that he and I can get acquainted gradually: First Amsterdam (where I have a hotel room). Then together in Ghent overnight (twin beds), back to Amsterdam for a few days (hotel again), then Paris for four days (twins again, just in case).
Control freak much?
On the surface it looks like I don’t want to get to know N at all, but it’s not that. It’s just - my innate travel anxiety. Plus the fact that I haven’t been in a relationship – I haven’t even dated - for 22 years. I know, I know, what was I thinking? It’s not like I’m practiced at this! I’ve been hoping my travel agent’s expertise will buffer me from having to negotiate ticklish personal dilemmas (or any dilemmas frankly); but when I check our email thread and find her mistake, it turns out she’s not any better at this than I am. So now, N and I are getting 5 straight days without a break, sharing a hotel room plus travel. What if we don’t get along? What if even more goes wrong and we start to fight? Then what? Of course it will be my fault. It's always my fault. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’ve flunked *Bike travel Partner* before (https://bike-love-ny.weebly.com/blog/blind-spots).
I have to call N. This is the moment I was dreading; I instinctively know the rest of our trip will be determined by how we both handle it.
And this is when I begin to discover what N is made of. He doesn’t flip out, he doesn’t blame. He frankly doesn’t care who’s responsible (kind of a pity as I had so many great excuses lined up). Instead, he is the perfect Yin to my panicky Yang. Within moments, he has come up with a plan B. Don’t worry about the money for trains, he says; don’t worry about the change in schedule. He’ll rebook. We’ll have a great time. Why don’t we go to Antwerp tomorrow instead?
Why not indeed.
In my panic, it hadn’t occurred to me that we had options. But we both ride bikes, we’re in the Netherlands; Antwerp is close – how bad can it be? Still, I wouldn’t have wanted to negotiate this by myself; it was my planning that got us here in the first place. It takes me a few minutes to calm down, but I am gradually reassured by N’s resourcefulness. He doesn’t seem worried; if he’s not worried, I guess I don’t have to be. And I begin to realize, this is doable: traveling with N - being with N - it's going to be doable.
I gradually drift off wondering about what Antwerp will be like, and beginning to experience an uncharacteristic sense of calm. Because traveling with someone is essentially a test of chemistry. I sense we’ve passed this test. And now I agree with N: whatever happens we’ll have a great time.
Chain Ferries! Bike Bridges!
I awake and, not wanting to bother with a rental, take the tram over to N's.
I have my ChipKaart for the tram, but if I didn’t, I could go to this attendant at a kiosk in the tram where I could also get directions and a map if needed. Yes, they really have these!
Once at N's, I relax on the balcony, leaving the door open for a swarm of mosquitoes he doesn’t discover until that night when he tries to sleep.
N carts our bikes down his stairs
A feat that, if I hadn’t witnessed, I wouldn’t have believed, but he does this all the time (he wouldn’t let me help him even if I volunteered).
And now I get the first introduction to my new bike, Brownie.
Wow. Brownie is a thoroughbred. Perfectly balanced, clearly a woman’s bike and light as a feather (18lbs?) Miraculous, since it turns out Brownie is made of steel. N has thoughtfully given me handbrakes, but there are still things I need to get used to. For one thing, Brownie has a gear lever (old school), and it’s on the lower down tube, which requires some reaching down as I ride. Additionally the gear ratio is high for what I’m used to: I find I need to stand on the pedals to get over the canals. But once I get going, she is a great biking companion, responsive and willing.
N doesn’t want to wear me out my first day, but he knows my passions, and has planned a ride to show me some bike infrastructure he knows will interest me.
We set off for Ouderkerk, stopping along the Amstel for N to fiddle with my gears. Note to ladies: always travel with a bike tech (like I ever had this luxury before). This gives me a chance to look around
In Ouderkerk, we stop for herring (the best sushi, bar none), some enormous figs - and meet this nice lady who, according to NIMBYs in NYC, would be much more comfortable in an SUV. Yet here she is doing her shopping for the week on an Ebike. Does she look unhappy?
We continue along the Bullewijk/Holendrecht river, until we come to a crossing.
So… how are we supposed to cross here? There’s no bridge.
N’s first surprise: a chain ferry! I’ve never seen anything like this before but apparently they’re not unusual in Holland. I can’t wait to work it, which I do. For the sake of video, N agrees to be the reluctant subject.
Riding along the Angstel River we take this tunnel under the highway.
I don’t think N even counts this as special infrastructure, but from my POV it is. Cyclists are not expected to stop at a light or risk their lives crossing this highway. Instead, they have protection, and a pretty cool ride.
At Baambrugge we make a big loop riding back over the Rijn Kanal via the Liniebrug bike/pedestrian bridge (Opened Sept 2018).
Wait - another bike bridge – and they’re still building them! Or is this the same one we took on our 2nd ride (forgive me I’m just a tourist here)? Actually no. Compare:
So what you’re saying is, cyclists can have no bike bridges in NYC or its surroundings, and cyclists in the Netherlands are afforded chain ferries, highway tunnels and as many as bridges as they want.
But even on the *regular* bridges, like the one we ride 3 miles later, look at the breadth of that two-way bike lane. That thing is 12’ across!
Back in Ouderkerk, we opt for an Indonesian dinner (we’re beginning to figure out how to feed ourselves), only slightly marauded by roadies illegally passing through.
In Amsterdam, I drop Brownie off at N's (can’t leave a bike like this tied up outside), and tram it home.
What a great day. N is so easy to be with. I already had really warm feelings for him, but to finally to be riding together with him is wonderful. We do a lot of laughing, a lot of breathing, a lot of talking. And tomorrow will be even better. We plan to make our first trip together - a whole other level of discovery - to Ghent.
Or so we think.
Arrival from an airport at any major European City is a piece of cake by comparison to New York. In NYC, there are several ways to get into the City from an airport: bus, taxi, subway, or private car (rented, or parked in a lot if you drove). All of these methods – once you finally locate them - are exhausting, involve a prolonged wait and after that, a trip that can sometimes be as long as the one you just took. European travel is much more civilized: there are trains and they are clean and quiet.
N has already scored a Chipkaart (MetroCard) for me
Of course he has.
We board and are in Amsterdam in 15 minutes. Since I’m staying at the same hotel as last time, I know how to get there from the Centraal Station and, more importantly, I know how to pronounce Nieuwezijdskolk (the street it’s on) which I didn’t when I arrived two years ago. Jet lagged and schlepping luggage, I couldn’t even articulate how to ask for directions (what’s with all those vowels? what’s with all those j’s?). But it’s much easier now. I can speak a little Dutch – but even better, I’m with N, a trusted guide, who won’t let me wander off into the Red Light District in search of sleep. He leaves me at my hotel for a 2hr nap, then comes back to pick me up for a quick ferry trip he has planned in Amsterdam Nord - to the Eye Museum. I love the view of it over the water.
But also the view of the museum in Amsterdam Noord itself.
Why doesn’t every museum have easy access and bike parking like this?
The Eye Museum is a museum for film - and its name is a pun, as the waterway it overlooks is called the IJ (pronounced EYE). It is at once a museum, and a destination in itself and since the worst of COVID when all museums were closed, I imagine plenty of people have been coming here just to get out of their apartments to see something beautiful. There are many ways to take it in. At a table…
Or from a swinging position (not on your life)
We ferry back to Amsterdam (did I mention these ferries are free?) and walking through narrow streets, come across this shop, with chocolate shoes…
Chocolate Luis Vuitton handbags
No, they’re not what you think they are. They are these:
It’s fascinating to me that street infrastructure in Amsterdam rates a level of branding that – here at least - is on par with that of a world famous handbag company, which spent a fortune for it. If you knew nothing about the priorities of Amsterdam, and the Netherlands, this would tell you a lot (hint: there are no chocolate cars).
From there, we walk in leisurely fashion to Balraj, the Indian restaurant where N took me after our first ride (the significance of its being our first date is not lost on us, though we don’t discuss it). The service is slow tonight, and jetlag has me in its nasty grip, but the meal is excellent when it arrives. Just what the two of us needed. And that’s important because as far as cuisine goes, we’re tough to accommodate.
N is deathly allergic to dairy, and I can’t eat any wheat. On top of that, we’ve planned a trip that involves not only Amsterdam and Ghent – but also Paris, where neither of us can eat even a croissant! We wonder if we may be the only two people to travel to Paris and starve to death. But for tonight, Balraj takes care of us handsomely. N walks me back to my hotel. Do we kiss? I don’t remember. I’m already in dreamland.
Of Lovers and Librarians
So what did happen with N?
After Schipol, N and I are intermittently in touch. By December we’ve started emailing about my returning to Amsterdam in March. Inspired, N builds me a bike for the occasion. It’s based on the frame of a 1948 women’s racing bike and super sleek (dig that saddle).
I feel completely undeserving, but can’t wait to ride it all the same. Then the pandemic hits. I write N with apologies that I’ve had to cancel. He understands, says it was the right thing to do. At a loss, I begin to write about my trip to Amsterdam in this blog, secretly despairing that I will ever ride with him again - or ever ride that bike. I don’t keep my blog a secret but doubt he’ll find it anyway. I mean, I’m not famous. What are the chances?
One hundred percent.
Because there’s something I’ve forgotten to mention: for most of his working life, N was a librarian. For anyone too young to know, librarians are what we had before we had Google; they are human search engines. Before I can say Ultegra Compact Crankset, N has found this blog and, in its flattering description of him, the answer he has been waiting for.
By April, the phone lines are buzzing between us. The first time we talk, we’re on for an hour (N gets free calling after 6pm). It’s like those get-to-know-you conversations we might have had in person if I’d only stayed a few days longer (dammit). I tell him about my larger-than-life father, killed at a race track in Britain when I was seven. N, ever the librarian, sends me this:
A photo of my father taken just hours before he was killed - I’ve never seen it. It is precious. It is shocking. It is beyond words to have it. I feel incredibly grateful, and profoundly linked to N.
As the world goes deep into lockdown, we begin to create a world outside of it. A world of personal histories and humor, music. We seldom talk for less than an hour; we never mention the pandemic. N sends me cards he’s made (or humorously doctored). We are definitely on the same beam:
But he also sends: a bike bell, Belgian chocolate and -
The way to this woman’s heart - a Dutch wheel lock, impossible to find during the Pandemic, even on the web (I’ve tried and failed).
He designs me graphics for a T-shirt (N started out as a graphic designer)
I send him face masks of the NYC subway system (no, I did not make them)
Video of cycling in an empty city:
Of the 7pm Thank Yous for our healthcare workers, going on throughout New York
NY’s COVID numbers soar. I begin to study Dutch. N overcomes a fierce dislike of digital, to FaceTime with me once a week.
When New York erupts into protests over the murder of George Floyd, I attend Black Lives Matter rides (15,000 bikes)
Visit Occupy City Hall, the center of the #DefundThePolice movement.
I send N photos and video of all of it.
I can’t give an Xmas party this year, but with the election around the corner I decide to have an Xmas tree I’ll keep up until the election is over. And I decorate it with cards N has sent me (we're the only ones who are going to see it anyway).
By now most of you will be thinking, OK it’s obvious she’s bonkers for this guy - studying Dutch, the Xmas tree, the wheel lock – I mean come on. And sure, he’s funny and creative and witty (and yes, devilishly handsome). Yes he understands bikes, he’s generous and really seems to dig me. I want to say I’m not so easily swept off my feet, but after two years of attention like this, who am I kidding? I break down and sign up with Sprint for unlimited calling at $15 a month. They have no idea what they're in for.
The week of the election feels like a year. I develop a crick in my neck that forces my head sideways on FaceTime (N doesn’t seem to mind). When Biden is finally declared the winner, I explain to N (who doesn’t need it; he’s a librarian after all) that the fate of the Senate - and thus the country - rests on two Senatorial elections in Georgia. Returns are due the night of January 5.
That night, I stay up until midnight (he’s 6 hours ahead of me) because N has asked me to wake him at 6am with the returns; but they’re not all in, so I’m up early the following day to watch for results. Georgia has given us the Senate! I call N to celebrate - but while we’re on the phone, the insurrection explodes onto the screen.
N stays with me the entire time, listening to the BBC and downloading TV snapshots I send from my phone. We are riveted by the news – and glad to be sharing this perilous moment with each other. In a related event, Sprint is forced to sell itself to TMobile. I feel responsible.
As I write, we are still learning the backstory of the insurrection, still hoping our democracy will survive. But the first thing that changes in January, is that Anthony Fauci is unmuzzled and Andy Slavitt (former head of Medicare) takes over the vaccine roll out. N and I get vaxed and begin to plan a trip. But it’s no longer just a visit for me – it’s become a trip for the two of us, traveling together. Whatever this is, we want to pursue it.
And then one day in August, a day not unlike the one two years ago when I stepped off my first flight into Schipol airport, I arrive in Amsterdam. And there he is, dashing as ever, waiting for me, with Belgian chocolate in hand.
How did I get so lucky? I drop my bags and fly into his arms. “N we did it!”
And so begins a chapter neither of us ever expected and neither of us will ever forget.
Second Ride With N & A Surprise
Four days after that first trip (this is still August 2019), I ride to N’s on my little rental for another expedition outside of Amsterdam. My explorations within the city have been solo, and though I get lost constantly, I’ve never left civilization. But outside the city, I wouldn’t even know where to go, let alone how to get there. N has been riding these routes for many years, and knows them well.
To my surprise when I arrive at his street, things are busy: there is a move and a delivery going on simultaneously. I’m fascinated by this, because my street is chock-a-block with moving vans and deliveries and frankly, it’s chaos. But that’s not what’s happening here.
In fact, no one has been inconvenienced in any way. There is no horn honking, no yelling. There is no idling, no exhaust. No one’s pissed off. The move gets done, the delivery delivered. People walk and bike through just as they were doing before.
Here’s what it looks like on my block in Chelsea on a normal day – and this is just the movers.
USPS delivery can’t even get through…
I’d like to note that my block is easily TWICE AS WIDE as N's. Hmmm, what could the difference be? I’ll leave it to the urbanists among you to sort this out.
N and I ride down his street...
Taking a different route out of the city.
While I marvel at moments like this, moments I only ever see here:
What must it be like to have safe independence as a child? What must it be like to have cycling parents? To be able to ride as a parent with your child like this? I can only dream.
By now I’ve become familiar with some of this route, and N and I fall into easy conversation as we take a bridge over the Rhine Canal. It’s not until we’re on the other side that I realize – hey wait a minute - this bridge was built just for bikes! I wonder if that's why he took me here...
Don’t get me started on how much we would love this in NYC. Over the East River, over the Hudson, the Harlem River, Newtown Creek, the Verrazano Narrows – hell, I’d take one over Bloomingdale’s. Will it ever happen? Will we ever get Congestion Pricing? Will pigs ever fly?
Soon enough, we’re out on the dijks again (it’s windier today):
Where sheep may safely graze – or lie languidly on the blacktop, in the middle of traffic.
(notice to NYC sheep: do not try this at home)
And the only other people we see are just like us - on bikes.
At the end the day, we ride back to N's to exchange my saddle and, through silent city streets, under a blue-black sky, N rides me back to my hotel. Streetlights are shining on the canals, smooth as glass. It's timeless.
It's the kind of beauty N has seen so often, I don’t think he even notices anymore. I am mesmerized, want to stop time. When will I see this again? I am suffused with gratitude to even be there. If it weren’t for N, I wouldn’t be. When we get back to my hotel, I throw my arms around him.
“N” I say, “Thank you SO MUCH. I would never have seen any of this, never have done any of this without you. I had such a great time!”
At least I think that’s what I said.
But whatever I said, it must have been the wrong thing. He mumbles something about something and before I know it, he’s hit the road and is off. I watch him ride into the distance wondering if I could have handled that better… I doubt I’ll see him again, but I’ll never forget his kindness.
- - - - - - - - - - /- - - - - - - - - - -
The next day, I’m sitting in Schipol airport checking my email on WiFi when I see an email come in from N. It is surprisingly...well, romantic. He says he wanted to hug me back - hard. (Oh, he was just shy! Damn that British reserve); says that he wishes I hadn’t gone home. I sit there glowing, taking it in. How long has it been? For the first time since I can remember, my imagination awakens to a feeling of possibility: the thought that anyone could find me desirable, even lovable.
Perhaps love is not over.
Perhaps life is not over.
Maybe I’ll be returning to Amsterdam after all.
Riding With N
The pandemic has been a long, lonely and tragic time for everyone. I intended to blog about my rides with N during that dark time but somehow felt if I let go of them, I’d have nothing left; nothing private to remember and certainly nothing to look forward to. Two years later, I’m finally ready. But by now it seems no one wants to know about the rides. The main question – especially with All the Single Ladies - is: what happened with N?
But... how about about that first ever trip we took past a working windmill?
What about the Netherlands’ inland waterway system?
There are 150 inland waterways. Don't they want to know about that?
What about the locks along the Amsterdam Rhine Canal (the Rhine Canal is the most heavily used canal in Western Europe)
With traffic lights for pedestrian crossings (fascinating to an urbanist like me)?
Neither the picturesque villages we ride through…
(Wow, a banana tree).
The snack trailer which seems to be doing a brisk business out in the middle of nowhere...
Nor even the long, glorious ride in the country, with spectacular views along the IJMeer Dijk, where there are no cars to threaten us (heaven for me)...
Hold any interest.
Well hold on ladies - cuz this is what I came here for: to see how the Dutch do what they do. As a cyclist, N shares my passion, and has been showing me this infrastructure all day. Throughout, I’m intrigued to see the Dutch consistently prioritizing bikes, even in the country side.
AND NOW A WORD ABOUT THE WIND
Before we leave N's apartment, he comments about the wind being in our favor. I think he must be some sort of wuss. Who designs their route around the wind? In my world, you just ride (man-up, N!). But as a city mouse, I know nothing of what it means to live in the flatlands where the wind is fierce, and there is nothing to stop it – like here, out on the dijks (there’s a reason the wind turbines are located here).
N tells me there have been times along this ride where he had to stand on the pedals just to stay in place, and when we get out here I get it: it isn’t bad today, but we are totally exposed, and I’m grateful for his planning and expertise.
Throughout this ride, N is the soul of patience, riding at half speed to accommodate my little one-speed rental. He seems amused as I razz him periodically:
“You’re not filming this, are you?” he asks, suddenly realizing our conversations may all be recorded via my helmet cam.
“Of course not!” I reply deadpan.
He gives me the wry international sign for the F word before pedaling onward (this happens more than once).
The guy kinda gets me.
The end of the ride finds us at Amsterdam Noord, where we scramble to find the ferry landing to take us to Amsterdam proper. We get on at the last minute.
On the ferry, N asks if I’d like to join him for dinner at Balraj, his favorite Indian restaurant.
I’m looking kind of ratty, and neither of us is dressed for dinner out, but N thinks they will take us *as is,* so we go.
After so many years of the single life and early rejection from every possible dating site on the web, I consider myself virtually (and actually) undatable, so I don’t even go there. But we are relaxed; he is funny and – not that it matters - single. 20 days older than I am.
When he rides me back to my hotel, we make quick plans for another ride. Still in denial, I think V must have some real sway with him to persuade him to do this twice.
Then he is off.
This was our (approximate) route, says Google:
Long ago and far away, when the world seemed a more habitable place than it does now, I planned another trip to Amsterdam. During the darkest days of winter, thoughts of the Netherlands and my adventures there in August cheered me. I was curious what it would be like to ride there slightly off season, and booked my trip for the middle of March. Secretly of course, I was thinking that if I liked it, I might ride there a lot more than off season. A trip in early Spring would give me some idea of what it’s like.
Five days before my departure, I find myself at a fundraiser for a New York City Council member who has been a brilliant advocate for cyclists. Already, faint rumors have been wafting to us from Europe about the approach of the Corona Virus, and many of us are beginning to wear latex gloves, elbow bump instead of shaking hands – and laugh about how often we touch our faces. As I arrive, I see the place is packed.
Should I go in? There very well may be someone in there who has tested positive (we are still under the impression that there are tests for us). I think of the silent years of the AIDS epidemic, when it was at its most dangerous; a mysterious and deadly illness still unidentified, ravaging the gay community. I hesitate. But then I see all my favorite people inside. “Oh well,” I think, “If I go down, we’ll all go down together.” A month into this virus, I find this thought shocking. But it turns out, I’m not the only one in denial.
My trip is scheduled for March 14-26. Since these are the smartest people I know, I ask lots of them if it’s wise to take this trip. To a person the answer is, “Go! You’ll get in ‘just under the wire;’ you’ll have a great time! Who knows when you’ll be able to go again? Definitely go!”
Taking their counsel under advisement, I double check it the next morning, running it by two Italian friends over the internet. Their response is alarming. They talk of weeks of quarantine, police enforcement to prevent violation, stats of death that are unimaginable - and climbing. My friends do not know each other, but speak with the same voice: “Don’t go!” they plead. They tell me that even if I were to remain healthy (not a guarantee with a disease as contagious as this), if just one person on my flight, one person in my hotel tests positive (testing happens in Europe), I’ll be in quarantine for my entire trip, stuck in a hotel in Amsterdam but unable to ride. And I’ll be paying for it until I can get home - which may be awhile: flights from Europe will be canceled. How do they know this?
But that, it turns out, is the good news.
“This pandemic is coming to you,” they say. “Don’t be like us! Your government should close schools now, close bars and restaurants now, close businesses now. They’re going to have to do it in 5 days anyway and they will have lost that time.” I have never heard them so emphatic.
Here, nothing is closed. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know - that all of our lives are about to change irrevocably. But listening to them, I am quietly convinced; I let go my denial and cancel my trip. Two days later, all flights from Europe are canceled. Everything they told me is true.
Within the month, I will have lost two of my friends to COVID 19, and another twelve will be fighting for their lives. This pandemic is ripping through the soul of New York City, headed for the nation, and it doesn’t care about making a living, the economy, old or young people, or trips to Amsterdam. By the time I write this I - and virtually everyone else I know - will have been in quarantine for a month except for rare anxiety-provoking trips out for food or pharmaceuticals. Some of us have left New York; all of us work from home. FaceTime, Skype and Zoom are our new (if problematic) friends. This is our world now. We sometimes think of going somewhere else – but this is a world-wide pandemic: there is no place else.
Which makes me all the more nostalgic for Amsterdam and the simple world we all inhabited such a short time ago. It feels like years now.
And then I realize - I never finished recording that trip. I still have the footage. I still have the photos. And I did some great riding there. But there was something else.
There was someone else.
His name was N.
It Can't Happen Here
It's Monday and most museums are closed. I opt for the one that is open, the Holocaust Museum. I'm interested because I know the history of the Holocaust in Germany and France. But The Netherlands - and Amsterdam - which had (and still have) a long tradition of liberalism and inclusiveness - how could that happen here? I am hoping this museum will be able to answer some of my questions.
The mood is somber, the photos heartbreaking. Here for instance. These young faces, all with so much promise:
Their names are listed below in the exhibit, next to the concentration camp each one was sent to: Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Sobibor. It is unfathomable. There is one survivor: the girl in the center in the white dress. She went into hiding.
As I travel through the exhibit, I come across many tragic stories, as well as one of a couple who were photoghraphed on their wedding day. They survived, but separately. He was taken. She went into hiding; he escaped. They found each other after the war.
What the Nazis did in the Netherlands was the template for what they did everywhere else: forced the Jews to bargain with them through dealing with a "Jewish Council" of leaders in that community. It was a fiendish plot designed to co-opt and defang resistence, based on the trust people had for their leaders. And the leaders themselves, hoping they could make some deal for their people to fend off the the Nazi threat, tried to bargain but were helpless as family by famly, their people were taken until at at last, they themselves received their "Deportation" papers. The next thing they knew, it was over. Of the 80,000 Jews in Amsterdam, 75% died in the Holocaust. The highest statistic in Europe. And most of those who survived went into hiding.
Two days later, I find myself with Peter and Sylvie, friends who live in the southern district of Amsterdam, and are taking me on a tour of their neighborhood. We're on a beautiful, wide lane with long rows of 4-story buildings - Churchill-Laan, not far from 37 Merwedeplein where Anne Frank and her family lived for 7 years before going into hiding.
And where she went to school.
The Franks lived in "Social Housing," a housing project with all the modern conveniences. In classic Dutch fashion, Amsterdam's government had set this area aside for its citizens and, to secure it from real estate speculators, did not allow the land to be bought, only leased. So all of that housing is there today.
This is the park they looked out at from their 2nd floor apartment:
Anne and her family lived a modern life. She and her family were just like us.
A statue of her in a nearby park shows her looking back at her home...
Europe was civilized - Amsterdam was civilized - no one could have imagined what the Nazis had in store for them. We of the post-war generations still can't conceive of it - one reason we have The Shoah Foundation, and Holocaust museums.
There was very brave resistance of course, and just outside Amsterdam in a village called Enschede, three men (including a Chaplain) went to the Jewish Council with an alternate idea to dealing with the Nazis: they suggested putting all their Jewish citizens into hiding.
"'Hiding' is not in our vocabulary," they were told.
That was the last time they visited the Jewish Council.
Instead, they set about raising funds to sponsor the people in their village with friends and willing families. Money came from every source imaginable - companies and manufacturers, individual donors; the fund raising was non-denominational. Of the 1500 Jews in their village, 500 were saved.
Every single story I read about survivors included making an escape, bucking the system, going into hiding. No one knows who betrayed the Franks but what is certain, is that if they had not gone into hiding, they would have perished far sooner - they almost made it.
I have been to Holocaust museums in the US, but it's not the same. I'm not walking the very streets where Nazis stormed in, where people fled or were seized; I'm not listening to the native language of people who lost their lives in a cold planned execution.
The Amsterdam Jews were easy to find. The government didn't force assimilation but freely allowed communities to stay together. And they kept records. The Nazi's work was done for them.
Why am I telling you this? Because more than ever now as in Amsterdam, I sense anything can happen in the US. This could happen.
There is no security if we don't fight for it. And what I learned from this exhibit was this: Resist. Stay united. Think for yourself. Organize.
Meeting N. The Saddle
I have traveled to Amsterdam in coordination with V, an old Dutch friend, who is visiting family with her husband and son. Knowing my bike fetish (I think we can safely call it that by now), she has introduced me to N, a longtime friend of hers (an ex in fact), someone she thinks I’ll like. N is a trim Brit, a little taller than me, and is by now an old family friend.
As a courtesy to V, N has offered to take me for a ride around the outskirts of Amsterdam. He says he will have a bike for me. I ride over on my rental, to find N and a handsome woman’s bike waiting for me outside his traditional Dutch apartment house.
The size of the bike is right, but it has footbrakes which I’m no longer used to. With no parking lot to try it out, I’m a little skittish to take it out on city streets right off, and opt to use my rental bike for the ride. It’s a one-speed with smallish tires, but it works well enough. The problem is the saddle. I rode to Haarlem with that saddle and it was such a sadistic experience, I went into a sulk and took the train back. After that, I tried to replace it. I went to the rental place but they only carried what I already had. I rode to a racing bike shop a ways away (getting lost several times), but they were closed. I even tried a place I found on Amazon, but they wouldn’t deliver to my hotel.
Knowing N has a day-trip planned, I’m concerned; there’s no way I can ride more than 20 minutes on this thing, and I already spent those 20 minutes just getting here. I can tell by looking at it, that the saddle on his women’s bike won’t work, but N says he has others upstairs.
The house stairs are steep, the turn-arounds narrow. How, I wonder, does he even get bikes up and down? But before I can ponder that further, we are in the apartment and my eyes grow wide. There are bikes – and the makings of bikes - as far as the eye can see.
On the walls
In drawers in the bookcase
In the soffit over the kitchen
Off the balcony
And off-off the balcony
Not only that, but there is jazz – and someone who really gets jazz. How do I know? Well, the record collection is a give away, but there's also this:
I am spellbound. Does V realize what she’s doing by introducing me to this guy? Should I tell her?
N has lived in Amsterdam for 30 years (I’m glad to learn that for the first two years, he consistently got lost). He has retained his British accent, in addition to which, any man who loves jazz and lives with this number of bikes and bike parts is clearly impossible. I should just propose now and get it over with.
But onto the subject at hand: saddles. Saddles are personal and not so easily found. Especially if you’re a woman. Because we invariably have to buy them from men, who have no idea what we’re looking for. “You’ll love this!” they exclaim. “Perfect for the sit-bones!” I always have to patiently explain to them that there is more to life than sit bones. “Dude, it’s the 21st Century,” I say, “Don’t you know where the Lady Parts are yet?”
They never get it. Disappointingly, N doesn’t seem to either. In a prior conversation about this, V and I roll our eyes listening to him go on about sit bones and saddle comfort (Note to self: ask V if that confusion is one of the reasons they are no longer an item). So when I tell him my problem, I don’t have high expectations as to what he’s going to suggest.
Sure enough N shows me various saddles he thinks I might like, but I can tell without even trying them, they’re a no-go. They don’t have that special dip in the middle that makes all the difference. Finally he looks at me inquisitively, then looks off into the distance thinking. “Well, I do have one other one,” he says, “But it’s very weird looking. I only keep it to show other bike techs because…well you’ll see. It’s quite strange.” He goes into the next room then returns with --
“That’s my saddle!” I exclaim. The Selle TRK smp. In fact, I have it on all 3 of my bikes:
(yes my stable has grown)
What are the odds that he would have something so wonderful and rare? Something that's made just for me? About the same as my meeting N in the first place, I guess.
Somewhat taken aback, he affixes his “Collector’s Item” to my bike on the street.
As we take off, I feel like Cinderella stepping into the glass slipper: It’s a perfect fit. I may have to pedal like a dervish to keep up, but the ride is gonna be great.
Later, delighted, I tell V the outcome of this fairy tale. But she is more interested in talking about N's apartment. “What do you think of his bedroom?” she asks. On the one hand, this is a leading question. On the other, I never found one.
“Bedroom?” I reply “Was there a bedroom?”
Melodie Bryant is a bicyclist and resident of NYC
The Katy Trail
The Loire Valley
A Cool Ride Up The East Side