July in Amsterdam is remarkably similar to July in San Francisco. Gray and drizzly for a week and then the sun comes out one afternoon and everyone goes insane. Parks are clogged and any chair sitting on a sidewalk or along a canal is occupied by someone lifting their face to the sky and looking pleased with life.
My apartment for the month comes equipped with a balcony, naughty felines (ask me how many times I’ve walked into the kitchen to discover a certain cat licking the butter) (TOO MANY TIMES IS HOW MANY), and a bicycle. The bicycle is tall and black and slightly rusty – it looks like something from the Sears Roebuck catalog, circa 1954 – and when I climb on, my posture is forced into corseted Edwardian perfection. When I ride it, I feel like the Wicked Witch of the West in her Kansas incarnation. This pleases me.
Since the sun was out yesterday and I feel slightly more sure of my ability to find the apartment again after I leave it, I cycled into the center of the city to sit along a canal and eat fries. Being a total cliche also pleases me.
My first time on a bike in Amsterdam was petrifying. I was compelled to climb on it after a week of procrastination because I was meeting someone in the center of the city and my bus card was out of money and the only place to refill it was closed on Sunday. Already late, I gamely hopped on. After pedaling an entire two blocks without dying, I started to enjoy myself. Not just because everything was all Dutch and sunny and picturesque, but because I was paying attention to all that bright, pretty Dutchness.
How often do you really pay attention in your every day life? It’s so easy to go on automatic when you know where you’re going and what you’re going to do when you get there and understand all the rules of the system in which you’re operating.
I had no idea what I was doing on a bike in Amsterdam. Yes, I know how to ride a bike and I had a city map in my bag, but I didn’t know the streets or the road rules or the language, something that might prove handy if someone needed to yell, say, “WATCH OUT FOR THE BUS!” at me. So I went into hyper focus mode. And realized that a lot of life passes me by when I’m not truly paying attention to what’s right in front of me.
Cycling past Centraal Station on my way home was oddly calming. My brain is usually concentrated on seventeen different things and at least thirteen of them are worries. Six consistent worries, four variable worries, and three new worries I’ve invented just for the occasion. But as I pedaled past the train station in the great salmon stream of Dutch cyclists, dodging taxis and tourists and the occasional rogue fish, all my worries and thoughts disappeared into a soundless tunnel and my brain filled instead with “Oh shit, oh shit, oh god, here we go, I’m going to die, we’re all going to die, MOTHER OF GOD, WHO DECIDED THIS WAS LEGAL?”
Then I passed the station, filled my lungs with air, and concentrated on finding the giant windmill that points my way home. No, that wasn’t a lazy Dutch metaphor. There really is a giant windmill in my neighborhood. The windmill serves beer.
I’d like to say that I’m going to take my first Dutch cycling experience and use it to stop regularly tuning out the world by sticking my headphones in my ears and watching the pictures in my head rather than the road in front of me, but that’s absolutely not going to happen. Instead, I’ll simply try to notice when my attention is focused entirely on what I’m doing. Because that is peace – and even grace. Something I never thought I’d find on a bike in Amsterdam. Certainly not when I misjudged an angle and almost barreled over an elderly man from Bristol. Sorry, dude. Enjoy your stay.
Given my totally justified fear of bicycle-related death, taking this picture was probably a dumb idea.