This is how it
We stopped in Bruges first. It was picturesque but not as picturesque as everyone says. We struggled to understand. We left Belgium. We came to Amsterdam.
The first thing we noticed was the trams. Then the canals, dirty as the Thames but without those red boats that say "This is an official London sightseeing boat", which was a relief. Then we saw the bikes. My God, the bikes.
How can I describe them? Should I even try? Well, why not. They were just normal bikes, after all. A bit clunky-looking. Fat and heavy, but not in a judgmental way. After all, they weren't meant for racing. They were meant for lumbering over cobblestones and kerbs and dumbstruck pedestrian tourists and tram tracks and probably along the bottoms of canals, should the need arise.
And they. Were. Everywhere. Even the city aquarium had one in a display tank, dangling like bait above a couple of uninterested fish, and graphically proving, to me at least, that the saying "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" really means something, at least to fish.
And so the seed of my bitterness took root.
You see, I hadn't brought my own bike.
Don't ask me why.
There is no intelligible answer, not then, not now, not ever.
It was the first time my wife and I were visiting Amsterdam as a tax unit, though I'd stopped in years ago, a junior partner of Young, Bewildered & Broke. We'd wanted to travel light, just a few steamer trunks and my favourite basin and fittings, and we were only staying for a few nights, in a nice hotel with bathrobes and everything, then on to somewhere else. You must understand, we just couldn't be expected to have known what it would be like staying in a city of bikes... without a bike.
Don't tell me I could have rented one. It's not the same. Surely you see this? Surely you sympathise? I might as well go to the red light district and, well.... It would have felt different but not good, awkward but not exciting, and somehow I just knew I wouldn't enjoy myself. Not to mention the diseases you can catch from foreign bicycle seats. No, I needed the familiarity of my own.
And so I became a voyeur.
The cyclists weren't enjoying themselves. They weren't NOT enjoying themselves. They weren't riding to get fit or to prove a point. They were just riding, from A to B and then perhaps on to C, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to be doing, as if they could just ride like that without the least bit of fear in their eyes. They didn't even seem to be afraid of the trams, which certainly had me jumping out of my skin once or twice.
No helmets. No special cycling clothes. When it rained they carried umbrellas. They had good balance. They carried children. You know, the same as adults, but smaller, not fully formed, open to suggestion, open to what was in front of their eyes: everybody cycles. It must be OK to cycle.
Forgive the melodrama. I'm overwrought. Shaken and stirred, like a Bond drink gone wrong, and yes, now, finally, embittered. You see, the worst part wasn't being a frustrated observer. Oh, no. It was realising I had a return ticket back to the trenches, when I hadn't even realised there's a war on.
Cycling Today, November 1998