Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Book Celebrating Amsterdam as a "City of Bikes"

When I discovered the recently published "In the City of Bikes, The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist," by Pete Jordan, I was certain I had gotten my hands on a book that I wouldn't want to put down. And my certainty was absolutely correct.  Anyone who likes reading books about cycling will be delighted by this book, part memoir and part history.

The author is an American who moved to Amsterdam in 2002 when he was thirty-five after spending the better part of his working life traveling all over the U.S. washing dishes.  He had a goal of practicing his trade in all fifty states, recounted in his book "Dishwasher."  Part of his pursuit was to find an agreeable place to live.  When he couldn't find one, he decided to give Amsterdam a try, drawn by its bike culture. He managed to keep his great love for the bicycle a secret in his dishwasher book, other than mentioning he never wanted a job that was beyond an easy walk or bike ride. He gives one hint that he was a "bike nut," as he calls himself in his Amsterdam book.  After he quit one of his jobs, as he chronically did, he wrote, "I rode my bike aimlessly through the night, still unsure of where to go or what to do, but with a smile on my face."

Jordan likes to count things.  One year in nineteen states he found 1,362 coins and eight bills--1,089 pennies, 79 nickels, 151 dimes, 43 quarters, six ones and two fives.   He once found change 47 days straight.  He thought Portland was an impressive bike town when he counted nineteen cyclists go by one point in thirty minutes.  He is staggered in Amsterdam when he counts that many in thirty seconds and then even more so when he counts 927 in twenty minutes. I count bike mentions in books. I was somewhat disappointed when I read "Dishwasher" after "In the City of Bikes" and had to read 125 pages before his first mention of the bicycle and then only came upon fourteen more. But he more than makes up for that in the Amsterdam book.

He is immediately enraptured by Amsterdam and its hoards of bicyclists.  It is as he dreamed it would be.  His wife joins him and he arranges permanent residency by gaining Irish citizenship, thanks to his heritage.  He gets janitorial work after no one will hire him as a dishwasher because the minimum wage for someone his age would be double that of someone under twenty-three, who could easily handle dishwashing chores.  He is a compulsive researcher and starts reading about the history of bicycling in Amsterdam.  Soon they have a son, who he takes on bicycle expeditions all over the city.  Introducing him to the crane that fishes bikes out of the canals was akin to American fathers taking their sons to their first baseball game.

A greater portion of the book is historical narrative rather than personal reminiscences, but it is all most fascinating.  He quotes visitors to the city from the 1920s on who were as overwhelmed as he was by all the bicycles.  An Italian observed that bicycles were as numerous as frogs in the canals.  A Czech compared the droves of cyclists to teeming bacteria and dancing gnats.  A Chicagoan was so overwhelmed by the quantity of bicycles that he suspected all the bicycles in the world must have just converged on Amsterdam.

Several chapters are devoted to the Nazi occupation of the city.  They offended the Dutch by making it illegal for Dutch cyclists to hold hands as they cycled and then positively infuriated them when they began to randomly confiscate bikes for their own use.  It so enraged the Dutch that for decades afterwards when Germans came to Amsterdam they would demand, "Give me back my bike."  When Holland played Germany in the championship game of the World Cup in 1974 in Munich, Dutch fans gathered in the city center and sang the same slogan and brandished such banners during the game.  It didn't prevent the Germans from winning though.

Bike theft has always been endemic to Amsterdam. Police early on blamed people for not locking their bikes.  A law was passed in 1928 making it illegal not to lock one's bike.   When Jordan arrived, there was a bridge known as the place where bike thieves went to sell bikes. Tour boats on the canals actually pointed it out. Soon after he arrived Jordan had a bike stolen that he left unlocked while eating at a cafe.  He went to the bridge to try to recover it.  He was offered several others but not his.  It never showed up on any of his visits, nor did he ever spot it as he scanned bikes for years afterwards looking for the initials he had carved into its rear fender.

In the late 1990s it was estimated that there were 180,000 bikes stolen a year in Amsterdam, twenty an hour, many by drug addicts.  The price of a stolen bike was so cheap, it was less expensive for one to buy a bike at the bridge then take a taxi.  Ann Frank mentions in her diary that her bike was stolen from out front of her apartment in 1942 before she went into hiding.

Jordan's remarkably well-searched book abounds with such tidbits.  One of the heroes of the book is Queen Wilhelmina, who reigned from 1890 to 1948.  She would anonymously ride her bicycle among her subjects.  When one of her heirs married a woman from Argentina, everyone in the country wanted to know if she rode a bicycle.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a 14-year old took a bike tour through Holland and Germany in 1896 with his tutor.  They fit right in as they toured in Holland, but bike touring was so rare in Germany, they were questioned several times by the police.

Jordan has a keen eye for small, telling details.  Nothing seemed to impress him more about how widespread and deeply ingrained cycling was among the Dutch than all the pregnant women he saw cycling.  When he conducts cycling tours for people new to the city, he promises them that they will see at least three pregnant women on bikes per hour.

During the '70s there was a threat that automobiles would take over the city as they had just about everywhere else.  Activists stemmed the tide, to the present relief of most Amsterdamers.  Some of this history is discussed in a very worthwhile ten-minute video on Amsterdam as a City of Bikes.  Jordan is one of five experts who provide commentary.

Jordan got his start as a writer publishing a dishwasher zine in the '90s.  It was popular enough that he was invited to appear on the David Letterman show.  He didn't care for attention, so let a friend of his appear in his stead while he sat back stage in the Green Room. Letterman later invited him back as himself when he was promoting "Dishwasher," which he didn't write until he moved to Amsterdam.  Several publishers, impressed by his zine, tried to get him to write a book much earlier, but they couldn't convince him to make the effort.  He also declined the solicitations of filmmakers who wanted to make a documentary of his life.  It was only when he began telling people in Amsterdam about his dishwashing  exploits that he was inspired to write the book.  It too is a fine read, even though he didn't fulfill his goal of dishwashing in all fifty states.  He did get to Alaska three times.  He also dished on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and had a one-day stint on a train.

He seems fully entrenched now in Amsterdam.  He did make a trip to Copenhagen, another City of Bikes, to see if it might be more agreeable.  He liked it a lot, but not more than Amsterdam.  

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