Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Cycling in Amsterdam: Part 2 - My new SUV

That's right … my new Sport-Ute, a single-speed 50-pound contraption without a sliver of titanium, without a strip of carbon fiber, and without even a hint of aerodynamic design. What it doesn't have in weight-saving or go-fast properties, it makes up for in raw, unadulterated practicality. Practicality so practical and so Dutch that most Dutch would think it nuts to devote this much text, much less the rest of this posting, to describing it. "It's just a bike" they would say … "full stop."

The first step in buying a Dutch bike is to make it through the advice-receiving phase. This phase starts the moment you mention to a local that you have recently moved to the Netherlands. "Are you planning to buy a bike? Don't buy a new bike as it will surely be stolen. Buy an old second-hand bike – spend no more than 20 Euros and buy 237 locks for it."

Next, you visit the local bike shops, which appear on every other street corner. You first learn though that 20 Euro second-hand bikes only exist in memories of 20-years ago OR in the alleyways beyond the train station under the cloaks of darkness and guilt as you buy someone else’s recently liberated ride. It's during the bike shopping phase that you really start to notice what other people are riding. Hand-brakes or coaster brakes? Single-speed or gears? Basket in the front? Panniers in the back? Straps, locks, saddle types, etc. After I spent a week of searching the shops and analyzing the pros and cons of my endless options, I set off to buy a model designed for commuting, hauling loads, and not looking as new or fancy as it will likely turn out to be.

"Is this going to be your only vehicle?" the shop owner asks. Absolutely, I respond. "Are you planning to use it to go shopping for food and other items?" Indeed. "Ok, you'll want heavy-duty racks, heavy-duty spokes, a reinforced top-tube, etc." As you can imagine, I've signaled to him at this point that I'll take any and every heavy-duty item that he can dream up and throw my way. "You'll also want sturdy, fat tires with extra-sturdy spokes, and of course lights in the front and back. Now, gears or single-speed?" Thinking that I have enough gears on my other bikes to power an 18-wheeler and also that Amsterdam is crazy-flat, I opt for single-speed with coaster brakes. He finds a model that meets my criteria and hands it over, saying "You really should ride it first though. Never buy a bike before you ride it."

I hop on for my test drive and set off down a busy street only a foot from a set of tram tracks. Moments into my ride, I realize that 1) this is a very large and very heavy bike and 2) the saddle height is a good 4 inches too high. Sitting on the top tube to ride back to the shop, I ride against traffic and somehow avoid being hit by the endless stream of bikes rushing my way. I ask the owner to lower the saddle. Instead of dropping it a little or actually doing some sort of measurement or even looking at me on the bike, he simply lowers it all the way until the saddle bottoms out on the frame. Take-two of my test drive and I manage to circle the block, but with my seat height much too low and my knees hitting my elbows on each pedal stroke. I ask one more time for an adjustment and he responds by … you guessed it … raising the saddle height right back to its original setting.

After determining that this bike would do the trick, we discuss theft prevention. He suggests the two-lock approach. Lock 1 is a traditional New York City bike messenger-style chain lock. It has huge links that supposedly cannot be cut with standard bolt cutters, but only with jaws-of-life type devices that are solely in the tool kits of emergency crews and professional Russian mafia-affiliated bike thieves. The chain links are covered in a sheath of blue nylon, which protects your ears from the clang of metal each time you haphazardly toss the chain around a lamp post. The chain is connected by a funky German-made locking mechanism that works flawlessly at times and requires a few minutes of key-jiggling and concrete-banging whenever it's raining or I'm running late for something. You use the chain lock by passing it through the front wheel and frame and then wrapping it around any stationary object that you can find. Lampposts work particularly well, as do rails on canal bridges, and groups of Japanese tourists huddled around guidebooks and maps in front of museums. Lock 2 is bolted onto the bike behind the saddle. It includes a hoop device that wraps around the wheel and through the spokes to make the bike impossible to ride or roll on two wheels. With this lock by itself though, the only thing that prevents a thief from carting the bike away by lifting the rear and rolling the front is the bike's heavy weight and boxy nature. Most good bike thieves seem to have strong arms and a tolerance for boxiness though. When you put a key in this lock to unlock it and ride, your key stays in the lock. That is, when you're riding your bike, your key stays put in the opened lock, dangling from the locking mechanism under your saddle. This is mildly annoying as the bike lock key is typically accompanied by the rest of your keys. Anyway, if you use both locks together, there's a good chance that your bike will be around when you need it next.

After my lesson in locks, the owner states "And you'll want insurance." Insurance? "Yes, you can insure your bike for something like 60 euros for 3 years. When, ok … IF, it's stolen, you get a full reimbursement of the purchase price." Being convinced by many locals that my bike will be stolen before I even leave the bike shop, I opt for the insurance.

A few more feature descriptions for those of you hanging onto your seats wishing to know every detail of Dutch city bikes …

The chain is completely covered by a plastic housing – which makes it much easier to ride the bike in a business suit and also virtually impossible for me to perform chain maintenance. Nice.

Then there are the lights. The front and rear lights are required by law for night-riding. In the winter here, night-riding begins at 4:30 in the afternoon and they actually have police check-points to inspect lighting. The lights are self-powered (with me being "self" in this case) by a device that you can flip down onto the front wheel. It makes a pleasant little hum and creates a little extra resistance, which you notice especially on rainy nights when you have a bag of groceries in the front basket and your rain clothing is no where nearby.

Speaking of the basket and back to the bike shop, I ask where to buy the large plastic crates I've seen on many of the other bikes buzzing by. "Oh, you mean a milk crate." Sure. He points me to a local corner market. Four euros later and I have a plastic crate, which we zip-tie to the front rack.

And so begins my city bike journey. I bought the bike and shortly thereafter I carted home a box of wine and then stocked the front basket with a kitchen full of groceries. And then there was the espresso machine ... which forms the perfect segue to a future posting on crazy things I've carted home on my bike!

Oh yeah, more bike photos here -- includes photos of Becky's new bike as well!

Cheers from a surprisingly warm November night in Amsterdam,


And then there were two ...

And then were two, who are one again. After a month and a half of crazy mobile phone bills and conversations interrupted by passing trains, wind and rain, and other mobile phone conversations in Dutch, German, and sometimes Spanish or Russian, Team Hillseekers is on the same continent, the same page, and the same diet of cheese, tasty breads, and French wine.

Becky arrived just over a week ago and we’re well into our Dutch cultural immersion. It’s actually been a bit of a crazy week – for Becky especially. Lots of the things that I’ve adjusted to over the past two months are suddenly on Becky’s plate … all at once, like a paper plate overloaded with Thanksgiving dinner … with the sauce mixing with the potatoes and veggies, the broccoli casserole squashed by two heavy slices of ham, and a deviled-egg trying ever so subtly to work its way off the edge of the plate to make the great leap to the carpet. Her plate though is packed with a new job, new commute, new gym, new coworkers, new laptop and work email account, new closet, new bedroom furniture, new pantry, new city bike, new washing machine with Dutch labels, new paperwork involving visits to the immigration office, etc. I keep noticing things that I’ve already become accustomed to that she’s experiencing for the first time. “Oh yeah, two weeks ago that was pretty confusing, now it’s second nature.”

I was chatting with one of my expat friends (who is on his fourth year in the Netherlands) and he mentioned that with most transitions you always have a safe zone to retreat to whenever the transition gets stressful. For example, you may start a new job, but you still have the same friends, the same house, the same grocery store, etc. If you move cities (within the States), you may have to start over with just about everything, but at least you have the same Target, the same Starbuck’s, the same language and pictures on street signs, etc. With an international move though, your “safe zone” options are dramatically reduced. Everything is new … and it’s new all at once. Sometimes it’s a lot to deal with and situations can go from charming to "we just hit an ice berg and the ship is sinking!" back to charming in a matter of minutes!

Having a partner is huge help and the best safe zone of course. Having friends nearby is another great safe zone – and we’re very happy to have some friends from the States here on assignment as well. Getting our furnishings from the US was a good start as well. Our flat was furnished when we got it, but it’s feeling more like a home now with our photos, books, and decorations added. So, we have lots of mini-safe zones and that helps make up for so much being different all at once. We’re also doing all we can to go with the flow and try not to get too bent out of shape for any of the many hassles of this early transition phase. It’s not always easy though!

Speaking of our flat, we’re making great progress with unpacking and getting settled. Our cargo container arrived a few days before Becky did and I went on an all-out sprint to unpack it and screw together furniture before she arrived. We’re surprisingly unpacked at this point, with only a couple boxes to go and a dozen pictures to hang on the wall. Our flat feels like a home now – it looks much different than earlier pictures that we posted – much warmer, which is a good thing considering that winter will start soon here!

I’ll try to publish a couple more stories this week. Now that our unpacking activities are slowing, I should be able to post some back stories and make some good progress on the 12,000 part series on cycling here!

By the way, thanks so much for your emails lately! I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to respond more quickly. I announced our new web site to a couple hundred people, many of whom I haven’t chatted with in some time. So, I’ve been getting these great emails that I’m really enjoying reading and will soon be responding to. I couldn’t be happier hearing from you, so please keep in touch.

All the best,


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Lesson 1: Bags (a.k.a: “What do I do now?")

Come along with me on my first grocery store experience in Amsterdam … told as it unfolded. This occurred within a couple days of my move. The local grocery chain is called Albert Heijn (Heijn is pronounced like ‘hine” in Heineken, which incidentally is brewed two blocks from our apartment). There is a small Albert Heijn a 10 minute walk away. Here’s what happened once I entered the store for the first time.

This can’t be too tough – food is food, right? Ok, walk through this funky turnstile thing. Wait, where are the carts? Hmm, no carts … ok, how about baskets? Ah, yes … outside the turnstile thing. Ok, reach over, grab basket. So far, so good.

Let’s see, I’ll start with a bottle of olive oil. There it is … and oh, the label is only in Dutch. Well, I’m pretty sure that this is olive oil. It sure looks like it … and that word looks close enough to olive, so I’ll just drop it in my basket.

And here’s the pasta section – no problem: pasta is pasta. Looks like penne to me – drop it in.

Now, for some protein. Hmm … I don’t have a clue what any of this is. Not surprisingly -- well, surprisingly to me at this moment, all the meat names are in Dutch. I can’t tell if this package contains pork, lamb, or zebra tongue. I think I’ll pass on the meat.

Now for some milk. Hmm, I have no idea what I’m looking at. Looks of milk cartons here. What’s whole, what’s 2%, what’s skim, what’s that awful buttermilk stuff they like here? Ok … I see a word that looks like ‘half’ on this one, so I’ll assume that it’s 2%-ish … good enough, I’ll take it.

Beer – ok, I can handle beer shopping. Beer-wise, it’s nice to be so close to Belgium. Grab a six … easy. How about some wine? Whoah – huge selection & cheap, I love it.

Just a few more items to go. Shampoo… not a clue what any of this is. Oh good, this bottle has a description in Dutch, French, and Spanish. Yep, looks close enough. And finally, just need some detergent for the dishwasher. This box looks close. It’s either dishwashing detergent or spackle … or cake icing. I’ll take my chances. On to the checkout lane.

I heft the basket up to the conveyer belt and watch it ride down to the cashier. She utters “Chewbacca hhgrazinshayfer by-flup carburetor” (or something quite similar. I offer a blank stare and say “English, please”. She says “please take the items out of the basket. A line has formed behind me. This little store is packed tonight. Hurriedly (and already embarrassed) I start pulling items out of the basket. She scans the first few items and asks me if I have a bonus card. I say ‘no, but how do I get one?’ She stops the ringing-up process and hands me a form to fill out. I fill it out quickly – she continues to ring – the queue continues to grow. She finishes and I pay.

I walk to the end of the check-out table, where all of my new purchases are strewn. I suppose they’re short-staffed today. I decide that I’ll just bag the groceries myself – no worries, I loved bagging my own items in the States. Seems that they’re out of bags … ah, here’s a dispenser. I pull from the dispenser and a tiny, tiny clear vegetable bag pops out. I briefly consider trying to stuff groceries into these tiny bags and wisely realize that it would take 140 of these bags to fit all of my items. The cashier moves a divider and starts shoving the next person’s items down the lane. Everyone but the cashier looks at me.

“Excuse me … umm … what do I do now?”

Yes, that’s the smartest thing I could come up with at that moment. And it was that moment that I learned that you either bring or buy your bags! She informs me of this and I ask to please buy some bags. She’s out though, so she has to stop ringing up items, while the queue grows and grows. She walks to another counter and turns to ask “How many do you need?” I say “umm…. Enough to fit my groceries.” Apparently, that logic isn’t clear enough … so I say 3.

She finishes with the next person and I’m still cramming items into bags. Shove in the beer bottles, shove in the wine, shove in the egg carton (oops!), shove in the bread. Hurry, hurry, hurry – you look like a moron. Shove in the stuff that’s either laundry detergent or candy … shove it the carton that is either butter-milk and pepper yogurt or drain cleaner. Grab three over-stuff bags and bolt for the door. Whew!

Yes, I survived my first grocery shopping experience … the first of many occasions where laughing at my self and my ignorance was the best medicine!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Cycling in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is paradise for cyclists … well, a near-paradise. If the Alps were within an hour or two by bike, then it would be utopia. It’s close though. I’ve never seen a culture so bike-centric --- bikes rule the road here. It’s just fantastic. There are few roads without a dedicated bike lane or an adjacent path, and when you actually have to ride on the road – you own the road.

Bikes have more road rights than cars here. I read that there are 11,000 miles of bike lanes in the Netherlands. I can believe it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are less than 11,000 miles of auto roads in the country. Here, you don’t take “the bike path” somewhere, because there are thousands of “the bikepaths”. Pick any road, set off, and chances are you’ll either have dedicated lane or a separate path. Every intersection you come to … even out in the country … will have signs pointing to the next village or town, with the distance marked for cyclists.

Especially in Amsterdam, people rely more on bikes than cars. Regardless of the season, weather, or time of day, you see a constant stream of bikes passing by. Old, young, slow, fast, no passengers, 3 passengers, thin, American tourist nearly hit by a tram, etc. You see bikes carrying the oddest, most unimaginable loads, like garbage cans, potted plants, large moving boxes, Christmas trees, and families of four (and I'm not exaggerating at all -- if anything, I'll leaving too much out!). Walk the streets (and past enormous bike parking garages) and you hear a cacophony of bike bells and creaky bike parts. It’s glorious music to my ears.

For several reasons, we decided not own cars in the Netherlands, so we do everything by bike or public transportation. First of all, it just seems like a great challenge to live several years without a car … saves money, less impact on the environment, less hassle, less stress, etc. Second, we live on a canal in the central part of the city, where the waiting list for parking is 3-5 years. And finally, biking is just plain fun. We were the freaks in Denver and Atlanta who biked to work in a culture that appreciates pimped-out Escalades and Hummers more than self-powered … anything … so it’s just wonderful to experience a culture that is so intensely into cycling for everyday life that they just don’t think anything of it. In fact, I think that they think we’re freaks for making such a big deal of it!

As life-by-bike rolls on, please stay tuned for the upcoming parts of this series. Stories in the pipeline include: “My new SUV”, “Cobbles and rails”, “Wide Load: Carting the Espresso Machine”, "Dutch Mountains", and “The commute”.