Amsterdam and Copenhagen are both my kind of fish tanks. Watch any street, day or night, and you get a bicycle-and-foottraffic show like the best variety pack aquarium. Goldfish, clownfish, mollusks, shellfish, sharks, eels, and bottom feeders, all moving at their native pace; collision-free. Parents with little kids mounted fore and aft, women with big mops of blonde hair piled, atop their heads*, people talking on their phones, people talking to each other, riding astride in the bike lane, jamming at speed, utterly relaxed, talking; intense boxers in training suits; school boys with perfect haircuts and tidy backpacks, every strap neatly fastened; women in mini-skirts; a rider leading an empty bike beside her; men in suits, women in heels; sensibly dressed office workers with laptop bags. Dogs in the front basket; tourists wreaking havok. All upright steelframes. Heavy and black. Occasionally a spandex-clad athlete, lean and hairless, tightlipped and selfishly guarding his Zone. Then all goes quiet for a moment. And all starts up again as quickly, perfect harmony again. No helmets. I’m in the fishtank too, another seacreature of the city, finally regarded as a person rather than gaped at under unemotional eyes, as in the country. Clopping smartly in my cowboy boots in the walklane (not the bikelane, it’s no way to die, people). A lot of riders spin around in their saddles and look at me as they pass (it’s the pretentious leather hat), and I get the look: nice ass…oh, you’re old. I smile back. Yeah I saw you looking. I’m getting old, and so are you.
What I wanted to do more than anything once I got to Copenhagen was ride down the bike-path astride another, in lock step pedaling. But alas, I learned it’s like dancing with someone: Easy, but time cooks it just right. You can’t just come and have that pleasure from a cold start. So I rode and rode anyway. I followed people when I wasn’t sure what to do with the traffic circle: Choose a leader and do what they do until they either stop in front of their Rococo building and put the kickstand up, lock it and walk inside as if it will be safe all night there (it will, and if it falls over in the wind, will be propped back up without damage). I treat my road bike like the stylus of a needle, how much more pleasurable to use a bike for transportation.
Following strangers has been a traveling favorite for me: If you don’t know where to go or what train to ride in a big city: Go on a tour with someone who doesn’t know they are taking you. As a woman, it’s a little easier that as a man, I think. I was never confronted, nor regarded beyond the usual stares. The fun continues as I trace my steps back to the beginning, alone, after they have either lost me, lost my interest, or walked into their building. I saw a lot of Copenhagen this way, as well as learning the traffic standards.
In my favorite cycling moment, I was returning to my hosts’ place from Bente’s house: the site of a workshop, and my slideshow. I do not travel with a “GPS-er” and love writing down all the directions on paper ahead of time, and folding that into an accessible pocket, so as I ride I can refer to it, provided it doesn’t blow out of my hand in the wind. I had found my way to Bente’s street–a little remote, a new neighborhood to me, using this method, and as I approached I was so happy to see how well-marked her property was by the archetypal urban natural building scene: A few tarps piled with sand and clay; and where cars would be parallel-parked on the curb, a couch, umbrella, and pic-nic table for the workshop participants.
After my visit there, I followed another set of directions on a crumpled piece of scratch-paper to the cafe of Rassmus, a friend of my hosts. It used to be a pharmacy, and for a LONG time. It’s a beautiful historical land-mark and Rassmuss’s cafe celebrates it well with crowds all of the time, an excellent chef kicks out good food, and I was to sip coffee and journal to some Bill Withers. As I approached the sidewalk on my trusty steel steed, there was Rassmuss, moving fast at his business. I popped the front tire onto the curb all insoussiance and set the bike in a rack and engaged the kickstand and had a charming chat and he went in ahead of me to tell the barista to make me his favorite coffee on the house.
I left there to hit rush-hour traffic this time with no directions but some idea of my hosts’ place from there, but as I rode past the Dome of Visions along the water, it began to rain, and it being summer and I being an optimist (read naïve) I had to get out of the rain or pedal faster, and went onto the approach of a bridge, and heard live bluegrass. So I found it and pulled over and it was a quartet under a sagging tarp huddled over a single mic, and there was Paul Banks, whose kids were in the band and he was playing a little mandolin. He remembered my name from the blues joint Mojo Bar where I heard him play, and I hung out until it stopped raining and they stopped playing, wishing I had a two-stepping partner along.
It doesn’t hurt that the place is flat. When a young woman is coming into her curves, we’d tease that they had bee-stings. This place has a few rises, but nothing that takes your breath, no excuses not to hop on and nothing seems to stop folks from using their bikes except having a big load to haul. Even the less-capable people use bikes with some electrical assist before giving up their right to sling a leg over the frame of a two-wheel machine and get the errands done. I saw so many older riders with great aging frames, strong spines, ruddy faces, round butts. They put us to shame.
Today I rented a bike in the small town of Doorn, where my new friend has a caravan in a camping site and she plans to live here year round among a couple of other tiny houses, for summer use. She plans a rocket stove, earthen plastered walls, a cob oven out front. The greening of the trailer park. Why not? The nice man who rented the bike to me pulled a map out and looked straight into my eyes and said “Our system for bicycle riders is really good here.” His English was otherwise not so great but he had this sentence down, and he wasn’t kidding. You cycle by numbers: Following a web of trails through cities and towns and forest lands and dunes and agriculture, and canal crossings, all on these paths that are yes all separated from the cars’ roads, all well-marked by a numbered system, frequently signposted and occasionally a large map on a trail head will show the area and several options. You can’t get lost as long as you know what number route you are on and a cross-route number. Even then it’s difficult to get lost although I did one night in The Hague as I was walking around singing to the record I’m learning for a show when I get home. I lost track, and when I looked up I was nowhere near anything familiar. That’s when I finally used my phone’s compass, and a few locals who practically took me by the hand and walked me to my hosts’ home.
Maybe in a future life I can be Dutch and live a long life on the channeled planes, riding a bike, my hair piled on top of my head. My grandpa Jim’s genetic line was called Pennsylvania Dutch but that was a misnomer, we are Swiss. Like the Alps that I’m on my way to hike tomorrow.
*There’s a way the Dutch women tie their hair up on their heads, and I have been putting off the blog because I can’t find just the right phrase for it, perhaps you can help. Here’s the thing: I was having coffee with a friend in Jack London Square a few years ago, and as we took our coffees and went to sit down outside I walked past the counter of milk and sugar, stirrers, sugar alternatives, lids, and napkins. He said “That’s so irreverent the way you just pass up the milk and stuff.” It was high praise, and an observant compliment. I take my coffee black. I have no truck with the condiments. What’s that, insoussiance? Disinterest? It’s also the confidence in a perfect result: there is nothing to be done. This is the way the Dutch women pile their hair on their heads: Quickly, dismissively, always with a perfect sexy result, with disregard; they grab it all with a big pin or chopstick or rubber band, but really it’s as if that tool has nothing to do with it. Perfect disinterest. Off-handed. Help me out. The opposite of this belabored attempt to find the right word.