, Derry, New Hampshire

September 20, 2012

Column: Taking the time to watch a strange world go by

John Edmondson
Derry News

---- — It was a refreshingly cool 68 degrees, a sun-splashed early August afternoon in Amsterdam, and I was doing what I love to do on vacation — absolutely nothing.

I know what you’re thinking. I didn’t need to travel thousands of miles to do nothing. I could have stretched out on my deck and watched the leaves on the trees flap in the breeze.

But my lawn chair here at home is no match for a seat along the Prisengracht, one of the many canals that form the heart of Amsterdam. Time stood still as I sat in an outdoor café and admired many of the estimated 2,500 houseboats that are as common in Amsterdam as apples are in Londonderry.

I need to be wary of the occasional teenage speeder on Route 102. In Amsterdam, it took only one close encounter of the two-wheeled kind to make me remember to look both ways before I crossed any street, large or small in the city, lest I be toppled by a biker.

There are approximately 800,000 residents of Amsterdam, but about 1 million bikes. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing bicyclists in the states riding the latest high-tech models, all dressed like competitors in the Tour de France. In Amsterdam, most of the bikes look like the one Beaver Cleaver rode to visit his buddy Gus at the fire station. I asked a local why there were so many retro bikes. She explained that bike theft is a major problem, so why waste money on the expensive kind?

In Londonderry, it’s common to see parents with young children out for a leisurely ride. Dad leads the way, followed by a couple of kids with Mom pedaling slowly close behind.

Though a laid-back city in most ways, every biker in Amsterdam appears to be in a hurry. Parents with kids too young to walk strap them onto their bikes and speed to their destinations. I saw one dad with two kids in a front basket and two others in the rear. He flew along the canal, avoiding gawking tourists, steering with one hand while he held a cell phone in the other.

Young and old alike pedal everywhere in Amsterdam. One day, before our tour started, I stepped outside the hotel to take in the morning air. It was early, before the trams and buses created the city’s sound track. In the distance, I spotted a lone biker approaching the hotel. From 50 yards away it became clear it was a woman. As she got closer, I could see she was middle-aged and dressed for the workday in a long skirt, leather jacket and stylish boots.

While a typical American professional might pull into a parking lot or step out of a cab, this woman locked her circa 1965 Schwinn in the bike rack in front of the hotel, turned around, smiled at me and said, “Good morning. Are you ready for the city tour?”

Yes, I was, and fortunately, it was a bus tour, and she was the guide. I wasn’t ready to risk life and limb trying to keep pace with Amsterdam bikers. And besides, it allowed me to engage in my favorite vacation pastime — sitting and observing life in a foreign city. Many would consider that doing absolutely nothing at all.


John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.