Bikes and Bitterballen

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Click here for a slide show. Lately, for lots of reasons, I’ve been thinking I might leave the country.

I daydream about moving to Canada. Or maybe New Zealand. In my most crazed and misanthropic moments, I envision myself on some sort of self-contained barge, drifting aimlessly through international waters.

In the end, though, most of my fantasies settle on Amsterdam. It’s a modern, First World metropolis, and as such it’s a realistic destination for me. It’s not too close, but it’s not on the far side of the world. It’s not too cold but also not tropically hot.

In my limited visits to Amsterdam, I’ve always felt at home. The progressive social policy, the slicing-edge architecture, the relaxed yet refined mood … it all speaks to me. It says: Move here.

So, to give the place a more thorough assessment, I holed up in a hotel, and I tried to imagine that Amsterdam is my home. I asked myself things like: Do I really want to move here? How would my life change? Are psychedelic mushrooms legal?

Because this is mostly just a comforting fantasy, I didn’t bother with the nitty-gritty details—things any serious emigrant would take into account (the job market, housing prices, visas, etc.). Instead, I just soaked up the lifestyle. I tried to decide, in the abstract: Should I move to Amsterdam?

These were my findings:

1: The Bicycle Culture

One night, strolling in the evening air, I happened by a theater as a play was letting out. A crowd of distinguished Amsterdammers poured onto the sidewalk. The men wore blazers and ties, the women wore dresses and cardigans. Most of these theater-goers were in their 50s and 60s, with wrinkles and bifocals and graying beards.

It looked like a scene you might witness any night in Manhattan, when a throng of well-dressed New Yorkers emerges from a downtown playhouse. But there was a key difference: The New Yorkers would stride toward the curb with one arm in the air, hailing a taxi. The Amsterdammers, by contrast, were unlocking their bicycles from nearby racks, hopping up on the pedals with a little two-step, and riding away.

I can’t tell you how absurd it looked—and how utterly gleeful it made me—as these older couples, in prim evening wear, mounted their bikes and rode side-by-side into the night. They whooshed past me, pedaling with ease, and their conversations carried on undisturbed. The women’s dresses fluttered about their ankles; the men’s cigarette smoke trailed behind them.

“There’s something about riding a bike that makes you feel like you’re 5 years old,” my American friend Carey, who lives and works here in Amsterdam, said to me. Indeed, these proper Dutch couples outside the theater seemed to morph, before my eyes, into bouncy little children. I half-expected the ladies to shriek, “Wheeeeee!” as their bikes picked up speed and rounded a corner out of sight.

The next day, totally inspired, I rented a bike from the shop by my hotel. (Of course, a helmet was unnecessary or at least unfashionable—no one wears them here. Nor do they wear Spandex shorts; or wristbands; or water-dispensing backpacks. They just hop on the bike and go, like normal people. You’ll often see a mother with two kids perched on the bike holding groceries in one hand and a cell phone in the other.)

Since Amsterdam worships bicycles, there are separate bike paths on nearly every street. There are even bike-specific traffic lights to prevent you from careening into traffic. I still assumed that I had about a 70 percent chance of causing some sort of horrific accident (tram car, canal, Belgian tourist) but decided not to worry about it.

Within moments, I was zooming around the city, elbow-to-elbow in a pack of Dutch cyclists, feeling—yes, a bit like a 5-year-old. It was fantastic. I hadn’t ridden a bike in a while, and I’d forgotten the tiny thrill of coasting along with the wind in my face … standing on the pedals and leaning over the handlebars … weaving back and forth down an empty street.

Ignoring the wonders this does for your fitness (everyone’s thin here, with shapely calves) as well as for air pollution, perhaps the best thing about biking is the utter silence of it. At night, rolling along the elegant western canals, the only sound I’d hear was my own wheels rumbling on cobblestone streets (or the polite ding of another cyclist’s bell; or the watery echoes of a boat passing beneath a bridge).

On weekend evenings, young couples go out on bike dates. She sits sidesaddle on the luggage rack above the rear wheel, her skirted legs crossed daintily. She wraps one arm around his waist, while the other lifts an umbrella over their heads to ward off the drizzle. (Every time I see this, I find it incredibly hot.)

Carey let me ride on the back of her bike for a minute, to see how it felt. It felt really painful. I lack the narrow Dutch ass one needs to sit comfortably on a metal luggage rack.

2: Dutch Cuisine

With my friend Dave in the ‘Dam for a brief visit, we decided we’d splurge and eat at D’Vijff Vlieghen—perhaps the most famous spot in town for traditional Dutch food. Each chair here is emblazoned with the name of a star who once sat in it (I got Billie Holiday). Over Dave’s shoulder, an empty suit of armor wielding a battle ax appeared poised to attack us, or perhaps just to slice Dave’s steak for him.

While the food was excellently prepared, and the service was impeccable, I’m still not the least bit clear on what Dutch cuisine is. It seems to involve a lot of suckling pig. It does not seem to involve a lot of spices. Or pleasure. Dutch food is best described as highly competent and painfully bland—much like the national character.

Of course, there’s some delicious Indonesian and Surinamese food around town. Such are the spoils of colonialism. But the only native Dutch dish that’s really caught my fancy is bitterballen. These fried-up balls of sunshine (a miniature version of the legendary Dutch croquette) are the ultimate comfort food—better than a grilled cheese on rye. I ate about 20 of these tiny delights at a bar one night, washing them down with countless pints of Heineken. That’s a recipe for satisfaction. The fun is in cracking open the breaded shell, then sucking out the creamy meat-lava inside. I may attempt to whip up a batch of these in my kitchen back home.

By the way, Pulp Fiction fans: You will not find a “Royale With Cheese” if you go to a McDonald’s here. The one time I hit a Mickey D’s, I found the sandwich was labeled a “quarter-pounder”—metric system be damned. They did list a “McKroket” on the menu, but I didn’t dare try it. Also, for ketchup lovers: Be aware it is not free here. They will charge you 70 euro-cents if you ask for it.

Typical Dutch frugality. Don’t worry, later on, I’ll have an item about their stunning cheapness. And another about the hookers. All in good time.