Some time ago, I took an English colleague out to dinner in the Amsterdam City Centre. He became more and more subdued as we walked the streets and looked at the sights. I finally took him into one of my favorite places – a small ‘tasting room’ as they call it and after three stiff Dutch drinks he finally admitted: “I won’t walk around this town any more! These bikes are lethal!”
I had noticed he had some close brushes with speeding cyclists but I regarded them as nothing out of the extraordinary. After all, cyclists are a law onto themselves in this town.
But I also remembered: After Beijing, Amsterdam must have the highest bicycle density in the world. And seeing them in action is seeing Anarchy on two Wheels! And encountering them is like facing the lions in the Colosseum in Rome…
And it is not a recent phenomenon; I found this British film fragment, showing how the Amsterdam bicycle situation was in the early 1950’s!
It is Wednesday afternoon and the weather is glorious. Not a cloud in sight and bright green leaves cover the sparse trees around our blocks. We have the rest of the day off and hurry out of the school, onto the hot concrete tiles of the pavement. It smells but of what, I prefer not to know. And as we hurry around the corner, into the narrow, sun-drenched street with its endless row of 19th century apartment buildings, Mickey says, “Let’s go for a swim!”
“Swim where?” I ask. The official swimming pool is quite far away, costs money and to top it all, we both can’t swim.
“Oh at Kattenburg”, he says and I immediately grasp what he plans to do. Apart from the locals calling it “Rattenburg”, I see other, unsurmountable problems hindering this project. “Mickey”, I say, “we have no swimming trunks and no towel. How do we get dry?” But Mickey has thought that one through already.
“We’ll swim in our underpants and when we’re done we simply get back into our shorts. We’ll wring out the underpants and use them to wipe our legs. And tonight we throw them in the laundry basket; nothing to it!”
I still am not convinced but I can’t rat on my best friend so the two of make our way as quickly as we can to our local ‘beach’, the stretch of sand opposite the naval establishment. As we pass across the bridge in front of the maritime academy, we see a large crowd that has already gathered on that dismal piece of dirty sand. To us it is the ultimate treat on a hot day in spring. Water and sand all kinds of things to discover and we lose no time in shedding our shirts and shorts and shoes. We put them next to a friendly family, hoping they will keep an eye on them, and run into the water.
I shall never forget that smell; the tang of stale green water, mushy rotting sea-weed and marine diesel fuel. We ran up and down that beach, splashing and spattering between a rich harvest of washed up driftwood and other flotsam (including two dead cats), By the time we both were both soaking wet, we had thrown all caution to the winds and we had soon collected enough planks and poles along the ‘flood line’ to put a makeshift raft together. A washed up crate would do for a seat and a more or less oar-shaped piece of wood for a paddle.
The snag was, the thing would only hold one of us. Mickey won the toss and after carefully mounting the slightly rotten crate (I saw it had held oranges in the past), he commanded, “Shove Off!” and I gave the contraption a push.
As it floated away I immediately saw we were no great boat builders. Our raft had no freeboard at all and short waves washed Mickey’s feet every few seconds. The ‘raft’ was some yards off the beach now and when he tried to paddle back, the whole thing nearly capsized. He had to sit absolutely still in order not to upset its balance. Then he noticed that the water was too deep for him to stand and he knew he was in really deep water (literally),
“Help me get back!” he shouted anxiously.
I waded into the dirty water until it reached my chin but he was still out of reach.
“I’ll get a rope”, I shouted and hurried back to the safety of the sand. I had seen a discarded length of slimy rope further down that ‘beach’. But before I could reach it, one of those ever present workboats came rumbling out of a side canal. It was the Ocean, a fine, sturdy workboat belonging to the Blue Funnel line. All of us boys admired it for the magnificent bow wave it threw up. The inevitable happened; the Ocean rumbled past at a sedate four knots, but its powerful waves lifted the flimsy raft way up in the air. It shattered completely and Mickey splashed into the water.
“Help”, I shouted, “my friend cannot swim”, pointing at the boy spluttering and trashing amidst the remnants of our ‘raft’. Several people looked up, but one lean and tanned Navy guy jumped up from the towel he was sharing with his girlfriend. In a few strides he ran down the sand, splashed into the water and grabbed Mickey at the moment the water closed over the boy’s head.
“What the fuck were you doing out there?” shouted the sailor after dropping the spluttering and coughing Mickey on the sand. The two of us tried to explain but with no great success. “Go and get your clothes; and this will speed you home”, the man snarled as he slapped Mickey’s bottom hard with a large, calloused hand.
We straggled home like two two nearly drowned cats, dripping water and sopping in our shoes. For a few moments we stood hesitating at the entrance to our block, not daring to face our parents and afraid of the ‘reception’ we would get.
Then my grandmother passed by on her bicycle and our fate was sealed
“What happened to you?” she shouted angrily as she jumped off the saddle. After my halting, rambling explanation she turned to Mickey. “You go home and stay there; I’ll talk your mom later.” Mickey hurriedly made off and Grandma slapped my face twice snarling, “The pair of you could have drowned, you idiot!”
She hauled me up the stairs and made me wash all over – the stink of the ‘swimming water’ permeating the small apartment. When I was washed and clothed again she sat me in a chair and gave me cup of tea. “Never, ever do that again!” she growled, raising a threatening finger in front of my face. “There will be trouble enough when you mom and dad come home.”
And trouble there sure was; my stepdad was livid and wanted to belt me properly. But my Grandma interfered and I was banished to my little room with the door firmly closed; house arrest as it was. I heard their voices go on in a low rumble for a while. Then Grandma left and I shivered with fright what would happen next. I didn’t have to wait long. My mother came into my little room and looked at me for a few moments.
“You could have drowned today”, she said in a quiet voice and I nodded, tears in my eyes.
“There’s too much water around here”, she added and then, to my total surprise, “so Grandma has decided that you’d better take swimming lessons; she’ll pay for them!”
“Now let’s see how much you guys have brought me”, the man said gruffly after we had heaved the last bundle of old newspapers onto the grimy scales. He put a heavy steel weight on the smaller part of the balance and added some lighter ones. Squinting at the pointers he said gruffly, “Right … just about thirty kilos; I’ll give you one guilder and fifty cents for the lot.”
His hand disappeared in his pocket and came up full of small change and when I saw he was picking out a guilder piece I quickly said, “We’re sharing.” With a grunt he counted out three quarters for each of us and turned away.
“What are we going to do now?” Mickey asked as we wheeled back the old pram.
It nearly had collapsed under the load of old newspapers we had collected from all neighbors we knew and I had a feeling that it’s axles were definitely bent. We quietly put it back in the basement that served as a bicycle shed and hoped nobody would be any the wiser.
I looked around. A cold, north-west wind was blowing, sending ragged clouds scurrying across a feeble winter sun. Not the kind of weather one wanted to be outside for an entire Wednesday afternoon. The schoolyard was deserted and the street was empty.
“Let’s go and ride the tram”, I said.
“Visit Grandma”, I said.
“It will cost us”, Mickey said doubtfully, “at least ten cents.”
“I’ll pay”, I said with a grin, “I’m rich!”
“Huh?” said Mickey as I showed him another fifty cents. “Where did you get that?”
“Helped Adams yesterday.”
Adams was the ‘peel-collector’ who passed through our street each week, his horse-drawn cart leaving a malodorous trail. He collected potato peel and cabbage leaves and any other kind of vegetable waste from households as well as bones and other offal from the butchers.
My stepdad had strictly forbidden me to go near him. But I knew he offered good money and stepdad wasn’t around anyway, so yesterday after school, I had been running up and down the stairs of every house in our street and the next one.
On every landing, there had been a small wicker basket on top of the trash can and I had emptied them into an evil-smelling burlap bag that grew steadily heavier. When it was about three-quarters full I had hurried over to the stinking cart. Adams would hand me an empty bag and I would start another round of running up and down stairs until my legs ached.
Mickey and I were joking while we walked to the nearest stop and while we waited for the tram to come we made faces at people passing on bicycles. Finally a tram materialized and we climbed on board.
The Amsterdam trams in those days were heavy, old-fashioned looking vehicles painted dark blue and consisting of a motor-car and a trailer. The balconies had no doors, you just jumped on and fought yourself inside (if possible). There were no chairs, only hard wooden benches to the side of the cabin. Leather straps dangled down from the ceiling, providing something to hold on to for those who had to stand during rush hour.
Each car had its own conductor and when he had seen that all passengers had gotten off and the new ones were aboard he would signal the motorman by pulling sharply at a lanyard above his head. A bell would sound in the motorcar or a whistle in the trailer to signal they could move off.
The motorman stood on the front balcony, feet wide apart. Behind him in a corner stood a kind of bicycle saddle mounted on a tripod but we never saw it used. For every change of speed the motorman would haul at a horizontal lever that made loud ratcheting noises. And whenever someone or something was likely to get in his way he would stamp on a pedal and a bell would clang sharply, sending the message “Out of my way or face the consequences!”
With the practiced ease of someone doing nothing else each day, the conductor came over to us while the tram was rumbling and swaying like a surf-boat through the curving streets and over the humped bridges of the old town.
We meekly bought our 10 cent tickets, a white piece of paper which he stamped in black ink. It would allow us to ride any tram within a 45 minute timeframe.
It took us less than that to reach the end of the line and after a ten minute walk we reached the notary’s house. It had a garden all around and a lovely canal at its back.
As we walked up the short driveway Mickey asked, “What’s this guy doing?”
“He’s a notary”, I answered.
“What’s a notary?”
I had asked my granddad the same; he had explained that you went to a notary if you had so much money that you were afraid your children would fight over it when you died. The notary then would make something called a ‘will’ and they would have to abide by that.
“Jeez; imagine having so much money that your kids would fight over it”, Mickey said in a kind of awe and I agreed. I could not imagine having a lot of money at all; in my world the cupboard would be bare by Friday…
“How did you come here?” asked my grandma as she gave us both a nice glass of lemonade. The ice cubes in it were the big treat. They came from something called a fridge in which grandma could keep foodstuff nice and cold. It even had a compartment in which she could make those ice-cubes.
“We took the tram”, I answered, “Lots of things to see and it’s easier than walking.”
I showed her my ticket. Grandma was dead-set against joyriding because of the fine if you got caught. We stayed with her for a while, drinking lemonade and eating biscuits until she looked pointedly at the clock on the kitchen wall.
“Time for you to go back; your mom will be mad at you if you’re late”, she said while she handed each of us a chocolate bar. She kissed me and said quietly “Be careful; don’t take that bloody line 4.”
But that was exactly what we had in mind.
Line 4 had the oldest, most rickety trams in existence. My granddad told me he had to say “Sir” to them as they were older than he was. They swayed and squealed in the slightest curve. But the big thing was that, after passing through a very narrow street close to Munt Square, they had to get around a very sharp, almost 180 degrees left-hand turn at the edge of the Amstel River. At least once a year, one of those line 4 trams would jump out of the rails, smash through the iron fence and splash into the dirty water six feet below.
Of course we wanted to experience such an exciting thing. But we prudently stayed on the after-balcony of the trailer. It would be easy to jump out if things went really wrong because the balconies in both cars had no doors.
But to our disappointment we had a careful motorman that day; the tram trundled slowly through the narrow street lined with small bars, creakingly went through the absurdly sharp curve and triumphantly groaned up to the Munt Square stop…