The time I almost died in Amsterdam* / by vanessa

*Story not about weed After five sleep-deprived-yet-lovely days spent exploring western Iceland, we packed up shop and headed to southeast to Amsterdam. By "packed up shop" I mean that we woke our toddler up at 5 a.m. on Wednesday morning, which I highly recommend if you want to hate everything about your life. While we were sad to not have more time hiking Iceland's captivating shores or eating fresh seafood along the waterfront in Reykjavik, I'm not too proud to tell you I missed Yelp. In navigating what to do on the beautiful island, I felt wholly handicapped in having to rely on old-timey methods like reading the internet and asking around for recommendations. I know that Yelp is flawed, but at least it’s a starting point.

Upon arriving at Amsterdam's Schipool airport, we hailed an Uber to our flat in the city's Jordaan district. Sure, Uber runs about 35 euro more than public transit, but Jonah got free orange juice, so. Our Airbnb host, Anne, met us at the bottom of the four-story walkup we'd be renting for the next few days. The stairs were harrowing in the sort of way that if at one point in history they passed code, that point was in the 17th century. Eventually we made it up all four flights, and as soon as we got into the apartment, Jonah zeroed in on the row of small blue and white porcelain houses perched toddler-high on the entertainment center. It's like kids just know.

"It's fine," she assured us, which told me how much time she’s spent with two-year olds.

Anne kindly walked us through her recommendations on an actual physical map for where to get coffee and the location of the closest bike rental shop in Amsterdam. She followed with where to go for the Saturday farmers market and directions to Amsterdam's hip Noord district, but goddamn if I heard a thing she said while Jonah ran in circles around the coffee table clenching a tiny house in each hand. We finally coaxed the porcelain figures from his grip and he screamed. Anne left.

If you have heard anything about Amsterdam besides Anne Frank and special cookies, then you know that it is pretty much the definition of bike culture. Where NYC has a rat for every human, this Dutch metropolis rivals that in bicycles. They're literally everywhere. Cars and walkers yield to them. Students and old people alike whiz through designated bikelanes with ease. So common are bikes here that I lost count at the number of times I watched someone texting and riding, or saw a parent fearlessly pedaling their helmet-free infant through the streets. We spent our first day hoofing around the Nine Streets area, envious of our two-wheeled peers. We resolved to rent bikes of our own.

It’s probably a good time to tell you that over ninety percent of the scars on my body are from bicycle accidents. My earliest cycling memory was at about five years old when, riding a borrowed Huffy, I lost control going uphill and plowed into a speedboat parked in a neighbor's yard. Since then I have flipped over handlebars on mountain bikes and ten-speeds and have inexplicably fallen down sideways while riding down a sidewalk. Every scar on every knee and elbow is attributable to two wheels. I'm really bad at it. And I know this about myself. Still, I want to be good at riding a bike.


Ryan and I got up early-ish Friday and walked to the closest rental place, three blocks away. The Ukranian shopguy first fitted Ryan for his cruiser, then Jonah in his seat, and finally me. I sat on my bike seat like a boss. In heavily accented English he told us it would cost about 20 euros per bike per day, plus 100 euros deposit on each, in case they got stolen. In Amsterdam the percentage of bikes stolen is nearly 100 percent. So basically, go into the bicycle business.

We spent the early afternoon winding around the Rijk and Van Gogh museums, on our way to a coffee shop in De Pijp for a (really) late breakfast.

After a lunch where my son tried to punch above and flirt with our twenty-something, very cute blond waitress, we decided to head toward Central Station to catch a ferry for the Noord. The interesting thing about Amsterdam, well, I’m told the Netherlands as a whole, is that English is ubiquitous. Communication is really easy. Most things are dual-language, and there is not the stigma that you find in say, Paris, of relying on English. Traffic signs, as in the rest of the world, are in symbols. So I can’t blame language barrier for the fact that I tried to ride across a busy intersection when it wasn’t my turn to go.

I remember seeing a signal across the street light up with a green bicycle. I assumed it was pointing towards me. I headed north, oblivious. A car in the opposite direction honked at me. “Dude, my light is green,” I sneered. I pedaled forward and then heard a really, really loud horn. A different sounding really loud horn. I looked to my left and a f*cking tram was coming right for me. “My light is green!!” I shouted in futility.

I will never understand why my brain is wired like this.

I froze, dead in my tracks. I could hear Ryan shrieking behind me in a voice I have not heard before. The tram carried forward, honking. I could see the engineer's nervous expression. I tried to back up, but a Fiat and two motorcycles barreled forward in the two lanes behind me. I was about to die and Jonah would witness the whole thing.

Seconds moved like years. Somehow I scooted backwards on my bike to the sidewalk where Ryan and Jonah had prudently waited. Shaking, I tried to justify what had just happened. “Babe, I thought I had a green light,” as if it mattered, like, at all. He pointed just to the left of where I was gesturing, and calmly explained that I had looked at the wrong signal.

And that is when I raised the white flag and admitted what I already knew but have been loath to acknowledge: I'm really not cut out for this whole two-wheels thing.