The Liberating Experience of Getting Lost

Betsy Barthelemy
September 5, 2019
Bike Parked on a Small Canal Bridge

I’ve barely been in Amsterdam for two weeks, but I’ve already run into what will surely be one of the most transformative experiences I’ll have this semester. It wasn’t at one of the five museums I’ve visited, on my day trip to Delft, on campus during my first week of classes, or on any of the 25 euros’ worth of public transit rides I’ve taken: it was on a bike in the city center on a Thursday night. This seemingly-normal situation was my first time getting “lost” in my new home.

It’s safe to say that knowing how to ride a bike is a good skill to have in the Netherlands, which (if you don’t know) is one of the most bike-friendly places in the world. During orientation, I learned that there are some 1.6 bikes per human in Amsterdam, and it’s evident everywhere you go. There really is no way to accurately describe the bike culture here without experiencing it firsthand. But, for a short anecdote, a tram kindly stopped for me while I was waiting to cross the street the other day; a biker, though, would curse me out or even just plow right into me if I had a foot unknowingly placed in the bike lane. There is no mercy when an Amsterdammer has their feet on the pedals.

My younger sister taught me how to bike over the summer, and I slowly developed an affinity for leisurely rides through my suburban neighborhood. So when a few girls in my building asked if I wanted to bike to an orientation activity with them, I thought, why not take the plunge? I would have to have a First Amsterdam Biking Experience at some point, and being with a group of people would be best.

Here’s the thing: we were going to the city center in the midst of rush hour, and though our phones were guiding us, none of us were entirely sure where we were going. After the stressful two-mile trek, I was nearly ready to swear off biking for the rest of my life. Once I regulated my breathing and successfully locked my bike, though, I felt incredibly proud of myself. I, a novice, biked in Amsterdam!

The problem? I had to get home.

With a to-go container of Thai food under my arm, I opted for public transit while my friends biked back. The sun was setting, I was tired, and I was certain that I’d seen a bike on the tram I’d taken the previous day. After all, they’re allowed on public transit in Minneapolis, so Amsterdam must be even more prepared for that, right?

Well, after being shut down very quickly by the lady at the desk in the tram (yes, there are secretary-type people on the trams, and no, I still don’t quite understand why), I discovered that bikes are not, in fact, allowed on trams. Thus, at around 9:30 pm on a Thursday in the middle of Amsterdam, I decided to walk my bike back to my own Oost neighborhood. And I did, for around 20 minutes — in the absolute wrong direction. Amsterdam is a very rounded city, especially the Center, and there are canals everywhere you turn. As someone who grew up orienting myself on the mantra “the lake is always East” (thanks, Chicago), I still can’t tell North from West here. Half jogging and calming my nerves from my embarrassing tram experience, I wasn’t looking down at my map. Suddenly, despite having my fully-charged phone in my hand, I felt completely lost.

I did the only thing I could: turned around and walked the way I came. Now more sure of my path, it didn’t take long to realize something was missing from the atmosphere: bikers. The commuters that’d whizzed by me on my way to the Center were mostly in for the night, and the wandering tourists as well. A couple of people passed me every minute or so, but for the most part, the streets were as quiet as the canals. In the distance, even, I saw another adult actually learning to ride a bike in the lanes that four hours earlier were a raging river of two-wheeler masters.

At my walking pace, I wouldn’t be back to my building for almost an hour. It was dark, and although I felt just as safe as I do walking around Minneapolis at lunchtime, the situation was far from ideal. So, inspired by the new biker shakily pedaling a few blocks ahead of me, I hopped on my bike, gathered my bearings and my take-out, and slowly began to pedal.

Balancing myself with the new cargo took a minute or two, and I was still going slow up any sort of hill (again, thanks, Chicago), but I biked on. Thankfully, my commute only involved one turn, which was at Amstel, Amsterdam’s biggest and easiest-to-identify canal. This meant that as long as I headed down the same path, I would fly home without needing to stop and consult a map every couple minutes, like we’d done on our way to the Center millions of years (read: a couple of hours) before. Once I became comfortable with the absurd notion that I was successfully biking, I began to recognize my surroundings. I passed under the Rijksmuseum and over a few moonlit canals; soon I saw the bread bakery I’d gotten a croissant from that morning, the lights of my building shining in the distance. I was just about bursting with pride (and adrenaline) when I walked into the bike cages, returned my trusty steed, and headed to my room (Thai food entirely intact).

Was I actually lost? With my phone on hand, no. But when I collapsed into my bed exhaled, I felt found.

Since that night, I’ve made an effort to take a sizeable walk around the city every day, mostly by myself. Again, I get easily turned around if I’m not actively being directed, so I’ve gotten “lost” a fair amount of times. But I’m developing landmarks, especially closer to where I live, and feel like a member of the community. I don’t think I would have the initiative to take these walks and discover so much about my new home if I hadn’t taken the plunge and accidentally gotten lost with a 25-pound piece of metal to carry. It’s been two weeks, but I already know this city better than I knew St. Paul, where Macalester is, after an entire semester. I feel comfortable in this still-new city, and even have a running list of places to return to with my camera in hand.

So, lesson learned: walk with confidence, bike with a bell (and not during rush hour), and don’t be afraid to get lost. When the city is most unfamiliar is when it’ll start to feel most like a home.

With an hour to kill and wanting to dust off my camera, I decided to take some pictures of bikes and canals in my neighborhood of Oost. Enjoy scenes from my short walk below to glimpse Amsterdam in the daytime.

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Betsy Barthelemy

<p>I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to briefly study abroad in Japan (several cities) and do community service work in Riobamba, Ecuador, while in high school, effectively biting me with the travel bug. At school, I major in English and minor in anthropology, but also enjoy taking classes in linguistics, photography, Japanese, and theater. When I’m not in class, I’m probably in a chorale rehearsal, helping edit Macalester’s newspaper, working at the cafe across the street, or baking cookies.</p>

Home University:
Macalester College
Evanston, IL
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