Bikes on bikes on bikes. An organized mountain range of bicycles, from the shiny and new to the chained and rusted, piled beside the train station. Rental bikes with blue front wheels and slightly worn bikes of the locals lined obediently in front of the shops. Little blue bicycle is led away from its post by its little owner. A woman pedals effortlessly to work, carrying two children and dog along in a big black bucket attached to the front of her heavy duty bicycle. A straight-backed man in a pantsuit and white tennis shoes glides past her, his leather briefcase resting in his wicker basket. The tiny red plastic seat attached between his handlebars is empty; its passenger is already at daycare.
The rows of brick merchant houses look like movie sets. Some look as if you could walk up to it, look around the corner, and find that they are cardboard stands. But take a few lefts and rights and you find the quaint alleyways tucked between the merchant houses, the cobblestone streets running alongside a bright blue canal, and the people who call these picturesque settings home. A well-dressed woman with silver hair sits on her stoop, looking at her phone and thoughtfully swirling the wine in her glass. The dark brown doors to her apartment are thrown open and conversational laughter drifts onto the street. Two girls appear in a fourth floor window, laughing and glowing in the midday light. A boy plays with wooden trains in white trimmed doorway while his mom carries that signature bright blue Albert Heijn bag into the house.
Still so charming despite their age, the houses themselves have so much character that it is almost as though they might reflect the people who inhabit them. Dusky red hydrangeas explode out of big black pots lining the narrow staircase up to one stoop. An exceptionally leafy tomato plant, adorned in its green fruit, has been resourcefully planted in the dirt between the sidewalk and outer wall. A quaint metal table and two chairs have been placed up against the brick, just under the window and overhanging ivy of a corner house, and just barely take up more than half of the sidewalk.
In the morning, before the city center awakens with tourists, commuters move smoothly through the streets on the way to work and school. The trams snake over the bridges while bicyclists move along its flanks like little fish to a bigger one. Several early risers, a man with his newspaper, a woman with her dog, have already downed half of their morning coffee outside of a cafe. Every other person on a bike also carries a schoolchild, or has one racing furiously behind them. A morning drizzle, consisting more of a mist than rain, gently dusts the city. Blue sky approaches.
Once the day is in full swing, you can easily see how the city functions in all its walkable glory. Trams keep moving along through the crowds. Bikers slip through the gaps. Oblivious tourists peer at their phones and adjust their sunglasses and shopping bags. Merchants sell fruit to passersby from their white topped tents. Cars stay in their lanes, all just the right size to fit the streets, and there is only a backup when tourists meander across the crosswalks, oohing and ahhing at the architecture. The tables and chairs outside of cafes and restaurants are at capacity, and everywhere you go, you can hear almost every language and see so many different people.
As you move outward from the city center, the gleaming high rises in the financial district almost evoke an American downtown. Students from Vrije University mill around in the corridors formed by the grand modern architecture. The museum quarter’s parks and sprawling lawns offer enough space for tourists and locals alike to spread out under the blue sky. In the market square near my hotel, a deli cat paces across the cobble square as two little brothers give futile chase. Their mothers and her friend chat on the metal bench, bunching up their scarves as a cloud passes across the sun and a breeze passes through the streets. There are some people with their groceries, backpacks, and briefcases who are hurrying home. There are others sitting at the cafe terrace who brave the cold, simply retucking their scarves into their coats and ordering another round of after-work drinks for the table.
Even just after two weeks of arriving, I feel as though I have a decent grasp of the city. I know, depending on where I am, whether the tram or metro will be faster to get back to the hotel. I know the seams where one neighborhood becomes the next, which major street will take me all the way to class, and which turns will take me through dappled alleys under leafy ceilings. Amsterdam thus far hasn’t disenchanted me yet, and I bet a good amount that it won’t for a long time.
I know I have just scratched the surface of the city. There is plenty more to learn, discover, and experience. And once I learn all of that, there will be even more, good and bad, whether I want to or not. But I don’t want to anticipate becoming familiar with Amsterdam. Right now, I am focusing on absorbing everything and processing it as new; the names of the metro stations, the shapes of the merchant houses, crossing a bridge and seeing a water channel instead of a highway, the rain that is almost a mist when it comes unexpectedly in the morning, the early touches of autumn.
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My name is Emma Basco and I am originally from Sacramento, California. I am currently studying literature and writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. I love to read on the beach, doodle on post it notes, paint with watercolors, and unearth new cafes and restaurants. My hidden talent is that I can make an excellent pot of noodles from packaged ramen.