I learned to drive in Philadelphia in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the roads were quite empty; the conditions were perfect. Now, three years later, my sister is learning to drive in a post-COVID Philadelphia, with the traffic in full force. Philadelphia is a poor, de-industrialized, East Coast city, and the driving conditions fit the bill all too well; potholes galore, cars double parked in the left turn lane, swerving and speeding on the highway, and, more recently, going around other cars stopped at a red light in order to run it. This is sort of what biking in Amsterdam feels like when you first experience it. It feels like bikes are coming at you from every angle, and they appear to have no intention of slowing down or stopping. To make it that much more chaotic, the tourists on foot can appear never ending, especially on the weekends and/or in the heart of Amsterdam, where many of the UvA’s campuses are, as well as the IES Abroad building.
If the Netherlands is known for two things, it’s bicycles and rain, which when paired together yields a truly unfortunate combination. So, on top of the seemingly unpredictable traffic, the chance that you’ll get rained on while biking approaches 100%. This can seem daunting, even off putting; why would you study abroad somewhere where you’ll get rained on while biking? It’s a really good question. However, for Dutch people, rain and biking are as much a part of their daily life as waking up in the morning or brushing their teeth; they just live with it. Since study abroad is an educational experience in and out of the classroom, immersing yourself in the culture of your host country is just about as educational as it gets. So, hopping on your bike in 20 mile-per-hour winds just for a loaf of bread and a block of cheese, showing up to your Tuesday afternoon lecture with your thrifted jeans from the Waterlooplein completely soaked through, or not being able to see on your bike home because the rain is so thick is just something you account for in your day-to-day life as a person experiencing the Dutch lifestyle.
The intense weather and the innocent, simplistic nature of the bicycle lends itself immensely to the Dutch cultural phenomenon of gezelligheid, a word that is impossible to translate accurately into English but loosely equates to a sense of wholesomeness, coziness, or pleasantness. My mother, who grew up in the Netherlands, told me that everyone would wear rain boots while they biked, and before entering the classroom, took them off, so that everyone was in their socks for the whole school day. This is a typically gezellig scene—just imagine a group of school children, learning and playing in the warm classroom, in their socks, while the rain batters the windows and the wind shakes the trees. So, by biking in the rain to class, the grocery store, a café, or wherever else you may find yourself in Amsterdam, you are participating in a fundamental and universally shared aspect of the quirky Dutch culture. It can feel embarrassing to come to class with soaking wet clothes and frizzy hair—I certainly felt so—but everyone goes through it, so no one bats an eye. And, I’ll say, it’s quite nice to finally come home to your warm room after biking in the rain. You peel the wet pants from your legs and put on some cozy pajamas, make a nice hot cup of tea and a stroopwafel, and curl up by your window with a book and listen to the rain—it doesn’t get much more gezellig than that.
In part 2 of this blog posts, I’ll provide some examples of why biking is the best way to get around in Amsterdam, as well as some tips and tricks to make biking as easy and comfortable as possible.
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Despite being a history major and studying history at the UvA this year, I am a passionate musician. I have been playing piano for over a decade, focusing largely on jazz, but I love to play guitar, banjo, and mandolin in my free time!