The espresso-fueled American was having too much fun walking down Prinsengracht Street—no agenda, no deadline, no phone, even. There was a family rendezvous in three hours, but time meant very little on that sunny Amsterdam afternoon.
Only two weeks ago, I was that guy. My family had eaten lunch at a local falafel shop and then split up, dividing the backpacks, maps, water and Euros before the departure. My wife wanted to see walls of sunflowers; I wanted to explore. My semester-abroad daughter had a class across town to make. As she pedaled away over now-familiar canals and cobblestone bridges with her friends, we waved vigorously but with caution. If we embarrassed her, after all, we'd all look like tourists.
Of course, we did hit most of the guidebook highlights, ate lots of rustic bread, cheese and apple cake. Mostly, I wanted to feel the gezellig, Amsterdam's famously tolerant and mellow vibe. That shared spirit was in the air, in the corner cafés, in the communal crowds of slaloming bicycle riders. I walked the narrow streets, peered into the windows of tiny shops, stood shoulder to shoulder with strangers speaking a dozen languages and actually gave directions.
My appreciation of the understated "take-away" sign in one café side window felt understandably ironic. The "to-go" attitude is not really embraced in Amsterdam; you're supposed to sit awhile, take it all in, notice and enjoy the moments. You always have to ask for the check. Here, though, they offered mini-mugs of "take-away" espresso, just the energy I needed for my adventure. That's how I came to be briskly meandering my way around the Jordaan, past the art galleries (including a Shepard Fairey exhibit) and postcard views. Like most tourists, I loved standing on the rounded peak of a random bridge to watch the canal traffic float quietly round and round.
At most intersections, however, it was the bikes that ruled the road. After all, 600,000 bicycles can't be wrong. Children in the Netherlands take a bike exam when they are 12. I decided to join, but I needed a lot more practice to calmly enter that flow. I learned a few balancing tricks, a few international hand signals and weathered my fair share of international comments on my steering ability, or lack thereof.
Our daughter's dormitory overlooked a row of houseboats. At night, the view was otherworldly, with sparkling strings of lights. She and her friends had that college-age confidence, especially with their university-supplied bicycles, that everything was possible, that the night is always young. Paris is just a train ride away. Barcelona, Prague, London and even Norway's northern lights beckon. There was always time for ultimate Frisbee, and the nearby public library always had tiers of public access computers to use. There's always room for one more at a tiny street-side café table.
Amsterdam fosters that feeling of possibility, but I know I don't need to fly through six time zones to find gezellig. I even have an old rusty bike ready for some kind of adventure. I just wish there were Dutch apple cake piled with whipped cream around the corner.