On the bikes, we learned to be more Dutch.
Setting out from Amsterdam, my husband and I donned our helmets for a 30-mile jaunt toward Marken, a picturesque village with brown-shingled windmills. Cycling through the city's carefully engineered crossings, we arrived at Centraal Station and loaded our bikes onto the ferry to Amsterdam-Noord, a bright, hip quarter. From there, our route took us to Nieuwendammerdijk, a narrow dike wall lined with tiny, smartly painted wooden box houses, some dating from the 1500s, all reflected in a shimmering canal. The late spring danced around us: Beeches greened, and steely clouds played off the lowland's quicksilver light. Moving freely through this scenery called up a childlike joy. I felt intimate with the world, more open and at ease. I waved at fellow bicyclists and stopped to admire the polder, the shining waterlands just beyond the dikes. At lunchtime, we ducked into a delightfully crooked dark-walled dike house for beer and spicy meatballs.
At the time, our family was living in Northern Ireland, where I was teaching. When my parents came to visit, my husband and I left them in Belfast with the kids and flew to Amsterdam for three luxurious days alone. The city, which I'd last seen in my 20s, was as wonderful as I'd remembered: Van Gogh's magnificent collection of Japanese prints in his namesake museum; soft rain on silver ponds in Vondelpark. We admired lush burgher drawing rooms through open windows; everything we saw became a still life. Dutch beauty was everywhere.
But it was only when I coasted through the landscape that I began to really understand the local ethos. Eventually, crossing between neighborhoods, we found ourselves on a former highway on-ramp overlooking what had once been a gas station. In a way that felt truly Dutch, both were not only reclaimed but also made lovely. The on-ramp was now a bicycle path and pedestrian bridge over the highway, while the gas station's onetime convenience store, which had its own modernist appeal, had been converted into an artsy community center. Outside, on a tarmac dotted with planters where gas pumps had probably been, kids ran in circles, laughing, while a picnic table hosted a colorful felting project; inside, a child's birthday party and crafting session were under way.
It was remarkable to witness these clever innovations. I leaned into one of the felt crafters and told her I wished we could make something as wonderful out of our gas stations back home. The woman, with a matter-of-fact expression, looked up from her project and assessed me. “This is what our community wanted,” she said. “We imagined a different use for the gas station; we worked to build this kind of change.” I mentioned this might be a hard sell in my driving-crazed state of California. “But you can find others who want it too,” she said. “And you can always make change at the scale of your body.” She held my gaze. She wasn't going to let me off the hook. The glimmering dike behind me reminded me of what the Dutch know well: You can engineer beautiful things with your life, but they are also the product of a lot of hard work.
Yet in order to change, we have to dream too. Our day of biking in the Netherlands made me imagine the pleasures of living differently. Moving to the steady rhythms of our bikes, we had navigated effortlessly between city and country, traditional and contemporary. Compared to my hectic daily routine of being stuck in traffic and looking for parking, the day felt natural and effortless.