Amsterdam is a city of canals, historic row houses and freewheeling social policies that attract visitors from the world over. As I discovered, it’s also a city of very determined cyclists and committed distance walkers.
In October 2005, I traveled to Amsterdam for a few days to meet a wing of my family that I’d long heard of but never met. My second cousin Tjalda and her husband Albert lived in the southern part of the city. My grandfather was born in the Netherlands and was Tjalda’s great uncle. My mother was always telling me I should go meet my Dutch relatives-years later I finally made the trip from San Francisco to Amsterdam.
As I got off the city shuttle train from Schiphol Airport, hauling a heavy bag and giant roller suitcase, filled with finery for the cruise I would take after this visit, Tjalda met me…astride her bicycle with no more than a wicker basket for storage.
We shared a warm greeting—honestly, I felt like I knew her already—and continued to Tjalda’s house. As Tjalda wheeled her bike, I slowly walked the five blocks. One of the first things I noticed was that Amsterdam streets were filled with cyclists. They were everywhere and seemed to own the roads more so than the cars.
Tjalda’s house was a narrow, three-story row house in the typical Dutch style I’d seen in photographs. Once inside, I noticed how modestly furnished it was. The Dutch have a reputation for frugality and my relatives seemed to live without unnecessary bells and whistles (which I love and admire).
My luggage, alas, was still my millstone. Dutch row houses have narrow, winding staircases. It wasn’t worth dragging my heavy bags up to the third-floor guest room, so I plucked out what I’d need for the next three days and carried that up instead.
Tjalda and I chatted for a while about my grandfather who moved from the Netherlands to Colorado where my mother and, years later, I grew up. Tjalda’s brother had visited us there a few times, staying at my grandfather’s old miner’s cabin we keep in Ouray, Colorado, so she was familiar with the many stories about him. A noted naturalist, landscape architect and author, my grandfather, M. Walter Pesman, has written a few books about native flora that are still in print.
While I spoke no Dutch and Tjalda halting English, we discovered we both love the outdoors and try to eat healthfully. Perhaps the roots of that love for what grows from the land and a desire to live simply lay with my Dutch grandfather.
That first day we walked to the market: a series of connected outdoor stalls, one selling fish, others with fruit and vegetables, flowers and cheese. I was amazed by the giant wheels of Gouda, some as big as truck tires, plunked on the counters for portioning.
Tjalda cooked the spoils of our market trip for dinner that night. The broiled fish and vegetables were the perfect healthful meal to restore my energy after my long trip. And I needed that strength for the next day. Tjalda tried to convince me to take a “little” 50-mile bike ride with her. While I love to hike and ride bikes, I didn’t think I had 50 miles in me, so we settled on a route that would cover about 30.
Even though I am a long-legged 5 feet 10 inches, Albert’s bike was a little big for me so I felt a bit wobbly riding through the busy streets of Amsterdam. But the day was so beautiful, light and sunny, I soon learned to ride the streets like a native. To get out of town, we caught a free ferry at the Centraal Station and soon we were wheeling our way through the countryside.
We rode across the flat Dutch landscape alongside canals adorned with gliding swans, famous windmills, and miles of dormant flower and agricultural fields. As we approached the endlessly grey and choppy North Sea I felt exhilarated and recalled the country’s great reputation for shipbuilding and pioneering engineering that reclaimed viable land from the marshy coastline.
On our way back to Amsterdam, Tjalda convinced me to try a local specialty—herring. It’s a popular local delicacy to the point that it’s sold from street-corner carts like hot dogs in the United States. She told me about a 100-year-old lady who ate a herring a day and attributed her longevity to that. I did have a few bites even though it was a bit out of my comfort zone and it was very salty.
The next day, Tjalda and Albert had to go to their jobs in The Hague, home to both the Dutch government and royal family, only 32 miles from Amsterdam. I left Albert’s bike at home and decided to walk my way through the city. I love to wonder around cities alone and see as much as I can.
The classic Dutch row houses, some as narrow as 25 feet across, compensate with height and character. I was charmed by the variations of stepped-front gables and scrolled tops.
I took a canal boat ride and learned that these houses have hooks made for hoisting furniture up through the windows. Now I know how Tjalda and Albert furnished their upstairs rooms!
Having read “The Diary of Anne Frank” as a child, one of my first priorities was to visit the Anne Frank House. I found the lines outside quite long, so for future visitors I recommend buying tickets online to skip the wait. The cramped, claustrophobic rooms made me shiver to think of how frightening life here was for this young girl. Anne Frank wrote so beautifully about the majestic chestnut tree that stood outside the house. Life upon its top branches—be it dew, blossoms or emerging leaves—became her link to the outside as she hid in the cramped attic. I looked out the same window at the same tree. And I was lucky to see it, as the old tree, rotten with fungus, fell in 2010.
I continued my walk, crossing the Keizersgracht, the Herengracht, the Singel—just a few of Amsterdam’s famed canals. At that point, I stopped to ask a woman for directions and I realized that she looked a lot like me—fair hair, blue eyes, longish nose and almost six feet tall. As a matter of fact, I realized a lot of people in the Netherlands looked like me, which had never happened on my travels before.
When I returned back to Tjalda’s, we went to the market and bought preparations for our last dinner together. I had come to see that my mother’s suggestion to visit my Dutch relatives was an excellent one. I not only connected with Tjalda and Albert but discovered a commonality, a deep-rooted sense of familiarity and sameness with the Dutch. It took me a long time to discover my heritage, but I found it in the Netherlands.
The next morning, Tjalda escorted me to the train station. This time, I was relieved to note, we loaded my luggage into the family’s car and drove the five blocks.