It’s Saturday morning and I’m cycling to La Plantage on a writing assignment. I know! A writing assignment! The number of platforms onto which I can now word-vomit is rising like a well-proven dough, or a magic porridge pot that no one can remember how to shut off. My productivity is inversely proportional to My Lawyer’s, who, as I ride canal-side thinking of mildly amusing analogies, is at home begging the four year old to shit already so they can go to the park, or to the forest, or simply another part of the apartment. I’m told frequently how lucky I am, that he is willing to wait around for literal shit, allowing me to occasionally piss about like this. What must it be like, in his position? Does he feel like a mug, or bearer of the short straw, or man of the year? But I do feel lucky, as I cycle along the canal. I am a woman, who has three small children, who sometimes goes out on her own on the weekend. I still ask, as I head out, “How long can I have?” Aren’t we cute, that we still think that’s a big deal?
I cycle east from the Rijksmuseum, to avoid the central scrum. Amsterdammers are lamenting the so-called Disneyfication of the city; cheese shops, clog slippers and cannabis fridge magnets line many of the streets that fall south of the Red Light District. The influx of tourists and notoriety of attractions means that fewer locals can now live here. Think: the rubbish end of Oxford Street, with the added guarantee of women and drugs. Prostitutes and cannabis don’t attract as many culture vultures as you might think. The majority of the problematic visitors are men, aged 18-35, and guess where most of them are from? Oh, that green and pleasant land! Bringing their arrows of desire! There’s a feeling of resigned inevitability about this here in the city; dangle the carrot, the donkeys will come. As it were. Some would say you were asking for it, Amsterdam.
La Plantage is a pretty, cobbled area of central Amsterdam that has escaped this never-ending Eurotrash episode. I arrive and lock up my bike, proud that I made it without even a glance at Google Maps. My poor sense of direction heightens my sense of governance, or lack of, over any trip; I’m either terrifyingly isolated in my new city, or I’m free-wheeling happily through recognisable streets, starting to feel like I belong, just because I know what’s around the corner. Familiarity might breed contempt, but there’s a sweet spot just before that happens, which is when most of us get married. Amsterdam, I’m ready to propose.
I’ve come to La Plantage to walk through a couple of recommendations I’m writing about, and I head towards the Hermitage Museum, striding confidently. I stumble on an uneven cobble, and a passing cyclist on a pink bike shouts, “Goede stoep!” or “Goede step!” or something like it. I’m wearing my rose gold headphones and also my Dutch is terrible, so I don’t catch it, but he’s smiling and cheerful and I don’t think he’s being rude, so I grin back like I’m meant to, and carry on walking. A couple of minutes later, the cyclist, now on foot, walks past me, saying something to me.
“Huh?” I remove my headphones.
He’s speaking very fast Dutch, but he’s pointing at his pink bike leaning against the wall opposite us, telling me, I think, that it’s mine if I want it. It goes with my headphones, he says. He doesn’t need it.
“Echt?” I ask? Really?
“Yeah,” he switches to English. “You gonna take it?”
I look over at the bike: high handlebars, a little rusty, pedal brakes instead of handlebar brakes. I rode My Lawyer’s pedal brake bike in my first few weeks in Amsterdam, and crashed it repeatedly. I hated it. The bike I bought for myself, that I cycle on days like today when I leave My Lawyer waiting for literal shit at home, is a handlebar brake bike. A chrome-black bike with silver panniers and no child seats. It’s my Ferrari. Read into that what you will, I don’t care. The silver-lining to a midlife crisis is a total lack of self-awareness.
“You’re just going to leave it there?” I ask that man.
He shrugs. “The front brake needs work. I got it for ten euros. I’m not the type to sell it though, you know?”
“No, man. That’s not me. I let it go, into the world. You don’t want it?”
“I have a bike already,” I say. “That is a nice bike though. That’s so nice of you!”
He shrugs again. “I just give it up for the next person, you know?”
He walks in one direction, I walk in the other.
Two hours later, on my return journey, the pink bike has gone.
When I tell My Lawyer about the pink bike later that day, he raises an eyebrow, unimpressed.
“Stolen,” he shrugs.
“What?” I exclaim. “No! It was a lovely moment!” I’m still high on freedom; I have a feeling that the man I spoke to was God in disguise, like Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty. I have a feeling that life gives back what you put in. I have a feeling that empathy can change the world.
But My Lawyer has all the buoyancy you might expect from a man who has been waiting for shit all day.
“Stolen,” he repeats, getting a beer from the fridge.
The following week, Morgan Freeman is accused of sexual harassment and someone steals my midlife crisis bike. I say “steals”, but “appropriates” is probably closer to the mark, as I left it unlocked all night by accident after a busy day with the kids. I more or less gave it away. I was asking for it. They say you’re not really an Amsterdammer until you’ve had your bike stolen, and so there’s a certain inevitability about it that means I’m not too upset; I knew it was coming, I knew this was around the corner. It’s almost a relief. In the days that follow, I think not of my midlife crisis bike, but the pink bike. I imagine peddling back in time, to see owner before owner before owner. I wonder how many times it has been taken, how many times it has been sold. I wonder if it ever had a basket, or panniers, or a novelty bell. I wonder if it was ever in an accident, or a chase, or a love story, or an escape. I wonder, eventually, if anyone is looking at my midlife crisis bike, asking themselves these same questions.
When it’s time again for my turn to drink the sweet elixir of solitude, I borrow My Lawyer’s pedal brake bike, steeling myself for disaster, and find that I can now cycle it quite proficiently, despite not having touched it for many months. It is easier, I suppose, because I now know where I’m going. It is the bike that My Lawyer bought when he first arrived in Amsterdam, three months before the rest of us. It has no child seats and, after a little oil, feels ten years younger, which is the main thing, right?
I decide to appropriate it for myself, and here I am, again. Typing, like the pot that won’t stop.