Week 2 (Blaga): In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, by Pete Jordan

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #1: Read a book about sports.

Book: In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, by Pete Jordan (Harper Perennial, 2013)

In 2002, Pete Jordan decided to study urban planning at the University of Amsterdam, knowing, by his own admission, almost nothing about Holland’s history or culture except that the Dutch like bicycles. A self-professed “bike-nut, who had lived and cycled in cities all across America”, Jordan quickly fell in love and decided to permanently move to Amsterdam, soon joined by his wife and fellow cycling-lover Amy Joy.

In the City of Bikes is part memoir, part love letter to cycling, part history of Amsterdam and its cycling culture. When I say history, I mean from the late 1800s to present day, decade by decade. While recounting his own bike-related experiences from his first years of living in the Netherlands, Jordan tackles a wide range of topics such as – among others – bike theft (and its own history), terms – especially animal ones – with which Amsterdam cyclists have been described, and the role of cyclists in the army (there was an actual Cyclists Unit) and in the Resistance during the years of the Nazi Occupation. He also tries to understand how the bicycle lost its popularity in the United States, despite being widely used at the turn of the century (hint: cars and long distances play a large role, although naturally the reasons are more numerous and complicated than that – so much so that they have an entire chapter dedicated to them).

The book at times is heavy on data and quotations – certainly testimony to Jordan’s dedication and thorough research – and can therefore feel a bit dry. Just when you are ready to throw your hands up in frustration, however, Jordan manages to draw you back in by including an engaging anecdote. Thus, we get to learn, for example, a great deal about Queen Wilhelmina’s own love for riding her bike, especially among the people like any regular person. And, as this is a memoir, we get a glimpse of Jordan’s own life (his first job working as a janitor, his wife becoming a bicycle mechanic and eventually acquiring her own shop, the birth of their son and more) and his reflections on Amsterdam’s culture through the lens of cycling. His intelligent observations about the cultural differences between the Dutch and the Americans were something which I appreciated and connected to especially, being an immigrant myself.

Jordan seems to be at ease writing memoirs on seemingly odd topics, which provide interesting and poignant cultural commentary. His first book, Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States (Harper Perennial, 2007), based on the zine of the same title that he published under the pen name Dishwasher Pete, chronicles his experiences as he moved around a country for a decade trying to wash dishes in all 50 states. His first book was praised for its “exploration of the dishwashing subculture,” (Booklist). This book, I think, ought to be praised for its presentation of Amsterdam’s culture. Although a little dry at times, the book has something for everyone. This is a fantastic guide to understanding the city – and navigating it safely and efficiently. The author’s enthusiasm about bikes is clear and, frankly, contagious – no matter whether you cycle or not.

Personally, I have been to Amsterdam only once and for a very short period of time, so I haven’t managed to appreciate it fully just yet. After reading this book, I definitely want to go back, rent a bike and give the city the attention it deserves.

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