When I first arrived in Amsterdam at the beginning of my study abroad adventure, nearly six months ago, I was eager to make the city my home. I spent every free moment wandering the maze of streets, in search of cafés full of locals and the most beautiful of the brick houses. I had never been to Amsterdam before, and only knew it for its stereotypes — namely, its bikes and canals. Little did I know, those stereotypes would be at the heart of the sense of belonging I’ve felt so strongly during my time in Holland.

Less than a week after arriving in Amsterdam, I bought myself a bicycle. The purchase was prompted by pure logistic necessity — two wheels are the only reliable way to navigate this city. Biking is often faster than public transportation (plus, it’s cheaper) and, while cars have to respect one-way and do not enter signs, bikes are often granted the freedom to take the most convenient route.

When people talk about the number of bicycles in Amsterdam, they aren’t joking. In the center of the city there are structures that resemble parking garages, filled to the brim with bicycles, and, at busy commuter hours, the bike paths are congested to what seems like maximum capacity. I spent my first month having nightmares about my bike getting stolen, and decorated the handlebar with strands of pink plastic flowers to make it easier to find in a sea of too-similar black bicycles.

As time progressed, my comfort level on my bicycle paralleled my comfort level in Amsterdam. It took me a few weeks to master the art of a bicycle without handbrakes and to navigate the streets without stopping to consult Google Maps. But biking alongside parents balancing toddlers on the handlebars and backs of their bikes and alongside children en route to school, I felt part of it all. Whether it was a late night ride home, cruising through empty streets, or a rainy day commute, biking into wind and arriving at my destination covered in a thick layer of mist, there has always been a level of joy in mounting my bicycle. (Though, it is always most pleasant to fly down the bike paths on a clear, sunny day when the wind is at my back.) I’m so fond of my bicycle, I even adoringly gave it a name, so as to honor the powerful connection the bike creates between the city and me.

One of my favorite bike routes runs along several canals lined with houseboats of varying shapes and sizes. The canals offer a change in scenery from the charming, crooked brick buildings that slant toward the street. The roofs of some boats are covered in plants, while others have inviting patios for sunny day sunbathing. These boats have become characters and, as I ride past them, they mark different parts in my journey. There’s the abandoned barge overgrown with flowers that means I’m close to home; the tiny boat painted with rainbow stripes that marks the turn for one of my favorite cafés; and the long boat that often has a laundry line hanging between both ends, sheets flapping in the wind, that means I’m nearing a congested pedestrian area and need to start paying more careful attention.

The bikes and the boats end up on postcards and in guidebooks for good reason — they’re beautiful and full of charm. But they’re also full of life. These bikes and boats belong to people who use them every day. They have stories and character.

When I leave this city at the end of the month, I will miss the feeling of the wind at my back as I speed down the bike paths, zipping past houseboats and over bridges that cross the canals. They remind me where I live, the place I’ve made my home.  

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Willa Tellekson-Flash
Willa (@willatf) is a junior at New York University, studying in Amsterdam, the Netherlands this spring. The first things she looks for upon arriving in a new city are open-air markets and hidden cafés, and she is happiest when exploring without a map.

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