After having been to Rome, Strasbourg, Paris, Marseille and Munich (in that order necessarily not) on my obligatory middle-class caucasian post-bachelor’s-degree-graduation European backpacking trip funded by generous and proud relatives, your correspondent found myself once upon a midday cloudy in the lovely city-state of Amsterdam.
According to the coterie that I had around me at the time back home, this was the only destination that was necessary to visit while on said trip. Might as well dump that silly Eurail pass in the Amstel River after landing at Schiphol Airport. They implied that the rest of the European continent could get stuffed — screw the Louvre and the Sistine Chapel and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Best to get f—– up and gaze through red windows at some purdys. This myopic vision seemed to me at the very least to be a major diss on our cultural heritage (we were all white), especially considering that I had just graduated with a degree in comparative literature, much of it European. I suspect, however, that Baudelaire would have approved of my friends’ sentiments, so there was that at least. Godspeed, Chuck.
I had decided, against my friends’ enthusiastic encouragement, that in Amsterdam I would toe the line and not partake in any of the well-known and easily accessible drugs and sex. I did this to be an outlier, thus preventing me from becoming a young American travel cliché. On my first day in Amsterdam, completely stoned out of my mind, I was meandering along a canal and saw some sort of aquatic contraption with a giant hand-like dredger attached, moving slowly along the glassy water.
Some guy drifted up to me and said something that I didn’t understand.
He then switched to a very obscure and primitive tribal language called English. I still couldn’t understand him.
“What did you say?” I concentrated on his reply because it would have been thoroughly embarrassing to speak to him in English and not understand him when he responded in English.
Or maybe I was just a little paranoid.
“Dey are fishing for bicycles,” he said.
“OK dude, I’m, like, seriously high because it sounded like you just said they’re fishing for bicycles.”
“Correct! Welcome to Amsterdam! Beware of pickpockets!”
I turned back around and looked at the boat. “The hell, dude. You’re freaking me out.” The guy on the boat started to move around the dredger with a little knob next to his seat. I turned back around and my informant had disappeared back into the parade of bicycles behind me, quicker than Jean-Baptiste of Camus’ “The Fall” took up his stool at a Venice of the North bar.
“Fishing for bicycles,” I repeated under my breath, and I heard a slight echo throughout all of eternity. (That’s what I imagined some romantic poet on opium writing if it had been him standing here watching this).
“Alright Ahab, get to work,” I mumbled. I still thought that the anonymous yet incredibly friendly and charming Dutchman that had stopped was probably pulling my leg, but it was obvious this dredger was up to something, so I waited there to find out.
A minute later, the dredger hand kerplunked into the canal water and came back up with nada. He maneuvered a bit forward and kerplunked the dredger hand again. To my utter bewilderment (amplified by ample cannabis) there were two slimy and rusty bicycles in the grip of the dredger.
He rotated around and dropped these fiets cadavers onto a flatboat next to the dredger. Then he went back for more.
I was so enthralled by this spectacle that I half expected another Dutchman in a funny-looking official uniform to roll up on a bicycle and ask for my admission ticket. I would have gladly handed over some Euro Monopoly money for this surreal show.
Another bicyclist drifted up to me.
“I know, fishing for bicycles,” I said.
“Yes, dis is de most popular spectator sport in de Nederlands. What are you doing here?”
“I mean in de Nederlands.”
“How do you know I’m not Dutch?”
“Come on, you’re an American. I can hear it in your English. Also your clothes.”
“So how do all these bikes get in the water?”
“Oh, I don’t know. De wind. Lover’s fight. Stipid drunk people.”
“What do they do with all the bikes?”
“Dey give dem a proper burial.” He looked at me with a sly face. “No, actually I don’t know de details.”
“Enjoy de show. I must go now.”
These Dutch. So friendly.
The dredger advanced inch by inch, as did I, along the canal and it continued to pull out these little Ophelias from the depths. What stories went along with these forgotten bike wrecks? Were these drownings accidental or on purpose? And what a sad form of detritus they were. Bicycles always reminded me of innocence and simple happiness, and here they all were, like cherry blossoms trampled under foot.
The flatboat got quite a bit more dense with derelict bicycles, and eventually I walked away from the impromptu show. I had seen a cool square near the center of the city that looked like a nice place to continue to watch the life of the city unfold.
I made my way over there, took up a spot on the steps drinking a coffee, and a Dutch girl, who somehow immediately recognized me as American, told me that she was studying French literature. We had a nice chat about Camus, life on the Amstel, and her recent acquisition of her dream bicycle.
Scott Moss is a writer, photographer and artist based in Corvallis. You can find him on Instagram at @ScottSMoss or email him at ScottSMoss@gmail.com. He also has a website for his photography, scottmoss.co.