Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Bikes of Amsterdam

 Ah, Amsterdam, city of canals, quaint houses and fewer windmills than you might expect. A city of shimmering water and worn cobbles, where—with no fear of legal repercussion—you can smoke hash, rent a prostitute and visit a world-class art exhibit all within comfortable walking distance from your hotel. (For the record, we accomplished one of these three; you should have no trouble guessing which it was.)

My wife, redundantly reading The Light of Amsterdam while actually
in Amsterdam, and giving me inspiration for the title of this post.
The first thing about Amsterdam that impressed me was how easy it was to get there. I haven’t flown anywhere but to the US in years so it came as a pleasant shock to learn that—outside of a police state—you are actually allowed to lock your suitcase, and that border guards are not constitutionally required to treat you like criminally-inclined flotsam. Smiles, pleasant conversation, helpfulness—it was so startlingly surreal I was giddy by the time we checked into our room.

We snagged a room with a balcony; a great place for traffic-watching.
If you ever visit Amsterdam—and I thoroughly recommend that you do—be aware: there are bikes, lots of them. The Dutch are way ahead of most countries when it comes to green transportation and, in Amsterdam, bicycles outnumber cars by a very wide margin.

They are stationary now, but wait until they get moving.
These are not your hi-tech racers or rugged off-road models, these are work-a-day bikes, the type of bike you probably had as a kid, with upright handle bars, a single gear and a bracket over the rear fender to carry books or bags or your friend who needed a lift. They commute to work on them, they visit the market on them, they go out for the evening on them. They ride them effortlessly, with consummate skill, supreme confidence and, curiously, no helmets. But the most important thing for you to remember, however, is that they ride them everywhere.

Bikes being well behaved, but you should see them when they think no one is looking!
You would be safe on the sidewalks, if the bikes kept to the cycle lanes and roadways (I have to add that we also found ourselves dodging vehicle traffic on the sidewalks so I can’t lay this one totally at the feet of the cyclists.) You might be safe crossing when the “walk” sign is green, if the bikes did not routinely ignore traffic signs. And you could be safe on a one-way street with no oncoming traffic, if the bikes did not also ignore traffic laws.

When we visited some years ago and I saw everyone riding bikes, I found it at once quaint and forward thinking. The cyclists were orderly then and I never recall having to dodge them. This time, however, I was in fear for my life any time I was outside.

They zipped through intersections, they whizzed across pavements, they slalomed around busses, trams ad pedestrians, they darted through cross-traffic like a shuttlecock on a loom, weaving a traffic tapestry that was, at once, mesmerizing and frightening.

When crossing a street, or a pedestrian area, or a sidewalk or, well, anything (I even saw a bank lobby with a sign “no bikes!” posted at the entrance) you have to look in every direction but up, and then you have to check again because the bikes are not only swift, they are silent. And in Amsterdam there are only two types of pedestrians—the quick and the dead.

So, with more trepidation than I would have liked, we wandered the lovely lanes and scenic streets of Amsterdam, took in a few museums, sampled the local cuisine (I had the best calzone ever at the little restaurant next to our hotel), did our bit to stimulate the local economy and generally enjoyed ourselves.

Amsterdam has its own flavor, a little sweet, a little saucy, but always pleasantly palatable. The pictures don’t do it justice; you must go there, really, I mean it.

Really, can you think of a more tranquil and beguiling scene than this...

...or this...

... or this ...

... or this ...

... or this?
Just watch out for the bikes.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Hell-o, You’ve Reached Emergency Services

After a dozen years in this country, I finally had the opportunity to dial 999, which is the UK equivalent of 911. It’s not that I was looking forward to, or even expecting, this event. After all, I lived many years in the US without ever having to call 911, though I did make liberal use of the predecessor of 911, which was running to get your mother. But that’s for another time.

This is how it happened:

My wife and I were on our customary postprandial constitutional when, on our way into town, we noticed a man sort of leaning, crouching and/or collapsing against the doorway of an empty shop. He didn’t appear to be in distress, and seemed intent on his conversation with some tiny, invisible person, so we left him to it.

About twenty minutes later, as we returned from our walk, the man was in the same location, but was prone on the sidewalk. I took a cautious look to see if he was breathing and, finding that he was, we retreated to a safe distance to decide what to do.

In your dreams
During this time (and, I have to assume, the twenty minutes previous) several people walked past him with varying degrees of curiosity, but none of them stopped to help. Two young men did, however, attempt to get the gentleman to his feet by leaning him against the doorway, but he again collapsed into a jumbled heap. I told them I was about to call for help so they went on their way.

Since the man was not spouting blood or having a seizure, we decided that it might be overkill to tie up the 999 line, so I called 101, instead. This is the non-emergency number and, after the phone rang for a very long time, I got a recording that basically said no one in the office could be arsed to answer the phone and why didn’t I go to their website and tell them what the problem was.

So, feeling they had left me no choice, I dialled 999. After a few rings, a chipper woman answered:

“Hell-o, you've reached emergency services.”

This was followed by a pregnant pause so I launched into my spiel:

“Hi, I'm on the Bishopric in Horsham and there is a man lying on the sidewalk. He has been there for over twenty minutes, he does not appear to be in any distress but he is unable to stand up.”

This was followed by another pause, then: “Which service do you require: fire, ambulance or police?”

Since he wasn’t spouting flames and didn’t appear in danger of imminent death, I said, “Police.”

So the line was switched and another woman asked, “What is your emergency?”

“I’m on the Bishopric in Horsham and there is a man …” I’m not typing it again; go read the previous paragraph.

This woman asked a few more questions, then announced it was not their problem and that I really wanted an ambulance. Then, instead of transferring me, she told me to hang up and dial 999 again.

So I did.

“Hell-o, you’ve reached emergency services.”

“Hi, I’m on the Bishopric…” You know the rest.

Then she asked: “Which service do you require: fire, ambulance or police?”

I took a breath and said, “Ambulance.”

Soon, I was connected to another chipper woman who asked: “What is your emergency?”

And I said...come on, you all know the words by now, sing along with me: “I’m on the Bishopric...”

“Where are you?” the woman asked as soon as I finished.

“On the Bishopric.”

“But where?”

“In Horsham.”

“What street?”

“The Bishopric.”

“But what is the name of the road?”

“The Bishopric.”

“Oh. That’s the road? I don’t know the area.”

This was when I started to suspect I was speaking to call centre in Mumbai staffed by excellent English-speakers.

999 operators, somewhere in Mumbai
“Ask him if he’s okay.”

“I’m pretty sure he’s not.”

“Well, ask him.”

To which I replied: “Ma’am, I am neither a hero nor a doctor, nor am I competent enough to deal with an emergency, that’s why I’m calling you!” Well, in my head I said that. In the real world, I approached the man with no small amount of trepidation—was he violent, would he strike out, did he have a weapon—and asked how he was doing. He mumbled something, so I backed away to safe distance, satisfied.

“He’s conscious, but he doesn’t look at all well.”

“Is he sick? Is he a diabetic?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, ask him!”

By now the chipper woman was not so chipper, so I complied.

The man mumbled that he was not sick, or a diabetic but that he had to get home. His home was only about a mile away, but short of carrying him, there was no way he was going to make it. I informed the woman of this.

“Can you get him a cab?”

“And why don’t I just bundle him into my own car and take him out for coffee and a bite to eat,” I thought. But to the woman, I just said, “No.”

The conversation went on like this for some time, with me occasionally ordered to ask the man some inane question and I realized that, counting the twenty minutes our walk had taken, this man had been lying there for nearly an hour. In the US, I imagined, within 5 minutes of making such a call, there would be twenty officers on the scene with guns drawn and 127 lawyers chasing after them, but here, we were no closer to getting any sort of help for him, and the woman I was requesting assistance from seemed set on doing everything she could shy of sending actual help.

Then, as I was once again interrogating the man at her request, an ambulance pulled up.

“It’s okay,” I told the woman, “an ambulance just arrived.”

“It did?” she asked, sounding at once surprised and mildly indignant.

We said our good-byes after that, and she left me with the feeling that she was not happy with the outcome and that it was somehow my fault, as if I had surreptitiously sneaked in an ambulance behind her back. But the paramedics took charge and, unlike myself, seemed fully competent at handling the situation, so we wandered home.

It was an unusual but educational experience, and now I know that, if I ever find myself prone on the sidewalk in urgent need of attention, I shall dial the number for a local taxi company instead of 999; it will be much quicker.