4 min

I named my bike Janis

Reflections from Amsterdam

Six weeks after my house burned down I took a plane to Amsterdam.

Even my lady-friend, amply aware of my penchant to over pack, was impressed with my minimalist approach to Euro-travel. One half-empty backpack, one laptop and some papers. One small multi-tool and an iPod. Mini toothpaste tubes and the whole nine yards.

Truth is, my wardrobe habits have morphed completely since the fire.

Losing all your clothes makes any kind of a serious fashion crisis impossible and, since my extensive polyester shirt collection proved itself so very flammable, I find myself appreciating cotton in a whole new way, wrinkles and all.

Packing light sure comes to me easier now. So does doing the laundry.

But the changes go way deeper than mere fabric preferences. In fact, about a month after the fire I realized that everything would be different forever, that what normal once looked like for me doesn’t exist anymore.

Flames are oddly merciful in that way. A blaze takes things from you, and you know they’re gone, not just to you, but to everyone. It’s that simple and finite.

Three days after my house burned down I had to go on the road for a bit, and when I got back to Vancouver what was left of my torched belongings had been looted.

Wet and half-torched private papers carpeted the remains of my living room. Drawers were tossed and the taste of an invasion stung in my nose, stronger somehow than the smell of smoke and scorch and soggy loss.

Worst thing was, I had to face the fact that there are people in the world, in my city even, in my hood, that will jump on the opportunity to steal from someone who has just lost everything.

I had to cancel all my credit cards and cheques, in order to sidestep becoming an identity fraud poster child. As they say in Holland “vind het niet leuk” which means, “I find it not nice.”

Turns out I’d take a house fire over an insensitive and morally bankrupt thief any day. Not that we ever get to choose these things but still, at least I don’t have to spend the rest of my days perusing pawn shop windows for my treasured things, or wondering who might be wearing my favourite jacket now, and if they love it like I did.

I know where most of my stuff went, and it sure wasn’t up anyone’s arm or nose, and that seems kinder to me somehow.

As the inimitable Geoff Burner says, “Keep it light enough to travel.”

So I find myself in Amsterdam, still tripping out on the fact that I can smoke cigarettes inside here, not to mention that the café I’m writing this in carries some 30 varieties of grass and hash, and there is an Irish Wolfhound sleeping undisturbed and welcome under the table next to me.

The transit systems in Europe make so much practical sense that it’s no wonder our government hasn’t caught on to any of this yet. You can take your bike on a bus, on a tram and on the subway. Same with your dogs, your huge double baby stroller, and a second hand chair. People just work around it.

In Amsterdam, the bicycle is the preferred and most sensible means of transport and the sidewalks are so full of them that it is sometimes difficult to find a place to lock up to.

Train stations have multi-floored parking lots, but for bikes. I bought myself a cheap Dutch one-speed my second day here, planning to sell it to a lovely Russian gal who works at the theatre I was performing in when I returned home, but I’ve fallen so in love with her silvery simple lines (the bike’s, that is) that I might have to bring her home to Canada with me, to meet the family.

I named my bike Janis, and she has transformed me from a meat-eating, chain-smoking guy who drives his car everywhere, into a meat-eating, chain-smoking guy who rides his bike everywhere.

I average about five hours a day and, until my ass became accustomed to my new ways, I had to sit on an ice pack for three nights in a row to keep the swelling down.

Lord knows I’ve had my fair share of rear-end related injuries in the past, but this one was by far the most inconveniently located. A guy can lay off the ass play for a couple of days till things mend themselves up, but it’s hard to avoid sitting down for three days straight.

It is for me, anyways. But back to my bike.

My favourite time is the morning bicycle rush hour, trying to pedal just slow enough through the crowd at the lights so I don’t have to stop and climb off, doing like the Dutch do and resting one hand on a light post or street sign or a toe on a curb until the pack moves on.

Beautiful women with the wind wrapping their long dresses around their calves as they pedal in high heels to work, talking on their cell phones. Mothers with two toddlers crammed helmet-less into one baby seat, the oldest holding a loaf of bread in one hand and a block of cheese in the other.

Yesterday I watched a woman moving what we would call a small bar fridge, strapped to her bike rack, with an old chair bungee-corded to the top of the fridge.

No one I have met so far in Holland owns a bathtub; apartments are too small to afford to sacrifice enough space for a full kitchen or a luxury like lying down to wash.

This is perfect for me since the little house I lived in for the last 12 years only had stand-up washing facilities too. It’s been an easy transition. One thing a good house fire teaches you is how to adapt quickly to a changing environment.

Tune in next time when I tell you the story of how I had my heart stolen by an Israeli park ranger who speaks four languages. A really butch one. Much butcher than me.

It’s a brave new world.