Amsterdam diary: brakeless bikes and provincial charm

First thing’s first: if you’re flying to Amsterdam at 6 o’clock on a Sunday morning, just bite the bullet and take the detour to Eindhoven via Ryanair. I have absolutely nothing against Aer Lingus, however; TERMINAL TWO HAS NO MCDONALDS. When your body’s still asleep and your eyelids are somewhere around your knees and you just want – no, need – the comfortable tastiness of whatever sugary greasy salty item that tickles your fancy, looking up and seeing the glaring burger king sign smirking down on you will be enough to reduce you to tears in your semi-conscious fragile state… It was for me, anyway.

Having dumped my stuff in my room at what felt like 4pm but was really only 11am, I thought I’d get my bearings a bit and cycle into town, which is supposedly 20 minutes away from where I am – Jan van Galenstraat. It took crashing into an old lady for me to realise that I had no brakes. While the rental shops supply tourists with the kind of modern bikes we’d be more used to, if you want to cycle like a native, you can forget luxuries such as brakes and embrace old-fashioned ram-shaped handlebars and the back-pedal method.

As far as I can see, the rules of the road here seem to be an optional guideline rather than law. Special traffic lights for cyclists are planted in the cycling tracks which have been erected on every main road in the city – however, only myself and a few other bewildered newcomers seem to obey them. Officially, you yield to traffic coming from the right, which is fine until you come to one of the monstrous junctions where the main means of crossing is playing a game of “chicken” with other road-users. The Dutch have managed to instil in me a deep fear of trams – apparently, getting the wheel of your bike stuck in the tracks will inevitably lead to “instant death”; my heart does a nose-dive whenever I hear the approaching tram’s bell ringing.

Once you’re quite literally “on your bike”, you’re going to want to start doing the rounds of the city looking for a job, because as I said, life here isn’t cheap. Minimum wage is only 7 euro, so the restaurant and bar industry seems to be the most favourable as tips, particularly from American holiday makers, tend to be good. Thankfully, my aspirations were accurate in that there is plenty of work for English speakers here in the tourist haunts of Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein and Warmoesstraat; although it helps if you can speak another European language.

Starting work isn’t totally straightforward, however. Strangely enough, even though we Irish are fellow members of the EU, in order to work anywhere “legally” you require a “SOFI” number; the Dutch equivalent of a PPS. This kind of administrative stuff is awkward and involves a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, largely because what an Irish person would say in one sentence, a Dutch person says in nine. To acquire a SOFI number, you need to go to the City Hall in Amstel and make an appointment – the soonest of which for me was the 19th of June. While some places that have expressed interest in my CV don’t want to know me until then, there are others who will take you on in the meantime under the radar.

Socially, it’s easy to get to know people here. There is a real sense of solidarity among ex-pats in Amsterdam in that they will go that bit further to help you find work or give you advice; I suppose because they remember the settling-in process all too well themselves. The Dutch people I also find to be friendly and helpful; in an efficient, factual kind of way. I read somewhere that the city is comprised of something crazy like 150 different nationalities. It’s kind of unbelievable that a place can boast the cosmopolitanism of New York but at the same time, evoke the cosiness and security of a sleepy provincial town. Nobody is in a mad hurry, nobody is barking down a mobile phone and nobody is too busy to stop and talk. I don’t know whether it’s the marijuana fumes hanging in the air or what, but even after a week, I can feel the whole “don’t worry be happy” mentality starting to sink in. 

Follow Caoimhe's Amsterdam adventures here: @OConnellCaoimhe