Of all the cities in the world, Amsterdam is one of my favorites.
I get a little defensive when people talk about the city as though its only appeal to tourists is its liberal laws that allow them to let loose in ways they can't back home.
That's a narrow-minded, one-dimensional view of this picturesque city and, frankly, I just won't have it.
During my first trip to the city many years ago, I stepped outside the popular Red Light district, took long walks through town and fell in love. It has gorgeous architecture, charm, winding canals with bridges adorned with white lights, tiny boats cruising along the waterways, welcoming locals, picturesque parks with an abundance of diverse and amazing trees, art galleries and museums and fun and eclectic coffee shops.
I was also intrigued by the primary method of transportation within the city: the bicycle. This is a good thing because the drivers in Amsterdam, what few of them there are, are crazy. More on that in a minute.
During a recent visit, I spent some time observing how the locals get around the town. The Dutch ride old touring bikes with bells at all hours and in most weather. They turn on their headlights and ride them to the clubs at night. They ride with loads of groceries in their baskets. They ride with children in front and back in creative and often homemade compartments with coverings. I even saw a woman riding her bike while carrying a huge painting.
The cyclists are fast, skilled and agile. They're constantly swerving around foot traffic and avoiding the people speeding by them in the few cars that are to be found in the city. After pondering the reasons behind their fondness of two-wheeled transportation, I came to a few fairly obvious conclusions.
The Dutch are no-frills people who really know how to enjoy life. Amsterdam is rather small and easy to traverse, but too crammed for efficient travel by car. Remember, European cities predate cars, so they're not naturally part of the culture. On bicycle, they get to enjoy the scenery, whether cruising along the waterways or through the many squares or the famous Vondel Park. If Dutch folks aren't getting to their destinations on bike or by boat, many ride the tram service that cuts through the city in every direction.
In case you missed it, my point is that there really isn't much in the way of car traffic here. Compare this with where I live in Los Angeles, or in the city you call home, whether Toronto, Canada; Las Vegas; or Bangor, Maine.
What cars that are on the streets in Amsterdam are generally small ... very small. I don't recall seeing a single sport utility vehicle. And their rides are old and basic. Most of those in the city don't appear to share the same interest in stylish, fast, top-of-the-line vehicles like many people do here in North America. As a big automotive enthusiast, this seems a little strange, but in Amsterdam, for some reason, it doesn't bother me. However, there is one surprising exception to this lack of interest in their vehicles.
The taxi drivers dress in beautiful clothing and drive immaculate sports cars. For the few times I hailed a cab, it was shocking to see a fancy new Mercedes pull up to greet me. Most of the people of Amsterdam take more pride in their bicycles than their cars, yet the taxi drivers spend their money purchasing, maintaining and providing fuel for their elite vehicles that they principally use for work.
This could be because the Dutch take great pride in their work. Or maybe it's because the taxi drivers are catering to the tourists who are in large part North American, British and German.
Maybe they believe we want to ride in a new and expensive sports car. Or possibly it's because they love to drive fast, and that's why they've taken the job. The roads in Amsterdam are more vacant and therefore the cab drivers can speed and maneuver along more easily.
I literally screamed on a couple of occasions when the cab drivers were winding along at top speeds, barely missing bicycles, trams and people on foot. I didn't mind the speed as much as I wasn't certain I could trust the driver. Luckily, I made it out alive and will be able to return for another visit to one of my favorite cities in the world, hopefully sooner than later.
In the meantime, I'm happy being back home where we love our cars a little more. I understand the passion for bicycles in Amsterdam, which reflects the attitude in many other European cities. But the pace of life is a little different in L.A. -- and I don't think it will slow down anytime soon -- so I think I'll stick to four wheels for now.
Among her numerous accomplishments, Courtney Hansen is the author of "Garage Girl's Guide to Everything You Need to Know About Your Car," the host of Spike TV's "Power Block," the former host of TLC's "Overhaulin'" program and a writer with Wheelbase Media and Auto Shift Weekly magazine. You can email her by logging on to www.wheelbase.ws and using the contact link.