stalker on wheels

this post is from The So-Called Real World, a blog from my past lives.

I hereby proudly announce that I’m now the owner of a Dutch bicycle (as they say, when in Rome…).

My bicycle is not “Dutch” simply because I bought it here – there are certain characteristics that make it so. It has no handlebar brakes, but the back-pedal ones you may remember from your training wheel days. No fancy graphics or metallic paint, just flat black with delicate gold letters – some might say “retro” but I don’t think it ever changed so how can it go back? The seat is rather high and the handlebars curved, so rather than appear “sporty” when riding I look more like one of the Double Mint twins (or maybe the wicked witch from The WIzard of Oz). I have little bell to alert others of my presence – perhaps the hardest part of the selection process. I endeavored to find one that sounds polite, yet assertive. I don’t want to offend anyone but don’t want a wimpy sounding bell either. I think I found the perfect one, people seem to respond positively when I use it.

The other must-have accessory is an industrial strength lock. I bought two locks (one for each wheel) and together they came to almost half the price of the bicycle. Bicycle theft is a national pastime here, and it is a common saying that if you live here long enough you’ll buy your original bicycle back from a junkie eventually. I toyed with the idea of talking with one of these unsavory characters but eventually decided to play it safe karmic-ally (let’s be honest: I’m afraid of how they smell). Anyway, I decided to purchase one from a store here in Amsterdam which offers a decent selection and standard quality Dutch service (read: nonexistent). I’m not sure if it’s a good bicycle or even what makes one bicycle better than the next, but I’m happy with my purchase anyway.

Riding a bike is obviously not something you can forget how to do, in fact there is even a cliche saying about it. Presumably, I should have been able to just leave the shop and ride off into the sunset rain. Not the case. Think back to learning how to drive a car. Physically coordinating your actions to make the car go where you want is not difficult. But once you get into traffic, learning to process all of the sensory input and becoming relaxed with it takes time. That translates to cycling as well. I have not ridden a bicycle since I was in college – and then it was on a campus, very different from busy city streets. What I’m trying to say is, don’t judge me for what I’m about to say unless you’ve tried it – its harder than you would think!

I left the store, satisfied with my new bike and excited to hit the open road. By “excited” I mean terrified. And by “open road” I mean a bike path that seemed much wider when I was avoiding it while driving my car. After a wobbly start and some shaky maneuvering, I was pleading with the forces of the universe. The heavens sent me two things: a red light (finally) and a bright idea – I decided to get my balance in a safer spot: the park. So off I went, headed toward beautiful Vondelpark to practice riding my new bike. Pride kept me from just walking it there, so my first task was to make it to the park entrance. Easier said than done when you’ve only mastered right hand turns and are trying to avoid stopping (well, actually I was avoiding getting going after stopping). I passed the park entrance a few times before finally making it into the safety zone.  Not so fast  – the park was also crowded only there were no markers for where I was allowed to ride and others to walk. So much for that idea. After a trip around the park it was almost time for dinner, so I headed toward my favorite restaurant to meet some friends…

It was on my way from the park to the restaurant when I happened upon what may be the best bike riding strategy ever devised. There I was, riding along the bike path, trying not to die when I came upon a motorized wheelchair rider. Still too nervous to loosen my death grip long enough to ring the bell, I wasn’t sure how to alert him of my intention to pass. Yelling seems rude, but sneaking up on him might be scary for both of us. Other cyclists breezed past with the precision and skill of Lance Armstrong – I was afraid if I tried to pass I’d hit the curb and fall over onto him which I’m pretty sure is even more rude than yelling in any culture. After a few blocks of pedaling slowly and trying to figure out how to get around him I realized I was doing a pretty good job of just maintaining my balance and not getting hit by a car. It occurred to me that slipstreaming (that’s an official cycling term for you rookies out there) was the perfect tactic for several reasons: 1) other cyclists passing by took a wider approach; 2) his speed is limited by horsepower thus setting a comfortable pace; and most importantly 3) motorists are more aware of a wheelchair rider than a clueless American girl on a bike for effectively the first time.

So on we went together – an old Dutch man and me. We made it about 4 more blocks before he realized I was behind him. At least I think he realized because he started trying to lose me. I think he was pretty freaked out, understandably so. I would be freaked out too if someone was stalking me in my wheelchair. He must have known that turning left was my Achilles heel because he threw me off his trail about 2 more blocks away by doing just that. Luckily all his meandering in an effort to lose me left me in a rather quiet neighborhood with minimal traffic. I made it the rest of the way to the restaurant on my own and lived to tell about a great dinner with great friends.

Everywhere you go here in Amsterdam, you will see Dutch people riding bikes the way Americans drive cars: talking on cell phones, not using their hands to steer, eating, smoking, disciplining their children, you name it. For now, this American is going to keep her hands on the handlebars and leave those other activities for where they belong – in the car.

winged warriors

this post is from The So-Called Real World, a blog from my past lives.

The mosquitoes in my apartment have resorted to psychological warfare. Despite my attempts, I am losing the battle. This may be my last post, it is hard to say – for I am certain that one morning I will not wake up for having been completely devoured by my winged flat-mates. These are not just any insects, they’re a rare breed (hopefully) specific to this area and unlike any I’ve ever come across. They are calculating, sneaky, and manipulative and they are at once driving me crazy and eating me alive.

In Alaska, the mosquitoes are rampant for about two weeks in the summer. I had the pleasure of spending a week in the Prince William Sound during that exact time of year, and got to know them quite well. They’re the size of dragon flies, it is a long-standing joke that they’re the Alaska state bird.

Despite their size and overwhelming numbers, you can trust the Alaskan mosquitoes. You get the sense they’re just flying around waiting for you to stumble into their path. When you do, they bite you through two layers of clothing and let you go on your way. They’re scary as hell, but there is nothing sneaky about them.

In Oregon, they’re tiny but aggressive. Anyone who has moved sprinkler pipes in the summer can tell you that Oregon mosquitoes are a force to be reckoned with. They are unlike their Alaskan cousins in that a swarm of Oregon mosquitoes will smell a human from across a 60 acre field and charge toward her with amazing speed and force. You feel like Winnie the Pooh being chased by the honey bees, and it has led people to do some crazy things (like covering oneself in mud to prevent bites – don’t ask).

I can’t tell for sure, but I imagine they are also highly choreographed. If you remember the scene in “Finding Nemo” where the school of fish is teasing Nemo’s dad you may know what I’m talking about. I think if I were less edible, I would like to stick around to find out more about their capabilities there.

In Montana the mosquitoes, like the people, are sparse. You rarely have to deal with more than a few at a time, and then they are slow and easily swatted (not that the people are slow and easily swatted, some of my favorite people are from Montana and I would never imply such a thing).

In Amsterdam, the mosquitoes are part insect, part demon. I’m not kidding. Somewhere along the evolutionary line one of these pesky bugs mated with Satan himself to produce a mutant line of highly specialized human eating machines, and they live in my apartment! I knew when I took the place on the canal that it would be a risk, but I do love the location and so I chose to deal with it. Mind you, my most recent experience was with the slow, swattable, Montana mosquitoes with whom I really wouldn’t mind sharing a place with so I suppose my memory was a bit cloudy.

The mosquitoes in my apartment are predators. They wait until night time to strike, and only when I’m in bed. I leave the light on in the other room, hoping it will distract them but they are too savvy for such juvenile tactics. Once I am soundly tucked in the stalking begins. One at a time they approach my face (the only part of my body that is not covered in layers of protective cotton). Here’s the clincher – THEY DON’T BUZZ. They are stealthy little bastards and they know better than to give up their location. They also know that once I fall asleep I’ll be an easier target and I can’t do that with them buzzing around my head. So they scout the situation: they fly close, wait to see if I swat at them, and stay just beyond arm’s reach. I’m pretty sure they then report back to the others. I know they’re there, I can see their grim outline in the faint light from my window and I can feel the air from their wings on my (apparently tasty) skin. So I lie there in fear, waiting for them to strike – but THEY DON’T. I feel them all around me, hovering, waiting, watching. But they are patiently waiting for the command from their leader (who I am pretty sure lives in my closet).

This dance has become a part of my nightly routine. I fight off my need for sleep in an attempt to avoid the inevitable. Once I finally give in they make their move, they crawl down into the covers to bite the backs of my knees, the spot between my shoulder blades that I can’t reach, my feet (in places that rub against my shoes). Every 45 minutes I wake up, I try to catch them at it, I roll around hoping to squish them while they feast but to no avail. And so, I surrender. Usually around 4:30am I drift to a cautious state of sleep, knowing that I will wake up covered in itchy red battle wounds, with circles under my eyes and the groggy, clumsy, morning personality of someone who partied all night. But my state of disarray is not because I’m hung over, it’s because I’m hunted. In my own place no less, where a girl should feel safe and relaxed.

This war has slowly begun to take over my days as well. Any slight breeze, a floating piece of fuzz catching my peripheral vision, a stray hair tickling my arm sends me into a frenzy. I can no longer see the line between the dark reality that is my situation and the 6 legged villains that haunt my waking dreams.


this post is from The So-Called Real World, a blog from my past lives.

Several years ago I set a goal for myself: to live abroad.  My desire to do so has driven almost every decision I have made for the past three years: my move to San Francisco, the career I chose, the specialization I pursued, the connections I made.  These are not to be mistaken as means to an end.

I arrived in Amsterdam a few weeks ago and this beautiful city will be my home for the next 18 months.  I think it was after my first successful attempt (after a few futile ones) to navigate the tram system that I realized the magnitude of my current situation.  I have achieved my goal.

A runner who beats a personal best time starts his next run with a desire to beat his new record.  A team finds success when they defeat the opponent, but the challenge starts all over again in the next game.  In both of these cases one can define exactly how, when, and by how much they have “won.”  In both of these cases the next step is clear; there is always another game to win, another time to beat.  In both of these cases one comprehends the feeling of victory, for if they have not experienced it before they understand it through having been subject to its opposite: defeat.

Achieving a goal independent of outside factors is difficult to define, to quantify.  I wasn’t faster, stronger, or better than my previous self or someone else.  I am not suddenly able to compare my performance to a baseline set by myself or others.  And perhaps the most difficult and foreign feeling I’ve ever experienced: I don’t know my next move.  All I can do is just be.

The ability to live in the present and appreciate each moment does not come naturally.  Or perhaps, like imagination and optimism, it fades with age.  By setting and accomplishing a goal with no tangible reward aside from self-fulfillment, I have found myself back in the present.  This state of consciousness is just as foreign as my surroundings, as I haven’t been here since childhood.

A mother will indulge her child’s seemingly never-ending string of questions.  She will come up with one acceptable answer after another for ‘why?’, ‘how?’, or ‘what is?’ (rarely ‘what if?’, or ‘when did?’ because those questions require an awareness from which they don’t yet suffer).  Sometimes she answers, “it doesn’t matter, it just is.” At this age, a child accepts her mother’s authority.  This is many years before adolescence when she suddenly knows everything.

In this new and unfamiliar place it has become an internal dialogue: posing a question, coming up with possible answers, and when none seems to satisfy my curiosity I decide it doesn’t matter.  It just is.  And I realize, I am living in the present.

Gezellig is a Dutch adjective that describes my current emotional state.  Look it up…

an open letter of apology…

this post is from The So-Called Real World, a blog from my past lives.

…to anyone I have ever cursed for their lack of driving skills. I apologize for my frequent displays of sarcasm (sometimes bordering on rage) invoked by frustration over spending upwards of three hours per day driving a route that should take two. Sometimes to myself, and more often aloud I wonder, “What is your problem? Can you not read the signs?” or “Is this your first time driving or something?” Today it occurred to me: that may in fact be the case. And if it is, I am sorry for my impatience and unforgiving-ness. I hereby resolve that when I either a)return to the US or b)become a seasoned driver in Europe; I will show you the patience that people showed me today.

Today was one of the most terrifying days I can remember, I’m thankful I’m not in Britain or another country where the steering wheel is on the wrong other side and they use the left side of the road – I don’t know if I’d have made it.

When I took the driving test to get my license, I spent about 20 minutes with an instructor in a town with no stoplights. I had to demonstrate that I could safely turn left and right, use my signals, and come to a complete stop. I didn’t even have to parallel park. All this, and there were in total about 10 other vehicles within a 3 mile radius (none of which were honking or yelling at me, by the way).

When I first arrived in San Francisco, as I attempted to maneuver the unfamiliar territory I asked “What in the hell were they (the DMV) thinking when they issued me this Driver’s License?” Why, instead of taking my $4, isn’t the toll booth attendant checking to see if I am in fact qualified to drive in the city? (I think they should have a similar operation at the base of a mountain pass during snowy months, to be fair). But I managed, and with a little practice I think I’ve adjusted for the most part.

Of course I do realize it is unrealistic to expect that someone check qualifications of drivers when traveling from one traffic and road condition environment to the next. But from one CONTINENT to the next? The gentleman asked me, “can you drive a stick?” and when I replied affirmative he tossed me the keys.  Seriously?

He sent me on my way with a navigation system that speaks in Dutch (I subsequently got help changing it to English) and a Petrol card. My first stop was to fill up the tank. Parking in front of the pump I suffered a flashback to my first solo trip out of Oregon (where all stations are attended and it is illegal to pump your own gas). I stood there, confused, staring at the various Dutch signs and notices and looking around for some guidance. A kind young man offered his assistance and did everything he could to stifle a smile.  It turns out it’s very complicated. You insert the nozzle, and then squeeze the handle. I felt my face turn red as he explained, “in Holland, we still trust people to pay us.”  Oh, I see. It cost over EUR 85,00 for 53L – I’m still struggling with the Metric system but I know expensive when I see it.

My next challenge was to find my way to the office. With my navigation system programmed and a full tank of gas, I pulled onto the motor-way and drove with white knuckles to the my office. Of course, I can’t understand what the signs say as they are in Dutch. I recognize a few familiar names of towns, but without a strong sense of direction or orientation (in general, not just here in Holland), I don’t know which ones to choose. Even the symbols and road markings are completely different. All of the lines are white (whether on a one way, two way, or divided road) – some dashed, some little triangles, and there is the occasional solid/dash combination (which does not mean “no passing”). A huge red circle with an “X” through the middle does not mean, “Do not enter” and when a sign indicates you are no longer in a 100 Km/h zone, it doesn’t indicate what the speed limit is now.

I did arrive at the office in one piece – somehow. It was not until they took my photo badge picture (after I’d been introduced to my new colleagues) that I realized I’d apparently been sweating profusely and looked like I’d gone days without a shower. Nice first impression – the sweaty American girl.

Today was tough, but of course it could have been much worse. I did learn a valuable lesson: I need to be nicer to people who are driving like idiots – there’s a chance they really did learn to drive yesterday. Again, my sincere apologies to all of the bad drivers in San Francisco and beyond (except taxi drivers – there is no excuse).

how I see it from where I sit