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.