Upon arrival, one of the first things our Dutch family provided for us, besides a ride from the airport and a place to sleep, was a pair of bicycles. Nice bikes. Not a gift, but bikes on loan until we had our own. It seems a Dutch man without a bicycle is like an American man without a car. Sure, it happens, but, it causes great inconvenience and dare I say, a bit of class prejudice should you not be properly fit with a bicycle in your stable.
As I pulled up to my Dutch class on my sister-n-law’s bicycle, a classmate saw me. “Leuke fiets,” she said (nice bike). Afraid I was coming off as a rich American woman, I felt compelled to explain it wasn’t mine, but only on loan. In other circumstances, I let the illusion run its course. But more important than looks, is the experience of cycling in the land of bicycles.
I’ve noticed some major differences between cycling here and in the U.S. First, hardly anyone wears a helmet. Although my default position is that everyone should wear a helmet, it does seem much safer here to hop on your bike; Auto drivers seem keenly aware of cyclists, and almost without fail, give you the right of way. Dedicated bike paths run parallel to the roads, sometimes a part of the road, sometimes separated by a row of trees or sidewalk. All types of people cycle here. Old, young, Dutch, Indonesian, African, businessmen and women, moms with kids, politicians and diplomats.
Dutch cyclists also lack road rage. If you accidentally, say, try to pass someone to try to keep up with your much faster and bolder Dutch husband, and have to cut back in too soon to avoid a bicycle head on with oncoming cyclists, the person who’s space you’ve just compromised doesn’t start yelling at you. Instead, they say their not-so-nice things calmly to your back, as if having a pleasant conversation. If a car blocks the bike path, the birdies don’t fly. Instead, cyclists flow around the car, like water in a river readjusting its course around an obstacle. On occasion, as you wait at one of the many bike stop lights next to another cyclist, they’ll strike up a 15 second conversation with you. They are friendly and relaxed.
Cycling seems like a natural time to take in the scenery, feel your legs pumping, the cool air flowing in and out of your lungs. It almost feels like the daily commute has transformed into a moving meditation. And then along comes a moped. They honk for you to get out of the way, not the gentle bell of a faster cyclist, but a honk akin to that of an automobile. When you wait at a traffic signal, suddenly that crisp cool Dutch air is filled with moped fumes. They rev their mopeds when the light turns green, ensuring an extra inhalation of gas fumes as you start pedaling.
I’m sure I’m not alone in my annoyance, and just as soon as my Dutch is good enough, I will join that activist group out there that wants mopeds to return to the main roads where they belong.
I do notice that on the weekends, the number of bikes in the city decreases. It’s as if everyone decides to get their cars out for a weekend drive. This is in stark contrast to the U.S. phenomenon of the weekend warrior going for a 50 mile bike ride in their neon outfit, or taking the Harley off of it’s red carpet in the garage and trading in the suit and tie for leather, jeans and a red bandana. My brother-n-law Cornelis, a sensible lawyer, had a simple explanation; cycling is the fastest way around the city during the work week. On the weekend, it’s not so crowded, so people use their cars. Call me a romantic, but I thought it was about the Dutch zeal for the fiets! (bicycle)
Coming up next: Ezra studies the Heelal (universe)