Today I rode the bakfiets in the rain. The magic is gone.
Archive for September, 2008
Everyone rides bikes in the Netherlands, as you probably know. This means that people also ride something called a bakfiets (literally translated to something like “bucket bike”) with a large bucket/wheel barrel attached to the front that is meant to hold precious cargo: often (and certainly in my case) this cargo is small children. Bikes make me a bit nervous to begin with, and riding bikes in a busy, rainy city through heavy car, tram, bus and other bike traffic makes these nerves run a little higher. So you can imagine how riding a big gigantic bike through such conditions while two small boys bounce around in the front might worry me.
My relationship with bicycles over the years has been complicated, a bumpy road of love and hate. Though I learned to ride as early as the next kid, I spent most of elementary school on either roller blades or a skip-it (when I wasn’t in a hurry). I was comfortable on a bike, but only when it was up to speed and easiest to balance. It was the stopping, going, and maneuvering difficult turns – or any turns at all – that made me wimper in panic and squirm on my banana seat. The likelihood of steering right into a bush or a curb or – my absolute greatest fear – another moving bicycle was, I thought, far too great to take the risk. Plus you can avoid the stupid helmet.
I managed to hide my aversion and ineptitude from people for the most part, and got along just fine with my little secret. Just fine, that is, except for one day of the year: Safety Day at school. I remember the dread as the day approached, the careful, anxious plotting to get out of it. For part of Safety Day, the school made students take turns putting on some awful helmet and riding a bike through some kind of obstacle course laid out on the asphalt. I think it was just meant to be a fun way to teach kids about wearing helmets, but I saw it as the ultimate test, with the fat, grinning faces of yard duties suffocating you as you completed the challenge before hundreds of judgmental, 3rd-grade eyes. Any slight wobble, any grazing of the orange plastic, meant doom, a life of shame.
I was too shy to ask them to lower the bike seat when it was my turn, and the helmets were always enormous on my tiny head, like an eggshell on a toothpick, so really I could see no good reason to participate. I wonder now if my mother suspected anything when I tried it once, clearly had some sort of negative experience, and then was conveniently ill every year that same time.
While the panic and terror of Safety Day remains very real for me, my fear of riding a bike has fortunately dissolved since then…almost. Mastering my regular Dutch bike was trying enough – with the tall seat (here’s where the fear makes itself known again), and the required maneuvering through many difficult turns and very tight spaces, usually between two other moving vehicles that are either larger or more pushy than me.
But I did that, and now it’s no big deal. Next on the list was the bakfiets. I was quite terrified to try this monster out, but as it so happens it’s even easier than my regular bike. I do have to jump off to push it up hills on foot, but the seat is nice and low and it balances on it’s own. Apparently, though, I have to be careful when I turn because it does tip. And that’s when little skulls meet concrete. Or cars. Or both.
But I’ve now taken the boys on two rides to the Vondelpark without any injuries or mishaps whatsoever, and attracted some attention doing it! On my first ride, I was asked to pose for a photo with a group of tourists from LA, and an Englishman standing at a red light asked if he could get a shot of me in action. I gave him a thumbs up.
It’s been a long road from Safety Day to the bakfiets, but now that I can pedal that giant yellow machine around town, I feel like I can do just about anything. I’m just glad I don’t have to wear a helmet.
Last week I attended my first Dutch language course at the Volks Universiteit. Because no others were open, I’m signed up for an intensive 6 hours per week for 12 weeks. The decision was made quickly, and I had to rush to class the first night after whipping up dinner for the two little boys under my care and without even having purchased the text book. For this and other reasons, I wasn’t thrilled to be going. I have a hectic work schedule as it is, and class two nights a week wasn’t what I had in mind.
Unfortunately, it’s either this or I continue to walk around Amsterdam staring at people blankly and whimpering “sorry… English?” fifty times a day. I can’t even tell whether the 3-year-old I look after is speaking Dutch or pure gibberish. The other day he was in the stroller waiting with me to cross the street, talking loudly and happily to himself. People were turning around and giving he and I funny looks; usually they do this because they think I’m his mother, but I had a feeling this time he was attracting attention with inappropriate conversation – in a language that, to me, is wholly indecipherable, even when spoken by adults.
So I rode my bike the fifteen minutes to class and took a seat. I instantly felt comfortable. The bright, warm lights, clean chalkboard and small desks lined up like crayons in a box made me feel right at home. I laid out the crumpled printer paper I’d grabbed from the house and a ball-point pen and tried to soak up the potent zest for learning that hung in the air. After two weeks of constant and complete unfamiliarity, being in a classroom was something I knew, something I could handle.
As the teacher entered and class commenced, however, I quickly realized it would be a slightly different learning environment than any I’d experienced before. Every member of the class offered a brief introduction – name, nationality, and length of time in Amsterdam thus far – with my turn coming up last. Here is a list enumerating where everyone is from, and how many are from each place, in the order they were introduced:
Venezuela & Germany: 1
…and USA: 1.
Even in my study program in Italy, the most international a class got was maybe four students from Mexico and one from Sweden. Except that there was only one girl from Sweden in the whole program, and I don’t think I had any classes with her. So, great! I thought as the list kept getting more and more diverse. This is so cool and everyone seems so nice and eager to learn! I couldn’t wait to blog about the real, live “It’s a Small World” that I’ll attend class in two nights a week. I’ll be more interestingly seasoned just by being around these people!
Then I realized something else, something that I feel was confirmed in my second class last night: these people are probably all smarter than me, or at the very least have more practice at languages. The class is taught mostly in Dutch, but anything that is translated for learning’s sake is translated into English. So, aside from perhaps the two British girls in the class, I am the only person there who doesn’t already speak at least two languages. At least two. Most of them have also been in Amsterdam for much longer than two weeks, so they can at least recognize Dutch as a language and not just a random assembling of strange sounds.
Lucky for me, I’ve secured a seat next to Charlotte, a French girl who really knows her stuff. I obviously have no choice but to give it a go, so I turned to her and we practiced our greetings. I said, “prettig met u kennis te maken” (nice to meet you), in a choppy, nervous voice, but I smiled and made sure she knew I meant it. The exciting thing is that I won’t only be learning from the teacher, but also from the faces around the classroom, who’ve come here from around the world. And I’d say that to be back in school where I feel at home in a place that feels totally foreign makes me pretty boffen (lucky!).
Now we’ll just have to see if I actually learn anything.
Today I rode my bike through the streets of Amsterdam for the first time. I’ve been here for a week, but I didn’t do it right away because the seat was so high I couldn’t reach the pedals. The seat has now been lowered as much as possible, but it’s still so high that I sort of have to leap on and off. Apparently this is how it’s supposed to be done anyway, and I’m silly and oh-so-American for having ridden a cruiser around Orange County with a seat so low I can almost stand on the ground while sitting.
So I was trying out my bright green Dutch bike on the street outside the house this afternoon and the neighbor asked if it was my first time on a bicycle. Sufficiently embarrassed, I got a bit of a running start, threw myself onto the seat, and wobbled proudly away. When I realized I actually could do it and was nervous for no reason (like so many times before), I excitedly grabbed the French au pair next door and took off for a ride. Without an umbrella. Or a poncho. Or a jacket.
We rode along the canal that we live on for a while before deciding to stop and do some exploring. Locking our bikes up on a bridge, we set off to wander through the Nine Streets, a charming shopping area full of colorful boutiques and funky cafes. Tiny warning drops started falling so we ducked into a restaurant for lunch and to (I thought) wait out the weather. It didn’t let up. In fact – and to no one’s surprise, I’m sure – it rained harder.
We had no choice but to ride home in the downpour. Andrea didn’t mind. She’s been here a month and was smart enough to bring her poncho. I, on the other hand, have been fooled terribly by the sunny days we’ve had this week, and figured I’d manage to stay dry somehow.
Wrong. Off we rode over the bridges and canals, through the traffic and puddles, the soft but thorough rain stinging my eyes and soaking my hair, until finally pulling up to our front doors. My mascara melted down my cheeks and I was able to wring out my shirt when I removed it inside.
I can’t say it was a fun ride, but it was exhilarating in a way. And riding a bicycle in the rain is totally, undeniably Dutch. I walked into the house – looking like a drowned dog and waddling in my wet jeans like a baby who’s crapped himself – and my house mother said, “Welcome to Holland!” I finished her thought, nodding as a foggy wave of realization showered down on me: “It rains.”
And so it does. But at least I managed to keep my bike upright.
I have a friend from home whose whole family comes from a little town in Idaho. She needed a change of pace for the summer, so she spent 3 months with her relatives there. I flew out to visit her for a few days and accompany her on the 14-hour drive back to the Bay Area. Her pace had slowed so much by the time I got there that we barely built up enough momentum to make it home.
Most people probably don’t think of excitement or variety when they think of Idaho—especially if they’re familiar with Napoleon Dynamite—but it was certainly unlike any place I’ve ever been. I like to pretend I’m from a hick town; I tell people that our high school mascot is the Cowboy, enjoy mentioning the pig races I saw at the county fair this year (called “poetry in motion” by the announcer), and brag about our award-winning rodeo team. But while that’s all true, in reality my hometown is a modern suburb, a comfortable city with a new restaurant every couple of months and easy access to a major metropolitan area. We may have a rodeo parade every year, but it’s no Idaho.
This Idaho town is called Council and has a population of 816, less than half the size of our high school. It’s where my friend’s grandparents live, where both her parents grew up, and where her older sisters were born. When we first drove through the main drag—consisting mostly of one bar called the Ace (grandma’s favorite hang out), a coffee place, and one or two general stores—a man wearing overalls and shaggy hair crossed the street slowly in front of our car. “Hey, Overalls!” I said, already enjoying the local Idaho charm. “That’s my uncle,” my friend said. And it was. We stopped and had a chat.
I met most of the other family members as the weekend went on. We stayed in a spot outside Council called New Meadows with Aunt Janice and Uncle Dave in their beautiful home overlooking an expansive valley that looked like you might see it on a postcard with “Welcome to Idaho!” stamped over it—fuzzy cows and their calves grazing and lolling around under patches of sun and shadow, butterflies and hummingbirds dancing across the pinks, oranges and yellows that flower the soft hilltop. All quiet except the dull, fast thumping of tiny wings, the occasional moo, and the melody of crickets.
Some critters aren’t always so welcome, however. It’s not a Disney movie, after all. One morning as we enjoyed the view over waffles, bacon and eggs, Aunt Janice tromped outside in her bathrobe and slippers armed with a pellet gun and, after pumping it ferociously, took aim at a big blue jay who apparently had been causing quite the uproar for weeks, scaring off the other birds and acting like he owned the place. Lucky for him, he’s gotten pretty good at dodging fire. Also elusive is the notorious and legendary Payette Lake monster, a relative of the Loch Ness monster whom everybody knows as Sharlie. This sounds more like a drag queen than an aquatic beast to me, but I kept an eye out for her from my jet ski nonetheless.
The next day we had a picnic by a creek and picked wild huckleberries along the bank as a fisherman dangled his line in the little waterfall. It was truly lovely, but when I say fisherman I don’t mean a sweet old man with a vest covered in feathery fishing lures. No, I mean a fat, red, shirtless man in his 30s, with about a foot of crack stretching above his faded white jeans—though he did have a very friendly smile, despite all the holes in it.
Finally, stuffed with huckleberry dumplings and pie—heavenly down-home treats made with those tiny berries, perfectly purple and juicy—we stuffed the car with a summer’s worth of Idaho fun and headed for California. As we drove down the dirt lane away from Aunt Janice’s house, one young buck bounded effortlessly in the field along side the car, as though offering a gallant farewell and urging us not to forget the beauty, vigor and grace of his home state.
The sun soaked the brown hills in light as it rose above us, coloring the backs of the horses and cows (and even 3 head a’ bison!) that spotted the pastures in white, black and brown, feeding themselves in order to feed and provide for their owners as they always have. The highway crept on, and as our car winded smoothly over it, toward our first stop at the Just Say When Casino a few hours south, Fiona Apple sang her Beatles cover through the speakers: “Nothin’s gonna change my world, nothin’s gonna change my world…”
Apparently, though, in addition to satellite TV, a new attraction does roll through town from time to time. We passed a church on the way out of the state that advertised “GOD: Alive and in Person HERE!” We were in a hurry, so we drove on past, but I’ll always wonder if maybe that little church in the middle of nowhere had the secret, the answer that everyone’s been looking for in all the wrong places.