Posts Tagged ‘Bicycles



I made some commitments this weekend that didn’t go well at first. I got connected with a girl in Amsterdam who is distantly related to one of my aunts by marriage. She invited me out for drinks and dinner on Saturday night, so I told her I’d meet her at 6:00 in the Jordaan. The first 30 minutes of our meeting didn’t go well because I was still trying to make it there.

That afternoon I’d decided that it was time for straight bangs. I also decided I would cut them myself. My friend warned me about this, saying every time she’d tried they came out uneven. But I often lack the patience and the funds to go to a salon, so I went for it. It’s a good thing Eva had enough patience to wait for me at the bar for half an hour, though, because I had to re-trim my bangs at least 4 or 5 times before they were acceptable; and even then they were longer on the left side and hanging over my eyelashes. I cut, cut again, cut again, blew dry, cut again, blew dry, cut, blew dry…then finally threw my coat on and ran out the door.

I hurried down the street on my bike, hoping to shave some time off the 15-minute ride. Struggling up a little canal bridge, I looked down the street ahead of me and saw some construction blocking the way. I hesitated, kept going straight, then decided to take a left instead and go up the other canal to avoid tricky and time-wasting maneuvers. The bike was already coasting briskly down the other side of the bridge, and the turn I’d committed to was sharp.

Last week I had the bike at a repair shop for a new tire valve and to have my brakes checked. I stood there in the old shop piled high with injured, rusty bicycles as a group of experts sat nearby staring at me through a cloud of smoke. The repair man took a quick look and told me, cigarette dangling out the side of his mouth, that my shoddy brakes would stay as they were. That it was an old brake system and couldn’t be improved. That I’d just have to brake early as I’d been doing. That I’d have to be careful.

Brake, brake, brake, brake! – I pushed down on the back pedal hard and willed the tires to grip the cobblestones and slow me down. It was too late; the front tire rammed straight into the corner curb, causing the bike to fall hard on its side, and me on mine, sliding onto the sidewalk. I fell on my bike. I couldn’t believe it. My greatest fear realized. As I stood up and examined the hole in my black tights, the dirty scrape on my knee showing through, a man stopped and said something in Dutch. “Bad brakes,” I told him.

Embarrassed, I quickly got the bike back onto the street and hoisted myself on again. Almost immediately I wobbled and headed straight, again, for the curb. I hopped off, exhasperated, sure that the bike suffered damage in the crash and I’d never make it to meet Eva. In fact, the handlebars were twisted at a 45-degree- angle. I’d steered in the direction the handlebars pointed me, and so went right back to the curb. I pushed and pulled and could not get them back where they belonged, so I rode down Prinsengracht the whole way with the handlebars aimed at the buildings to my right, peering through my curtain of bangs and just making sure the front wheel was straight.

I finally made it and walked into the bar, sweating, bangs askew. Eva was completely forgiving, sympathetic, and we spent the rest of the evening talking, laughing and becoming fast friends. When we left the restaurant – each of us walking slightly off-balance after sharing a bottle of wine – Eva (Dutch through and through), set my handlebars straight and showed me how to do it for the next fall I have.

And yesterday I took out my scissors again. I can proudly say my bangs now fall evenly across my face, and hang just low enough over my eyes to allow me to see things clear and level, to allow me to see balance.


Rain… no wait, Reality Check

Today I rode the bakfiets in the rain. The magic is gone.

Say goodbye to sunny rides in the bakfiets, boys. Say hello to a thick plastic cover and a poncho-wearin' au pair.

Say goodbye to sunny rides in the bakfiets, boys. Say hello to a thick plastic cover and a poncho-wearin' au pair.


I Rode the Bakfiets, I Can Take on the World!

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.


Welcome to Holland! It Rains.



The view from my kitchen window.

The view from my kitchen window.

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.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
February 2019
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