Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Trials and Tribulations of Bluey the Bicycle

dutch-bicycleThis is Bluey the Bicycle.  Bluey and I first became acquainted the week when I first moved to Amsterdam and ended up purchasing her at the giant Albert Cuyp Market (which I have promptly never returned to since).  Bluey is a good old classic Dutch oma fiets– literally “grandma’s bicycle”- which is the name given to these sorts of cruiser bicycles in the Netherlands.

Now Bluey has been a great bicycle, and it is really not her fault that she got me as an owner as I tend to not be the best caretaker… and I don’t just mean the memorable first few days when I tried to remember how to use a pedal break for the first time since I was ten, or the many rust spots on the frame from hitting her with the heavy bicycle lock during parking (the picture above is a rather old one).  No, so far the following things have happened to me since I’ve been a Dutch bicycle owner, in roughly chronological order:

– The first trial was a few weeks after I’d arrived in the country and after returning to Amsterdam Centraal from a train journey I noticed my bicycle was missing and no longer parked where I had left it.  On the one hand a stolen bicycle is mildly exciting because it’s one of those things everyone must allegedly have happen to them in order to be a real Amsterdammer, on the other hand Bluey and I had only known each other few weeks and it was upsetting to think of our relationship getting cut short.

Luckily it turned out Bluey was not stolen by a crack addict who promptly threw her into the canal but rather the city, who routinely clears out all the bicycles parked illegally in front of the station (the problem is legal parking is often chock-full with abandoned bicycles, so if you’re running late like I was cycling there isn’t a great idea if you want to find a spot).  When this happens they take your bike to the bicycle depot and you have to go retrieve it and pay a 10 Euro fine, but the real punishment is losing a half day of your life going out into the middle of nowhere on a bus that rarely runs to a place presumably many people would want to go.  And the depot itself might as well be renamed “Where Bikes Go To Die,” as they’re required to keep all abandoned and illegally parked bicycles in Amsterdam for six months in case someone comes to fetch theirs, but most are never claimed-amsterdam-bicycle-depotLuckily Bluey and I were quickly reunited, and got the hell out of there!

– Moving along, Bluey has also gotten a flat tire twice.  This is a fairly normal thing in this country of course, but the first flat tire was due to a thumb tack that was lying in the middle of a road, and it was mysteriously near a bicycle shop that agreed to quickly fix the flat, so I never quite shook off wondering if there was a sinister motive for there being a thumb tack in the middle of the road in the first place.

– Speaking of sinister motives… last month when I moved I spent the first two weeks parking Bluey in front of my new house along with all the other bikes that were there.  After two weeks Bluey’s back tire had once again gone flat, but not due to a puncture- somehow the air had just been released.  Which would’ve been a weird minor thing, except for the part where the very same thing happened just two days later.

Now the first time you take a bike to the shop with a tire like this they just look at you funny, the second time they ask you if you have a problem with your neighbor.  Turns out someone in my subdivided old canal house started a personal vendetta to have bicycles no longer parked in front of our place, and poor Bluey got caught in the crossfire.  Bluey now gets parked down the street, but my Dutch friends all found the entire affair hilarious because I live in one of the nicest, safest areas of the city (the last time something violent happened it was when some Germans marched through with uniforms and guns), and I still managed to get into a turf war which I promptly lost.

– The final transgression against Bluey happened just last week, when I did something very stupid and lost my spare bicycle key which I kept meaning to make a copy of ever since I lost the first one but never had.  In the walk from down the street to my apartment which is maybe 100 meters of road.  Let’s just say people are not always very attentive on the final stretch home when it’s late at night.

Now the real issue here is what on Earth do you do when facing a formidable Dutch bicycle lock and no way to unlock it, but very much in need of your mechanical stallion? (Fun fact: the Dutch word fiets for bicycle is thought by linguists to come from an abbreviation for a German phrase for “mechanical horse.”) Consultation with a mechanic on duty at a nearby bicycle shop and the fact that I hadn’t actually locked Bluey to a bike rack, just the front weel to the frame, meant I was advised to steal my own bicycle and bring it over (and because he thought I was cute he agreed to cut the lock off for free if I bought a new one there).  I just had to awkwardly bring the thing a few blocks over from the current position to the shop.

By the way, it turns out I now know why bike theft is so common in the Netherlands- even when it’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon and you are stealing your own bicycle by carrying it several blocks, not one person will bother to stop and ask what on Earth it is you’re doing!

So goes the life and times of my experience as a Dutch bicycle owner- I’m not sure if I’m a particularly good one, but Bluey has yet to complain personally about her situation.  I will say though that at each of these stages someone has told me “don’t worry, you’re not a real Amsterdammer until that happens anyway!”, and based on the other bicycle related mishaps two things still need to happen to me.

The first is at some point I need to get my wheel stuck in the tram tracks and fall over.  If this is the price to pay I refuse to ever become a real citizen of this city, as that just sounds far too painful.

The second is Bluey needs to be stolen for real, and I never see her again.  I hope this never happens either- we’ve just had too many memorable experiences together!

 

 

 

On the Lives I Left Behind

washington-dc-weekend

Fun in the Florida sun aside, the real reason I went to the USA last week was for my sister’s bachelorette party in Washington DC.  She’s getting married this summer, and used to live there many years, so 14 ladies enjoying a night on the town was the inevitable idea.

It all went well- a lovely time was had by all, although the cherry trees are slightly late this year we found one to take the above picture under (sis is in middle, one of her friends on the left), and I more than doubled my NPS stamp collection with all the monuments and memorials in town.  However there was one feeling in me that was very strong and always becomes a bit more noticeable each time I return to the US these days: the feeling that you are staring into the face of the lives you could have lived.

I suspect this is not a unique feeling to the average expatriate, and it doesn’t mean I am not proud of the life I forged abroad.  But Washington DC is a wonderful city with a culture that I understand intimately well- baseball! brunch! IPAs!- and it’s one thing to step off the treadmill and reject where you live and another thing to come back to visit and realize everything is still going on at home without you.  And much as I think it must be great to live there and am jealous for my sister that she did, I will never live in Washington DC in my 20s because I am busy working on my doctorate a hair before I turn thirty (the Dutch system dictates I get four years of funding, so my contract states I will finish September 2015).  I know everyone’s reaction is to say you can always live there later, and that’s true, but you always have places affect you differently based on the stage of life for when you’re living there.  Just like how my now-retired parents love Florida but I can’t understand its real appeal at 27, or how I want to return to New Zealand and reflect on what it was like during my first solo adventures there, or a myriad of other places you revisit and realize they might have not changed much but you certainly did.

Once again, I love Amsterdam and I love what I’m doing with my life, but I am a woman forever plagued by the lives I chose not to live.  Usually when I vocalize this people laugh- don’t I realize I’ve done more already than most people ever manage?- which always strikes me as odd because I don’t mind what other people do, I care about what I do.  And my life happens to be ordered in “what would you regret most if you never did it?” priority levels, plus a firm belief in how you cannot waste unique skills and situations when you have them, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have some regrets for the paths you never chose.

(At this point someone will point out I am still 27, so there is time enough to do many interesting things.  While true in many ways at this point I will counter that you lack imagination, as I once worked out the time commitments for all the things I want to do and it was several lifetimes without factoring in any serendipity.)

I’m sure everyone feels pangs like this on occasion as part of the human condition, and the only people who leave life without regrets must have been very dull ones, so I will stop philosophizing now on it.  But I do think such a perspective on the choices you’ve made versus the ones you didn’t are much more acute when you leave your comfort zone for the big world beyond, and return to glimpse into the parallel universe of the lives you left behind.

Exploring the Florida Everglades

alligatorI’m visiting my parents in Florida this week for a dose of much-needed warmth and sun, and well before my arrival I made it clear that we should devote a day to exploring the nearby Everglades.  This was for a few reasons:

1) Everglades National Park is just over an hour away from their house in Naples where they have now lived for several years, yet I’ve never been there.  This is because at some point when everyone including some extended members of the family were in town I was not due to a mismatched spring break, so I fell into a vortex of “but we thought you’ve already been that time we all went!”  This also became doubly problematic for me in recent years when my adviser always asked if I’ve been to the Everglades by way of small talk when I was off to visit my parents, and I had to keep admitting I hadn’t.

2) I love the culture and history one gets living in Europe, but it does leave one wishing for wide, open, uncultivated spaces, so these days when visiting the USA I seek them out with increasing fervor.

3) Perhaps most important, I did not have enough geeky hobbies in my life so I recently began collecting National Park cancellation stamps. (Why do just geocaching and dabble in science writing which you can do anywhere on the planet when you can collect locational stamps for a country you no longer reside in?) Not only would the trip provide an Everglades National Park stamp, we would also pass through Big Cypress National Preserve on the drive in so I could obtain two stamps on one trip!  How could we not go?!IMG_1352

New stamps aside, it was actually a thoroughly enjoyable day trip.  We went to a place within Everglades National Park known as Shark Valley where a 15 mile paved loop goes out to an observation tower, which one can either go on a guided tram tour or rent a bicycle for the journey.  We went on the bicycle option, and while going on my single speed cruiser I realized why my adviser kept bringing up the Everglades- when you look out onto the “river of grass” only broken up by clumps of trees in the distance, it looks just like a Dutch national park does.

Except for the part that it’s really hot, sunny, there are no windmills, and oh yeah there are animals here who can kill you-alligator-in-water

During the course of the bicycle ride we saw four dozen and 10 alligators- cited as such because it was easier to keep track of them all- and this does not count several dozen spied from the car while driving there!  There really are so very many of them (especially in dry season where most animals are drawn to the few existing water holes), ranging from little baby alligators to great big ones longer than a person… all complete with a glimmer in their eye confirming how very evil they really are.  I know I’m personifying, but I don’t think anyone looked at one of these and felt they were cute and cuddly…

Should you find yourself at some point in southern Florida, I encourage you to head out to the Everglades and confirm this for yourself.  Thanks to my dad for letting me use some of his pictures!