Monday, March 15, 2010

Of bikes and belletjes

I remember when we first arrived in this, the land where the bike reigns supreme over all other modes of transport, I brought with me a certain confidence that I'd manage on the endless red bikepaths of the nation without too much difficulty. I mean, I've put in many a mile on my bike, hundreds of 'em on the bike paths and streets of Chicago. Yes, it's a different world here, but how different can it be?

O, the hubris.

The first thing you notice is that everyone is riding around sitting bolt upright on their bikes in a posture that might even have made me snicker quietly to myself in my cool Chicago ten-speed or mountain bike-riding days. I mean, assuming I were the kind of person who snickered. Then you see a huge number of people riding sort of duck-footed such that their heels are situated squarely over the pedal and take most of the weight. You'll also often see people riding with their knees turned out so that they resemble a big kid riding on little sister's trike. Again, let's just say it's not the least amusing thing I've ever seen.

And then I got my Dutch bike and started sitting bolt upright myself, quite simply because I didn't have any choice. The first thing I noticed was that my wrists weren't aching every time I got off my bike. The second thing I noticed was how much my knees thanked me for riding with my heels instead of the balls of my feet on the pedals. Score one for looking silly.

Then you have the rules of the road. We learned those fabulously silly arm signals in elementary school: Right arm bent up = turning right. Right arm straight out = turning left (which was the one I always thought was dumbest... I'm pointing right to turn left?). Arm bent down = slowing or stopping. I was all prepared to dust them off for use here, but I happily found that they use the far more sensible method of pointing in the direction they intend to go as they approach an intersection or roundabout. One more point for Dutch pragmatism.

I have to say, though, that I'm not a huge fan of the rule of the road that allows two bikes riding side by side. Any situation involving human beings having to yield the right of way seems to work out badly no matter where in the world you are, but in this country in particular it seems that right of way on the road or bike path is protected with the same vigor as I would expect for, say, the right to freedom of speech. Or the right to breathe. I also find difficult the mechanics of riding in such close proximity to another person, but that's my own personal hangup. The Dutch seem to manage this brilliantly, probably because they learn to ride literally alongside their parents who keep a hand on their shoulder to help keep them going at a decent pace.

This brings me to the bell. Riding on Chicago's bike paths a decade ago (or so, ahem), the convention when passing was to warn the passee with a nice little "on your left" or the occasional "on your right." Ringing a bell would have been anathema, the rough equivalent of honking a horn at another car before you passed them on the interstate, or "you're in my way so I'm passing and, oh, by the way, screw you." In The Netherlands, the ding of the bell is ubiquitous. It's perfectly in keeping with the value they place upon verbal bluntness: "If you're in my way, I'm going to let you know." Heck, a bell is an efficient way of indicating passing, but do you really need to ding every single person you're passing as you're blowing down the path? Maybe I'm just too slow and that's why I bike along to the accompaniment of a gypsy band of belletjes. (Okay, I'm not quite that slow.)

At any rate, when you hear a ding behind you, resist the instinct to turn around to see where it's coming from. If you are walking, evacuate the bike path and/or brace yourself for the jetwash of a VERY closely passing bike. I've had my handlebars nicked twice by exuberant passers, sending both of us veering unpredictably -- not a pleasant experience. So it's been almost three years, but I still cringe almost every time I hear a bell; I was already habituated or something and am squarely into the age of inability to relearn my stimuli.

All of this brings me to a recent day when I was walking back from Avery's doctor appointment. There we were walking along in a semi-crowded area near the market when I heard a bike bell pinging nonstop. My first thought was that it was a small child whose parents were loathe to tell it nee because I've had that kid behind me on the bike path before... ooh. Then the offender came into view, a middle-aged man on a bike rented from the station who was inexplicably blasting down the bike path with an extremely grumpy expression ringing the bell nonstop although there was no one remotely near him. I had just enough time to wonder to myself whether there was some reasonable explanation for this when the middle-aged woman in front of me said for everyone's benefit,

"Ja, je heb wel een belletje. Je heb 't wel."

I laughed aloud. It's something you might say to a child, so it came off as mildly sarcastic and confirmed for me that, no, this guy was a weirdo. It translates roughly as "Yes indeedy, you've got yourself a bell there." That, in a nutshell, is why I'm happy to have learned the beetje of Dutch I have... confirmation that I might actually, occasionally recognize the cultural outliers.