The Creative Life

How to survive in the bicycle jungle?

            “Don’t worry about public transportation or where you are going to live, you’ll be cycling to work anyway” said my boss with an amused expression on his face once the decision was made that I will relocate to the Netherlands for a year. To put it mildly, I was less than impressed with the idea at that time and even my usually flexible imagination had a hard time picturing it. I considered cycling a holiday sport activity, not a transportation mode suitable for city life in a country which has the opinion of a windy and rainy one – and certainly not for me. And yet, a few months later I find myself thoroughly unhappy if the weather is bad enough to force me to leave my bike in the shed. How come has it all changed upside down in such a short period of time? The answer is simple although the process itself is far from it – I did learn not only to survive in but also to enjoy the Dutch Bicycle Jungle.
            Many books and articles would tell you that there are over 20 million bicycles in the country, while there is only 16.3 million inhabitants; the bicycle density is thus the highest in the world. An interesting fact, certainly, but it tells you nothing about reality behind the statistics and doesn’t make you realize what it actually means for you. After all there is only so much you can learn about a country from afar, without actually living there. And this is where this article comes in to fill the gap.
            To the Dutch cycling comes naturally; more often than not they do not realize that it does not come so easily to those of us who chose to make Holland our home but were not born here. So for those of you who want to know how to tame the Dutch bike, here comes an article from someone who managed to do just that and is willing to share the experience.

Step no 1 – Getting used to the Bicycle Jungle around you
            One of the first things you notice after coming here is that bikes are everywhere; they come in dozens of kinds, are decorated in a hundred different ways and are used by all kinds of people for all sorts of things. While in many countries bikes are of course known and used as well, there is no nation other than the Dutch which exploit this two-wheeled mode of transportation to such an extent and with such inventiveness.
            Bikers aged five to ninety five are ubiquitous, non-Dutch pedestrians find it more dangerous to cross a cycling path than a road, bikes are parked simply everywhere – personally I’ve never seen so many bikes in one place like in front of the Central Station in Amsterdam. It’s a sea of silver metal frames which makes you wonder how on earth are you supposed to find yours among thousands of others. Maybe this is one of the practical reasons (apart from the inborn need to make everything “gezellig”) why so many Dutch decorate their bikes – with paints, artificial flowers, animal-shaped garish bells, colourful bags and baskets – thus making it distinguishable.
            Once you get used to the idea of bikes everywhere around you, you start noticing what these two-wheeled vehicles can be used for – according to the Dutch. I can assure you that no other nation is equally inventive in this field. Bikes loaded with shopping bags are common, but this certainly seems to be a sensible idea from the very beginning – with all the biker bags and baskets you can carry an amazing load on a single bike. Quite a few dogs and other pets get to ride on a bike as well, and they seem to be enjoying the ride. Then you start noticing mothers with toddles and children strategically placed all over the bike. Apparently two or three can be easily transported on specially fitted seats. More than three children? No problem – a special wooden “container” (for lack of a better word) fitted in front of your bike, which looks like a cross between a wheelbarrow and a mobile sand-cast, will take care of it. It comes in different shapes, sizes and colours, and of course can be optionally fitted with a waterproof cover in case of rain – a luxury which unfortunately does not extend to the parent who does the cycling.
           For the Dutch the list of things which can be transported on a bike seems to be longer than the list of things that cannot, and it certainly expanded my horizons. The first time a saw a man riding a bike and carrying a pretty huge glass window under one arm I thought it’s an exception. Needless to say, it wasn’t. I learnt that e.g. a heavy suitcase on wheels can be hooked to your bike and thus transported. Small furniture pieces can ride with you, which I found quite easy to swallow, but the one time I saw a guy with a plasma screen on a bike I couldn’t help but think that he’s taking a costly risk. Then you get people riding a bike and carrying a second bike in one hand, kissing couples on one bike who miraculously still manage to steer it and – my personal favourite – a bride and a groom riding on one bike to their wedding.
            Once you start getting used to what initially seems to be biking madness, you also start to realize how useful it is. I remember sitting on a stuffy bus on a sunny day this past summer and looking with envy at people passing by on bicycles while the bus was stuck in traffic. Then there was the shopping problem – carrying heavy bags home from the supermarket is certainly no fun. But I soon noticed that I seem to be the only one who does that – the Dutch just load their shopping on a bike and transport it home effortlessly, passing you by on the way and only contributing to your frustration. Not to mention that once you have a bike you can reach a lot of places much faster and easier than without it – it’s certainly much faster than walking, and you are free to go whenever and wherever you want – not depending on public transportation and avoiding the crowds. And finally it does seems logical that the Dutch know what they’re doing when they so unanimously choose to cycle – after all they are the ones who lived here for centuries, so it stands to reason they’ve come up with the best way to do it.
            And so it was on one exceptionally beautiful sunny day that I decided I have enough of just looking at everyone around me enjoying the weather while I’m stuck on the bus. It was high time to jump into the cycling madness.
             Step 2 – Getting a bike
             When I announced at work that I want to buy a bike I was assured by my Dutch colleagues that it’s not a problem at all, that it will be easy to buy a cheap second-hand bike everywhere – it shouldn’t cost more than 100EUR.
            I’m sure that if I were Dutch the above would be true; unfortunately the reality for a non-Dutch native is a bit less rosy. I managed to locate three bikers’ shops in the Loosduinen area where I live and indeed all of them carry a range of both new and second-hand bikes. I didn’t think that buying a new one would make sense in my case since not only would it be extremely expensive, but also I didn’t expect to use it for more than a few summer months that I’m here. So the range of new bikes with prices starting at 650EUR and easily reaching over 1000EUR was out of question. But the second-hand bikes turned out to be expensive as well – over 300EUR – and I found it difficult to say whether a bike I’m looking at is a good choice or it would collapse on me within a week. The meager few choices in the price range I wanted looked far from being trustworthy, and the fact that only in one of the three shops I found I could communicate in English was not very helpful either.
            I asked my colleagues again for advice and I was told to use the most popular Dutch website where everyone who wants to sell or buy anything second-hand goes – As good as the idea sounded, again I found it difficult. At that time I could hardly read anything in Dutch, and the site is of course all in Dutch. I thought the information given was scarce and since I’m no bicycle expert it told me nothing. Few bikes on offer came with pictures, and I couldn’t warm up to the idea of buying something I haven’t seen beforehand – in my country this shopping method is not very popular. Still, I tried to make a few enquiries, but after the fifth person whom I called barely spoke English and I though about finding all those addresses by myself in a city I did not know, I decided to come back to a more traditional shopping method.
           I ended up buying a bike in one of the local shops, with no additional hassle, asked to have it “road-worthy” straight away and bought security chain and lock at the same time. The whole deal was twice as expensive as I initially intended, but I must say that I’m happy with my bike till today.
            Step 3 – Taming the bike and negotiating the jungle
            I wasn’t very surprised that despite all the problems with buying a bicycle the hard part was only about to begin.
            In Poland almost everyone rides a bike as a kid; it’s a popular holiday activity, especially if you’re spending some time in the countryside or near recreational nature areas. Riding a bike in a city and using it as an everyday transportation mode is definitely not a good idea unless you’re feeling suicidal. As a result the last time I sat on a bike before coming to the Netherlands had been probably about ten years ago, and I never rode a lot. Still, I had no problems when I went for a first short ride – even though the bike I bought was much higher than anything I’ve sat on before.
            Having ridden a bike before you may be lulled into thinking that doing it here will not be much of a problem. I soon found out how wrong that assumption is – my first few ventures into the Dutch bicycle jungle, despite being short, left me sweaty and trembling, and not from physical exhaustion. At first I thought it’s just me who’s not very good at it; it wasn’t after much later that I actually talked to fellow expats and found out they went through exactly the same. So if you’re facing one or more of the following problems, be comforted – it’s perfectly normal and you’re not alone…
            One of the biggest problems you are going to face is, actually, the Dutch bikers. Since practically all of them have been riding a bike almost as long as they’ve been walking, the years of experience let them control and steer a bike with amazing control and self-assurance. None of these is what I had – riding a bike on empty forest paths or around lakes requires more stamina than control. But the Dutch naturally assume that everyone else on a bike possesses the same level of skill that they do – and that’s the root of the problem. The first couple on bikes coming from the opposite direction left me no more than 20 cm of space on the pathway, and although I did manage to pass them my heart was pounding. Before it slowed down the ultimate new biker’s nightmare approached – a group of school children who simply do not realize that 10cm of cycling path is not enough space for me to ride by comfortably. When I stopped at the traffic lights, a group of fellow bikers gathered around me, leaving me a small bubble of space – everyone just assumed that once the light turns green I will be able to execute a start perfectly coordinated with them. I wish they knew what a pressure that is…
            Then there is the time you need to get to know the cycling paths in the neighborhood. West of the Hague, on my route to work, some places have paths on both sides of the road (meaning you get a wide one-direction lane) and some have only one path – a two-way one. Due to the trees, shrubs and canals more often than not you cannot see the opposite side of the road, so you need to check it out. Then there are special traffic lights – sometimes right next to the curb, sometimes 4 meters before it, some of them automatic, some on the on-demand (press-the-button) basis. The last ones are a lot of fun at the beginning since very often the controls are placed on a special pole and you need to stop your bike in exactly the right spot to be able to reach it from where you’re sitting.
            Once you mastered the above you only need to look out for pedestrians, people walking their dogs along cycling paths (notorious), car drivers who also expect you to have masterful control of your bike, ducks which tend to fall asleep in the middle of the path (I’m not kidding) and the pans of envy when you see a Dutch cyclist effortlessly maneuvering between cars and people while talking on the mobile and carrying a shopping bag in the other hand at the same time. Easy, isn’t it?

A hundred reasons why it’s worth it
             The good news is that, once you get through all of the above, you can enjoy the experience of a bicycle ride in the fullest. I do agree that if your aim is to make a home for yourself in Holland – and to feel at home here – getting a bike goes a long way towards helping you with that. I simply adore my bike – a worn Gazelle in a non-descriptive brownish colour, with a basket up front, flowery biker bag and a biker’s cap covering the seat. It’s a pleasure to ride it – you get your portion of fresh air and great views you’ll surely miss from a car or a bus – especially good for those of us who tend to need a bit of time to really wake up in the morning. It’s surprisingly effortless since the lay of land is bikers-friendly – it’s very, very flat. You are free to go whenever and wherever you want, distances get shorter and hauling shopping bags becomes a thing of the past. It’s fun, it’s healthy and it’s, simply, a pleasure.
           The aim of this article is certainly not to discourage you from cycling in the Netherlands – quite on the contrary, getting a bike is one of the best decisions you can make. I find it a pity that while the Dutch do encourage foreigners to do just that, they often fail to realize how difficult and overwhelming it is for us at the beginning and thus we are left alone with our struggles, surrounded by lack of understanding.
             I hope this article helps those of us who are considering cycling here or tried to do it and got discouraged – none of you is alone in these struggles, we all need to go through it, but it is definitely worth it. Hopefully now that you know what to expect it’ll be easier for you to survive in the bicycle jungle – and if it is, than the aim of this article has been achieved.