I confess. I have not driven a car in 4 months. I’d bet that most Americans that can relate to that statement are either: A. 15 or younger, anxiously anticipating the day when they no longer depend on parents for their mobility freedom or B. 86 and older playing bridge in assisted living. There are many things that I just, did not have the mental capacity to consider before I moved here. I was so wrapped up in the process of preparing to exit the country along with tending to my new baby. After putting a quantity and dollar value to everything my family owned for insurance purposes, we had to then decide what goods would ship, what would be stored, what we needed to survive for the weeks in-between, and what we would carry on the plane with us. Next was finding a management company to take care of our houses while we were away, showing our house, finding renters, signing lease agreements. There were also the issues of selling our car, donating the other, returning cable boxes, finding a sitter to watch the baby for the three weeks while I returned to work, quitting my job, completing mail forwarding information, shopping for English-speaking Elmo videos, stocking up on taco & Cajun seasonings, and saying goodbye to all my wonderful friends and family. After all of that, there was just not any more time or energy to visualize how life would really be once I arrived and became settled. If you had asked me if I was going to drive a car when I got here, I would have said, “Sure, I think so, I guess we’ll just have to see how everything goes!” (That answer, by the way, would have also applied to the question – “Are you going to work when you get over there?” We can all see how that’s all going. . . Not, so much.)
Why have I not driven a car in 4 months, or am not planning on driving a car any time soon? Do they drive on the left side of the road or something, you ask? No. They do not. They drive on the right side, so The Netherlands has that going for them. Is it the lack of stop signs, the traffic circles, the unlabeled streets, or the fact that you have to use the GPS everywhere you go? These are all valid points, but no. Go fish. Perhaps the reason I refuse to drive are all the one-way streets and mean Dutch policemen who will give you a verbal thrashing because you accidentally turned the wrong way down a one way street and as if you’re not already terrified that it happened in the first place, you need these two characters to accuse you of doing it on purpose (which, also begs the question – is going the wrong way down one-way streets a problem in this country???) You apologize repeatedly and it’s only after you’ve finally convinced them of your total stupidity, you must strategically complete a 17-point turn to put your car in the right direction without falling into the canal? You’re getting warmer, but no, not even that is the reason. The reason why I don’t drive is because of the bikes.
|One of many bicycle "parking lots" at the Leiden train station
In The Netherlands, the bike (fiets – in Dutch) is the top of the food chain. Bikes have the right-of-way so all busses, cars, and even pedestrians must yield to the bike and everyone between the ages of 3 and 90 owns and rides a bike. Many people may own more than one. They will ride their normal bike to the train station in the morning, hop on the train, then have another commuter bike in the city they work. There are “fietspads” (bike paths) around the city that are similar to the bike trails in Plano or The Katy trail, but unlike Texas where the goal is simply aesthetics while you exercise, the fietspads purposely connect people in the city to the suburbs. But fietspads are somewhat rare. On larger streets in town, there are individual bike lanes complete with a small median separating the bike lane from the traffic. These bike lanes even have their own traffic lights. On smaller streets, the bike lane is thin and separated by a not-so-protective dotted line. Driving down these streets with V, I could roll down the passenger window and touch handlebars. Consider a right hand turn in
– respectable brake, look left and right, and if clear, you go. Because bikes rein supreme, in The
Netherlands, you pause, look left and right, but then look over your right
shoulder at your blind spot and if there is a bike coming up behind you on your
right that plans to go straight through an intersection, you have to pause and
let them pass first. So, it’s a left,
right, back, front head-turning process which is enough to make you dizzy and
sick. So, instead of being the driver
with the paranoia of hitting a bicycler with my car, I have become the
|The 'canoe' option.
Biking around town with two small children – there is the canoe option, the death-defying-put-kids-on-the-handlebars-and-one-on-the-back option, or the-savvy-let’s-try-and-meet-in-the-middle-American-option. I picked the latter, and we found a used Zigo bike on Marktplaats (the Dutch version of Craigslist). My bike is similar to the trailers you’ve probably seen, but the trailer is in the front of the bike. It’s also very handy because the trailer detaches from the bike and becomes a double-stroller. It's fun and I’ve gotten multiple compliments on and inquires as to where I got it, from many Dutch people. The kids are cozy, dry, warm, and relaxed, and I’m well, getting a heck of a workout and the only thing it’s lacking is a cup holder.
Luckily, after the nerve-wrecking experience on Breestraat, I’ve found a more reasonable route around the town complete with bike lanes. Her school is held twice a week on Monday and Thursday mornings. Monday was a rather lovely morning and the sun was even shining. The temperature was cool, but not uncomfortable and as I pedaled closer to her school, the scent of spring filled the air. It was a surprisingly refreshing way to begin the week. Thursday, I was indoctrinated into true Dutch culture and had to ride my bike in the pouring down rain. My jeans became soaked, raindrops pelted my face and my daughter, who was cozy and dry inside the carrier, was excitedly chanting “umbrellas, umbrellas!” The rain slowly shifted from pouring buckets to a drizzle as I neared her school, and I couldn’t help but shake my head and laugh at craziness of the scene. As the mascara I had meticulously applied just an hour early streamed down my face, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment after arriving safely and happily at her school. I think I’m going to really enjoy this mode of transportation, despite the drawbacks of weather, storage space, and physical exertion. But when in
do as The Romans, right? At the very least,
I’ll be burning off all the cheese and fresh bread I’ve been consuming.