Friday, September 28, 2012

I Will Wait

I Will Wait (Mumford & Sons)

I move the seat up then adjust it to the proper height.  I fasten my seatbelt and look into the rearview and side mirrors.  “Daddy’s seat!” Baby Girl protests from the back seat.  “I know Honey, but today it’s Mama’s seat.” I respond, careful to mask my nervousness and the fact that I completely agree with her.  This is Daddy’s seat.  I again, check my sideview mirror and wait for six bikes to pass me.  With my hands on “10 and 2”, I cautiously wedge the car out of its paralleled parking spot.  I feel 16 all over again, except I’m not driving a 1967 brown army tank of a Buick down a 3-lane boulevard in Plano, Texas.  I’m painstakingly maneuvering a black 4-door tiny Honda on a brick street in The Netherlands, with two little children in seats behind me.   I take a deep breath as I crawl down the road behind the pack of bicycles that had just passed me.  The road widens.  They move to the right and I slowly pass them.   Every muscle in my body exerts happiness as I press the accelerator gently.  I am moving down the road without exerting physical effort!  This is so wonderful, so lazy!  I continue my pep-talk as I pass the windmill at the end of our block and approach the stop light.  “Honestly, Celeste” I say to myself, “Which is scarier?  Driving through Leiden at the speed of approximately 20 miles per hour (32 Kph) with the possibility of hitting a cyclist, or flying down the Dallas North Tollway in a 2-door convertible topping speeds at 80 miles per hour (130 Kph)?”  I nestle myself in my plush seat.  It’s so comfortable.  It’s so…upright!  I glance at my kids in the back seat as I’m waiting for the light to turn green.  They are so safe, surrounded by car seats and doors!  I adjust the A/C just because I can, take a sip of my coffee, and turn up the new Mumford & Sons CD my husband recently purchased and had put in the car stereo.  Old habits die hard.  I always tuck a jumbo-sized cup of coffee in my bike when I take my daughter to school across town with the intentions of taking a sip while stopped at a light, or finishing the cup once I’ve dropped her off.  But the logistics of commuting are different when biking vs. driving.  A cup of coffee is hardly what you want to drink after pedaling 2 ½ miles (4 kilometers).  But it is what you want as a reward after you’ve successfully dressed yourself and two kids and dropped your daughter off at school.  See: conflicted.  I continue to drive through Leiden and follow the same route via road that I would have followed had I biked with the kids, as close as I can.  I know where the cyclists will be coming from.  I am one of them.  There is understanding and respect in what is familiar.  I brake to let pedestrians pass at the cross walks.  I make room for the bikes as people do for me.  Cars creep through the city at a painfully slow pace.  Drivers are always conscious of the possibilities of bikes coming from all directions, sometimes with the right-of-way, sometimes not.  After six months of being the cyclist, I know the difference between the rights of ways, and I am confident with my driving abilities on the familiar roads.  My daughter’s school is in the middle of a park in the middle of a neighborhood.  With everything here, there are pros and cons logistically.  On my bike, I pedal up to the front of the school, leaving my son in the carrier of the bike as I kiss her goodbye and hang up her jacket.  Today, I park the car.  I load my son in his stroller then push him and hold my daughter’s hand, while we make the 100-yard trek to her school.   I’m happy that it’s not raining or snowing.  The thrill of driving may be tempered with other emotions in a few months when this is the end of the line and the weather is harsher.   I drop her off, exclaim my accomplishment to her teacher, “I drove!” who luckily, like any good teacher does, applauds me in my elementary efforts.  My son and I drive back home, no sweat (literally!) and I turn onto our street.  My elated aura of triumph diminishes rapidly and I exclaim outloud, “Oh NO!  I’m going to have to parallel park!” (which by the way, I could do. . . seamlessly. . . when I drove a 2-door convertible) but as anyone who has to parallel park regularly knows, it takes awhile to get the rhythm down with each car.  Luckily on this Monday morning at 10:00 a.m., there was a space in front of my house wide enough to park an 18-wheeler, so I simply and happily just drove into the parking spot.
   What prompted this overwhelming surge of confidence?  Or wait, why is driving such a big deal?  Why haven’t I driven a car in nine months?  Okay, so, you can read my previous blog post, or I can offer the Cliffs Notes version here:  The bikes.  In The Netherlands, people bike everywhere.  It’s a fantastic and efficient method of transportation.  The Netherlands is small and compact (our home is only 6 yards wide!) and everything stems from there.  This is not a land for the claustrophobic (believe me, because I am!) and with that, bikes fit the bill.   There are a handful of parking lots, few multi-lane roads, and bike lanes are available everywhere.  You can traverse a city driving 20 MPH or more efficiently weave your bike down cobblestone alleys.  Biking is the primary mode of transportation in Holland.  This is what people do.  Rain, shine, or otherwise, this is part of the culture.  Driving with the bikes all over the place is a nerve-wrecking experience, even as a passenger riding shot-gun as my husband is behind the wheel.  They have the right of way, so seemingly, at any moment of time, one can dart across the road, you must yield, and for months, I had visions of me driving while cyclists flew across my windshield.       
  So again, after six months of cycling, what prompted me to drive my children across town?   Was I granted the seemingly-unattainable Dutch drivers’ license post-multiple hours of supervised study?  No: luckily for me, we were issued licenses without a multitude of tests, unlike some unfortunate Expats.  Did the Zigo have a flat tire?  No.  Although, I do admit, in June my bicycle tire was flat, and my daughter did not go to school that day.  (Add that to my list of things I’d never say/do in America.)  It was something simpler than that.  “Life in a foreign country is a dance of submission and resistance.  Self-knowledge comes in small repeated shocks as you find yourself giving in easily, with a struggle, or not at all.  What can you do without?  What do you cling to?” Rhiannon Paine writes in Expat Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad.  Last week, after our grocery delivery was cancelled, I biked (with Little Man) to a local grocery store.  My father-in-law was coming into town for the weekend, and I had multiple meals to prepare (dining in public with two kids under 2 ½ is just not an option I prefer to exercise, plus I love cooking, especially when there are extra hands in the house to entertain the kids.)  After traversing through the tiny aisles, my son about to jump out of the grocery cart as I pack my own groceries (of course they don’t have grocery cart seat belts, they bike their kids around atop handle bars without helmets. Seat belts, like using your turn signals in New England, are for wimps.)  I load my bike with a 7lb bag of dog food, 2 bottles of water, a kilo of salmon, a kilo of chicken, multiple bottles of wine, multiple cans of food, and a cornucopia worth of fresh vegetables and fruit.  Little Man, is packaged in the carrier amongst the groceries, another bag of groceries is slung over my shoulder.  Exasperated, I flag down a teenager on her way into the store.  I don’t even bother with my cursory “Spreekt u Engels?” as I hand over my cart I say to her, “Do you need this?”  Luckily the Dutch youth are fluent in English and she doesn’t even skip a beat, “No, I’m going into work,” she says.  I nod to her, “Please.  Will you return this cart?  Just take the 50-cents.” And I wave her and the cart away desperately. As far as I’ve seen, The Netherlands has this tedious system to encourage cart returns and prevent cart stealing.  The grocery carts are locked to each other, and in order to unlock them, you must put a 50-cent or 1 Euro coin into the slot to unlock it and use it.  According to the Xenophonbe’s guide to the Dutch, “Accumulating money is a virtue.  Spending it is a vice.” I did not want to be the only person in the country that ever failed to return their cart.  No one leaves their carts unattended in a parking lot.  That one 50 cent coin is so much more than a 50 cent coin.  This would be the equivalent to forgetting to get your change out of vending machine.  The sweet teenage girl, after sublimely telling her, “please, just take the 50-cents, I can’t possibly maneuver groceries, a baby, a bike, and a grocery cart at the same time,” returned my cart and as I was throwing my leg over the bike, anxious to flee the scene, flagged me down and brought me back my 50-cent piece.  I smiled, shook my head at her angelic honesty and I pedaled my baby and 90 Euros of groceries, wearing my poncho, in the rain.  After that, I told myself, I am no longer giving in easily.   I’m taking the lead in this dance of resistance and submission.
   I drove my daughter to school.  I drove my son to the grocery store.  I drove my family to a garden center to buy mums to plant in our front yard to celebrate the arrival of autumn.   I did not run over any cyclists.   I almost felt. . . American. 
   The unfamiliar becomes familiar.  The impossible become possible.  With exposure comes understanding and acceptance.   Then the familiar surfaces again.  Transformed, like a butterfly, it is more beautiful in its newly enlightened state.  The process takes time and patience at a pace that only you can be comfortable with.  Sometimes we are waiting for the world.  Sometimes the world is just waiting for us.     

1 comment:

  1. Hello Celeste! I just found your blog and I'm enjoying it immensely! I'm married to a Dutchman, we live in the states and have a 5 year old daughter. It looks like after many years of talking about it we will be moving to the Netherlands this Summer (I think). I'll continue to read your blog and take notes so that perhaps I'll be a little bit more prepared for life in Holland.