The ambiguity of fietsen

When I was asked to write about my experiences as an exchange student in the Netherlands, the job felt a little overwhelming at first – what am I to write about after a few weeks here? After all, I’m just starting to get acquainted with the new life: meeting people, getting around the city and adjusting to the ways of the local university. Then I realized there’s an element of the Dutch way of life I already participate in – biking.

This was actually one of the first questions I was asked here – “do you already have a bike?” Not an apartment, textbooks or friends. A bike is the absolute necessity, and you learn that pretty quickly. With the bike came a few observations.

A bike is not a bike
First, the bikes themselves. There’s a huge variety of choices – classic urban bikes (called “Dutch” in Poland); fancy bikes which stand out from all others and are usually double or triple locked; folded bikes which certainly are very convenient in public transport but one has to agree to look funny on them; bikes with carts for children (super cute!) or tandem bikes for those who look for a more social experience. Still, anything with wheels and a seat will do.

I chose the minimalist option of a rusted bike with broken lights and a hole in the seat – from what I heard, a perfect choice, since it won’t tempt anyone to steal it and you don’t have to invest in a separate lock. I would lie if I said it was a love at first sight – actually, I was initially quite scared to use it. But when I gave the old thing a chance, we got along perfectly. It has served me well so far and it got me to anywhere I needed.

Not all bikers are alike
When you already have your ride, then the true fun begins. Grit your teeth, say a prayer, whatever you prefer – then join the crowd and try to be as little an inconvenience to others as you can. You will definitely feel uncomfortable the first few times, especially if you’re not used to biking (as I wasn’t), or at least the Dutch way of biking.

I would dare to say it is the most egalitarian as well as the most exclusionary thing I encountered here. You participate in it out of necessity and/or for pleasure, but you, as a foreigner, are highly visible until you adapt and shake off the awkward feeling.

After some time, you might become one of the several kinds of bikers I distinguished – the aggressive, impatient type who will pass by you as soon as you drag on; the chill type who takes their time on a bike to contemplate life; the risk-takers who never stop at a red light, text and bike or smoke and bike; the romantics who bike next to each other holding hands; the party herds who treat the way to a bar as a pregaming activity.

Once you master a quick take-off, swerving beside cars through narrow streets, carelessly taking rapid turns and develop an intuitive alertness, you might pass for a local. You might even get to know the stunning satisfaction of overtaking a bus or honking at your own unsuspecting tourist!

Who parks where?
Finally, when you get to your destination point, there’s the issue of parking. The massive underground parkings are really impressive – but who has time to find a spot when you’re almost late for your class…

The principles about bike-friendly areas are still quite confusing. There are “no bikes here” signs on almost any door or window but the reality around them contradicts the ban. So far, I have utilized the rule “when the others do it, then it must be fine”. And I have to admit, you quite grow fond of the small adrenaline rush every time you come back to the place where you’ve left your bike from hoping it’s still there.

Love it or hate it
You either love it or you hate it – but you can’t avoid it once you’re here. Chances are, you’ll feel both emotions at different occasions, but you’ll get used to it.  And if you love the Netherlands, you have to acknowledge you’ll love fietsen too.