Are you a bike refusenik, novice, or veteran? US mama Katie Nowicki has been all three and she feels your pain. Here is her honest and funny account of how she and her family learned to bike in Amsterdam.
Moving abroad was the scariest thing I have ever done. It wasn't my choice, and I was more apprehensive than excited about it. The first few days of living here are a bit of a blur now. We were busy and tired due to jet-lag and all of the things that have to be done to set up a new house in an unfamiliar country. I was overwhelmed and stubbornly wanted things to be similar to my life back home.
I saw that everyone here rode bikes, but I wasn't eager to get a bike. We had a car, I could walk places, and Amsterdam has a great public transportation system. I knew it was unrealistic to think I didn't need a bike right away, but I was so busy Google-translating my way through the grocery stores, applying for residency cards, getting my children ready to start a new school, and exploring Amsterdam that I just didn't want to face what I saw as a huge challenge: Biking in Amsterdam.
You see, prior to moving here, I hadn't ridden a bike in a very long time. It had been years since I owned a bike, and the last time I rode one regularly was probably pre-driver's license days. When I rode my bike, it was to play with kids in the neighborhood, ride to the local convenience store for candy, or occasionally ride to a friend's house across town. It just wasn't something I regularly did. In the United States, or at least where I lived in Chicago, bikes are mostly used for recreation. They aren't a transportation necessity. My husband once bought me a bike as a gift. Then, less than two years later, it was stolen from our back deck. That was about 8 years ago, and I never got a new one.
Fast forward to our move here. After a couple of weeks, it became obvious that I needed a bike. The kids already had their new bikes, and they were ready to ride. I had crazy visions of becoming a cute, bike-riding family. One Saturday morning, my husband went out to buy his own bike, and I later met him at the store. I had no intentions of getting a bike that day, but my husband and the salesperson said, "Hey, guess what? This bike would be great for you!" I froze. I wasn't prepared. I didn't have time to look around and pick out my favorite. Instead, here they were, handing me a bike and telling me to get on and take it for a test ride.
The bike salesman joked that he could put training wheels on my bike, and for a split second, I considered it.
You know the saying, "it's just like riding a bicycle"? Well, that seems to apply to a lot of things, but for me, riding a bicycle was not one of them. The bike salesman joked that he could put training wheels on my bike, and for a split second, I considered it.
I'm kidding. But I *was* a little wobbly. And I had to learn how to use coaster brakes again, as stopping my bike by dragging my feet on the ground and running into a pole wasn't going to be a good long-term solution. I tested the bicycle by riding down the street, sweating from nervousness, and silently wishing every other bicyclist to stay far away from me. I returned to the store, not completely convinced it was the bike for me or that I would ever be able to calmly ride through this city.
But I bought my shiny new bike, and I quickly figured out how to ride again. And then I had to figure out something far more intimidating: how to ride a bike with kids.
Kids: Turning Everything into a Challenge
Both of my kids, ages 3 and 5, had bikes back at home. Cute, tiny little bikes with training wheels. In the winter, they zoomed around our basement on their bikes. In the summer, they would ride on the sidewalk in front of the house or on the playground of the nearby school. Sometimes, if we were felt adventurous, we would ride through the neighborhood to the park. But it wasn't a long trip, and it was mostly on sidewalks.
So here we were in the Netherlands, a country in which everyone has ridden a bike as a method of transportation since they were infants. Seriously. I have seen tiny infants in baby carriers strapped to their mom's chest as the mom pedals her way through town. I've seen babies, barely old enough to sit up, sitting on bike seats in front of their parents. Little kids on their own bikes, multiple children riding on the same bike as a parent, and still my favorite - the mom riding the bike with one school-aged child behind her, and one in front of her holding their dog. The Dutch know their bikes and their cycling. Dutch children grow up knowing how to navigate the bike paths of Amsterdam. They are naturals.
We are not naturals.
The boys were ecstatic about their new bikes and immediately wanted to ride everywhere - the park, the mall, the corner store for ice cream, restaurants in town for dinner. And that sounds great, doesn't it? Can't you picture my cute little family all riding together to these places, assimilating into Dutch culture?
Wrong. You're wrong. Completely wrong. It did not start out as cute.
Because here is the thing. There are bike paths everywhere here. Some of these paths are totally separate from the street, some are just alongside the road, and some actually share space with cars. Now, most places we ride have very little traffic, but still, my kids are not used to riding along near cars. They also aren't used to sharing the space with other people riding bikes who (understandably) don't want my kids in their way. This causes my stress levels to rise and gray hairs threaten to appear every time all of us ride together. My little American children have no idea how to navigate the bike paths of Amsterdam.
Let me Explain How my Three-Year-Old Rides:
- Gets on bike.
- Puts head down to look at feet.
- Pedals the bike as fast as he can without ever looking up at his surroundings.
- Ignores all instructions from parents.
Honestly. The kid takes off like a rocket when he gets on his bike. My older son is five, so he is a little better at paying attention and following my instructions. But I spent the first few weeks screaming every time we rode bikes together:
"Stop at the corner! I mean it! Stop right there!"
"Not so close to the parked cars! But not in the middle of the road either!"
"THERE IS A CAR COMING! Get to the side of the road!"
"Let the other people on the bikes go past!"
"You can't ride ahead of me where I can't see you!"
"I AM NEVER LETTING EITHER OF YOU RIDE BIKES EVER AGAIN!"
Pedalling Through the Pain
The first few bike rides ended in tears. Both kids hated riding with me. I was a nervous wreck, and I'm sure the laid-back, cool Dutch people who saw me thought I was insane. I really was the crazy lady yelling on the bike path every day. I hated it, the kids preferred riding with Daddy, and I was prepared to keep my family off bikes forever.
You wouldn't mistake me for a natural, bike-riding Dutch person, but I don't think I stick out as the overbearing, super-nervous, screaming foreigner that I used to be.
Things quickly got better, though. My older son learned how to ride without training wheels. Both boys learned more of the rules about riding their bikes. My little guy is still a monster on wheels, and I do have to keep a close eye on him, but he'll learn as he gets a little older. I've calmed down a little, and I rarely yell anymore. You wouldn't mistake me for a natural, bike-riding Dutch person, but I don't think I stick out as the overbearing, super-nervous, screaming foreigner that I used to be. We do ride our bikes places together now, and it isn't the worst thing in the world.
And if I dare say it, we are starting to look pretty darn cute when we do.
A version of this story originally appeared in Katie's blog, 731 Dam Days.
Katie moved from Chicago to Amstelveen with her husband and two young sons in July 2015. A former teacher, she now spends her days playing with her children, exploring Amsterdam, and sharing stories of her expat experience in her blog.