Tourists considering the Netherlands for a vacation probably envision a smooth lager at an Amsterdam cafe table, one snuggled between a tulip vendor and a canal. That is entirely appropriate; the country’s most famous son, Vincent Van Gogh, painted pictures of flowers and cafes. One look at “Cafe Terrace at Night” will make any sane person want to order up a carafe and a cheese plate. A vacation in the Netherlands based on Van Gogh’s work would be very pleasant indeed (if also impossible; many of his paintings were done while he lived in France). But that vacation would be missing the Dutchest experience I had while I was there, because Van Gogh never painted a picture of an exhausted family on bicycles pedaling furiously through the dark and the rain, fueled on by a lunch of fried horse meat.
We had already settled on the Netherlands as our vacation destination so that we could visit friends who had moved there a couple years earlier. Deciding what to do and see while we were there took a little work. The country is loaded with museums, but we have two children, four and two-and-a-half, and there are smarter things to do than to set them loose in a room filled with priceless artifacts. I began to explore alternatives.
One of the oft-repeated tenets of a fulfilling grand tour is to do what the locals do. Usually, this manifests itself as a trip to a restaurant. In Amsterdam, many Americans a standard deviation within college age try to meet this requirement with a visit to a hash bar. I had many reasons to skip that particular entre into Dutch life, not the least of which is that every day it seems, another US state throws up its arms, and says, “Fine, it’s legal.” There is no longer any need to travel so far for that particular pastime.
We chose the next option: we got bikes. The Dutch bike a lot. They bike at a scale that is difficult for Americans to comprehend. 99% of the Dutch population owns a bicycle. On average, each Dutch person rides that bike 2.5 kilometers every day, a little longer than the thoroughbreds run at the Kentucky Derby. The enormous parking garage at the Amsterdam train station is for bikes, not cars. There are barges floating in the canals dedicated to bike-parking because there is no longer enough space on solid ground. By getting on a bike we would irrefutably be doing what the locals do.
There is an organization in the Netherlands called Vrienden op de Fiets, or Friends of the Bikes. This group received the briefest of mentions in the books and travel blogs I read. In a 300-page guide to the Netherlands, the Vrienden got a sentence. It seemed that some people had heard of it, but very few had actually used it. But the name kept coming up. It was like I was being tailed by someone who didn’t want me to know he was there.
As it turns out, Vrienden op de Fiets is a network of volunteers who rent out extra rooms in their houses for a ridiculously low 19 Euros per night. The stipulation is that you have to arrive by bicycle. I had seemingly stumbled upon the traveler’s trifecta: we’d get to meet the locals, it wasn’t a tourist trap, and it was cheap. One phone call later I was a card-carrying member of the Vrienden.
We arrived in the Netherlands on a Saturday in November. The plan was to start our cycling adventure that coming Monday. We allotted two nights for the adventure; we did, after all, want to spend some time with our friends and the Netherlands’ van Gogh-esqe offerings. We drove from the airport to our friends’ house near Arnhem. We staggered into their living room and succumbed soon thereafter to the jet lag. Making the calls to get reservations for the bikes would have to wait until the next day.
Wrong. The Netherlands feels modern in many ways: the trains are clean and efficient, the roads don’t have pot-holes, there are no gaps in wireless internet coverage. But on Sundays, everything is closed. Everything. It felt like the US in the 1970s. No one in the Netherlands goes to church any more, so it was unclear exactly what everyone does on a Sunday. Regardless, we couldn’t call anyone for reservations.
Monday morning arrived and we started calling around, trying to figure out who could rent us bikes for a few days. At the time I was perplexed, but in retrospect, having seen the statistic, it makes perfect sense: when 99% of the population already owns a bike, why would anyone run a bike-rental business? Bike shop after bike shop told us they didn’t rent bikes. After each call I could feel myself sinking a little bit more, wondering, maybe the kids will surprise me and do OK in a museum after all.
Finally, pay dirt. The bike garage at the Nijmegen train station also rented them. That part of the phone conversation was clear enough. The next part was a little tangled. For some background, when I started making the phone calls, I had Steve do it for me. Steve speaks some Dutch. Eavesdropping, I quickly figured out that everyone he was talking to also spoke fluent English, as after just a few pleasantries in the host language, Steve was conversing with the salesperson in normal English. So I took over the calling. I had Steve teach me how to say “Do you speak English?” as my opening line in Dutch, and I was prepared to use my related German if I got into a bind. The response I got the first two times I asked a clerk if he spoke English was so bored, and borderline insulted, that I stopped asking and didn’t do it again the entire trip. Everyone in the Netherlands speaks English ridiculously well, and asking if they do just makes them impatient.
Back to the phone call. What we needed to know was how we were going to carry our children on the bikes. In my experience, the way to cart a kid around with a bike is in a little trailer hitched to the back. So I asked if they had trailers for the bikes. At this point the language difference threw a spitball. Those kinds of trailers don’t exist in the Netherlands; everyone carries their toddlers on plastic seats that attach either in front of the handlebars or on top of the rear wheel. The clerk thought I meant a trailer to hitch to a car on which to carry the bikes. No, he told me, they don’t have those trailers. I asked then, how it would be possible to carry children. I realized later, judging from his tone, he was quite surprised that I would want to carry my children on a trailer behind a car. Our mutual comprehension did not improve. Finally I told him that we’d be there in an hour, and hung up.
We hopped the next train to Nijmegen. When we arrived we found the underground bike garage easily. The entrance to the garage was right next to a big billboard with an ad for something, watches maybe. I don’t know what I was supposed to buy because all of my attention was absorbed by the male model with the highest, most chiseled cheekbones I had ever seen. My assumption then, and now, was that he got to look like that because he rode his bike to all of his modeling jobs.
Like all of the Dutch salespeople and clerks we met during our trip, the guy we rented the bicycle from was incredibly helpful, patient, and didn’t smile once. He showed us the plastic seats for the kids. No trailers? No. There was no confusion this time. My concern with the plastic seats was that the center of gravity would be too high and I might tip us into the path of an oncoming truck killing all three of us instantly. But that’s what they had so we said that we would take them.
We also needed the trailer for our bags. I told the bike guy what the problem was. He nodded stoically and rigged a contraption using an old inner tube to hitch the bags to the back of my wife’s bike. It worked great the entire trip, except that it made my wife look she was riding a pack mule. She was irritated that everyone would be cooing in my direction at the cute kids, while she was being mistaken for our sherpa guide.
We pushed our new bikes up the ramp to the plaza. There was a wide, empty, pedestrian walkway nearby where I practiced riding with the kids. We did not have any accidents, not through any special skill on my part, but because Dutch bikes waste none of their evolutionary resources on style or advertising the mating qualities of the rider; they exist to be practical. That bike, even with the two kids perched up on top, felt like it would have been harder to tip over than to keep upright. This was a perfectly balanced rock solid tank bike. And luckily for me, I had already mated, so I no longer needed that particular feature in a bike.
So there we were, all four of us on two bikes, reasonably confident in our abilities to ride with the gear and children strapped on. We’re all set! Let’s go! Excited chatter all around faded to silence. OK, where are we going? Up until two hours earlier, we hadn’t been sure we would be able to find bikes and didn’t know which city we would be in if we did find them. Now it was the middle of the afternoon, with only a couple hours of daylight remaining, and we needed to find a place to stay in a city we’d never been to. And we didn’t have a map. Or a phone.
So we started riding. Ridiculously, we’d gone a quarter of a mile (sorry Europe, 400 meters) when I saw the building with the VVV sign, the national tourist information outfit. We entered and explained what we were looking for. As it turns out, they can’t help us find a Vrienden host because it’s outside their purview, nor can they help us call any guesthouses to find one with an empty room because they’re not allowed to use the phones. They were able, however, to give me a 150-page glossy brochure touting the investment opportunities available in Nijmegen. At the back of the brochure were a couple of pages listing the places in town where you could spend the night while you were setting up your new Nijmegen factory. I ripped out those couple pages and the accompanying map and threw away the rest of the brochure.
Without a phone, we couldn’t call ahead. We also couldn’t call any of the Vrienden places, which was unfortunate because the cheapest guesthouse was a lot more than the 18 Euros the Vrienden wanted. Nonetheless, we mapped out where the listed guesthouses were located, picked the closest, and pedalled off to knock on doors.
The guy who answered the first door was clearly surprised to be asked in person if their were any rooms available. He said no, they were full. But our children came through for us. They gave him their best “we’re cold and our parents are so cruel” look. He reconsidered, and told us that he might have something. Five minutes later we were unpacking in a warm and cozy, if expensive, room, no longer worried that we might have to spend the night under a bridge. The kids got an extra ration of chocolate that evening for their performance.
We headed back out to the bikes to explore Nijmegen. Without trying, we quickly found ourselves on a bridge crossing the Waal River and headed out of town. The bridge was long; it took maybe 15 minutes for us to cross it. Right in the middle we passed a small group of teenage girls. I could see that one of their bikes had a flat tire, which explained why one of the girls was standing at the curb with her thumb out, trying to hitch a ride. But there were no cars on this bridge, it was for bikes only. That meant she was expecting to get a ride from another cyclist. Things are different in the Netherlands.
The bridge dropped us off in a Nijmegen suburb. We toured around for a few minutes, passing a house with a llama and a peacock in the front yard, before heading back over the bridge.
Like many old European towns, Nijmegen has a pedestrian zone in its center. I was unsure what the rules would be about bikes in a pedestrian zone, so we locked them up and started strolling over the cobblestones. Pretty soon we saw a cyclist go by, answering my question. But then a couple motorcycles sped by as well, making me think that it might not be motorized vehicles that were prohibited, but rather, things that don’t have two points of contact with the ground. People, bikes, and motorcycles would be OK, but cars would not. Presumably dogs are also prohibited? What about pogo sticks?
We found the old weighing station, a large stone building whose stark grandeur had me at first believing it was City Hall (the Dutch were and are a nation of merchants, so it stands to reason that they would take their weighing very seriously). It is now a funky, upscale restaurant and bar. We stopped in for a beer. Like most Dutch restaurants, we were learning, this one mercifully had a corner full of stuff to entertain children. The Dutch don’t fall over themselves to welcome children the way Turks or Arabs do, but their stoicism belies a benevolent tolerance towards youngsters which made dining out much less stressful than I had expected.
The next morning was overcast and cool as we saddled up for our long journey to a suburb of ‘s Hertengebosch, 60 kilometers southwest. The plan was to spend the night close to the city, which the following day would be hosting the biggest weekly market in all of south-central Holland. The innkeeper gave us directions, which was to go to the light, make a left, and follow the signs. We had the bike map the Vrienden sent us, but navigation was not remotely close to being our biggest problem at that stage. It was clear almost immediately that we had made a big mistake in not studying Dutch bicycle signs and traffic rules before embarking. In general, on any road there is a section for cars, a section for bikes, and a section for pedestrians. But sometimes the car and bike sections share the same stretch of pavement, and sometimes the bikes and the pedestrians have to share. Sometimes the bike lane splits off completely from the car lanes, taking the cyclists temporarily on a quieter, roundabout sojourn. It was this last variation that got us in trouble right away. I’m sure that there was a sign pointing the cyclists down some idyllic path that would rendezvous with the car lanes later, but we missed it. We knew it because suddenly we were on a divided highway with no shoulder. The honking started right away. The Dutch tolerance for children I had noted the night before in the restaurant obviously did not extend to their parents who couldn’t read a traffic sign. As dangerous as our situation was, stopping, turning around, and going backwards against traffic would have changed the chance of getting hit from likely to certain. So onward we furiously pedalled.
We didn’t have to go far before there was an exit ramp which led eventually back to our now beloved bike path. We stopped, waited for our panic and embarrassment to fade, and did not miss another one of those signs for the rest of the trip.
But we were never bored, there was an endless supply of traffic signs to not understand. The most common was a small round sign with a thin red border, a big blue center and a diagonal red line across the middle, as if the color blue were prohibited from that point on. I never figured that one out, but I never felt like my life was in danger when I saw one, so I just noted it, and continued on.
The first half of the ride to Den Bosch was a straight shot along a main road. We had been pedalling for about 45 minutes when we saw our first windmill. Yeah! We’re in The Netherlands! Let’s take a picture of the windmill! Looking at the pictures later brought back all the bad memories of that photo op. It was still cold, but by then the wind had picked up, so in addition to having runny noses, the children’s eyes were tearing. In the background, between us and the windmill, is a blurry image of a semi speeding past. And closer inspection revealed that the windmill’s main duty at that point was no longer to hold back the sea or grind grain, but to hold the billboard advertising an auto repair place.
We continued down the straight and not-terribly-picturesque N324. The key word there is “straight”. In late November in the Netherlands the sun rises after 8am and sets at 4:30. With the kids and their jet lag, the morning daylight boundary was never an issue, but we lived in mortal fear of sunset. We were reverse vampires. The traffic signs and map-reading were presenting enough problems in broad-daylight; trying to find our way through the Dutch countryside in the dark was something we wanted to avoid, so we followed the straightest, most direct route there was.
We got to the town of Landerd. A quick analysis of the map using a piece of thread from my pocket revealed that we would make it to our destination before the sun set. We relaxed. A little. At least enough to decide to eat at a restaurant and save the energy bars for another meal. We found what looked to be a standard small-town Dutch diner. In this case, looks did not deceive. My wife and I both ate horse. I had a frikandel, a gooey fried horse-sausage. My wife’s horse was in a tomato sauce with pasta. They were both delicious. The windmill was a bust, but we were riding bikes and eating horse; we could feel the Dutchness oozing over us.
Back on the bikes, rested, fed, and buoyed with a constant supply of Secretariat jokes, we left the highway. All the roads in the Netherlands have bike lanes, but there is also a web of special bike trails throughout the country. It is call the fietsroutenetwerken, a word I won’t use again. These are roads and paths (in some cases, unpaved) which are supposed to be even better for cycling than the ordinary highways and biways. This was our first exposure to these trails and they were stunning. Gone were the speeding semis, replaced by grazing ponies and sheep.
The first leg took us on a narrow paved trail through a state forest called the Maashorst. It was quiet, peaceful, and everything one could ask for in a Dutch bike trail. Except that the paved trail was only about six feet across and occasionally we passed a cyclist going in the other direction. The people passing us seemed entirely nonchalant, but I was terrified of wobbling into a head-on collision or careening off the path into a tree. The Dutch start riding bikes from birth (or before; we saw several pregnant women on bikes), so they have a sense of oneness with their bikes that I do not possess. During the trip we saw all kinds of bike-riding nonchalance that amazed: holding packages of stunning awkwardness with one hand while easily steering with the other; a mother with one child on the front and another on the back, like me, except that she was using one hand to steady the handlebars on the bike that her third child was riding next to her. We saw teenagers holding hands while riding bikes. One thought leading to another, I wondered if anyone had ever been conceived while riding a bike.
For a couple hours we meandered down picturesque lanes, alongside canals, through gob-smackingly cute town squares, and past innumerable pony farms. Many internet searches later I still have no idea why there are so many ponies in the Netherlands. Are there that many state fairs in Europe that need pony rides for the kids? Perhaps they’re tastier than horses?
We began to approach Sint-Michielgestel, our destination. It was only then we realized that our map did not have the detail we were going to need to find the house where we would spend the night. Stopped at an intersection, looking around for some clue as to which of the four possible directions we should go, my wife saved us. She suggested we get out the iPad and use Google Maps. I cannot say why it took us more than a nano-second for us to think of that. What I can say is that it obliterated any remnant of the conceit that we were explorers off on a grand adventure. James Cook did not have a little blue dot showing him just how far he was from Tahiti; Sacajawea did not type “Pacific Ocean” and hit the “Get Directions” button. Now, one could argue that neither of them had Rand McNalley at their disposal either, but I had been able to delude myself into believing that my paper map was just an updated version of whatever paper maps existed hundreds of years ago. I couldn’t do that with the iPad.
We made it to the house of our host, Liesbeth. When we were looking at the Vrienden list of available hosts in the area we had been using Google Translate to get the descriptions of the accommodations. Liesbeth’s house was described as being an old farm. Google Translate has trouble with nuance. It used to be a farm, perhaps back when John Adams was cruising around looking for loans for the rebel insurgency, but no longer. There were no ponies, either out in the yard or on the dinner table. It was a house, a very nice and comfortable house to be sure, but just a house.
As it turned out, we were Liesbeth’s first guests. She had just retired and this hosting thing was going to keep her busy. While she was telling us this I was eyeing our kids and, sensing trouble in the air, wondering if they were going to make her reconsider this new career choice. But in one master stroke, Liesbeth diffused the situation. She too had a toy corner and corralled the kids into it. Of course, I realized, this was a country which had decriminalized recreational drugs! It suddenly all made sense to me as I watched the narcotic of model cars and train tracks work its way through their bloodstream, soon rendering my children happy and polite, while they played quietly.
The next morning Liesbeth had breakfast ready for us. A fantastic Dutch breakfast: no cereal or doughnuts, just fresh bread, cold cuts, and yogurt. It was delicious. We didn’t see many overweight people during our stay, certainly not by American standards. In conversation after conversation we were told that the big reason for their relative slimness is that the Dutch people bike a lot. It would be hard for me to think of a more stunningly obvious thing to say, but hearing it so often made it clear that there is an awareness in the Netherlands that they are thinner than their prodigal pilgrim brethren. The biking-equals-thin statement was then usually followed by a sigh and the downcast admission that McDonalds has been becoming more popular recently. In a case of historical irony, the Pilgrims left Holland for the New World four centuries ago because they felt that Dutch culture wasn’t austere enough. The Pilgrims have since loosened up a little and now we’re back, bearing gifts of extra-large fries.
In the cold, grey dawn (there isn’t any other kind, is there?) we mounted our wheeled steeds once again, headed for market day in Den Bosch. It was only 8km away, but we made the mistake of allowing ourselves to think the word “only”; it took forever to get there. It was also colder, windier, and more overcast than the day before. No longer in shock from the whole experience, It took much less time for the kids to start complaining than it did the day before.
We got to the town square of ‘s Hertengebosch, a beautiful cobblestone plaza with many original medieval stone buildings, all of it ruined by the ugliest, most boring market in all of Europe. It was like a trip to an outdoor Wal-Mart. I suppose it’s interesting to know that in one of the wealthiest, most technologically advanced countries on the planet, people still haggle over the price of laundry detergent in a tent, but I didn’t take long to sink into a pitiful funk, asking myself silently if I had really pedalled a bicycle 35 miles to look at a guy selling mops. I couldn’t even fake it for the kids; they were cold and they knew this was a bust and they made us pay for it.
They started howling in the middle of the market. I looked around for a toy corner to appear out of thin air. Nothing. My wife punched through the glass that said “Break only in case of emergency” and told the kids “Let’s go get some hot chocolate”. So off we went in search of a coffee shop.
We smelled it before we saw it; that sweet odor of pastry-and-cream spiked with a coffee backdrop. We herded the children into a room that appeared to be the Candyland game board come to life. Colorful frostings alternated with sparkling sugar crystals. Our children stopped crying; they were now warm and had just entered a room which was as close an approximation to heaven as their imaginations would allow.
The kids’ drinks cames with little cookies on the side, but they each grabbed the cookies our drinks came with too. In the Netherlands, hot drinks – tea, coffee, hot chocolate – invariably come with a cookie on the side. Even when you are served in someone’s house, you’ll get a cookie. But you are only allowed one; we were warned ahead of time that asking for second cookie before you’ve finished the accompanying drink is extremely rude. If you want a second cookie, you have to finish your drink, then you may, with a clean conscience, ask for a refill, and you will also get another cookie. Our children had figured this out. They knew that they had to be quick in grabbing the cookies off of Mommy and Daddy’s saucer because we would not be ordering a second round (it’s not beer after all) and even their almighty parents couldn’t break through the barrier of Dutch cookie protocol.
The waitress recommended holiday cupcakes for the children. Cookies, hot chocolate, and cupcakes aren’t the usual snack we offer our children at 9am, but that day we had also tortured them more than we usually do (and it was was only 9am) so we ordered the cupcakes.
The Netherlands is a very progressive place. It was the first country in the world to recognize gay marriage. They decriminalized the use and sale of cannabis. Their environmental policy has evolved to the point where households are restricted to the amount of garbage they can produce each week. We knew all of these things when we ordered the cupcakes and were thus completely unprepared when the waitress happily plopped down the holiday treats and bounced off. We were left staring in stunned silence.
The holiday in question is St. Nicholas Day, December 5th. It’s like Christmas-lite. The two protagonists are Sinter Klaus and his sidekick, Zwarte Piet. One of our cupcakes had a candy representation of Sinter Klaus on the top, and he looked just like an American Santa Claus. The other cupcake came with Zwarte Piet, Black Peter, on top. When Zwarte Piet appears in a parade or a school play, he is played by a white actor in blackface. The character is clumsy and always making goofy mistakes. It could be said, generously, that the portrayal of Zwarte Piet is a throwback to an earlier era. And yet, the sugary confection perched on our cupcake managed to make a teenaged actor with shoe polish on his face, stumbling around and faking a speech impediment, seem sensitive. Our cupcake Zwarte Piet looked like a half-human half-ape dressed up as a Rastafarian. If the lack of open commercial districts on Sundays make the Netherlands feel like the 1970s, this cupcake made me feel like we had stepped into the 1870s. There have been various efforts to get the country to update its Zwarte Piet portrayals over the years, but they fizzle out. Presumably, people are either too stoned or too busy worrying about what to buy Rutger and Jaap for their wedding to devote much thought to Zwarte Piet. And, it has to be said, the cupcake was delicious.
Out of the minstrel show, back on the street and getting cold again, we decided to skip the rest of ‘s Hertengebosch’s market and head back to Nijmegen; really, once you’ve seen one Dutch mop, you’ve seen ‘em all. And at 10am, that fear of the dark was already creeping up the back of my neck.
I walked into the tourist office in the main square to see about getting a map of bike routes; perhaps there was something with more detail than the one we had used to get to ‘s Hertengebosch. The clerks were useless. They tried to sell me a picture book of Dutch bicycles.
Back out on the bikes, we knew we needed to head east, but it was too cloudy to see where the sun was. I cursed myself for not having the foresight to bring a compass. The couple people we asked had no idea how to ride a bike to Nijmegen. Finally, I checked a couple trees to see which side the moss was growing on, made a rough guess as to where north was, turned 90 degrees, and we were off.
Five minutes later, things didn’t feel right, so I asked an elderly gentleman for directions. He was the first person we’d met who didn’t speak English. It was clear that he wanted to help us and wasn’t going to let us leave until we understood how to get to Nijmegen. I could understand enough of the Germanic-sounding words to figure out what he was telling us to do. I thanked him and we were off.
At the second light, we took a right, as we had been instructed. I happened to glance back over my shoulder and saw that our instructor had followed us to make sure we had understood. We thanked him again.
A couple blocks later our road was close enough to the highway that I could see the sign with the straight-ahead arrow that said Nijmegen. We breathed a sigh of relief, relaxed in the knowledge that we had finally found the path to get back. That lasted about a minute. Our road ended in the parking lot of an apartment building. Enough, we said, get the iPad out. We stopped and waited while the map rendered at street-level resolution. Seeing where we had gone wrong, we started backtracking. This time we made it about 30 seconds before our daughter started howling that she had to go potty. So we stopped again. While my wife assisted our daughter, our son started crying that his hands were cold. Unfortunately, his solution to that problem is always to take off his mittens. I stuff his cuffs into his mittens, trying to make it just difficult enough to get them off so that maybe he’ll be distracted by something else before he can pull them off again. Our daughter, now relieved, returned, but decided to start crying because her brother was crying. We started pedalling again, me with two air-raid sirens going off on either end of my bike.
We made it to the next intersection where I realize that all the wailing has made me forget what we’re supposed to do at the intersection. We stop. Get out the iPad. Wait for the rendering. In the meantime, off come the mittens. More crying. When the map finally renders, I memorize only the next two turns we need to make, deciding that it will be easier to plan on stopping every couple blocks, than to try to go further, but have to stop every couple blocks anyway. We don’t even make it to my first memorized turn when our son wails that he has pooped and needs a new diaper. We stop. Wife changes son. I look at the map again. We’ve been trying to leave ‘s Hertengebosch for over an hour and we are still a long way from the city’s border. I begin to ponder alternatives. Take the train back to Nijmegen? Go as far as we can and stay another night somewhere? Apply for asylum?
With my new stratagem of checking the iPad every few blocks, we slowly made it through the outskirts of ‘s Hertengebosch. When we finally crossed the border everything changed. We found the red bike-path signs and we entered farm country with long straightaways between turns, so we didn’t need to look at the iPad nearly as often. The farm animals distracted the children and the wailing subsided. And the sun came out. The next four hours were a wonderful cycling tour of the Dutch countryside. When I saw the first bike sign telling us how many kilometers until Nijmegen, I finally allowed myself to entertain the thought that we weren’t going to perish out there.
We came upon a sign telling us that there we were 10 kilometers away from Nijmegen. I looked at watch and calculated that we would be in Nijmegen at dusk, but we should be there before it was pitch dark.
It started to drizzle. The kids started whimpering. Then we stopped at a red light. When it turned green I couldn’t bend my right knee. I managed to get the bike moving by pedalling with just one good leg; the thought of taking the time to stop and stretch to get the other knee operational again seemed an indulgent luxury.
Then it got dark. Not dusk. Dark. And I realized: the distance-to-Nijmegen signs were announcing the distance to the border of the city, not the city center. Oddly though, once it got dark, I felt better, as I no longer had to worry about whether or not we would have to ride in the dark.
It started raining harder. The raindrops on my glasses refracted the tail lights in front of me into a sparkling red kaleidoscope. We pulled up to another red light. Three motor bikes pulled up right behind me. They started revving their motors as the other light turned yellow. The red smudge in front of me turned into a green smudge. I wobbled and struggled to keep the bike upright as I tried to get us going again with one good knee. With motors roaring, the three motors bikes swerved around me like I was a gate in a slalom ski course. The kids’ whimpering metastasized into howling.
If there were any red bike signs, we couldn’t see them. We didn’t know how to get to the train station, but there were lots of bikes around us, so we just followed the crowd. If there were five bikes in front of us and two went straight while three went right, then we went right. I don’t know why we thought crowdsourcing would get us to the train station, but that was the plan upon which we staked our survival.
Then we rounded a corner and there it was: like Shangri-La, or El Dorado, or Oz, rising out of the mists we beheld the glory of the Nijmegen train station.
There was construction, so we had to zig and zag several times to get to the station, and when we finally did, we weren’t sure where the bike garage was. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone pick up a bike and start walking down stairs. We followed him down to the bike garage. But it was the wrong bike garage. At that point I no longer needed any reminders on the extreme bike culture in the Netherlands, but I was slightly impressed, and annoyed, that a mid-sized town like Nijmegen didn’t have one enormous bike garage, but two.
We trudged back up the steps pushing the bikes. Back out in the wet night, our children weeping, we peered into the rain and darkness for another bike garage. Then I saw the cheekbones. The highest, most chiseled cheekbones I had ever seen glowed like a beacon. You are home, they said to me, you are safe now.
We took the bikes down the stairs and returned them with no waiting and no fuss. We walked to the station. The kids’ wailing had changed to simpering. I stood in line to buy tickets while my wife fed the kids cashews. By the time I returned with the tickets they were laughing. We only had to wait a couple minutes for the train. In our seats, the kids chattered relentlessly about seeing all the ponies and eating a cupcake for breakfast.
The rest of our time in the Netherlands was wonderful. We actually did wind up sipping beers next to a canal and a tulip vendor. But the bike ride made everything different. It gave us a secret identity. Yes, on the surface we looked like tourists, walking through Amsterdam with our guidebooks open, taking pictures of canals and statues. But we had ridden bicycles (and eaten a horse). We had crossed the Rubicon: bring on the wooden shoes, we’re Dutch.