“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them” Ernest Hemingway
As we planned our move to Europe, we had to make a lot of decisions about what to take with us, what to leave behind and what to stick in our families’ basements for our return. Some decisions were easy- we could not use any of our electrical appliances in Europe so they were out. The twenty geckos had to find new homes. The movers warned us that our spice collection could cause a red flag. Our car? Hmm, kind of an essential for life in the U.S., I had not been without a car since my freshman year of college and it afforded me the freedom I wanted to go wherever, whenever I felt like it. So, leaving my car behind was hard. Especially because it was originally my father’s car and the thought of parting with it was painful. What was also a challenging notion was that maybe when we got to Gent, we would not buy a car either. We were not sure if we could afford it and well, we could find a place that was accessible by public transportation… or bikes?
When we visited Gent for the first time, I was amazed by the sheer number of bikes I saw- they stretched around the train station like a swarm of alien attack vehicles. Having been injured in a mountain biking accident after college, I was not terribly fond of biking. But hey, if all these Europeans were biking around without a care in the world, we could do it too, right?
I did not own a bike back in the U.S., though I wish I had bought one back there, they seemed so much cheaper! My husband and son brought theirs, along with a trailer and a trail-a-long bike that we bought second hand. Our first couple of weeks here I fought the idea of getting a bike- no, the bus will be fine, thank you. But after a couple of weeks of missed stops, boarding in the wrong direction, constantly late arrivals and an incident with my son getting jolted on the bus and cutting his head open, I was ready to try something different. We bought an old, somewhat rusty bike off a Spanish woman who was leaving the country. Just needed the basket and the flowers and envision myself floating along a country road…
I soon discovered it to be a bit more like Frogger than that vision. First there was the actual “oh yeah, I remember how to ride a bicycle.” Then there was the anxiety- is that car going to hit me? Do I go first? Or the car? Or the pedestrian? Oh shit, the tram! Add to that, the child seat and the toddler on the back of my bike and I was stressed beyond belief. Every time I got off the bike I realized I had been clutching the handles so tight that my hands ached. I watched others biking ahead of me, and sometimes was so obsessed that I followed them, missed my turn and got lost. I discovered that even though I thought I was supposed to yield, the cars wanted me to go and if I did not, and quickly, they would get mad at me. Other times, they would speed by, not even slowing down.
I wear a helmet even though I am just about the only dork who does. I try to convince myself that the racers are wearing them so they should know something. Plus, how can I expect my child to wear one if I do not? I don’t know the statistics of bike accidents here and I don’t really want to. But I do know there is a certain respect granted to bikers here that I am pretty sure does not exist back home. Here, lots of people bike- at least at certain times of year and to certain places. At home, I never would have considered a bike a means of transportation, just a novelty.
And over the past months, I have gained confidence, learned to stick out my arm to signal a turn and go- avoiding the” you go,“ “no you go,” “no you,” squirrel in the road syndrome. My legs have gotten stronger and my ability to maneuver around obstacles has increased. I have my waterproof jacket, pants and bag. I don’t miss my car -too much. But I still want the basket with the flowers someday.