Falling down

Well, it was bound to happen. The life of a cyclist in the Netherlands is a delicate balance. You need enough caution and attention to get safely to your destination, but a healthy dash of assertiveness and daring doesn’t hurt. In the past months, I’ve gotten more comfortable on my city bike, learning how to navigate some tricky intersections and find my way around new neighborhoods. I’ve had a close call with a tram and a few near-misses with fellow commuters coming off the Centraal Station ferry. Nothing serious yet, although in some ways I’ve been holding my breath waiting for the inevitable to happen…

So who would have guessed that my first bike crash wouldn’t be in Amsterdam at all, but in Utrecht? We took a day trip on Saturday and rented bikes, which we knew from the get-go were not in the best of shape. The tires were a bit wobbly and the brakes were terrible, even though we had both hand brakes and coaster brakes. We managed as best as we could. For the most part we had no problems, since we were biking outside of the city center on new bike paths with little traffic.

But then. On our way back into the city, we were riding on a bike path in a relatively active neighborhood. Up ahead of me, I saw a woman and a dog coming towards the path from the left. My husband was in front of me and came to a hard stop to avoid hitting the dog, which had run into the bike path. And then I came to a hard stop, first into him, then down to the ground. Damn the rental bike and it’s crappy brakes! A very kind bystander helped us out and made sure I was ok, before assuring me that, “it happens to everyone!”.

Thankfully I survived with nothing more than a few bruises. The bike was no worse for wear, and I also managed to protect the jacket I had bought only hours before. I’m moving a little slower, but that didn’t stop me from biking again today – on my own bike, with brakes that I trust.

Oddly, there’s some measure of relief to having this first crash out of the way. Of course, it’s not as if we each only get ONE crash. I could have another one tomorrow. But I know now that I can survive a tumble. And, at least while the bruises are still fresh, I will be a little more alert to my surroundings, and pay more attention to what’s in front of me.

La grève, Dutch style

Earlier this week it was announced that there would be a public transportation strike in Amsterdam and Utrecht. It would involve the GVB, the Gemeentelijk Vervoerbedrijf, a private corporation owned by the City of Amsterdam, and the provider of municipal public transport. The strike would affect the metro, trams and buses but not – critically – the free GVB ferries that run across the IJ River.

I use any number of these modes of public transport daily, so I was interested in the details of the strike. It was planned for a Thursday morning, from 5AM until 8:30. As in, 8:30AM. That’s right, it was a 3 1/2 hour strike. Mon Dieu. This struck me as a particularly Dutch way to go on strike. Just long enough to cause some minor disruptions, but not enough to really screw up anyone’s day. A rather polite strike.

Last weekend, friends traveling by train from Paris to Amsterdam were delayed a day when the Belgian train workers declared a 24-hour strike. And if you’ve spent any time in France, you’re well acquainted with la grève. I don’t know the success rate of these actions. I don’t pretend to know enough about the history or the politics that lead workers to strike, or the economics that dictate if or how strikes are resolved. I know that for a full day, a lot of people who don’t give much thought to the salaries or employment conditions of Belgian train workers were thinking of just that.

Expecting that the regional buses that take me to work would not be running on Thursday morning (they were), I opted to cycle to the office, even though the evening commute promised to be a rainy one. The ride home was unpleasant, but I kept hearing echoes of our Scottish tour guide from a few weeks back: you can only get wet once.

Even with the inconveniences that a strike causes, I suspect that most of the general public can sympathize with the workers. For a day or a few hours, we consider those often-invisible people who keep the world working. We remember, as the Book of Common Prayer so beautifully reminds us, “…that our common life depends upon each other’s toil”.

Words and pictures

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The Blue Mosque seen from a window at the Hagia Sophia

Thanks to the brilliant Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings, I recently started reading David Whyte’s gorgeous book Consolations: the Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. Whyte, an English poet, has selected 52 words, from ambition to courage to procrastination, and offers brief but profound reflections on each. And there, in the middle of the table of contents, among virtues and vices, I see this word: Istanbul.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to make my first visit to Istanbul, meeting up with a dear friend at the start of her 6-week travel adventure (hi, Ellen!). It is a fascinating place, unlike anywhere I’d ever been before. The mix of secular and religious, the astounding history, the sounds of the call to prayer, the ancientness of it all – these combine to create a sensory experience that requires your full attention. It threatens to overwhelm but can also be sheer delight, (especially if you wander into a hamam).

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Istanbul from the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar.

Istanbul is a place that is hard to describe, hard to summarize or explain to others. But Whyte manages to do it beautifully:

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Galata Tower (in the distance) and the changing Istanbul skyline.

“The piles of pomegranates, the heaps of turmeric and the wafted scent of saffron from the stalls remind us we are never just one thing, never just one set of senses, that we are no one name, we are Constantinople and Istanbul and even Stanboul and we have carried the frontier between the past and the present with us all our lives…we live now but all our history and even our future is already occurring even as we walk the street, fading into the jubilant evening light of a day, strangely and even reluctantly, already beginning to end.”