Biking as a Metaphor for Life and Other Things I Tell Myself while Trying to Survive the Netherlands on Two Wheels

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There are many places to begin this story. And many parts of the story that should be told. All in good time. I want to tell you about my daughter's rites of passage year and how we ended it in an epic quest to answer the question, "where are you going?" I want to tell you all about hanging meaning on experiences and how metaphors are for parenting. I want to tell you about her test and how she passed into the company of women. These stories will come. For now, I need to tell you about the bikes. We like to bike. And this daughter, this one needed a physical challenge to really test her grit. I figured, the Netherlands is the flattest country in the world and has more bikes than people. How hard could it be? I had a book that outlined the routes in painstaking detail, I was going to a spin class once or twice a week, my mom was training 15 miles/ day, we had butt butter. We got this.

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We are late picking up our bikes. I have already made a huge mistake in not renting a hotspot and have snuck into another bike rental shop to use their wi-fi to find the shop where I have made a reservation. With 10 minutes to closing, we rush through Amsterdam's Dam Square with our backpacks, already looking ridiculous: we are not 22-year old backpackers, but 68, 42, and 13.

Mike, the owner, is still there with an incredibly helpful co-worker. Too chatty. Our hostess is expecting us right now and I want him to stop being so friendly, so slow. There are chain locks to describe, wheel locks, handlebars, and repair kits. The friendly co-worker claims they've never had a flat tire, but just in case... There are seats to lower- none of which are low enough for me to comfortably touch the ground at stops. This will prove to be an issue. But what are we to do? We have spent the afternoon in the city, and have noticed the number of people on bikes, mopeds, in cars, and on foot. For a fleeting moment, I consider scrapping the whole idea. What are we doing?

The map shows we are only 2 miles away from our hostess' house and once we get through Dam Square and reach the last canal, we should be in a nice park the remaining stretch. We are not so arrogant as to think this will be easy. The afternoon has shown us we are out of our league. I contemplate walking the bikes the whole way to the park. My mom and I look skeptically at each other.

I decide there is no choice. I lead. We walk the bikes down the alley to the street and wait for long minutes for a break in the traffic long enough to aim the right way, mount, and get into the stream. I feel more vulnerable than I ever have: my body is exposed to this hoard of movement.

I am trembling. I want you to picture the last place you went with throngs of people: a concert? a ball game letting out? rush hour at the metro station? taste of Chicago? Imagine that of these thousands of people, 5% are in cars, 5% are on mopeds, 10% are walking and 80 freaking % are on bikes. 3000 people. 300 are on foot. 150 are driving cars and 150 are driving mopeds. And 2400 people are on bikes. Do you get the idea? Madness is all around.

We follow the masses and make it through the first light. We high-five each other. It truly feels like an enormous accomplishment. But at the first turn, Ella is cut off and pushed into another stream. We share a lane with mopeds and cars the size of golf carts. There are bike lights and pedestrian lights and car lights. There are lanes that are vertical, horizontal, and diagonal. The hidden rules are known by all, except us. Everywhere, there is water. Bridges and boats and streets with names that all look the same. We are going to die. By the second light, my mom's backpack has fallen off the back of her bike. At the third light, I struggle to get back on and teeter so much, the light turns red again. These first signs of our novice, amateur naivety will prove to be patterns that repeat, repeat, repeat.

An hour and a half later, we pull up to the flat where we are staying and I promptly trip and fall off the bike, getting my first of multiple bruises. My pulse is racing.

*****

The plan is to take the bikes on the train to Utrecht and bike into the "country" to Gouda, land of cheese. We are looking forward to a castle, a famous witch weighing station, and lots and lots of sheep. 30 or so miles today. On flat land. We got this.

Miraculously, we manage to navigate the bikes into Amsterdam Central Train Station, find the bike lift, get them on the right train car for bikes, lock them in place, and get off at Utrecht before the train pulls out of the platform again. Granted, by now we're hours past when I thought we'd be here.

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My mom's pre-trip job was to find stories of women in the towns we'd pass through and she has found a statue of a Dutch heroine in Utrecht's town center. We follow the signs to the Centrum, where our bike route starts anyway. In the Visitor Center, I buy a regional map and learn that the guide we're following is outdated. Holland is changing its bike path system. None of our numbers are trustworthy. My mom tears up the pages. We fail to find the statue and look for the first number on our new map.

Thus it begins.

 

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We find our number and head out, exhilarated. We have begun! We follow the bikers, the path, the twists and turns, and then we lose the number. At the first fork, there is no sign. NO sign! I have not yet learned that there is an app for this. That would come in the afternoon of the last day. I have not yet started taking pictures of maps when we find them to refer to later, nor writing numbers on my hands. All of this would come later. Today, on day one, I am completely taken off guard. This was supposed to be easy!

 

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What we learn today is that everyone speaks English and everyone is willing to help. We begin to shamelessly stop people mid-ride and ask for their help. 6 people and an hour and a half later, we meet a woman who is going in our direction! She offers to lead us and along the way, we learn she is going to a badminton club, that she has extra mattresses and is willing for us to sleep on her floor (she must think we'll need it!), that Utrecht is growing and redoing everything and that the numbers for the bike path will be the last thing they finish.

When at last we reach the castle, it is raining. My butt is so sore I have lost feeling. I wonder if my butt is misshapen? Surely no one else feels this level of pain because someone would have invented a new bike seat by now! We are 1/4 of the way to Gouda and have been on a bike for 4 hours already. We sit near the moat and piece together the ripped scraps of our outdated map to figure out clues as to how to proceed on our own. We leave and turn the wrong way, only to realize it a mile down the road and turn back. This becomes the rhythm of the next few hours, all the way to the next city with a train station, which we decide is about as far as we will make it on this gloomy day.

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It took all of Holland to get us through this trip. Over the course of our 4 days on bikes, we were escorted no less than 5 times- by a couple as confused as we were, but determined to get us to our next path, by a man who put Ella on his wife's bike while he peddled and held on to our flat-tired bike (the first of two bikes that got flats), by a man who took us back to his house to pump our tire. We stayed with hosts as part of "Friends on the Bike" which saved money and gave us an inside look into Dutch culture. And we even had a blessed angel selling ice cream from her farm in the middle of nowhere.

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We survived.

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But most importantly, we had an adventure.

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How is this like life?, I asked Ella. As we consider finding the answer to "where are you going?" it turns out this journey through the Netherlands was a perfect metaphor: you always need a map, sometimes you need an actual guide, but the more experienced you get, sometimes you just go with your gut. Oh, and there will frequently be challenges. In all our preparation, there was no way to account for the wind and rain, the sore butts, the flat tires, the number of times I would teeter on the bike at stop lights, the near misses Ella had with cars, mopeds, and trams, and the complete lack of signage. Truly, in life there are so many things we are never prepared for.

Looking at life as metaphor helps you name that which is too often invisible. It brings story into everyday living. It shifts your perspective as you see through a different lens. It distills the abstract into concrete tangible lessons. And it is such a valuable tool for parenting!

At least, that's what I told myself whilst trying to keep my daughter and mother alive.