I didn’t steal my first Dutch bicycle, I salvaged it from a local train station. It had been abandoned since February and stood rusting in the rain and frost, there in the bushes, until I finally decided to take it home in April. With some elbow grease and a new back tire I would have myself a decent bike. All I had to do was figure out how to remove the lock that was stuck between the spokes of the back wheel.
At most train stations in the Netherlands, bicycle stalls outnumber parking spaces for automobiles. The ubiquitous two-wheelers are parked haphazardly all over the station plaza at all angles, in order to secure the frame of the cycle to a lamppost, a concrete pillar, the bike rack, or to each other. At the stations in the big cities it is not uncommon to see an amputated wheel, without a bike, still chained ironically to the rack, or the skeleton of a bicycle hanging by its chain, picked clean of all removable parts by urban vultures. In many cities in Holland, there are bicycles designated as public property. You are free to use one to ride to an appointment, but you can never count on it being there for your ride home.
Even though bicycle theft in this country is not a punishable act, I concealed the fact that I had acquired a “new” bicycle from my classmates, hoping to avoid uncomfortable questions about its origins. I wanted to avoid taking my “recovered” bicycle to a shop to have the lock removed for the same reason. I tried everything to pick, smash and destroy the locking cylinder, but to no avail. After a week of hiding out, I finally turned myself in.
Half carrying, half wheeling the lamed contraption to my day of reckoning at the repair shop, several different stories buzzed around indecisively in my head. What would I say?
As I waited nervously for a mechanic from the shop, I tried not to be nervous, act cool, but was not doing a bad job of it until I caught sight of the price list hanging above the cash register. The first service listed was: Removing locks – 7.50. I looked for a supplemental charge for ‘No questions asked’, but didn’t see it. Me being new to the Dutch life-cycle, I didn’t understand yet how it all worked. I was not aware of the careful balance that the bicycle gods maintain throughout the lowlands. Even though I had laid claim to the bicycle I was handing over for rehabilitation, I was only a unwitting pawn in the eternal spinning of the wheel of life.
This bicycle, which I lovingly named Frankenstein, coupled with another that we bought Christine from a rummage sale, revolutionized our lives! We hauled groceries, visited the doctor, shopped at the weekly farmers’ markets in the city center, all on two wheels. With the warm spring weather we began venturing further from home, exploring the countryside around Maastricht, visiting surrounding villages. On sunny Sunday
afternoons, I would put Matthew on the handle bars, (strapped in his baby-seat) and we would ride together for hours. We rode west to the border with Belgium. We rode east into the Limburg landscape, dotted with manor houses and covered with golden wheat fields. We picked bouquets of wildflowers for Christine in the lush fields around the castle.
We pedaled into the orchard covered hills to the south, greeting cows and horses as we went, mooing and whinnying as we zipped by with the wind in our hair. In the high summer we rode along the river, southward to a beach for a BBQ and volleyball game. We watched my classmates swim across the river, to Belgium and back again. Our bicycles set us free.
Even though my foot powered transportation brought me much joy, the more I rode Frankenstein, the more I came to understand why this bicycle had been abandoned and left for parts. I imagine a poor university student rode this bike to the train platform, bought a one-way ticket to a job interview, got the job and spitefully never came back for it, leaving the contraption to rust in the rain. A revenge I wish I too could have exacted on that infuriating death trap.
Each week a new piece of the bike would fall off. At first it was just the chain guard. I wore a sleeve on my right pant leg to protect it from grease stains. Then the back wheel divorced itself from the body of the cycle, while I was riding it! I bought a monkey wrench and kept it with me wherever I went, always tightening the bolts before setting out. Not much later I saw the front wheel jump from the forks when we bounced over a speed bump. Luckily, I had already purchased the monkey wrench. Although my hands were constantly covered with grease from having to reattach a wheel or re-thread the chain every time I rode it, I wouldn’t have traded my free bike for anybody else’s, nor would have anybody traded with me.
The only reason I purchased a lock for Frankenstein was because I didn’t want the inconvenience of having the bike re-allocated by the bike gods while I was shopping. Nobody in their right mind would have wanted to steal my two-bit bike, but when a bloke is late for a train, any bike will do to get you there on time. The bike ‘borrowed’ is usually the one that isn’t locked up.
Despite the fluidity of bicycle ownership in Holland, and the randomness with which they can be stolen, there is an order and a pattern to be recognized if one takes a step back and meditates on the bigger picture. After I got over being angry that my bike had been swiped on a night in late August, I could see that the bicycle gods had made a wise decision by reincarnating my two-wheeler once again into the never ending Life-Cycle.
I discovered that my bike had been re-cycled when I stepped off the train at Maastricht Centraal, coming home from a job interview in Austria. At first, I refused to accept that it was gone. I searched frantically for forty-five minutes hoping to find Frankenstein had only been moved. No joy! While I sulked on the platform, waiting for a train to take me home, my thoughts turned to the balance of the Cycle of Life: One way or another, very soon, I would have to leave Maastricht, either for a job in Austria or home to the USA to look for one. I no longer needed a bike as my studies were over and Christine was already packing boxes for our inevitable departure. Somewhere in the city, another poor student, a freshman perhaps, who had just arrived had a greater need for the same bike that had been loaned to me months earlier. The time was right and the balance had to be maintained.
The bicycle gods give and the bicycle gods take away, forever spinning the Cycle of Life.
Did you enjoy this story? Watch for it and others like it in V M Karren’s new short story anthology: The Tales of a Fly-By-Night, coming soon, as well as his second novel in The Deceit of Riches Series: From the Rooftops.