Fun on fiets: An update from The Hague

Ellie canning bike article
Ellie Canning/THE REVIEW
With thousands of miles of bike trails and countless bike-related figures of speech, cycling is a huge part of Dutch culture.

BY
Study Abroad Columnist

One of the most well-known and best parts of the Netherlands is their love of bicycles. The country boasts more than 32,000 kilometers (almost 20,000 miles) of bike paths. Here in The Hague, where I live and bicycle, all bike lanes are red as an indicator to cyclists, drivers and pedestrians. There’s a saying here to keep pedestrians safe: “Red is dead” to remind people on foot to look both ways before crossing a bike lane.

The Hague can be a circus of traffic at its busiest moments: public transport constitutes trams and buses, plus cars and bicycles on the roads. In this miasma of moving vehicles, bicycling might seem dangerous, but the beauty of bicycling here in the Netherlands is that bicycles have right of way. To me, it is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened. I do not have a car in Delaware; I rely on my bicycle while at the university, but there are many roads I refuse to ride on for safety’s sake. Here, that is the least of my worries. If a cyclist rides down a one lane street and takes up the whole street, car drivers must wait on the cyclist.

The Hague is located on the western shore of The Netherlands — if I so choose, I can bike due west and be at the beach in half an hour. Much to my delight, when I first made this journey, there were bike racks immediately next to the boardwalk to get up to the beach.

So much of Dutch culture embraces cycling — it’s not just a tourist attraction, it’s a way of life. Children learn to ride at a very young age (I have yet to spot training wheels on any bikes). Dutch parents will strap one, two or three seats onto their bicycles to transport babies and toddlers (and groceries, when the seats are unoccupied). Texting while biking is a crime, a required law because many people are experienced enough riders that they can cycle without holding the handlebars, leaving their hands free to text as they whiz along.

Bicycles even appear in the slang and idioms of Dutch speakers. The word for bike in Dutch is “fiets,” but it pops up in phrases that do not have anything to do with the two wheeled machines. In the phrase “oh, op die fiets” translates to “oh, on that bicycle” when you finally understand what somewhat is trying to say- an equivalent to “oh, I get it”. Or “Wat heb ik nou aan mijn fiets hangen” literally says “what have I got hanging on my bike now?” but means “What is going on?” or “What do I have to deal with now?” I am not yet a proficient enough speaker of Dutch to throw these phrases around, but I look around me and understand why they came to be.

The sheer delight of bike riding is not to be underestimated. It’s like driving alone for the first time — you have the power to control the journey. The comprehensive network of bike lanes encourages exploration, and in the outskirts of The Hague, signs point riders toward other cities, much like signs on a regular highway. The freedom of self-propelled transport is magical, and I feel like I successfully masquerade as a local while doing as they do and going for a spin.

The ease and convenience of biking were not top priorities in my mind when I applied to study abroad in The Netherlands, but now they are key components of how I live and explore the country I live in. Happily, all my bike journeys have happened smoothly and without getting lost, and that encourages me to take on all study abroad adventures with an optimistic spirit.

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