On being a biker in Ghent

Me and my bike in our garage. I got the bike as a special deal from the Flemish newspaper "De Morgen" when I purchased my subscription.

Me and my De Morgen bike.

I still have a lot of anxiety about riding a bike in Ghent. There are a few reasons for this:

1) Prior to Ghent, the biggest cities where I rode bikes were Leuven and Utrecht. Leuven is tiny and there’s not really that much car traffic in the center. Utrecht, as most Dutch cities, is made for bikes. There are sophisticated bike paths that keep bikers and cars apart and, because nearly everyone rides bikes, motorists are also very cautious about sharing the road.

2) Ghent is the first city to have elaborate tram tracks that you have to ride next to that are the perfect width for getting a bike tire stuck. I’ve seen the most veteran bikers get too close to the tracks and get stuck. And when I say “get stuck” I mean instantly come to a halting stop. Because bike tires are small enough to fit into the tracks, but not small enough for you to keep going once it’s in there.

and

3) I have to do significantly more car + people navigating, which I’m not so good about. Yesterday, when riding through the city center, I almost hit a group of teens and a little old lady (who really did appear from no where). I didn’t actually hit anyone, but I came close.

Also, as a side note, my condition is currently terrible, so I can’t ride a bike very quickly, meaning I probably piss off all the cars that get stuck behind me.

When I started riding a bike in Ghent, which I have to admit was quite recently, I was pretty excited to start riding again. Biking is by far the quickest — and healthiest — way to get around the city, which is especially true for me, since I don’t have a car. This excitement lasted all of about two minutes and afterwards was replaced by complete anxiety.

Let me paint a picture.

Joery and I spent an afternoon making a trip to a bike shop to get all the gear required for making biking an integral part of our routine. This pretty much included bike locks, lights, and reflectors. I already had a bike, which I had received as a gift when buying a subscription to a Flemish newspaper “De Morgen,” and Joery had just received a hand-me-down bike from friends of his parents. We just needed the locks and lights and we were ready to go.

That night, we had a party to go to across town. Formerly, parties in this neighborhood were rather annoying to get to, since the trams/buses stopped running before the party was over, meaning we either had to catch a cab (which gets pricey) or spend nearly an hour walking home. The bike was a welcome change.

So Joery and I get our bikes ready — screwing on the lights, making sure the locks were working, adjusting my seat and checking brakes. We wheel out our new rides and, excitedly, begin the trip.

Now, Joery and I live on a rather busy road. There are two lanes of traffic going each direction, separated by a tram line in the center. On each side of the road, between the road and the parking on the side, there’s a bike path. Convenient, right? It’s an illusion of safe bike passage.

We’re about two minutes into our trip, I’m getting comfortable on the bike, trying to keep up with Joery, who’s been biking for years and therefore is much faster than I am. Joery cocks his head towards me and starts saying, “Well, love, aren’t you happy? We’re finally riding bikes in Ghent” (I’ve been nagging him that this was something I wanted to do for some time).

Those words are barely out of his mouth when — BAM — all of a sudden Joery has flown off his bike and is laying on the side of the road, bike on top of him and some guy is sitting in his car, door wide open, which blocks the entire bike lane, with his mouth gaping open.

“KLOOTZAK”  (which is basically Dutch for asshole)

I never heard Joery curse at someone like that before, but seriously. This guy had been sitting in the drivers side of his car for a while — so as we approached we had no idea there was anyone inside  — and suddenly, without paying any attention and with no warning, he just swung his door open right at the moment when Joery was passing. The force of the door knocked Joery into the street and bent the back tire of his bike. Joery was ok — thankfully no cars were coming at the time — but he fell on his shoulder, which bothered him for quite some time.

I’m sure the guy wasn’t really a “klootzak”; he was very apologetic and seemed to be shocked that the whole thing happened. The side of the guy’s door was a bit dented, and Joery and him ended the encounter by shaking hands — no harm, really, done.

Except that now I am terrified of riding next to parked cars. And tram tracks. And moving cars.

For me this was a terrifying experience for two reasons. The first being that Joery was completely knocked off his bike and thrown into the road, which could have ended horribly. But the second was that by the time we arrived at the party and Joery explained what happened, almost everyone had a similar story they could recount about being knocked off their bike by some driver who wasn’t paying attention. It only takes a split second, not checking the bike lane one time, to seriously injure a biker. And having it happen to you seems to be a “right of passage” of sorts to really being a biker in Ghent.

For us, this story did not have a tragic ending — though it very well could have had one. But every time I get on my bike now the thought that crosses my mind is: will today be the day that this happens to you?

And that, my friends, is why I have anxiety when it comes to riding bikes.

Also, the cobblestones in Ghent are a bitch.

American as Apple Pie

Happy 4th of July!

Holidays can be difficult far from home, particularly holidays that aren’t celebrated where you are.

Last year, the fourth of July landed a few days after Joery and I officially moved into our new apartment. We were among the last people to move into the complex (our building has 7 apartments, the other 6), so to celebrate, we had a 4th of July BBQ in the private alley between the two buildings. It was a great welcome to the neighborhood: a map of the US hung on the wall (as well as a few other knick-knacks), country music was blasted from the speakers, and Joery got out the good ol’ stars and stripes and hung it from the fire escape. But what makes a 4th of July BBQ so special is the people, so our new neighbors really made the day.

The food helped, of course.

So this year, we’re throwing another BBQ with the neighbors and I volunteered (as in, Joery volunteered me) to make a dessert (or two). And a salad.

Here’s what I came up with:

It’s a Quinoa, Feta, Cucumber and Tomato salad (which was made by a friend after a night of hard partying at the Gentse Feesten and quickly became Joery’s favorite salad), a Roasted Cherry Chocolate Tart, and, of course, a Lattice Crust Apple Pie (my first!).

Eventually I’ll put up some recipe posts to correlate with the food, but now it’s time to eat!

Hope you are all enjoying the 4th (or just a normal Wednesday)!

The Importance of Language

Ik spreek een beetje Nederlands.

I speak a little Dutch.

I think this is the first sentence in Dutch I really mastered. Like really nailed time and time again when it came to intonation, pronunciation, speed, and all the other elements that make speech come naturally to you.

I’ve been studying Dutch for almost six months now and I’ve progressed in my courses from being able to count, navigate a menu in a restaurant and say the above phrase, to actually writing texts (poorly) and holding, more or less, conversations (one-on-one. I’m not so good at following group conversations or conversations in particularly noisy venues). My sentences aren’t always correct — in fact, more often than not they are mistake-riddled — but most people seem to understand me. I even can “trick” store clerks and bus drivers and random people on the street into thinking that I speak Dutch.

But learning a language is hard. I have a ton of respect (and slightly more than a little envy) for the people who speak three, four, five different languages. It can’t be easy.

Language is the biggest barrier I face to really integrating into daily life here. In reality, most (Flemish) people speak English, so going about your day-to-day activities without knowing Dutch is rather easy. The universities offer complete masters programs (not so sure what’s happening on the bachelor level) in English, so studying isn’t a barrier. And while I haven’t found a “real” job yet, there seems to be reasonable opportunities for English speakers, particularly in Brussels and particularly if you’re flexible. So it’s relatively easy to build a life in Belgium if English is the only (or the only common) language you have.

But you will still find yourself in situations where everyone around you is speaking in Dutch while you stand there and twiddle your thumbs.

It can definitely be frustrating. It can be boring. It also can make you start to feel a bit unsure of yourself (after all, if you’re standing in a group where everyone is speaking a language you don’t understand and someone tells a joke, people tend to start laughing and look at you. I’m sure most of the time it’s just checking to see if you understood or wondering why you’re the only one not laughing, but it’s hard not to let your mind wander to a place where it’s asking if everyone is laughing at you).

I just passed the next level of the Dutch program I’m doing. The program is offered by Ghent University’s language center and is really for international students who wish to study in Flanders (in Dutch). Therefore, the program offers six levels of language instruction, ranging from zero knowledge of a language to being able to study at the university level, in nine months. The idea is that once you complete the program, you will be able to follow courses at the university, write academic papers in Dutch, and be able to succeed in whatever study program you choose to do.

It has a very low success rate.

I was having drinks with former colleagues the other day, and the French intern asked why I was studying Dutch. I said because I lived in Flanders and that’s what they speak, to which he responded, “yea, but why?”

I get the sentiment. On my CV, Dutch won’t really make much of a difference anywhere but here (or the Netherlands) and it’s not like most people in both those places don’t speak English. So why? Why Dutch?

I’ve asked myself that a lot over the last couple of months, particularly when throwing out job solicitations after reading “Working knowledge of French and English mandatory”. And especially right before my exams.

But when it comes down to it, I do live in Flanders, my boyfriend’s friends and family are Flemish, so Dutch is what I should be speaking. After all, why should they all switch languages because I’m in the room?

Also, even though most people have a working knowledge of English, it can be very embarrassing when you meet someone who doesn’t speak English or when you have an entirely different conversation than the one you attempted (imagine trying to explain what a yeast infection is to a pharmacist who doesn’t know the term in English. Or mispronouncing a word in a way that changes fire eater to fire shitter).

I think you don’t realize the importance of language — as a social binding agent, as a means of communication, as a unifying factor — until it’s gone. Not speaking the language of a country can be isolating; it immediately labels you as a foreigner, a non-Belgian. So there’s always that feeling that maybe, just maybe you actually don’t belong. It’s this question I tend to push away when stuck behind the scenes of a conversation I can’t really follow.

For me, the hardest part about learning Dutch is that I’m a native English speaker. Because everyone speaks English, I know I can fall back on it, if necessary. Also, I’m afraid my broken Dutch will be interpreted as my being stupid. So I get self-conscious and freeze, chickening out and asking my questions (which I practice by talking to myself all the way to the city hall) in English. Being a native English speaker is a curse and a blessing.

But in the end, learning Dutch is more than just trying to fit in to daily life here. It’s more than being able to communicate effectively with people (after all, I usually can do that now in English). It’s a personal challenge, a way of changing how I think to include another language. It’s understanding more about the country I’m living in and the people who live here (you know how Inuits have 100 different words for snow? I think Dutch has 100 different words for drunk).

Plus, once I become fluent in Dutch, Joery and I will have a secret language in the U.S. That alone may be worth it.