Sunday, September 8, 2013

Misadventures of the trailing spouse: Bike tales of doom.

In the book, Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, the authors dedicate a whole chapter to the particular needs and trials of the "trailing spouses": those partners of the internationally employed who get to come along for the ride, but often have a far harder time adjusting. While the working spouse's life may make sense and even be similar to life in the home country, his or her partner might not yet have all of the bases covered to aid in building a home and a life in a new place. Some dear friends of ours gave both of us this book this past spring, but especially pointed out the candor and relevance of the chapter on trailing spouses. I've needed that relevance and candor this week. I am still loving it here, enjoying the new experiences, and could not ask for a better teammate, but rather than sharing all the wonderful things, today I will share highlights of this week's misadventures.

In very brief form this week has been:
  • Full of me not being able to talk to anyone (like at all, not even, like, "hello! beautiful morning, isn't it?" or answer the cashier's "would you like a receipt?" ) because I am cripplingly unable to speak Dutch.
  • Full of meeting Owen's department which was delightful and a pleasure but also included one member of his faculty asking me, "what will you do to amuse yourself while you're here in Leiden? Cook delicious meals for Owen?"  (I do plan on cooking and eating many delicious meals with Owen, but I would rather it not be thought of as my occupation.)
  • Full of people being surprised and delighted when they find out "oh you can work!" only to ask what I plan to do. I have no idea. I just got used to the idea of not "working" for money, so that I could do research, and creative projects. I haven't really had a chance to re-adjust myself and think up an entirely new plan.
  • Full of attempting to get a bank account and having difficulty for stupid reasons (1. "You need photocopies of all these documents.  No, you may not use our photocopier over there." 2. Owen made photocopies! Forgot to print scans of our passports. 3. The bank is closed Saturday, Sunday, and Monday?)
  • Full of trying to buy regular rolled oats so I can make granola that Owen can eat only to find I've bought rolled four-grain cereal including rolled wheat. 
  • Full of getting lost walking in the hot sun, and not knowing how to use the bus system.
  • Full of even getting together with a couple of friendly ladies from church only to remember that making friends takes time, and that building friendships—like learning a language, or getting a map of a city inside your head—takes time and effort, and isn't instantaneous. 
This week has also been the week of the bike. THE WEEK OF THE BIKE. In my previous post I mentioned that everyone bikes in Leiden and that it's much safer than pretty much anywhere else in the world, and that the roads even have stoplights for the bikes. I did not mention that I personally have only biked about half a dozen times in my life, and two of those times involved spectacular, bloody crashes—over the handlebars, still bear the scars-style crashes. Other vivid experiences with bikes involved taking a dear friend to the ER after a bike accident, or hearing about NYC biking with car doors opened in loved one's faces. I did not mention that I am terrified of biking. 
So here I am in Leiden, haven't been on a bike in half my life, (the last time I was thirteen or so and fell over an embankment and sliced open my leg on the pedal) in a country where two year olds with training wheels are laughed at, and where no one wears helmets. Owen and I go off to buy a bike, and though I delay all morning long, the afternoon finds us walking just around the corner to Budget Bike to see what we can find. We have an agonizing terrible Dutch/terrible English conversation and figure out what we are looking for. One of the workers suggest a bike which fits our price range, which looks big, but they start at lowering the seat. Once lowered they take it out to the street (yes, street with cars) and I teeter onto it and try to press on the pedals while getting any of my body onto the seat and fail. The worker makes a face, says something like "more small" and goes to lower the seat again. After this attempt it is STILL too tall for my short body, and I am feeling seriously embarrassed. Surely, if I were a better biker I could ride a bike without it needing to be low enough for my toe-tips to touch the ground. The store owner comes out and insists the bike is plenty small and tries to get me going on it. I wobble like crazy in several different attempts to start biking, and he looks very surprised (disgusted?) and says something like "Oh! beginner!" and suggests we go to his other store on the other side of town where there is much more selection.

So on to bike store number two! Owen walks his bike alongside mine, assuming that we will ride back together. At this point, I am so terrified and humiliated that the idea of calmly biking home together seems a wholly unrealistic fantasy, but I go along. I think to myself, "I must get a bike today, if I want to get a bike with Owen along for moral support." I am in grave need of moral support. When we get to the second "Budget Bike" we are disheartened by the bikes boasting "low prices" of three or four times as much as we were hoping to spend. We are not looking for a bike for me to travel across Europe on. When I get to that stage, we can trade in whatever beginner bike we get, and get something cushier, faster, with more gears. I'm just looking for a no frills bike, a bike just for now. The employee at this shop speaks much more English, and shows us the upstairs of the store where all the kids' bikes and discount adult bikes are stored. What joy! What excitement! We look at several bikes, one is purple with a basket, but has Minnie mouse on the decor... One is burgundy, just the color of my old car, but only has front wheel brakes—Owen says those are the ones more likely to flip you over the handlebars. And then we see this one. A blue and yellow bike with tough kid details, a bike clearly designed and marketed for a 10 year old boy, but a bike which fits me beautifully, and on which I feel more safe than I've felt on two wheels. It is exactly the price we had budgeted, and it seems meant for me. 
Out on the street my fears return, so Owen and I walk our bikes to some quiet streets so I can get my bearings. When I anticipated my own biking fears I had told myself. "There are no hills. You don't need to worry about getting out of control. The whole country is at sea level." All true! Except, alas, the city of Leiden is full of canals, and with the canals come sudden and steep little bridges. Over my first bridge as I crested and started the chase down the other side I became very aware of the narrow street, the bumpy brick pavement and the absolute lack of any kind of railing between me and the waters of the canal. I saw my life flash before my eyes, especially the bike-crashing parts of my life, and remembered how very dangerous it is to jump (or fall) into the canals because they are full of bikes. WHY ARE THE CANALS FULL OF BIKES??? Are they the bikes of perished riders? no, no. Bikes with only one bike lock. While everyone has a lock on their bike to prevent a thief from riding (locking up the wheel), not everyone uses a chain to attach the bike to an unmovable object. As a prank, college students like to throw the unchained bikes into the canals late at night. Would my sweet little blue bike become one of the canal bikes? No! I pulled myself together, used my brakes (both front and rear) and slowed it to a comfortable coast—staying well away from the canal—and as I came up to Owen I shouted, "I am still alive!"
That's all for today, friends. Stay tuned next time for tales of birthday celebrations, of museum explorations, and hopefully of us finally getting a Dutch bank account.


  1. Clara that is so cool! And so many people would kill to be the trailing spouse, weird as it may sound - it was a common term in Geneva. Do you know how many marriage proposals I got from foreigners thinking I was Swiss and trying to use me for legal status? The fact that you can legally work is even more amazing - do you know how hard it is to get those kinds of permits?! Enjoy it, enjoy biking, be safe, and enjoy moving slowly - transportation, eating, and making friends all happen more slowly in Europe, I find, and in closer quarters. Happy trails

  2. I am loving it, and I know I will only love it more as time goes on. It is just... not always what you expect. :) For a more enthusiastic post see last week's glowing saga:

  3. Looking for a word to describe your determination to keep your heart and hands open to the experiences of your new life, I wondered what Google Translate might offer in Dutch if I asked for a translation of "brave." I got some wonderful Dutch words, at least based on the sound of them:

    braaf: good, brave, honest, worthy, gallant, goody-goody
    dapper: brave, courageous, valiant, gallant, stout, valorous
    flink: brave, solid, stiff, goodly, energetic, smart
    statig: stately, majestic, noble, solemn, ceremonious, brave

    Probably someone will say of one or more of these, "Oh, no, that's such an old-fashioned word; we don't use that much anymore." Or maybe, "Well, that word doesn't exactly mean that . . ." But how cool they all are, and how cool to be in a place where you can discover what they are outside of a dictionary.

  4. Dad says you'll be an expert before too long. We love the picture! Keep remembering how to use those brakes! Thanks for a great post!

  5. Clara, I'm sad that I am one of your many "bad-bike" stories, but I got back on (I'm still riding daily) and am glad you have too! I am confident that soon you will be enjoying biking around town on little blue bike.

    I love the picture! I'm also glad you have fenders and a back rack - two very useful items for regular transportation needs.

  6. Clara!

    1) That bike is SUPER cute and I love it. The color scheme is bright and happy and seems to really suit you.
    2) I got queasy in sympathy when you talked about a canal bridge not having railing because that is something that even having biked a LOT and never having had a bad accident I still completely fold when asked to do.
    3) Maybe when you return you and Owen will be so good you can come to Beaumont and do the Charity Bike Ride that is in honor of my dad! It'd be nice to bring people to that.
    4) At that race this past year, my brother was using a bike with the special shoes for the first time (now THOSE are scary, if you can't get your foot out of the bike quickly enough you will fall to the ground). He only fell once during the race, but it was at the absolute worst possible time. That's right - the starting line with everyone bottlenecked up and trying to surge forward. He was okay, but we spent the rest of the day joking, "So did you see that dork in the swim trunks who fell in the first fifteen seconds?"

    Thought you might like a fellow in misery story even if it's not mine.

  7. Love the bike!! And the girl who will be riding it! My hope is that you will start to enjoy the wind in your face as you go downhill on those canal bridges. It's my favorite part of bike riding.

    Keep pedaling!

  8. What is Dutch bank decor like?

    How do they freeze their spinach?


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