I am cycling alongside the Noorder Amstelkanaal, which is a kanaal, which is a canal (thank God you have me to walk you through this), with one eye on the road, one eye on my iPhone map and one bum on an ill-fitting replacement saddle following my brush with Dutch petty crime last week, when my quick-release saddle was quickly released without my consent. As a cyclist, feminist and enthusiast of the double entendre, this did not sit well with me, and now here I sit, just as poorly, in an ill-fitting cheap saddle that, one hopes, will evade the unwelcome attention of the next passing opportunist. Welcome to womanhood in the 21st century; getting further than we used to, but uncomfortably enough that nobody bothers us.
As much as I’d like to continue down this stolen-saddle-feminist-discourse, I have to admit to you that I’m cycling to meet Steve. I have been promised that Steve will change my life. A friend of a friend has relied on Steve for three years, but she’s now moving to Scotland, where Steve would not be welcome, because he is heavy and cumbersome. Steve isn’t worldly; he doesn’t cope well with changes in direction or terrain. Some people have even advised me that Steve alone won’t satisfy my needs, and that I should seek an alternative, preferably with battery-operated support. Did I mention my weakness for the double entrendre?
Steve, you incorrigible perverts, is a bakfiets; also known as a cargo bike. The Dutch use them to transport kids, dogs, shopping, picnics, furniture, suitcases, other bikes, drunk people, and so on. There’s a huge black market for these contraptions and it’s hard to know whether you’re buying legit, or if it has resurfaced via the same route as my quickly-released ex-saddle. Steve is being sold by a friend of a friend (yes! We have friends now! More than one!), and so I’m keen to snap him up.
Arguably, we could cope without him. The six and eight year olds have been cycling around Amsterdam on their own bikes up until now, oblivious to the harm that I see around every corner. Like everyone else here, my children do not wear helmets. Abandoning sensible cycling safety protocol was the big draw for our kids in coming to the Netherlands. Chocolate for breakfast and no homework also featured highly. (For all of us; how many British weekends are marred by the Sunday evening cajoling to write, add, interview, stick, subtract? I didn’t get homework at my primary school, and look at me today: unable to communicate with my neighbours and blogging about it to literally tens of people. Didn’t do me any harm.)
The point is: you can fit three, maybe four bottles of wine in a rucksack. You can fit fifteen or twenty in a bakfiets. I think we are all now on the same page.
I arrive at Steve’s house. I’m greeted by Ofsteve, who was previously known as Sarah; an American researcher whose job is taking her to hilly Scotland.
“The kids name everything,” she tells me. “As soon as they saw this guy, they knew he was a Steve.”
“We wouldn’t change his name,” I say. “It would be too confusing for him.”
I like Sarah a lot, and I want to chat more, but I represent another layer of bureaucracy to a family already knee-deep in departure administration; unraveling one visa to weave together another, sifting through documents issued three years ago, locating long-forgotten permit numbers, returning borrowed items, unhooking pictures, closing accounts, recovering from their farewell party the night before. I resist the urge to question: Did you like it here? Do you wish you were staying longer? Have we made a terrible mistake?
“You’re so lucky you guys don’t have this visa shit,” she sighs. ‘It’s one form after another.”
“Oh, we love the visa shit!” I say. “Only last year we voted for a lot more of it.”
“Right,” she says. “Brexit. What’s that about?”
“No one knows,” I say.
I take Steve for a test drive. When I say test drive, I mean that I sit on the saddle and walk him around, like a toddler nervously teetering astride a balance bike for the first time. Sarah watches me from her porch, wondering what she’s letting Steve in for. Maybe, she probably thinks, I could cycle Steve to Scotland. It’s not too late for him. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I’ve ridden a bakfiets once before, so I know it takes some getting used to. Bakfiets come with two or three wheels, but I know that the two wheelers are easier to corner, especially in the city, although trickier to get to grips with. The front wheel is so far beyond the handlebars that even a little nudge sends you swerving. I manage to sustain forward motion with my feet on the pedals for long enough to establish that Steve works. Sweaty-palmed, I return to Sarah, who pats Steve apologetically.
“He’ll get us from A to B!” I say, a little unconvincingly.
“You can pick him up on Wednesday morning,” says Sarah.
Steve groans. He was looking forward to retirement in the Scottish highlands.
I return two days later by taxi, with €1,000 and a steely determination to survive the journey home on Steve. I buzz the buzzer.
“Yeah?” says a child over the intercom.
“Um hello, I’m here about the bike?” I say in a kindly Mary Poppins voice. She might be upset if I use Steve’s name. It’s a mistake to let kids anthropomorphise inanimate objects. They get too attached.
I wait, imagining the little girl’s quivering lip, as she contemplates Steve’s departure. They leave for Scotland tomorrow, so the next 24 hours will be hard for them. I wait long enough that her mum can give her a cuddle.
I ring again.
“WHAT?” snaps the girl.
“CHRIST!” I jump. “I’m just – I’m just here about the bike!”
“Oh,” she says, nonplussed.
The door buzzes open, and the family emerge, one by one. A family about to emigrate look pretty much the same as a family at the end of the long summer holiday. Some are clothed, some are pyjama-clad, some are polite, some are not. All are tired.
“Anyone wanna say a few words?’ says the dad.
No one does. The younger girl gives him a cuddle and a stroke. The older, very frightening girl pats the saddle. I feel like I’ve gatecrashed a funeral. Should I step away and give them all a moment? In the end I loiter, with a sense of awkward entitlement, as a train passenger might when finding someone else in his reserved seat.
I hand over €1,000, which is about, well, £1,000. I’m given demo of Steve’s accessories; a rain cover decorated by their girls, an extra back seat that the frightening girl used to stand on, holding on to her father’s shoulders as they navigated a once-new city, and a coffee cup holder tethered together with cable wires because necessity is the mother of invention. There is a pause whilst bike keys are located and detached from an ever-decreasing bunch of Dutch keys.
“We’ll take care of him,” I say, with more hope than expectation.
One week later, Amsterdam is celebrating the beginning of Pride week. The streets are lined with rainbow flags, and I’m cycling Steve through Vondelpark with the six and three year olds as cargo. We’ve collected rainbow badges and flags on our cycle through the park, and now we’re heading home. An old American man cycles alongside us.
“Could I take your photo?” he asks.
“YES!” shouts the six year old.
“Hang on,” I whisper to her. I look up at the man. “Er, why?”
“We don’t have these at home!” he says, gesticulating at Steve.
I think two things simultaneously:
He could be a paedophile.
He thinks I’m Dutch.
“Sure,” I say. Here’s a guy who doesn’t know I ran myself over with Steve only yesterday. “Smile, kids!”