Amsterdam, a city where wheelchairs are cars, cars are bikes and nobody wears a helmet.

As I drove home in an uber from my Alexander session, my body was busy confusedly exploring its new positioning in the world. ‘Your ankles have much more movement than you think,’ says Paul, my adorable teddy bear of a teacher who hugs me a lot, giggles like a buddha, and has fast become a highlight of my week in this crazy country we now call home.  The car I was in, stopped to give way to a wheelchair.  This, in and of itself is not really so strange, nor worthy of commentary, had he not given way, there would have been much to say.  But he did give way, so that point is moot.  Perhaps, I thought to myself, she is simply crossing the road and there is no pedestrian crossing anywhere nearby.  But that was not the case either.  What was unusual about it, was that the lady in the wheelchair was zipping along the road as though she were driving a car.

Up ahead the lights changed to red, and I swear, her break lights flashed on as she pulled to a stop.   A bike pulled up beside her and then the cars lined up behind them.

Here in Amsterdam, bikes are akin to cows in India.  They are sacred and untouchable.  If a car touches a bike, it is automatically the driver’s fault, regardless of whether the cyclist was texting, with both hands off the handlebars as it sailed through a busy intersection.  Wheelchairs it seems, being another wheeled vehicle, are then required to travel along the specified bike paths, and where there are no bike paths, on the road.  It’s an interesting system here, where tiny cars that should in all respects be carrying clowns at the circus, travel along bike paths, hip hop pounding through the metal.  In my mind they are cars, but apparently not here, here they travel along the bike paths, sitting uncomfortably close to cyclists, waiting for an opportunity to pass.

Of course, should no opportunity arise, they simply veer back onto the road and embrace their inner car-ness, and continue their journey unencumbered by those of us fuelled only by pedal power.

For the most part, I find this celebration of two-wheels inspiring.  Particularly as I am still relatively new to the whole cycling on the road thing, but also because I am riding a strange bike/cart/bucket contraption thing that allows me to carry my children happily on all of our errands.  They sing and wave to all the passersby and are completely ignorant of the confusion and fear plastered across my face as I try to remember which way I am meant to be looking, which lights I am meant to be following and at what point I overshot the blue line on Google maps.

All of this while wearing no helmet.  Now that is a freedom I have long forgotten, and a freedom my children have never known.  Before they even had bikes, when they just had scooters, the refrain ‘not without your helmet’ was an annoyingly regular one.  I remember hating that as a kid.  Back when safety didn’t matter to me.  Helmets were not cool, and they seriously impeded the wind in the hair feeling you get when you sail confidently down the hill, legs out wide, pretending you were flying.  Oh, how I loved that feeling.

My husband wears a helmet here, although he has a Hovding, which is an airbag for cyclists.  Its sits around your neck like a slightly, too heavy scarf.  I don’t wear mine as much, most of my cycling is short distances and it doesn’t feel as urgent here, where bikes are treated with such care.

Hovding in action

In Australia, I would never ride without a helmet.  Australian drivers don’t seem to as attuned to cyclists, at least that was my experience.  I was knocked twice when I was riding in the CBD and that was enough to ensure I wore my helmet with passion.  I love cycling here.  Every time I get on my bike I feel as though I am 10 years old again and I am tasting freedom for the first time.  I want my kids to know that feeling.  I want them to taste freedom, and to make their own choices, not because of fear-mongering or fines, or threats, but because that’s the choice they want to make.  Although, if they grow up and start riding Vespa’s without helmets like the locals do, I will silently embrace my panic attacks behind a plastered on smile.  Like hell I will, then I’ll be all on them about stats and brain injuries and all sorts of fear mongering.  But my hypocrisy aside, I really love that there is the right to choose here.

If a wheelchair wants to be a car, and a car wants to be a bike, and if no one wants to wear a helmet because really, we’re all looking out for each other anyway, and if I get to fly like I’m ten years old again, then that’s okay with me.

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