When they predicted wind for Berlin yesterday and today, I have to admit I pooh-poohed it. Bear in mind that I come, after all, from the Cape of Storms. Winds that people exclaim about here are often not more than your average daily south-easter in spring or summer in Cape Town. But this time, I was wrong. Both yesterday and today I returned to my bike after work to find it and others splayed in all directions, knocked over by the force of the gale.
“Poor bike,” I thought, picking it up affectionately. No matter how much I may curse at my bike when it is being obstinate on a hill, threaten to abandon it when the gears are not working or fantasize about throwing it to the ground when I am struggling to bring it up the stairs and round the corner into the backyard every evening, I do love it.
The problem with my bike is that I basically got what I paid for – a cheap, basic, secondhand city bike that weighs a ton and needs a lot of servicing. It is nothing at all like J’s sleek racer, which he has gradually stripped, replacing each part with a lighter part, until it is so light that even I can almost hold it above my head.
If you had ever told me I would be riding to work every day, whether there’s a gale-force wind, sheets of icy rain, or even snow, I would have said you were crazy. South Africa has more of a car culture. There are some people who bike to work, but not many, and cycle lanes are a relatively new addition. People who bike, ride mostly for sport or exercise – mountain biking is popular, and there’s also a very popular road race once a year called the Argus Cycle Tour (http://www.cycletour.co.za), at 35 000 people, the largest timed cycling event in the world (it includes lots of hills, so not sure I’ll be signing up anytime soon, but J is interested).
However, in Berlin, cycling is the best way to get around (that’s what everyone says – I might not always agree with BEST, if I’m in a lazy mood, but it is usually QUICKEST). So not too long after arriving, I decided to buy a bike and try out those tempting cycling lanes. Since I wasn’t sure if I’d even like biking or not, I looked for a secondhand one on Kleinanzeigen, just something basic. I liked the idea of the Dutch-style upright bike, since I still had horrible memories of being thrown over the handlebars of a friend’s racer bike as a kid, and thus preferred the idea of keeping my head well above my handlebars. I went to see a Dutch-style Damenrad (ladies’ bike) offered for sale by an Italian near Hermannplatz. However, when I went for the test drive he offered me, it became clear that my bike riding skills were more than a little rusty (I had not ridden a bike since childhood, and even then I had not ridden much). On the Dutch bike, my feet barely touched the ground, and the Italian looked worried as I wobbled off down the road. When I returned, happy to be alive, he suggested I try the other bike he had for sale, a much smaller one. Although reluctant to let my Dutch-bike dreams go, I tried the small bike and had to admit it was easier. “Much better for a woman!” said the Italian.
“But isn’t this also a woman’s bike?” I asked about the Dutch bike, wondering if I’d misunderstand the advertisement.
“Yes, but German women are huge!” he told me, stretching his hands above his head. “Not small like you!”
Charmed at being called “small”, I decided the little bike wasn’t a bad idea and went for it. It was quite an adventure getting it home, with the aforementioned lack of riding skills, the fact that I had to ride on the right side of the road, and the fact that I had very little idea of which direction to ride in and only very bad map. Luckily, by following the signs to Tempelhof, I managed to get home.
I rode to work once, which was fairly enjoyable, but a bit stressful with the traffic. It took me over an hour, partially because of getting lost and partially because I was still slow, and since in this case public transport seemed to be the quicker option, the bike did not see much action for a while. Then a bike trip came up on Meetup, a social network for organizing events in different cities. It was a ride in the countryside on part of the Oder-Neisse cycle route, and countryside sounded much more enjoyable than dodging the traffic, so I hauled my bike onto the train and went to meet the others at Hauptbahnhof. The ride turned out to be great – the people were nice, and the springtime scenery was beautiful, with large, luminous yellow fields of canola and trees full of pink blossoms. I have to say, that was the day that the bike won me over, and gradually I’ve come to appreciate it as a mode of transport. In my new apartment, travelling by bike is by far the quickest way to get to work, and that’s why I ride come rain or shine (and note – “shine” is not that frequent in Berlin for most of the year).
Now that I ride more often, I should probably get a better bike, but the problem is, I’m attached to my klunky old Schlumpfina. I think even if I retire her one day, I will have to keep her as a backup bike for when friends visit. For now, she remains my “Berlin car” on which I drive to work.