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Beautiful wfe asked me to drive her across town to see a friend last night. I hadn’t driven a car in months until we came to Japan, but I figured that we’d be okay: the roads are pretty empty when it isn’t a rush hour, we have low speed limits locally and the car is a small compact. Even better, it’s an automatic: what could possibly go wrong?
Well, for example, I could get in and discover that I left the lights on last time I used it so the battery is dead as a doornail and the car won’t start.
It turns out petrol prices aren’t the only thing you forget to check when you use a bike all the time.
If it was a manual I’d have tried push starting the thing, but how do you get a dead automatic car to start?*
*I appreciate that this marks me as a helpless twerp in car culture, but there we go.
I discovered today that even in Japan, no matter how narrow a road is, how obviously it is not designed for through traffic, there’s always some drivers possessed by an urge to use it as a short cut and go barrelling along at inappropriate speeds.
I also discovered that no matter how much traffic is coming the other way and how unsafe it would be to overtake, some drivers will honk their horn to demand cyclists somehow become one with the concrete wall alongside the road and let their vehicle pass.
Isn’t it good to know that whatever our cultural differences, there are some things which unite us?
The plan was that by yesterday morning I’d have shaken off the jet-lag and thus I could get up reasonably early before the heat began to slow-bake every living thing, and go for a walk before returning refreshed to speak bad Japanese to my extended family. Of course it didn’t work out like that because my metabolism still thinks it’s in Europe and we’re in the crash zone between a couple of tropical storms and an area of high pressure which meant that every cloud passing over dumped its water on us, and then moved out of the way so the next one could join in, but about mid-morning I got bored of waiting so I went out anyway.
It took a while to get my ‘Japan legs’ back: apart from anything else, cars drive on the left, most of the time, and I lived on the mainland of Europe for ten years and learned to drive there as well, so I tend to get confused by this, but also because in Japan street signs are considered advisory, pavements/sidewalks are a part of the road with only a white line to show where pedestrians are supposed to walk, and zebra crossings are a nice decoration for pedestrians to look at while waiting for a gap in the traffic.
On the other hand roads are narrow and traffic is fairly slow so it’s not particularly dangerous as long as you remember to look right, or left… and jump out of the way when you get it wrong, and there’s none of the nasty aggression you get from European drivers, so despite getting mixed up several times no-one hooted at or gesticulated wildly.
Bicycles are required to ride on the pavement/sidewalk, which takes a bit of getting used to having been brought up to think that riding on the pavement is an abomination causing desecration and a mark of the coming apocalypse. Speaking of bicycles, the bike I intended to use here has gone, probably to be with its owner in Tokyo, so I’m now trying to figure out how to get hold of another one.
In other news, the suitcase finally arrived, broken beyond repair and missing a strap that was holding it together but at least containing a change of clothes.
One of the things about being a non-car user in a car culture is that I’m beyond the scope of any conversation that involves cars. which is most of them. Sooner or later in any group someone will turn to someone else and say:
“What sort of gas mileage do you get on your Toyota Childsquasher?”
And they’ll be off talking about cars for at least the next hour, possibly a week, with subgroups breaking off to discuss power-to-weight ratios, cup holders, GPS Systems, and how that nasty government are making petrol prices so high. It’s impossible to join in these conversations without becoming the resident snotty treehugger.
Fortunately for me our bicycles start conversations. Not on their own, you understand, but indirectly, through people being interested in them. This happens a lot on trains, usually with someone giving the Xtracycle a hard stare around the back wheel, and then they start asking questions: ‘Is it a tandem?’; “It must be hard to ride”; and “does it have a motor?”
It’s quite a relief when this happens: as long as the questions are about the bikes it’s easier to to avoid Snotty Treehugger Syndrome, but it doesn’t always work, like the time on a train when a fellow passenger skipped the preliminaries and started with: “Why do you have that long bike?”
I gave my usual answer: “Transporting children, shopping, touring, taking recycling stuff to the tip.”
“We use it instead of a car.” (See what I mean? I was trying to avoid this, honestly)
Short pause. “So you don’t have a car?”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that, I need my car. I mean, how do you go shopping?”
“Well… we use this…”
“But what about when you want to go longer distances? You can’t go driving down the Autobahn on that.”
Unfortunately I couldn’t think up anything better than:
“When I need to go on a long journey I sit and relax on a train.”
This rather stopped the conversation.
A friend has asked for ideas on ‘how to start cycling’ for someone who owns a car but wants to cycle more for transport, especially commuting. Now, I’m not terribly well qualified for this as I never owned a car and only got my driving licence when I was twenty six because we were in a rural area and I mistakenly believed I ‘needed a car’. Here are my paltry suggestions, I hope more experienced people can add others:
- Don’t panic: the streets look scary, but they looked pretty scary on your first driving lesson too, and you made it.
- Get a decent bike: Yes, I know supermarkets are selling ‘bargain’ bicycles, but how much are you really going to use a bike to get around if you have to pedal to get downhill with a following wind? Especially if it doesn’t have lights/mudguards/luggage rack. And your ‘expensive’ bike will still work in ten years time: your car won’t.
- Get at least one good lock.
- Freeze your car keys: put them in a margarine tub full of water and put it in the freezer: that way you can get at them if you need to, but it’s a lot less convenient than having them by the door.*
- Put your bike keys by the door.
- If you feel the need for a helmet, get one, if the idea (or cost) of a polystyrene lid puts you off, don’t.
- Explore: bikes can go places cars only dream of. Find regular routes you are happy with. In six months your mental map of the town will look different to a motorists, so you’ll send drivers down dead end streets.
- Always hide after giving drivers directions.
- Learn how to ride safely. learn about blind spots, door zones et c.
- Please, stop at red traffic signals.
- Wave at other cyclists.
- Learn which sort of car to watch. Locally it is Taxis, old men in big cars (especially Mercedes) and young women. Other places are different. I don’t know why.
And of course:
- Enjoy yourself, smile and wave at drivers, even when they are swearing at you. It’s nicer than shouting back and it makes them madder than anything else you could do.
*maybe not if they’re one of those new-fangled electronic keys…
…that after two years of using the Bakfiets, in which time we’ve used it for moving everything from glass for recycling and shopping to snow clearing equipment and very large pieces of wood, people still give us odd, slightly condescending looks when we announce we’re going to use the thing for carrying anything bigger than a paintbrush?
Like when we went to help a friend who’d just got married move within the village: her old apartment was only a couple of kilometres from her new one on a flattish road* and there wasn’t that much to shift, but still people were looking at me with “Aw, cute toy bike” expression.
Well, we discovered three things:
(Note arrow pointing at brake cable to prove this is in the Bakfiets and not just a pile of cardboard on the road)
Secondly, that even here it’s possible to find a short cut by bike, so two kilometres driving could be reduced to 500 metres, meaning I could often wave the van off, cycle to the other apartment, and be comfortably ahead of them to the point of loading the bakfiets when they finally arrived…
Thirdly, when people realise this, no matter how many times you explain that cycle lanes have barriers and the van won’t be able to get through, at least one driver will still try and follow you…
*Well, flattish for around here anyway.
One of the positive things about doing my formative cycling in the UK is that just about anywhere else is easier by comparison -Mercedes drivers are far from the level of the British taxi driver or White Van Man- but sometimes journeys can be a little more eventful than expected, like the morning I was following an SUV down the main road after the kindergarten run. I know most cyclists think SUV’s are a destructive oil guzzling abomination on wheels, driven too often by people who use them to bully their way through traffic, but they have one advantage, when you follow on a bike everyone keeps out of the way.
Everyone that is, except for the lady in the blue Ford who decided the moment to pull out of her parking space was after the nasty big car had gone, which was just as I was alongside. I automatically keep well away from parked cars which is why instead of being crunched by a mirror I was able to veer left sharpish, and brake, which brought me right in front of a bus coming the other way for added excitement. Fortunately the bus driver was awake and had slowed in reaction to the sudden movement of the Ford, so (s)he was able to slow down in plenty of time, leaving me to wait for the Ford to clear off -driver oblivious- and for me to pull in behind.
Mr. Bus driver, I salute you sir.
The Ford driver was very apologetic, and I came home and called the bus company (a bit of positive reinforcement never hurts, after all) then reflected that if I was in the UK this wouldn’t have been a rare enough event to be worthy of a blog entry.
*Short for “Entschuldigung, ich habe sie nicht gesehen” which is the slightly less catchy German version of the British SMIDSY: “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you”
All our neighbours were out this week changing from winter to summer tyres.
There’s a set date to do this in Germany and it’s announced on the media but as we rarely listen to German news it always seems to be spontaneous: our neighbours suddenly appear on their driveways jacking cars up and levering at the wheels like a sort of suburban flashmob.
I can’t help wondering what future generations will think of it all: perhaps some learned Professor will one day be writing a thesis on south Germany like this:
As the seasons changed in mountain regions, the Vehicular Tribes followed the Ritual Of Changing Tyres: a vital moment in the life of a car culture. This would not happen at exactly the same time in each household, which gave rise to the seasonal greeting of “Have You Changed Your Tyres Yet?”
The Faithful listened carefully to the Elders who would intone the providential time that the first snow was sighted, whereupon a day would be set aside when when the ‘Summer Tyres’ were ceremonially laid to rest and the ‘Winter Tyres’ would be carefully and reverentially fixed upon a vehicle. Many would take their car to the shaman or ‘Mechanic’ who performed the rites in secret. The traditional blessing known as ‘The Invoice’ would give rise to the response “It gets more expensive each year”.
Apparently the ritual was to appease the Spirits of ‘Insurance’ who would bestow immunity against road conditions upon the vehicle’s occupants. This allowed the Faithful to continue driving at high speed in -it was believed- perfect safety.
Of course, the end of winter was marked by the Summer Changing of Tyres. This was a time of great celebration: the winter spirits were vanquished, and greater speed was possible.
The cycling and walking peoples, it appears, did not all observe this custom and were therefore known as heretics…
(Off to Freiburg again this weekend, see you on Monday)
I passed this semi-official memorial on Saturday, the same day as the train crash in Hordorf. These crosses show the names of a man and a woman who were killed on this road in 2006. Both were 27 years old.
About ten to twelve people a day are killed on average on German roads. By coincidence that’s a bit more than died in the train crash.
The Newpapers currently running big headlines about the “Death Train” are strangely silent about this.
On the hunt for a direct route south, I found the bridge over the river Aich. The massive concrete structure is the road bridge that crosses the same valley. Of course, it would make life a lot easier for southbound cyclists if we had a cycle lane on the road bridge instead of having to ride into valley, but that would require joined up thinking…
And while I’m in this slightly cynical frame of mind, a public service announcement for drivers, especially those in our local area:
In Germany, vehicles travel on the right. Therefore, when you are driving on the left because the right hand side of the road is blocked by parked cars, you are generally expected to give way to oncoming vehicles by pulling onto the right (ie. your) side of the road when a gap in the parked cars allows you to do so. This applies even when it means you may lose three seconds off your Very Important Journey, and even when the oncoming vehicle is one of those non-motorised things called a ‘bicycle’.
I mention this because the person riding the bicycle may -to pick a random example- be an awkward Brit who learned his vehicular cycling in places like the West Midlands, and who may not be willing risk being squashed in the 50cm (2 foot) gap you have left in the gutter, but may instead cheerfully plant both feet on the ground, regardless of irate hand signals from yourself and the lovely lady sitting next to you, and lean on the handlebars waiting for you to take your white minibus out of his way and proceed on your side of the road.
Thank you for your attention.