Jessica in Germany
Today’s guest post comes from my friend Jessica R., a Vanderbilt PhD candidate who some of you might remember from a post last year. As a German studies student, Jessica spends a lot of time abroad; here she shares a lesson learned after a summer filled with borrowed bikes—that “doing it wrong” might just mean doing it right.
Doing things “the right way” is a big deal in my book. Time to cook? I follow the recipe to the letter. Buying a major appliance? I go to the store, Consumer Reports in hand. I know it’s right to protect the environment, so I recycle, buy local, organic or fair trade. Or in German “eigene ernte” or “Bio”.
I think any anxiety about doing things the right way hasn’t been helped any by living repeatedly in Germany, where there is a “right” way to do everything – the less significant, the better. Laundry, taking out the trash, and avoiding drafts (even in stifling summer heat) are chapters unto themselves. For a few weeks this summer I returned to a German university town where by far the preferred form of transportation is a bicycle. Bike only zones and lanes are ubiquitous and well marked, and the terrain is fairly flat. Not only students bike to university, many professors commute by bike — out of conviction. It is the right thing to do.
I was lucky enough to borrow bikes from friends while I was there, which set of my personal cocktail of anxieties: “I’m not an experienced bike rider! I get confused when I have to shift gears! I panic in high traffic situations. I’m totally clumsy when it comes just to locking the bike – I can’t do it without getting black smudges all over my hands. I can’t even get off the bike the right way!”
It’s true, I do this sort of jump-off-to-the-side-of-the-bike thing when I stop. I blame it on riding with a coaster brake, so I can’t do the “right” version of waiting for one pedal to be low, then stepping off with the other foot and setting it on the ground. Because I also can only start pedaling with the right foot, and then that pedal is down, not up….
And to top it all off: I didn’t have a helmet. Riding a bike this summer meant crossing a line I have always clung to: that somehow the danger of riding a bike badly would be miraculously balanced out by wearing protective gear on my head. When I was here a year ago, I didn’t get on a bike until I bought a helmet, and would scoff at the other students whizzing by me while balancing a gym bag on their handlebars and texting. Sure, they can do that, but I have a helmet. I also made multiple trips to the bike repair shop last summer, because I knew it was the right thing to ride with a bike in good working condition.
Jessica on Nashville's Ride of Silence in May, before leaving for Germany
But this summer was different. I would only borrow a bike for a couple of weeks, at most, so even a basic stop in a repair shop was hardly worth it. So what if the fender was about to rattle off, the bike had one working gear, no lights, and a loose cable that made a lot of noise, even if it never got stuck in anything. Some days though, when I went through that list of anxieties and broken parts, I decided “Maybe I’ll just walk.” But as the summer went on, my days got busier, and the weather got warmer, even the “wackligste” bike seemed like the best choice. Riding would get me there faster and cooler than walking. But what if I did it wrong?
Finally, moral rightness vs. equipment and skills rightness both lost out to sheer practicality. It was just too far to walk! So off I would set, bike rattling, hair blowing free in the wind, sitting on the bike at stops with my feet on the ground. And nothing happened, besides getting where I needed to go in a timely manner. There were no ill effects of doing it all wrong. There is a part of me that is still holding her breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop on that one.
Now that I’m back at home, I haven’t kept my promise to ride as much as I can, just as always. To be fair, always returning to the South at the beginning of August makes it a little harder, but mostly the choice is due to the luxury of owning a car. That my boyfriend and I live together but each have our own car still raises a few eyebrows in Germany, especially since we’re still students. But I feel that it also shows that even for someone very convinced of how much more “right” it is to bike those three miles to campus, it would take a choice of walking or biking, and not driving, those three miles to make me a more consistent cyclist.
On my drive to school, I’ve seen more bike commuters this year than I’ve noticed before. It seems the increase comes from happy-go-lucky college students pedaling to campus. A more consistent, though smaller population of cyclists comes from a less well heeled part of the neighborhood, people for whom, for whatever reason, driving a car was not an option. In every city in America there is a population for whom a car is still a luxury. An insufficient cycling infrastructure limits them in more ways than it inconveniences me. So I’m glad to see more people making demands on the city just by getting out there on two wheels, which will eventually help all bikers, whatever their motivation.
Sometimes I feel when I read about cycling that I’m just missing the right stuff: spandex and those clippy shoes, or a vintage bike with a charming basket. What I learned this summer, though, is that the truly “right” way to bike, regardless of the benefit that bike lanes, LED headlights, waterproof panniers, helmet or not may provide… is to actually do it. I’m going to try again tomorrow. How about you?