fiets pomp

You could say that I took my bike for granted like many husbands do to their wives, or vice versa — that its tires were fine and dandy even if they were squished to the floor, and that the squeaky chain was just a minor offense to the ears. I can still balance on the bike after all, right?

On Saturday, the rear wheel became flat.

But rather than wagging my finger and telling you that it’s important to patch holes before they become bigger, let me tell you a story about how my negligence was rewarded in an odd way.

I was walking my bike from campus to the city center where the closest working bike pump I knew about would be. The stroll isn’t too bad as the city itself is gorgeous, but there is a strong sense of envy present when you see everyone else zipping along on their bicycle while you slog away.

But my luck turned around on the intersection of Prins Hendriklaan and Jan van Scorelstraat, just fifteen minutes into the trip. I had barely finished crossing the street before a Dutch gentleman lounging outside noticed my flat tire and told me I could find a working fiets pomp inside the bar.

He tells me the magic phrase to use:
Heeft u een fiets pomp, alstublieft?

And sure enough, the bartender pulled one out of the closet. And soon enough, everyone who was sitting outside the bar was helping out, squeezing the tire and checking for air holes as I pumped. I thought it was magical.

It was 7 o’clock and I hadn’t eaten dinner yet. I could have easily just ended it there, say my thank yous and bid my farewells. But this kind of luck doesn’t happen every day, so I thought I’d stay for a while.

Two hours later I’ve been introduced to all the dogs that live inside the pub, and caught a glimpse into the daily lives of the people who come by to relax during the weekend. One guy pulled out the rock he keeps in his right pocket — a small piece of obsidian — one of the 1000+ rocks he keeps in his collection in his home around the corner. He’s still looking for a deep red colored one.

My glass is empty for less than ten minutes before another man tells me:
“I’m getting you a drink. Beer, pepsi, doesn’t matter. I’m getting you a drink.”

Oh, fine by me. Dank je wel. I feel I can use the informal je instead of the formal u at this point.


I sent the man who noticed my flat tire a message on Facebook later that night. Is this a regular evening for him — helping out random international students and having drinks with them? Are all the Dutch this helpful?

The man replied: “I have lived in this area for years, [but] I spent my childhood in small villages in Gelderland, where you greet strangers and help them if needed. So, if you ask me ‘Dutch helpfulness?’, I’d say it is rural culture. I left the countryside, but it never left me.”

And then he ended it with a winky face.

elevator pitches, or learning a new language

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I live on the fourteenth floor of the Studentencomplex Cambridgelaan, at the top of the bridge connecting the two towers. Not only do I get a nice grassy view from my room, but the trip from the bottom floor to the top offers a wonderful learning opportunity. Most of my Dutch practice comes from thirty-second conversations with whoever has the misfortune to be stuck in an elevator with me. Thirty seconds is enough time to spit out some introductions and fix the pronunciations of a couple words — or at the very least, provide some amusement to Dutch ears.

One of the professors for my education technology class asked me why I bothered to learn Dutch. “It’s a bit superfluous, isn’t it?” (his words; the first time I’ve ever heard superfluous used outside of a book). His tone wasn’t angry or dismissive, just curious. And he’s not the first person to say something like that. Most people here speak English, and they speak English quite well despite their insistence that they don’t. And as much as I may practice, my Dutch will never become as good as their English. They’ve got years of throat gurgling experience over me.

So why bother learning Dutch in the first place?

Well, all the signs are in Dutch. All the newspapers are in Dutch. And all the juicy conversations that the Dutch students have with each other are in Dutch. Language is such an integral part of culture and identity; to ignore this would be foolish on my part, especially since I’m living in the Netherlands for a full year. Plenty of time to become immersed.

Still, it’s difficult to practice Dutch even in its homeland, especially when most people can and will switch to English once they detect an accent. It’s much easier to learn a language when you have no choice but to learn the language if you want to survive. So I just try to ignore that and plug in whatever Dutch I know in-between English sentences. “Dunglish”, some people call it.

I was browsing the Couchsurfing website for Utrecht and noticed some ads requesting conversation buddies over a kopje koffie. I feel that would be like “the next level” for me. But for now, the elevator is my playground.

one month in Utrecht

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Left: The Dom Tower in the city center. It’s the tallest landmark in the city, and makes for a good meeting place if you ever get lost.
Right: The Neude is a square full of open-air bars and cafes. Especially popular in the afternoon and night.

I’ve been living in Utrecht for over a month now, but it’s only been a week since actual school has started. It’s fascinating living in a city that’s three times as old as your entire home country, with all the old architecture, canals, and culture. Definitely a good change of pace from the concrete buildings of UCSD.

Out of the 300,000+ people who live here, more than 60,000 of them are students. Word has it that the male-female ratio is 3:7, which doesn’t hurt. Most of the international students I’m studying with are in their early twenties and well into their Masters program. A large majority of the international students I’ve met are studying international law. As an 18 year old bachelor’s student, there does feel like a bit of an age gap, although the older students don’t seem to mind.

You can’t say you’ve experienced the Netherlands until you’ve actually rode a bike. The city of Utrecht has been master planned around the bike, with bikes having their own dedicated lanes — not just a couple white lines on the main road like in California. Sometimes it seems as if there are more bikes than people, and it’s adorable watching parents put their children in wooden carts attached to the front, or in high-chairs strapped to the back. When it comes to crime, all that really happens here is bike theft. The local junkies usually hang around the train station and sell stolen bikes for 10-15 euros versus 70+ euros at the secondhand store, and it’s well-known that students go to the junkies for cheap bikes. It’s not unheard of to spend as much money on the lock as on the bike, and getting your bike stolen is almost like a rite of passage here.

Still, traveling back home at night feels safe. A lot of the female students noted that they get a sense of security here that they don’t get at home, and it’s one of those things that I may be “aware” of as a straight male, but will never truly understand. And since we’re on gender, the city has placed public urinals in select areas around the parks, so drunk men can pee in plastic containers rather than on the street. It’s a nice set-up, but there’s no female equivalent.

The weather is constantly changing. The key here would be to layer your clothes. We’ve enjoyed sunshine and warmth for the past couple weeks, but now autumn is coming and the chill is starting to settle in. Umbrellas are useful, although I haven’t learned how to balance an umbrella and the bike at the same time during stormy winds.

This seems like a European thing, but I adore the open-air cafes they have here. You can just relax, enjoy a cup of coffee outside, and just watch people pass by for an entire afternoon. If you’re going to take a coffee break at a cafe, set aside at least an hour. Dutch service is famous for being slow and indifferent, but at the same time they let you mind your own business.

Businesses close a lot earlier here, many as early as around 6 o’clock. The important exceptions are the grocery store (the local Albert Heijn, which is the Dutch equivalent of Safeway, Ralphs, or Albertsons) which closes at 10 o’clock, and the bars, clubs, and Turkish restaurants which are open until the wee hours of the night. The Turkish restaurants get especially interesting after midnight, when all the drunk people stumble in after a night’s worth of partying for some kebabs or fries.

And it is true — the Dutch are very friendly. Ask a stranger a question and more likely than not, they’ll go out of their way to help you. This doesn’t mean that every Dutch person is peaches and cream, and I’ve already experienced my fair share of wagging fingers from random strangers, but it’s good to know that people won’t be trying to screw you over at every possible turn. People trust each other, and it allows for smoother social interactions.

I’m making huge generalizations right now, but I’ll be able to go into more detail as the year passes. For now, I’m having an amazing time.