Tag Archive: study abroad

Bike tricks, Dutch style

Everything you have in Nebraska, we have in the Netherlands. That is what my advisor told me when my plane landed in Amsterdam. I guess he was right, somewhat. I did eat at a Burger King in the airport. Of course, I had King Wings a fast food take on chicken wings, with a side of curly fries. The Burger King in Kearney doesn’t have those, but they were amazing.

Fast food was not the only thing I found with a European twist. Outside the airport was a giant, multi-level parking garage filled with more bicycles than I had ever seen in my life. Stationary bikes are pretty exciting, and after a semester studying in the Netherlands I found the Dutch can do way more with two wheels than just park them.

Over the approximately four months I spent in Middleburg the bike culture caught my attention. Dutch bikes are more of a city cruiser style, as opposed to the more familiar mountain or racing bikes. Passengers can ride on a small rack over the back wheel that is a more suitable spot for a case of beer, and is often used for just that. Despite the humble appearance, the Dutch bikers I saw were flashy in their own way. The ease my hosts displayed on two wheels left a constant impression, but three events stuck out from all the others.

The earliest, and in hindsight most mundane, of these events happened in my first weeks in the country, only a block from my house. I was walking to the school down a skinny brick alley with several of my housemates. We were lost in discussion, walking shoulder to shoulder and unknowingly blocking the entire path. He must have approached silently because the biker’s hand on my shoulder was my first clue he was there. With one hand he guided my out of the way like a small child and peddled away, only looking back to deliver a ‘pardon me.’ That someone had the balance it must have taken to slide me out of the way was shocking.

A romantic reunion at Middleburg’s train station set up the next feat. A college-age guy came to the train station to pick up his girlfriend, of course on his bike, but his girlfriend was rolling a giant suitcase with her. No problem. His girlfriend hopped on the back of the bike and he took off, turning through a busy intersection while rolling the suitcase behind him with one hand.

Middleburg’s market square provided the setting for the final display of Dutch bike riding skill, and combined the activity with another local pastime—smoking. In the most impressive demonstration of my visit, two Dutch girls balanced on a bike, one driving and the other on the back seat, with cigarettes between their lips. Without a toe on the ground and barely creeping forward, the two ladies proceeded to light their cigarettes simultaneously before wobbling out of the square.

My advisor was right. There are plenty of bikes in Holland and Kearney has some of its own. Despite the similarity, I have never seen anyone here light up a cigarette on two wheels.


Homelessness: streamlined

Living homelessness was the goal of the United Way of Kearney’s homelessness awareness event in 2009. That crucial experience is exactly what Kearney needs as the city decides whether or not to open a homeless shelter.

In big cities homelessness is a problem that people must confront every time they are stopped by a panhandler or pass someone sleeping on the streets, but in Kearney the problem is hidden. Our nationally low unemployment leaves most of our population unfamiliar with homelessness, and uncomfortable with the homeless as a result. But our discomfort does not compare to that of someone struggling just to live and eat.

Just how fun is it to be homeless? I sampled it one night, and I do not need seconds.

My fellow UNK exchange student Amanda and I were half way along the 3-hour train ride to the airport in Amsterdam on our way to tour Athens, Venice, and Rome when we hit a roadblock. We had missed the last train from Rotterdam and would be forced to spend the night.

Not having a single person to call for help was a lonely feeling, but not unlike the feeling homeless people experience every night. At 2 a.m. Amanda and I were finally kicked out of the train station. We dressed for the tropical weather we never reached, and it was too late to find any place to spend the night.

The bus stops in front of the train station offered the only windbreak, and a weak one at that. After less than an hour shivering in our shorts and T-shirts we needed a change. We emptied our bags to put on every piece of clothing we packed, and used our towels as blankets. It was about as warm as it was fashionable.

I discovered the real chill in the air that night thanks to the whip of the gray tail of a trench coat. It opened to reveal a faded fanny pack on top of a dirty shirt and pair of pants, topped with a worn fishermen’s cap that hid the face of its wearer. Countless worries flooded my imagination.

Like most Nebraskans, my experiences with the homeless came largely through the TV. On the tube homeless people are either the source of violence or the target, and I did not want to be either. It was passed 3 a.m., I was wearing four T-shirts and a towel, and sleep was not an option.

What would I do if this man demanded the money for my trip? What if he tried to take our possessions? What if he attacked me, or worse Amanda? Could I defend us?

There are more than a few occasions when men in their early 20s feel bold or brave—this was not one. Of the five hours Amanda and I spent outside that train station in Rotterdam not one minute was spent in comfort. Uncertainty and fear were constant and only left when the sun rose and the train carried us away.

Leaving Rotterdam was a relief, but for the man in the trench coat that night may never end. During the day he is harassed by people like us while he struggles to even find a meal or bathroom. At night, he must defend his priceless possessions, like the coat that kept him warm on that chilly night, or the pack where he surely keeps anything of value. At any point he could wake up on the other end of a knife from someone ready to take his life for his faded pack and dreary jacket.

Kearneyites would do well to remember that the feelings of uncertainty and fear they feel around the homeless, are shared by the homeless. The main difference for the homeless is that the fear never ends.

Critics of a Kearney homeless shelter fear an increase in crime, and they are probably right. Inevitably whether for a crime of necessity or otherwise, some homeless person will be arrested. But the price of a broken car window or a stolen I-pod is insignificant compared to the relief a homeless shelter would provide. In fact, given the extreme poverty some people live in, maybe we would all be better off without those I-pods in the first place.

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