So, what practical survival tools are necessary for a student in Utrecht? First and foremost, a bicycle! No, not a fancy racing bike, although you may be racing to keep up with the hardy Dutch, all seemingly born on a bike. Just a regular, sturdy “sit up and beg,” “beach cruiser,” or whatever you want to call your basic transportation bicycle. Mine has no gears and back pedal brakes. But it takes me everywhere I want to go, and since it is nothing fancy and thus not a theft-magnet, it is always there when I return. (Do invest in a good lock!) Biking as transportation is the norm in the Netherlands, and everyone does it. Elderly people, children, business persons in suits and heels, moms with a child seat on the handlebars, behind the seat, or even in a large cart affixed in front of the bike. No fancy biking togs required, either, just bike in whatever you are wearing – including heels, a business suit, or your party dress!
The beauty of biking in the Netherlands is the amazing bicycle infrastructure. Nearly every street has a dedicated bike lane or even an alternate bike route, and bicyclists have their own traffic signals. (Not that cyclists seems to pay them any mind!) The respect for bicyclists is incredible, cars actually stop for you and woe to the pedestrian who gets in your way! And everywhere you go, there are places to park and lock your bike, everything from bike racks to actual bike parking garages, or just a handy street pole or railing. Of course, with so many bikes piled together it can be quite difficult to find your bike or retrieve it from the nest; occasionally you will cause an entire row of bikes to fall like so many dominos!
Second, one must invest in good rain gear. Waterproof coat, pants and boots to go over whatever you are wearing. Of course, you could, like the Dutch, learn to cycle while holding an umbrella, but this is of no avail in a brisk wind. And trust me, in such a flat country, the wind is quite brisk! Sometimes it seems it is all you can do to pedal furiously just to stand still! Also, invest in a good waterproof backpack to protect your laptop and books on the way to class, and for your bike, water repellant saddlebags.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor! Learn to laugh at yourself, along with the Dutch who may very well laugh as you struggle to adapt to the bicycle culture. You will feel shaky at first, learning to navigate through bike rush-hour with hoards of cyclists surrounding you within inches. Just keep doing it; soon you, too, will be cycling with no hands, while carrying a couple of sack of groceries or perhaps a large musical instrument, eating your lunch, talking on your cell phone, perhaps with a passenger on the back. Talk about multi-tasking!