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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Foreign Desk

Utrecht, Netherlands:
Beware of Strangers Bearing Bicycles

by Michael Standaert

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I bought my first bike here in the Utrecht the other night outside a bar after closing time off a junkie. A civilized transaction. The next morning, it was stolen. I know I should have bought a lock, but where are you going to buy a lock at four in the morning? Maybe I should have asked the junkie if he had one to sell. I'm starting to think he followed me home and just stole the bike back.
     It did only cost twenty guilders, which is like nine dollars. My Norwegian friend Jens bought one for 200 guilders, legally. He has a conscience. And a lock. And I believe he still has his bike.
Everywhere there are bikes. Solid, heavy bikes. Bikes your grandmother would like. Tanks, really. Not like our mountain bikes in the states, which are light as tissue paper. Most have baskets. Front lights are required. You could get a ticket if you don't have one. There are also small benches attached over the back wheel. You could seat maybe one hundred people on it, but most of the time there is just one. Usually a Dutch girl riding sidesaddle with her boyfriend strenuously pedaling her off to some destination. There is also the requisite bouquet of flowers in one hand of the rider. Sometimes a newspaper, a magazine, or even a copy of War and Peace, being read, in the other hand. Sometimes they steer with their teeth.
     There are nearly sixteen million people crammed into an area the size of West Virginia and there are more bikes than there are people. I've heard the Dutch learn to ride before they learn to walk. Then they learn to swim before they learn to walk, just in case the dykes burst and the sea comes rushing in. And this is not beyond possibility, since most of the country is below sea-level.
Junkies steal bikes. That is the fact of life here. Then they sell them back. Most of the students in this university city seem to buy stolen bikes, especially when they have had one stolen from them already. This causes a cycle of stealing and buying, to where it is almost like you are renting bikes from junkies.
     But buyer beware. There are tricks to the underground bicycle trade. Before you buy, you must ask the junkie -- if that is really what he is -- if he is a policeman injunknito or not. The exchange goes something like this.
     "Hello, junkie," the American full of Belgian beer says after several non-productive, or productive (depending on your views of drinking Belgian beer) hours in the café. "That's a nice bicycle you have there."
     "You like?" says the junkie. "Twenty-five guilder."
     "Ah, that's too much. I only have twenty."
     The junkie, or what you think is a junkie, sways with junkified indecision. "Okay. Twenty guilder."
     And here is where the game gets interesting.
     "Are you a cop?" says the American, knowing the procedure.
     "Come on," says the junkie. "Fuck off."
     This is not intended as a derogatory remark. It is a test. You must persist.
     "Are you a cop? Police? Politie?"
     The (?) pauses, more indecision, contemplating the complexity of the question.
     "Yes," the officer finally attests, frowning. He has been found out. Dejected, he wanders off with bicycle in tow, searching for a hapless foreigner. Before he does, if you point him in the direction of the nearest Canadian, he will be extremely thankful.
     For now he must let you go. If you would have given him the money, he would have had recourse to fine you a couple hundred guilder. But since you asked him so politely if he was politie, he is forced to tell you whether or not he is junkie or politie. Such a civilized society. It is quite refreshing.
     And there is even more civilization. When I walk to the grocery, I pass a small Red Light district. Seems civilized enough. You can do all your shopping in one area. Most of the women in the windows are foreign, not Dutch. Surinamese, Moroccan, Turkish and Eastern European. Most are fat and not at all appealing, but still seem to do a brisk business. I was told there is another district nearby where the prostitutes work from canal barges, and supposedly are mostly Dutch girls.
     If you don't enjoy prostitutes with your groceries, there is always grass and hashish right around the corner. The misconception though, is that soft drugs are legal. They are not legal, the laws are just not enforced. It is basically decriminalized. But decriminalization does not take the criminal out of the crime. It is still illegal it import soft drugs, but they are imported nonetheless. So in reality, criminals bring in the drugs, and licensed dealerships, or coffeehouses, sell them. The Dutch government gets their tax share, the coffeehouse their piece of the pie, and the smuggler their take. And of course, the foreigner gets to enjoy a paranoia-free high away from their home turf. Everyone wins. So, so, civilized.
     At every turn, I am greeted with dismay at the topsy-turvey electoral fun we had for thirty-six days last fall. It seems so long ago, doesn't it?
     "Why did your country elect Boosh?!" Marleen blasted, swilling her Belgian beer. Boosh. Pronounced like whoosh. Or swoosh. "He's an idiot. I still can't understand it."
     I don't know, Marleen. It is hard for us to understand either. But I'm sure we'll survive. She wondered if Boosh would bring his electric chair with him from Texas. I didn't know, but I said he could put it out on the front porch for easy access in case any crazies take shots at the White House like the fellow that did a couple years into Clinton's first term. She was also irate that Boosh had not visited Europe. But he has been to Mexico, I said. If it was just a vacation, or if it was as a Texan prospecting lands for annexation, is more difficult to say.
     I was told there was a news program around our election time here in the Netherlands, and they were asking school children what they thought of our elections.
     "Why don't they use computers like us?" asked the bewildered little boy.
     I don't know, little Dutchie. You would think it would be easy, but the heat down in Florida has a tendency to melt through wires and rot brains. It is just a sad fact that we have to deal with. It is colder in the Netherlands, and thus you do not have this problem.
     But then again, you are also more civilized.

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