Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Auf Zwei Räder Bleibt Man Jung!

                                      "One remains young on two wheels"

I found this quaint phrase written on the bell of my wonderfully klappriges Damenrad that I rented from ASTA, a student organization at the university. For 50 Euros I could keep the rattling, squeaking, but functional bike for the semester and the money would be returned in full when I returned the bike intact. Not a bad deal considering how important that bike would become to me during the semester! And in fact, I knew I would appreciate a bike even before I got it. My sore feet could attest to that. It's true that Landau is a small town, but perspectives change when your only source of transportation is your own two feet.

The main campus of the university is only a three to five minute walk from the Wohnheim, but many classes are actually spread throughout the town. Back at Coe, I'm used to jumping out of bed and running across campus to class in a measly few minutes if I need too, but in Europe it seemed that many campuses were spread throughout the city. My hypothesis is that since towns and cities were already well developed and had less space than in the U.S., where a college could buy up a large track of land to house their campus as a whole, European universities had to improvise with departments set up in buildings wherever they could find space. In fact, the English department in Landau is located off the main square in an old French barracks, while some political science classes are housed in the Frank-Loebsches Haus, which is an old Jewish housing complex that also contains a museum (once owned by Anne Frank's great-grandfather in the late 1800s). From the Wohnheim it takes about 15 minutes to walk to the main square, but on a bike you can do it in five to seven minutes. A huge difference if you want to save time in getting to class!

Germany is a very ecologically-minded country, shown by its use of public transportation, trash separation to support recycling, and bicycle friendly cities and country sides. Most students living in Landau used a bike as their main form of transportation because cars can be very expensive (gas prices also come out to about $9 a gallon) and the fact that bikes are so much more convenient in a small town with narrow streets and limited parking. This also means that Germans take bicycle laws very seriously. We soon found out (one of the exchange students through experience) that it is illegal to ride your bike while drunk, and the police can in fact take away your driver's license for such an offense. It is also illegal to ride your bike at night without a light, but I'm not sure of the fine that goes along with this law. Both of these laws seem like common sense, but it was still amazing to think about some of the same vehicular laws applying to bicyclist because we don't normally think of bikes as being a main form of transportation in the United States. This being said however, most bicyclists in Landau didn't wear helmets, something I found very interesting in such a safety-conscious nation.

My mom didn't like the fact that I didn't have a helmet to wear either, and she liked it even less when a fellow Coe student fell off her bike and chipped several teeth. Mom then joked that I should start wearing a football helmet! Didn't happen to say the least. Luckily, I didn't have any spills on my bike. Although my favorite part of the ride from the Wohnheim was a fairly steep, winding cobblestone road down past the university. I would woosh down the road, wind rippling through my hair and pretend that I was flying instead of careening perhaps too quickly around the curve. Several times the thought occurred to me, "If I suddenly had to stop or something happened to my trusty but old bike, I would be splattered horribly on all of these cobblestones..."But I enjoyed the thrill each time nonetheless.

My bike and I went through many adventures including pitch black rides through the forest to the Wohnheim when the headlight would decide it was done working for the night. Riding the bike in total darkness was a lot more comforting than walking through total darkness, but a little more precarious. You had to practice getting the last turn off to the apartments just right, by feel of course--I can't emphasize more about how dark it really was in there--so you wouldn't get whacked by the branches on either side of the path. I also had to remember to bring a little plastic bag with me if it had recently rained because my seat had a crack in it that exposed the foam stuffing, perfect for soaking up water and storing it until I sat down and got a wet pair of pants. The bike also had a terrible tendency of eating up my pant legs and depositing grease on them whenever it could. Although, my all time favorite memory of my bike was the unfortunately hot day I decided to fill up my tires at a small bicycle shop downtown. I got a little too much air in the back tire and within a few seconds it expanded further, bursting the inner tube. No, "bursting" is too light of a word. It was an EXPLOSION that left my ears ringing and my mind in total confusion for several moments before a few people came running around the corner to see what had happened. Luckily I could just leave my bike there at the shop and pick it up the next day as good as new.

I've had a bike at Coe every year, but it never seemed like I got enough usage out of it. I think that after my semester in Germany relying on my bike to get me around everyday, I will take advantage of using my bike more often in Cedar Rapids. It's a newer bike of course, with gears and lights that actually work, but I still think I will miss my klappriges Damenrad.

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