When we moved to the Netherlands we were so very excited to join in with the cycling culture.
We decided to eschew getting a car and buy a bakfiets, which essentially is a big wooden box you can pedal around. We’d seen the Dutch using these cargo bikes on previous trips to the Netherlands and had been impressed with all the things they could carry in them: Kids. Dogs. Shopping. Plants. Fridges. You name it, the bakfiets seemed to roll with it.
We bought a second hand bakfiets and I cycled the kids everywhere in it.
There are pictures of us – thrilled with our new, very Dutch, acquisition. We christened her Bertha the Battered Box Bakfiets and she became our family’s only means of transport.
My youngest was a few months old when Bertha joined us. She was strapped into a Maxi Cosi and then that was attached to the wooden floor of the bakfiets box. My 2 year old sat on a little wooden flip down seat, with a cushion to protect his teeny butt. He wore a harness to stop him from catapulting up and out if we stopped suddenly.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Bertha had a weight problem. She was extremely large, alarmingly heavy and I can attest that if someone else (the husband) rolled her over your foot, you were definitely aware of her presence.
I developed impressive thigh muscles and some pretty good biceps from all the peddling and lugging the behemoth thing up and down off kerbs, steps and pavements.
We are lucky where we live. Life has been designed with cyclists in mind, so there are clear cycle paths everywhere, separate to the cars. I felt very safe zooming around our smalls in something that resembled an ice-cream-van-of-yore.
Then the winter came. My kids were sick all the fucking time. As I’ve mentioned before, I renamed them, ‘Pestilence and Plague’. It was like they signed a contract agreeing to tag team it, so that someone in the house was always ill.
I had to cycle my sick kids to the doctor, which was a 30 minute bakfiets ride away. Loading Bertha up with feverish children was no fun.
In the rain.
The plastic rain cover drowned out their cries somewhat.
When the baby turned into a toddler, she joined her brother on the seat of the bakfiets. She was thrilled at first by her new ‘big girl’ position in life. Unfortunately, she found riding around in the box very soothing. She kept nodding off in the box and slumping over on her brother, who doesn’t like being touched….. so he wake her up by punching her in the head. Unsurprisingly she’d start howling and try to bite him. Mayhem and carnage would ensue. We briefly considered tying her head to the box to try to prevent that, ‘melon on a toothpick’ issue with her noggin….but it felt a bit wrong.
It turns out that the youngest is actually the instigator of games in our home. And she has a fiendish sense of humor. As soon as she got a pincer grip going and could sit up, she showed her brother what great fun it was to lob articles from the bakfiets at passing pedestrians and cyclists. Shoes, loaves of bread, stuff from mama’s bag, sticks…you name it, if they could pick it up, off it flew.
A lot of the general public didn’t understand the rules of the game (DUCK dude!) One particular gentleman told us to, ‘Get cancer’ he was so annoyed with us. My neighbours assured me that the expression is a fairly typical phrase from the robust catalogue of Dutch swearing. I was extremely alarmed at the time though.
Come the spring, my now 3 year old became a good bit more opinionated about life and in short had turned into a RUNNER.
We’d be in the bloody bakfiets heading off wherever and he’d unclip himself out of the harness, hop over the side of the bakfiets and take off. It became a common sight to see me hastily fling the smaller in the sling so as to sprint after him back along the cycle path, across junctions, down canal banks. The bakfiets had become a liability.
The following winter we soldiered through the cold, the snow, the constant rain.
We lived once more through the awfulness of feverish kids, frozen hands, hatred from those receiving a surprise shoe in the face. I stopped chasing my little Houdini, and he learnt to jog behind the box. I was so over it.
One day the kids kicked a hole through the bottom of Bertha and they were thrilled to be able to stick their feet through it onto the ground below. Then a few weeks later as were pedalling along, the side wheel detached from the axle and sagged down. The boy detailed the disaster every step of the way home.
Bertha’s time was up.
I threw a massive wobbly. I threatened to leave the Netherlands unless a car appeared in my very near future.
We sold the bakfiets for parts.
And bought a car.
I can’t say I miss Bertha the Battered Box Bakfiets, but I definitely have some very vivid memories of our time together. Now I am the one with the weight problem, what with driving everywhere….and the absence of heavy lifting.
Next time you see a mama, (or anyone indeed) whizzing past in a bakfiets full of smalls, dogs and furniture, make sure to salute them and give them a smile. It’s not as easy as it looks, you know.