Author: Mariska Regtvoort
I’m from the country with the highest bicycle density in the world. They sometimes say that we are born on our bicycles. I think that can be true. In The Netherlands everyone has one or more bikes and you can see them everywhere. We use them every day to go to school, work and to go to the shop.
And now I live in Skopje, Macedonia. There aren’t a lot of bikes here. Everybody goes by car, takes the bus or just walks. Every day I walk more than 30 minutes to the office and back. I can’t imagine doing that at home. I know exactly one person who does that, but he’s an exception (in many ways). But I must say, I got used to it and now I even like it.
People in The Netherlands use their bikes all the time, for all kind of occasions. You can see people in casual clothes, but also in suits, in neat dresses, short skirts, sport clothes, it doesn’t matter. A bike is an easy and fast way to travel, especially in the city. Also it doesn’t matter if it’s cold or not, if the sun shines, or if it’s raining. The only thing that people may prevent from riding a bike is when everything is covered by a lot of snow.
In Skopje, that’s totally different. If people have a bike, they will wait till the spring has come and the weather is nice. For me that’s very strange and illogical. Why do you want to walk through the cold if you have a bike? I would be more than happy with a bike in that case, because it brings me home much quicker.
But now the spring has arrived, together with the nice weather. And now I’ve got my bike too. It’s fantastic!
Now I can get really experienced with the Macedonian way of riding a bike. My first trip was a big adventure. Apparently I’m so used to the Dutch infrastructure, that I have some difficulties with riding a bike somewhere else. I found out that it just isn’t possible here to just ride everywhere you want to. Most ways don’t have proper paths for bikes. So I really have to plan my trip. It’s remarkable to see that there are really no rules here; sometimes I even see people riding their bikes between the cars, on the middle of the road. I rather choose to ride on the sidewalk. But that’s also a dangerous experience, because there are a lot of holes in the way, so you have to watch out all the time. And you have to get off the bike very often, because the steps get interrupted by a crossing. So I wouldn’t recommend riding a bike when drunk. And it’s also not strange here if you have to take the stairs a few times and you have to carry your bike. The only time I have to do that in The Netherlands, is when I want to take my bike into the train. But that’s not an everyday thing. And for people like me, who don’t like the struggle, there’s always an elevator. At some places in Skopje you can find a special path for bikes, even without holes. Only it’s full of people… walking! So, riding a bike in Skopje doesn’t always have to mean a comfortable or fast way of transport, it’s rather exhausting.
I realize now how comfortable and easy it is to ride a bike in The Netherlands. Everywhere is a place to ride your bicycle; the only place where you have to get of your bike is at a traffic light. Also there’s no need to focus on the road all the time, because you’ll not find a hole in it. So even the laziest people can take their bike.
Besides all the interesting differences, there’s also a similarity: old bicycles. In Skopje I don’t see a lot of people on a new bike and the same goes for The Netherlands. Most people there don’t think a new bike is worth the money, because it will get stolen anyway. Stealing bikes is very popular, and it really doesn’t matter if your bike is old or new. It’s just one of those things that happen. And if you’re lucky you can buy it back from a junk on the street. I wonder if that bike-stealing culture also exists in Skopje. But by looking at the tiny locker I got with my bike, it probably doesn’t.
Although I think it’s quite dangerous and not so comfortable, riding a bike in Skopje has its charms. Maybe I’ll even miss those holes when I’m back in The Netherlands.