My calves burned with the effort of pumping the pedals of the bike. A crossing car had cut me off from the tour group which was moving over the bridge ahead. I raced to catch up; desperate to avoid getting lost forever in Amsterdam.
“Sassy Molasses” was my metal, two-wheeled companion but there was nothing sassy or sweet about my cycling ability.
The city streets are a paved mix of old and new; of tourist tat, red lights, museums, high street brands and ‘coffee shops’; all intersected by canals and bridges. And these bustling streets are unforgiving of rookie cyclists who have the balance and grace of a newborn foal trying to stand up for the first time (aka me).
Now, I learned to ride a bike back when I was missing my front teeth and watched Scooby Doo. So I assumed it would be easy to remember how to do.
I was wrong.
I finally summited the bridge and looked back to see that the others behind me were in sight. With a sharp exhale of relief, my left hand released the brake and my feet relaxed slightly as I let myself free wheel down the small hill. First mistake.
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted two men, deep in conversation, about to step straight into my path. A quick glance to my left and right let me know a big swerve would end with me either getting up close and personal with a wall or submerged in a canal. I had to go with option two: braking, yelling and hoping they would step out of harms way in time.
My feet scrambled to find a firm grip on the pedals and my fingers pulled on the brake lever. I desperately searched for something appropriate to yell and one word seemed to fit. I’m from South Africa and one of the country’s 11 official languages is Afrikaans – originally a Dutch dialect adopted by some of the early colonisers and eventually recognised as a language. I never studied it, but from a basic grasp I know that ‘jammer’ (said like yum-mer) means sorry.
“Jammer!” I shouted and tried to gesture ‘get out of the way!’ with my head. Second mistake.
The tyres skidded over the brick paved bridge, finally rolling onto flat tar, and the men were moving to safety.
“Jammer JAMMER!” I gave a final yelp.
One of the men had turned at my wild yelling. His face was a curious mix of worry and confusion. In my mind he was wondering why somebody let an evidently incredibly uncoordinated blonde girl loose on the streets of Amsterdam with a bicycle. In reality, he had simply perplexed… and probably relieved not to have been run over by the mad woman on the bike.
Zooming past them, I threw a ‘dankie’ (thank you) over my shoulder – ‘Thanks for not letting me kill or seriously maim you, gents!’
I cycled on with a burst of confidence after successfully avoiding mowing down innocent bystanders or catching a face-full of bricks.
I pushed forward and caught up with the rider in front of me. We had just crossed into Jordaan – one of Amsterdam’s most famous neighbourhoods. I wheeled past neat houses with white, brown, blue and black doors. It was light out but many windows were warmed by glowing bulbs. Boxes overflowing with flowers both dead and alive sat under some of the panes. The colours blurred as I pressed to catch up with everyone.
Mike (of Mike’s Bikes) signalled for us to stop at the canal bank. I left Sassy Molasses leaning on her bike stand to join the others at the railing. Anne Frank’s house sat across the water and two lines of people snaked out to either side of the door. Mike gave us a brief history of the house. I listened and rubbed my aching legs while watching hundreds of figures waiting patiently in line.
I turned to one of the bike tour guides who was tasked with herding the stragglers at the back of the pack (again, me) and told him about the near-disaster. He laughed. A lot.
Apparently Afrikaans and Dutch are more different than I had thought. Jammer – the word I had shouted with such vigour – doesn’t mean ‘sorry’. It translates to ‘unfortunately’ or ‘pity’ in Dutch. Awkward.
I sat back on my bike, silently simmering in my embarrassment. Firstly, I was a horrible bike-rider; secondly, I had nearly run over two people; and thirdly I had confidently shouted ‘unfortunately’ at those poor men. Right then, I understood the confusion on the man’s face.
Unfortunately (ha!), we had more kilometres to complete. I silently promised Sassy Molasses that I would refrain from killing myself/anyone else on the ride back and pedalled on.
There was one more near-miss but that time I just went “aaaaah!” to let the woman know I was about to slam into her.
Oh Amsterdam, I’m sorry.