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Friday, August 13, 2010

My Commie Berlin bike and me

I suffered my first head injury* on a bike. I was five. When I was 11, I spent all my saved up paper route money on a Coast to Coast 12 speed. A year later, I dismantled it, combined it with another bike, and crashed it when I hit a rotten apple on a curve while delivering the aforesaid papers. I went to the emergency room. I started racing bikes (and getting spanked) that same year. On late summer nights as a teenager, I rode my bike home from my girlfriend's house, the fresh memory of her mysterious smell mingling with that of sprinklers on the grass. And when I came to the non-lit sections of street, I felt as if I were flying through the darkness. I worked in a bike shop for five years. I got married and had a kid and started a business and stopped riding and got chubby. Later, I started riding my bike again. I'm still chubby, but at least I can go out and purge my demons by riding up a mountainside, and not worry about cardiac arrest.

So, when I left the Old Country to move to Berlin, I wasn't about to leave my bicycle behind. I packed up my road bike, which was engineered to translate my aging legs' waning power into forward motion as efficiently as possible, and brought it over the pond. I then spent two weeks coughing up my lungs, looking at the unopened bicycle box with the impotent longing of an old man in the Sex Kino down the street. That I was on the mend was confirmed the day I crawled out of bed and tore open the box.

My first Berlin ride was a humbling affair. After the woman -- I'd peg her age at 62 -- passed me on a bulky one-speed nearly as old as her, I realized that perhaps my lightweight, many-geared machine was a bit much in a city with only one hill** to speak of. In my attempt to recover a sliver of my ego by overtaking the woman -- who, unfairly, was loaded down with groceries -- I swerved out of the bike lane and into the sidewalk. I was headed straight for the rear-end of a high-heeled pedestrian. Since I had no bell (rendering my bicycle illegal in Berlin), and since I don't speak German, I was reduced to making incomprehensible grunts of warning before abandoning all hope and swerving back into the bike lane, behind the aforesaid older but much faster woman.

The road into the Grunewald, a huge forest on Berlin's edge, provided quiet relief. It's a smoothly-paved, virtually carless street through the dense trees. I got down into the drops, stretched out my legs, kicked up the gear and started hammering. That's when I got the flat tire. It's also when I realized I had left the house without pump, tube or any other remedy, save a few bucks for a train ticket. I hobbled up the road to the S-Bahn station, clicked conspicuously across the shiny tiled floor in my cycling shoes and boarded a train. It was mercifully empty. And then the two women, attractively tattooed and fetchingly pierced, boarded the car and sat across from me. And laughed. At me. I was, after all, wearing lycra. Bright pink lycra. And so it was that I decided to change my life, or at least change my approach to this Berlin bicycling thing.

I needed a new bike. Okay, an old bike. One of the purely functional, no-frills one-speeds that are everywhere in this city. They stream by on the bike paths, which line every sidewalk along nearly every major thoroughfare in town, and the paths come with their own turning lanes and traffic lights. The bikes are practically piled up at every subway stop. Many seem to have been abandoned, overcome as they are by rust and weeds. Bike shops are plentiful, all of them selling an assortment of new and used rides. The bounty, however, has not rendered the bikes cheap. And equipping the family wasn't easy. But a fervent search, lasting a week or so, unearthed a nice shiny ride for Wendy, a ragged but cheap one for Elena and a vintage beauty for Lydia. Nothing for me. There was only one place left to go: Mauerpark on a Sunday.

Mauer means "wall" in German, and the Mauerpark is somehow meant to commemorate the Wall. More importantly, it's home each Sunday to a huge flea market, filled with vendors selling everything imaginable, from soft served ice cream, to vintage sunglasses, to enigmatic machines that were surely used by the Stasi either for listening in on dissidents or torturing them (if I weren't so intent on finding a bike, I would have picked one up for those evenings when the kids won't calm down, or when Wendy's feeling especially frisky). And then there are the bikes -- steeds in all shapes and sizes, sold by a motley cast of shady-looking characters. Rumor has it, every bike there is stolen.

After perusing dozens of Fahrrads, as they're called in Germany, I finally stumbled upon a guy who was asking somewhat reasonable prices. If the salesman weren't speaking German, I might have mistaken him for someone running a junkyard on the backroads of Delta County, or the goofy cousin on the Dukes of Hazard. He wore a dark blue jumpsuit, had long, greasy black hair, and a lopsided, half-toothless smile. His hands were stained black from handling many an oily chain. He had just a handful of bikes for sale, a less overwhelming selection than some of his colleagues. I pointed to a green one: How much? 45 Euros. How about the blue one? 55. Then, in true socialist fashion, he made the hard sale on the cheaper bike: It's much better, he said in German, because it's from East Germany. The other one, from West. No good. East is better. Sold.

Like all Berlin bikes, it has a bell, a head- and tail-light, a rear rack. It rode beautifully for the first few blocks of the trip home. Then the right pedal started feeling funny. No biggie, I thought, I was going to put better pedals on, anyway. It kept getting worse, though, and by the time I got home I had made a sickening realization: The bike guy was no smarter than he looked, and had forced a left-hand pedal into the right-hand crank, completely stripping the threads. I think I wept a little, but it was okay, because I did it privately and out of sight of pretty girls on the subway. I washed away my depression with a healthy dose of the Grauburgunder wine that they sell around here for remarkably cheap, and then I got excited about fixing up my bike. A big hammer, and another 20 Euros later, it was up and running again. In the process, I also learned something: Berlin has government-supported bike shops devoted exclusively to people who are unemployed and on welfare. I see a job in my future.

In the days since, we've sampled many a Berlin bike path as a family, saving us the cost of U-Bahn tickets, and giving us a means to explore weird little pockets of the city. We live about 100 meters from a heavily treed path that heads south into giant parks and beyond, to the farmland at the edge of Berlin. To the north, it cuts through cool neighborhoods before joining up with the Mauerweg -- the Wall trail -- and skirts the line that once divided West from East Berlin. I've got my bike again, and I'm happy. And last night, as we ate another round of doner kepabs after looking at another round of potential apartments to rent, my youngest daughter, out of the blue, said: "I can't imagine what it would be like to not have my bike. When I ride it I feel all airy and light." Amen.

*My brother decided it would be funny to push me really fast on my little red Schwinn. I went over the bars, head first into the pavement, resulting in a huge road rash on my forehead. As far as I know, it didn't cause any permanent damage. That may have come earlier, when some unremembered event caused the big dent that remains in the back of my head to this day. But since my parents deny they ever dropped me headfirst, I count the bike wreck as my first head injury.

**The only hill in Berlin is actually a huge pile of rubble, the detritus of World War II bombs. The city was pretty much obliterated by Allied bombing raids.


Chip said...

I am convinced that bikes are the litmus test of a truly advanced and progressive culture. All the great cities and towns in the world treat bikes as a real alternative to cars and not as toys. I will toast a Stout to you, your commie bike and bike lanes with their own traffic lights at the Rev. I heartily agree with Elena. From the mouths of babes...

Beth said...

Wish I'd found your toothless bike salesman within our area before I dropped 500 Euros for my very nice trekking bike. No funny looks when we loaded our new bikes on the train headed south to the Alps for our first spin of 50 Km around a gorgeous lake. Just a few questions about how clean our bikes were! I figure the bikes are worth it, since I don't have your skill (or time) to repair a beater bike!