The bike: a classic Watson moment

Last weekend, after my return to Göteborg, I started biking around the city. Biking seems to be the preferred mode of transportation in Sweden, and I had already seen much of Göteborg on foot, so I thought a bike would be especially helpful in these few weeks to see further reaches of the city. One of my first interviewees here in Sweden – the CEO of JoiceCare, the new owners of Giraff Technologies – was kind enough to offer his old bike for me to use. I was going to be picking up the bike from his front yard on Saturday morning, when he wasn’t home. I traveled for about 30 minutes via two trams out into Västra Frölunda, the western borough/suburb of Gothenburg.

In an area I had never seen before, I walked a bit and found the house with a black bike behind a red car. The key was in the letterbox, as I was told it would be, and I used it to unlock the bike. (It’s a very clever system, by the way – the lock is built onto the back wheel, so you never have to carry the lock with you, just the key).

The bike itself. You might be able to see the subtle locking system on the back wheel below the bike seat.

Feeling quite satisfied with myself, I wheeled the bike away from the house and hopped on. That is, I tried to hop on, but I couldn’t because the seat was too high (much higher than shown in the picture above). I could only get on the bike with careful deliberation and balance, and while I did finally manage to do so, I felt unsafe enough that I soon stopped to carefully disembark. If I couldn’t quickly put down a foot on one side to stop the bike, there was no way I was going to bike 20 minutes back home on unknown terrain.

Of course, the seat could only be lowered with a small wrench that I didn’t have. I decided to wheel the bike back to the tram stop so that I could take it to my place, where there was a bike shop nearby. On my way to the tram stop I asked a family if there was anything closer, and they said no.

As the tram approached the station, the conductor made some announcement in Swedish. I boarded the tram, and the announcement was repeated without the tram taking off. I thought that it might be stalling because I hadn’t paid yet, so I got out my wallet and paid for the tram.

Still nothing. The conductor got out of the driver’s seat, walked back through the tram, and stood in front of me. He repeated, loudly, the announcement that he had already made twice. Once I finally realized that the announcement had been directed at me, I guessed that bikes are not allowed on the trams here, which was confirmed when I asked him to switch to English (before that moment, I’m sure he thought I was totally deaf to his requests, or perhaps actually deaf.)

He said I had to get off, but I flustered, explaining that I had already paid for the tram and that I was unable to ride the bike. I was only going to ride two stops before making a transfer, and he reluctantly agreed to keep me on as long as I got off after two stops. He also said something about a trolley, and I wish I had understood – maybe there are two types of trams, and the trolley-like ones allow bikes?

But I didn’t find out, because once I got off two stops later, I didn’t want to get yelled at in Swedish again. I resigned myself to walking the bike back to Majorna, my neighborhood, a 35-minute walk along the highway.

I started off, probably looking like an idiot, and marched right across the highway to walk along the shoulder. A worried stranger called out at this point, and through some gesturing he informed me that I could not continue that way. He pointed me towards a proper street, parallel to the highway, along which I could wheel my bike to get back to town. Fairly embarrassed and tired by this point, I changed directions and walked down the other road. 30 sweaty minutes later, I arrived at a 7-Eleven gas station by my place, and they had the right tool to lower the seat. My fears that I had completely forgotten how to ride a bike were nullified as I hopped on and biked away very easily (and much more safely) with the lower seat.

I was telling my parents about this utterly boring and frustrating morning over Skype when they suggested I post about it – as they said, it’s pretty emblematic of the kinds of struggles you go through as a Watson fellow in a country where you don’t speak the language. And yet, you might be staying there long enough to want a bike. Now that I have one, I feel much more Swedish and have been able to see the city in a new way. It was certainly worth a morning of trouble to be able to bike around Gothenburg these few weeks.


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