martes, 1 de diciembre de 2015


“Hallo.” Hello.

“Hoe gaat het?” How are you?

I sat cross-legged on the little couch in the living room with my notebook in my lap. Hylke sat across the coffee table corner from me and followed along as I read aloud, gently helping with pronunciation. Earlier I had passed my notebook around the flat in an effort to compile a study list. It had turned into a team event – everyone contributed key words and common phrases that I should probably know; now it was time to practice. I was certain that my vocal chords were physically incapable of creating the right sounds, no matter how hard my brain tried to shape the words. Tenuous and gawky, I thrashed my way through each thought and each sentence.

“Ik ben verdwaald.” I am lost.

Language skills had generally come to me readily, even when abroad. Most of my travels had been to countries rooted in Romance languages like French and Spanish – both of which I could understand and use on a functional level, however clumsy it may have been. Here in the Netherlands it was much different. I had crash-landed in Alkmaar directly after racing in Ghent, Belgium (my Flemish being equally nonexistent, for the record) and been immersed in the Dutch language for about a week or so; I tried to soak it up everywhere – at the track, on the bus, on the sidewalks and street signs, in shop windows, on store shelves. Dutch was so unlike most other languages that I had encountered before. The vocabulary only revealed itself in shards and shimmers of familiarity; it was like trying to listen to a conversation under water. Everything else left me in a mental fog, disoriented and bewildered.

“Waar ben ik?” Where am I?


My easiest yet most embarrassing communication tool had quickly become The Face. I had mastered the move within hours of being on the ground in both Belgium and the Netherlands: eyes widened and blank; jaw slackened; mouth slightly agape – culminating the universal look of vacuous confusion. To immediately pull this off would spurn the speaker to rapidly switch to English approximately ninety-eight percent of the time.

I hated it. Being unable to use the native language made me appear a dimwitted cow. It felt like a direct affront to the host country and its people while simultaneously dumbing myself down.   

The brain would have an idea but the right verbal coding was missing. Words would swirl around the mind and bubble up from the lungs, only to tangle in the back of the throat or swell and snag on the tongue to leave me, the hapless Anglophone, spouting out the wrong sounds. Each time the result was withering, like orchid petals left to the sun’s blazing scrutiny; it stung – even a simple greeting required courage and understanding that I didn’t have. I was incapable of being my normal friendly and talkative self.


“De taal leren!” The Turkish cashier at the grocery store flashed me a stern glare and pointed at my brow with the flick of her wrist.

I made The Face at her and then quickly rounded to my Dutch compatriot Shanne for help.

“She said ‘learn the language,’” Shanne told me. She then proceeded to explain to the woman that I was merely training in Alkmaar for a few weeks and not here to stay. The cashier gave a sigh of resignation (and perhaps relief) as she handed me the receipt.

I hated that part especially. How could I learn something if I hadn’t had the opportunity to do so?

It’s irritating to be in one’s home country and attempt to communicate with someone who doesn’t know the language (but had the audacity to show up anyway). What one can often miss or overlook, however, is the equal exasperation of the person on the other side of the conversation – the newcomer without the vocabulary, mechanics, and practice to speak with anyone over the age of four. I was suddenly on the cold and confounding side of the fence.

“Ik versta het niet.” I don’t understand.


Now here I sat in the Dutch team house in Alkmaar – I had been graciously adopted by the Dutch riders, and my lack of language skills left me feeling more and more boorish by the day. We would all train and cook and hang out together, but I was only getting a small fraction of the whole experience. Naturally, when the riders said that they could teach me some important bits, I jumped at the chance; I wanted to learn, I needed to learn something.

“You’re crazy,” Shanne said. “Dutch is a crazy language. It makes no sense.” That was certainly not a ringing endorsement from a native speaker. So be it; I was willing to try.   

I hated not having words. I hated not having answers. I hated reducing myself to blank stares and body language. I hated feeling dubious and dull.

“Genoeg. Enough. 

I glanced across the table at Hylke and let out a deep breath of air. Folding my legs together a little tighter, I gripped my knees and studied the page with the hand-scrawled list.

“Gaat alles goed?” Is everything alright?

“Ja. Dank u.” Yes. Thank you.

“Graag gedaan.” You’re welcome.


jueves, 19 de noviembre de 2015

Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge

“There was a terrorist attack in Paris,” Danny said.


I sat straight up from my cot and blinked down into my lap, rubbing my bleary eyes. Tangerine beams of streetlamp light cut through the curtains of the room's east window. Down below, a tram car clattered past; the boulevard otherwise was silent. It was 7AM, dark and cool, in Ghent.

“Terrorist attack. There’s like 80 people dead.”

“Oh shit.”

Oh. Shit.

My team mates and I were staying in a second-floor apartment in the Moscou neighborhood of the city – we had arrived a few days beforehand for the upcoming International Belgian Open. This was my second visit to Ghent within the year in pursuit of UCI points. Roughly 296 kilometers (183 miles) south, just hours before we woke, a mass of murderous monsters had descended on various points of one of the most decorated and closely-patrolled cities in Europe – managing to shoot and bomb their way through innocent crowds. We wouldn’t learn the full scope and death toll until later on.

“This is a hell of a time to be an American in Europe,” I mumbled. “F*ck.” We were always aware of a certain discomfort in being an American abroad, regardless of where it was. It’s a common notion that Americans are universally disliked, and that in travel we take an extra risk that someone will do us harm. We were here for a bike race, but that took a back seat in my brain for a moment as I tried to process these events along with our proximity to Paris. We had been walking and riding around all week with "USA" stamped on our chests – in a foreign region that suddenly felt less safe.

“They’re closing the borders. France is in a state of emergency,” Danny clarified.

Indeed, France was not screwing around.

“Well, now what happens?” I looked at Danny and Maddie through the streaks of amber light and shadows.

Danny shrugged. “We race.”


“Ladies and gentlemen, we will now observe a moment of silence for the victims of Paris,” boomed a voice over the loudspeaker across the Vlaams Wielercentrum Eddy Merckx.

All conversation stopped. Roller warm-ups ground to a halt; a compressor blasted air through the mounting quiet. Those on the infield turned towards the stands with raised heads and squared shoulders.

My heart drummed against my ribcage and clanged into my throat; I felt my pulse in my ears. It seemed so loud inside my body that I speculated who else could hear. I was certain that the calamity was audible and I couldn’t determine why it was happening. Nerves were to be expected, but it had been a long time since they were this pronounced. Perhaps that happens when one is still reeling in the aftershocks of jarring news.

I gazed across the infield to the French team standing stoic in their pit – four men and a woman for the sprinters, from what I could tell; I was surprised that they had made it. I wondered what was going through their minds as they passed the silence. I wondered if their heads and hearts were pounding in the same rapid and deafening symphony – even if their reasons were different than mine. I wondered, but I could only really guess.

“Merci, madames et messieurs.”


We continued to roll for several laps after our 5th-8th final. The French rider and I had just finished our last 3-lap battle for the evening (she took 5th and I a close 6th). I reached down from up track and shook her hand as we rolled – grasped and really shook it. It was a normal congratulatory gesture, but I had wanted it to show solidarity. I wanted her to know that our team felt the same shock and fear that she might. I wanted to be there for this fellow competitor whom I didn’t actually know.

As I walked out of the infield that later evening, I saw the French girl curled up by a support beam while talking on the phone. She sat with her knees pulled to her chest and one hand clutched at her feet; her face was flushed as she babbled in rapid-fire French. I strode past and studied my sneakers in an attempt to give her privacy. On any other day she might have seemed flustered by results, all spilling out to a coach or family member on the other side of the phone. Today it was difficult to tell; it was anyone’s guess. I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t. I wanted to know if she was okay, but I didn’t.


I mourn Paris – just as I mourn Lebanon and Bangladesh and Egypt and Turkey and Tunisia and Kuwait. I mourn the worshippers whom ISIS bombed in a mosque during Friday Prayer. I mourn those lost in a peace rally which was descended upon by ISIS suicide bombers. Violence and hate have few geographic and cultural boundaries – but so do harmony and love. I mourn all of these losses in all of these places, even if I cannot reach them. If there is an opportunity to offer strength and support, however small a gesture, how could one not do so?

I can remember where I was when we learned that our nation had been attacked. I sat at the front of Mrs. Koch’s 6th grade English class as we watched the crash footage looping continuously on the news. We had believed our country to be safe – that these things couldn’t happen, not to us, or that they would be thwarted before they could become real. Perhaps that was what everyone experienced in and around Paris. I might not know exactly what the French riders were thinking and feeling on that day, but I have a ballpark idea. The notion that just a couple hours away one’s countrymen are dying, grieving, fearful, and raging in the wake of unprecedented atrocity is quite familiar. Paris is very close to us in this regard – through this we manage to empathize, not merely sympathize.

If I had spoken to the French rider, I would have told her that it would be okay. I would have told her that I knew, at least a little bit, how she felt. I would have told her that she and her team were not alone – that we were scared and uncertain too. I would have told her: we both bleed the same colors – we are red, white and blue; nous sommes bleu, blanc, et rouge.