Angels and Ministers of Grace, Defend Me from Foreigners Riding Bicycles in the Snow
This article originally ran in Issue 1, December 2017. The next issue will be released next week, 28 February 2018!

Today on my morning walk I was almost run down by foreign students riding their bikes in the snow. 

“But Berin,” you ask, “how do you know they were foreigners?”

Finns who are not adept at riding in the snow just don’t do it. They walk, use public transportation, or break down and drive if they own a car. When the snow starts to fall, they put snow tires on their bikes — knobby things akin to motocross tires, but with metal studs on them. They know how to handle their bike on icy, slush, and gravel. And they know how to dress for the weather. When they know the weather is going to be less than accommodating, and they still plan to ride, they allow extra time so they can stick to a slower, safer speed. 

Something I need to explain, for the folks not familiar with Finland, is that pedestrians and cyclists share the same space. The walkways are a car-lane wide, and usually paved with asphalt. This allows the same plows that clear the streets and lay down gravel to take care of those paths. Bicycles don’t share the roads with cars. It’s plenty of space for everyone. In some places it’s divided into separate lanes for pedestrians and cycles, but that’s rare. 

The first person to almost hit me was flying down a hill way too fast. I was crossing the street when I saw him, barely in time. Had I not seen him and not only stopped, but taken a step back, he would have collided. He had a look of pure terror on his face. I could tell that he was afraid to brake, because he would lose control. His tired looked bald, and were clearly not snow tires. He was afraid to swerve, because he’d wipe out. In spite of the fact that it as snowing, he had neither a hat nor gloves on. As he reached the bottom of the hill, he put his feet down to try to stop himself. Fortunately there was no cross-traffic, because even with his heels dug in he slid through the intersection. 

The second person was also going downhill. I was gingerly walking down myself, making sure I was on the graveled area and not on smooth, compacted snow or black ice. From behind me I head the frantic chirp of a bike bell, followed by shouts of “Look out! Look out!” in the telltale English of a foreign student. He was wearing a parka, unzipped. Again, no snow tires. Again, no hat or gloves. And again, we were the only two people on a path wide enough to drive a truck down. A Finn would know how to slow down, how to move over and around me. Because he couldn’t control his bike, it was my responsibility to step off the path. He went flying by, and disappear around the curve in the road. 

I keep telling Katie that being hit by a cyclist is a recurring vision I have of how I die. Foreigners not used to sharing a bike lane with pedestrians fly by in good weather, missing me by centimeters, swerving around and in front of me and cutting me off as I walk. Finns, for the most part, give pedestrians a wider berth. They ring their bell to let you know they’re coming up behind you, which only means “keep walking straight, don’t turn or swerve suddenly until I pass” and not “Iiiieee, jump into a snow bank or a mud puddle before I hit you at a high rate of speed and kill us both”. 

While I think fear of braking probably had a lot to do with both situations, I suspect that there was time management involved. They simply weren’t used to this sort of weather, but they were accustomed to leaving at a certain time to get to class. They didn’t pad the schedule. While it’s possible that they didn’t have a bus pass, or money for bus fare, they may also have found the concept of standing in the cold to wait for a bus to be an odious prospect. It’s cultural acclimation. You have to get used to the way things work in the place you happen to be living. You can’t expect things in your new, temporary location to operate the same way they did back home. Sadly, a lot of foreigners, especially exchange students only here for one semester, expect exactly that.