Coming from Amsterdam, for MSc Immunology of Infectious Diseases student Tayma van Pomeren, cycling is second nature. But Tayma has found cycling in London a whole new proposition!
Life as I knew it changed April 1st in 2014. I got an acceptance letter to the School and with that exciting news, my life was turned upside down. Wrapping up my life back in Amsterdam (literally by packing my stuff for storage and moving, and figuratively by saying goodbye to friends and family and quitting my job), arranging tons of stuff and preparing for a new life in London. With packing and sorting rose the question on how to go around in London. Would I be taking the tube, the bus, walk, or was it safe to cycle, like I was used to at home? And what to do with my bike? After I talked to people who had been to London or had lived here about the possibilities, I decided that I wanted to cycle to school instead of taking the public transport. Because I had a good, solid, reliable bike at home I figured it was a waste to buy a new one in London. So, along with some boxes full of clothes, books, DVDs and other necessities, I brought my good old bike with me to my new hometown. And this is how it began. (Cycling) life as I knew it changed…
Let me take you back to Tuesday 17 September, the day when I first cycled in London. With a fellow Dutchie and also LSHTM student to be, I wanted to cycle to School and in this way hopefully get to know the way around. With a brief look at our London cycle map we hopped on our bikes and cheerfully started the ride. Only soon to realise that finding your way around in London, without knowing exactly where to go, is not so easily done. But thank God for google maps. And soon we were back on track, continuing the way to Keppel Street. But there came the first right turn, uh oh. It just felt completely wrong. With eyes half closed, some curse words, and some prayers I made it! The first real obstacle tackled. And after a long while (the 30 minute ride took us 1,5 hours) we made it to the school, happy as a hippo. And I thought; ‘I can do this. Cycling in London, baby!’.
And yes, after a few trial-and-error rides I began to remember the route to school and even got used to taking right turns. And now, I cycle to School every day and am very happy that I decided to take my bike with me. However, there have been things I had to get used to. Such as the big transformation people undergo before cycling. In the Netherlands, where I come from, cycling is simply perceived as transportation. So if you want to go somewhere, you put on your coat on top of your everyday clothes and start cycling. No helmet, no lycra, no fuss. Whereas in London people change. First, the helmet. Safety first of course, but no one in their right frame of mind back home wears a helmet, besides tourist or elderly. Simply, because cycling there is safe. This was a big adjustment, but one I was prepared for. Secondly, which I wasn’t prepared for, the lycra! When I started cycling I was surprised to see so many people in sporting gear. Lycra from head to toe. And what’s with the shoes? Special shoes for cycling?! To me, just plain weird.
But after a few months, I have changed. The Dutchie in me feels bad, I cracked. I now undergo, be it minor, a transformation before I leave as well. First a, lycra!, running jacket. Then comes the safety, bright orange, reflecting jacket, followed by cycling gloves and multiple lights. Topped up by the helmet. What has happened? Well, safety. I realised that cycling in London is not the same as cycling at home, so I adjusted and feel safer now.
And then the ‘cycle paths’ which often just stop halfway, lead to stairs (?), are used as parking spots, or are too complicated to understand. London means well and is trying, but just surprises me every day when it comes to cycling adjustments. (See link below for some funny examples). It is also funny, and I know that I am spoiled when it comes to cycling. The first steps have been taken, and I am able to cycle around. So I don’t want to complain too much.
But it is not all bad, scary and unsafe. Cycling in London is also fun! I enjoy the fresh air when I cycle home after a long day. I enjoy the mornings with pretty light and the exercise I get. I get to see places along the way I would otherwise miss if I would take the tube. Such as the lovely long boats in little Venice, this little park just by Paddington Street, and this cute church by Crawford Street. And one of my favourite anecdotes:
An early morning, I was waiting in front of a traffic light when a girl came standing next to me, also on her bike, and said “you could be Dutch with your bike”. I replied that I was and we started talking. The light turned green and we cycled together. We discovered that we moved to London around the same time, live pretty near to each other and work/study in the same area. It was so much fun and we exchanged phone numbers and met up a while ago. Two Dutchies in a very, very English pub. It was great to speak to someone who’s new to England as well and talk about weird or funny things we’ve encountered.
And with this I would like to end my cycling story. Cycling has added an extra dimension to my life in London. I got to know the city better, strangely enough learned a lot about my own culture and how much I value cycling, I feel healthier, curse more in traffic (when someone cuts me off again), and made a new friend. And own more lycra than I ever thought I would.