The sky looked slightly ominous as we approached the starting point for our bicycle night ride. I had been looking forward to this trip the most out of any of our adventures in Europe. All my hopes and dreams of my European vacation were mounted on this bike tour!!! All of my life's moments had been simply preparation--training camp--for this!!!
A young muscular guy with a shaved head would be our tour guide. He greeted us, but I was unimpressed immediately with his (lack of) people skills. He seemed cold and distant, unlike many of the tour guides I have enjoyed previously, whose charismatic personalities made me excited to be exploring my particular destination. Wayne, Dennis, Josh, Jenny--all of them had dazzled me with local lore and history of whatever city I was in, potentially preparing me for future pub trivia games. They had captured my heart with one cheesy pun after another. Their horrible jokes were the sort of thing that I have come to not only expect, but treasure, as a tourist, much like socks with birkenstocks, fanny packs and visors, or making the “peace” sign or giving a thumbs up in photos. It only enhances the experience. Our current guide failed to introduce himself, but with his thick German-sounding accent and solid build, he earned the name “Sven” in my head.
Sven corralled all of us together. I sat there waiting for the safety talk, the liability waivers to be signed, the instructions about how to use hand signals (which would eventually almost cause a near collision on Tower Bridge due to our lack of education), reminders of what to do if for some reason you got separated from the group, the bright reflective night gear, the helmets. But Sven wasn’t interested in any of that, and merely offered us ponchos in case it began to rain. This would prove to be his most thoughtful gesture, and I could tell from his seemingly cold, stand-offish presence that I was going to have to work to earn Sven's affections. Sven’s motto seemed to be look out for yourself!!! I am merely here to tell you facts about this city, but your survival is up to you!!! I shrugged it off, guessing that he knew what he was doing. As usual, I trust far more than I should. You know how to cut hair? If you say so, go for it! You have car insurance? Well, I see absolutely no need to call the police after you hit my car! What's that? You have a medical degree? Slice me open, and don't use the anesthesia if you think I don't need it! MY personal motto might as well be, “If you say so.”
Sven led us on, and we began with a beautifully scenic view of the river Themmes, where he told us about the guy who invented the sugar cube. “It’s quite interesting really, very veird,” he said through his accent. It seemed that Sven cut to the chase—he had no need to woo us with dazzling wordplay or delight us with his puns. No—he called it out for what it was. Quite interesting. Very weird. And that was that. Moving on. Chop Chop.
As we continued, it seemed that Sven had no use for any other descriptors except for “interesting” or “weird.” The Tower Bridge. Buckingham Palace. The London Eye. Cathedrals. Puke from someone's bad night on the sidewalk. All of it "quite interesting and very weird." But my confidence in Sven began to waver not in his seeming inability to utilize other adjectives to describe London’s landmark and their histories (magical, beautiful, fantastic, disturbing, fascinating, illuminating, all come to mind) but in his seeming determination to ditch his tour group. As the tour progressed, Sven seemed more and more determined to get as far away from us as possible, in fact causing me to yell at him as we raced through the crowded boardwalk along the Themmes River that we had left three quarters of our group behind. “Hey! Excuse me! WE LOST THEM!”
Unfortunately, mid way through the bike tour, this caused my near fatal experience that would cause my life to flash before my eyes. I was already concerned about the bike tour, seeing as I didn’t have health insurance, but again, I figured that they did tours all the time, knew what they were doing, so I would be okay, right? I had forgotten to do any sort of investigation into this alleged "bicycle tour company" to scout out their death statistics. As we were racing through the streets of London, we had encountered a major intersection. We all crowded together to cross, but as we began to move, all of a sudden cars began turning into those at the rear of the group, rather than giving us the right of way. I blame our lack of reflective gear. I quickly stopped to avoid being hit rather than crossing with the other 3/4 of the group, just in time to see a huge double decker bus looming and honking at me as it turned the corner. Well, I thought amidst my panic, at least if I am going to die, it is going to be by the iconic vehicle used to represent London culture and not something boring like a Prius. Additionally, at least the girth of the double decker would get the job done quickly. I was now on the other side of the intersection, separated from everyone who had somehow gotten across, the lone gazelle waiting to be picked off by the lions. I finally was able to speed across the intersection, stopping cars left and right, and saying my prayers, but not wanting to be left alone on the streets of London as Sven left me in the dust. When I finally caught up with the group, I mentioned to Sven that I had almost been hit.
“The cars were turning right into us!” I said, panicked by my experience.
“Yeah, they don’t normally do that,” he answered matter-o-factly.
Unfortunately, this experience somewhat tainted the rest of the trip for me, as I kept envisioning my brain matter being splashed across the cobble-stoned streets of London. It was a gruesome picture, but not a far stretch from what could quickly become my reality with one wrong taxi cab turn. When the British papers would report my death, the headline would read, “London's iconic double decker leads to American's tragic and untimely death.” They would interview Sven about the incident. “It was quite interesting. Very weird,” he would say. He would say it in a way that was devoid of feeling. I was just a number to him--Woman Number 4 on his little tour of terror.
I began to privately curse Sven for his seeming lack of concern about safety and regulations, but it was difficult to be angry with him through all the glory that London at night has to offer. The city was alive, dressed to impress in radiant colors to celebrate the Olympics that were opening that day. Tower Bridge was breath taking, moderately reminding me of Cinderella's castle in Disney Land. Fireworks lit the night sky in celebration of the Opening Ceremonies that evening, and projected images of great British athletes illuminated Buckingham Palace. The sites were breath-taking, which was ironic in the sense that I had nearly taken my last breath only a half hour or so ago. Seeing London at night via bike was perhaps one of the most magical moments of my life, and very much worth the near death encounter to see it. It was a very interesting experience. Quite weird, really.