The guy at Camden Cycles chuckled when I showed him a picture of my old bike and asked him if he still had it. By “old” I mean the used bike upon which I put serious miles for three months last fall in London, and to be clear what I was trying to do—what I was hoping to do— was to buy that bike back from him after reselling it to him before I left for a little while.
I bought it from the guy last September and sold it back to him last December for roughly a third of what I’d paid. There’s nothing remarkable about that bike, an anonymous Falcon with a silver- and red-toned frame and fairly bulky tires. It’s a vintage bike, but not “cool vintage”—more like “my awesome mountain bike in eighth grade” vintage. It suited me well in London, however, particularly since bicycle thieves assessing potential targets surely didn’t consider that bike worth the risk.
I took that bike everywhere last fall, zigzagging the city on daily reconnaissance missions that deepened (another) budding love affair with another place, the spark already slow-burning for years following a week-long stay here and a month-long stay there. I rode it down Parkland Walk, which on this particular sojourn replaced Regent’s Canal as the main leg of my near-daily running route. I biked down to East Dulwich and back up to Hackney and over to Kentish Town in search of London’s best craft beer bottle shops. I pedaled to pop-up restaurants and weekend markets, to strange museums and a bowling alley Big Lebowski bash and all the way to Epping Forest to see Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge.
In London the Tube is great and so are the buses, but when it wasn’t raining, most often I was pounding the city streets on that bike. It wasn’t unreasonable to think it might still be available, around five months after I’d sold it back to the Camden Cycles guy. After all, bike sales lag during the pissy winter months, and that anonymous Falcon doesn’t stand out among the shop’s impressive cache of vintage bikes.
“When did you sell it to me?”, the guy asked.
“First week of December.”
“Okay… that was over five months ago. So…”
He didn’t have the bike anymore.
This week I otherwise slipped right back into my London life, right where I’d left it five months prior. Sure, this time I’m based in Canonbury instead of Archway—that blessed Archway pad we filled with happy memories was no longer available, either—but everything else, well, everything else feels like my version of London. I’m using the same Three sim card; planning outings to the same go-to pubs and grocery stores and restaurants; looking forward to the same guilty pleasure British television shows (Goggle Box, First Dates, Embarrassing Bodies); enamored by the same everyday energy of everyday life.
Within hours of arrival it felt like I’d been gone a week, not five months; it felt familiar, and comforting, and exhilarating. It felt like everywhere I’d been and everything I’d done since I left was a hazy dream. Trips from my home base in Singapore to Taiwan, Vietnam, Australia (twice), Thailand, Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia—all mirages, in a way. Is this how it feels at life’s end, that is, if we have that opportunity for reflection? Like it was all a dream?
Nuanced, if still incomplete, familiarity and understanding of place are the rewards of fixed long-term travel, whether it’s for a week or a month or three months or more in a single place. Picking life back up where you left it is the cherished reward of return to that place.
I left Camden Cycles riding a new bike that’s black and more cool-vintage than my old Falcon. The handlebars are shaped differently and the tires are thinner, and at first it felt strange pedaling it up Camden High Street and Kentish Town Road. By the time I reached Tufnell Park Station, however, passing so many familiar places and streets and scenes along the way, it just felt like I was biking home.