Solace in Solitude on Danish Trains: Finding Rhythm in the Commute

I'm not much of a morning person, and I sometimes find myself inwardly grumbling during my hour-long commute to classes in Copenhagen from Albertslund, the municipality where I live with a host family. Spoiled by Claremont time, I have had to work on mentally adjusting to spending two hours commuting each day, four if I decide to return to the city at night.

The longer I'm here, however, the more I appreciate commuting by train. It provides the perfect pause in the day, in which time seems to slow down and I can enjoy the unhurried peace that comes from ceding control over how quickly I will get to my destination. I have time to be still and lose myself in thought, music, a good book or the sight of Copenhagen's western suburbs waking up: the weak sunlight illuminates the bold colors of graffiti and the muted hues of buildings and trees are still leaf-less, but now bear nests.  

Commuting is one of the times during the day that I feel the most Danish. I enjoy the chance to share this morning ritual with my fellow commuters—we're all a bit bleary-eyed, but glad to have some quality time with iPods and cellphones, books, newspapers and thoughts—and to experience the Danish values that frame the experience of riding a train in Copenhagen.

One such value is trust. Here, there are no turnstiles barring access to the train or metro. You board the train with a ticket or pass ready to show the transportation personnel if they happen to come by; I'd say I get checked two or three times a week. 

These transportation folks are always quite friendly, sometimes even bordering on jolly—far from intimidating, they almost seem to convey the idea that this whole trust thing is a team effort, that they're just here to provide everyone a little extra incentive not to cheat the system (even though we all know no one would want to do that, right?).

Transportation personnel checking tickets is about the most interaction you'll see between strangers on trains in Copenhagen. This mirrors a general trend in Danish behavior when Danes are out in public: they avoid eye contact and needless talking at all costs.

Need to get past someone sitting next to you to get off the train? One stop before you get off, just make sure to rustle your purse or pack up your belongings conspicuously enough so that the person next to you notices. They'll get the message, and you'll both feel relieved that you didn’t have to talk to each other.

Given these codes of conduct, it's easy to perceive Danes to be as chilly as the weather outside. But as an introvert myself, I respect this collective practice of keeping-to-oneself, a paradoxical maximizing of solitude in a communal space.

In this context of shared solitude, it's easy to retreat into the depths of thought. For me, traveling by train often causes me to think about the passage of time: where I'm coming from, where I'm going and why.

Being in a different country, it's relatively easy to pretend like senior year, and life after college, isn't a real thing that I need to prepare for. It’s refreshing to not be caught in the maelstrom of college life in Claremont, where I feel my undergraduate existence rushing inexorably toward graduation, a specific endpoint made all the more terrifying by the uncertainty that lies behind.  

But when I'm not willfully distracting myself, I'm acutely aware that this semester is just the calm before the storm of senior year and its attendant responsibilities, applications and—my least favorite—important decisions. As I apply to summer programs and internships, start thinking about my thesis and get antsy waiting for fall courses to show up on the portal, all of this seems inextricably wound up in the project of creating a life I see as meaningful, which makes the whole process all the more stressful.

It doesn't help that I'm studying the Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard this semester. One of his characters, the stolid Judge Wilhelm of Either/Or, argues for the importance of commitment as a means of uniting one's past, present and future. "Choice itself," he says, "is decisive for a personality's content." Lines like that scare the shit out of me. What if I make the wrong choice?

He doesn't have concrete decision-making tips—Kierkegaard suggests that all that matters is throwing oneself behind a choice and stick with it, whatever the choice may be—leaving us to read more Kierkegaard, find another philosopher or just think through these problems on our own.

These questions have no easy answers, and while there's much to be gained from pondering those big decisions that lie ahead, and thinking about where one's coming from and where one's going, there's also much to be gained from paying attention to the immediate present, and to the world outside.

So, as I sit on the train, enjoying this pause in the day, I always make sure to spend time looking out the window, watching as the corner of the world I live in flashes by.

Caroline Bowman CM '16 is a philosophy major from Sarasota, FL. She is studying at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark.