Travelling by train is my favourite part of the day. Especially in the morning, when commuters along my route don’t yet have the energy to be rude or unkind. I have always wondered where all the people go, one after the other, as I see them disappear at stations where I have never been, and where I still hope I will never have to be.
Between my stops I see the tired commuters go by, day after day, and I have even learnt to recognise some of the faces. They are now as familiar to me as my own. I wonder if they recognise me. Most likely not. It seems as if they are only preoccupied with procuring their first cup of coffee.
Commuting in the Netherlands is an exact science. Navigating the intricacies of train schedules, of knowing that every second counts and that two or three minutes may are the difference between making it to the bus or spending 15 long minutes idling away in some grey and godforsaken station in the middle of the great Dutch outdoors. Knowing which compartment to run towards so that you get those precious extra thirty seconds so you don’t have to run to the bus stop. Card in hand, so you don’t forget to check out at the check-out stations that are inconveniently situated throughout the station.
There is no delay today in spite of the mist that covers the morning landscape and makes it surreal. Men and women in their khaki rain coats sit still, furiously checking their phones. I only speculate, but in my mind they are playing one of those stupidly addictive games, the ones we play on days like these.
Some of the commuters read the free newspapers. Of course the last thing these newspapers offer is information. The Sudoku are good, but most commuters these days have an app on their phone and so, the occasions when I find a half-worked out Sudoku to finish are now few and far between. Somehow I always forget to pick up my copy of the free newspaper and must rely on the kindness of strangers who leave the masses of paper behind for other commuters to read. That is probably an unspoken rule. Free reading material should always be left behind for the enjoyment of other commuters.
Commuting in the Netherlands is also an art. The art of asking a woman carrying two bags, one artfully placed on the seat next to her and another on the seat opposite on a busy commuter train, to move them so that the commuters can sit, without exchanging a single word. The deafening silence that surrounds a group of colleagues who could only find a place to sit together in the stilte coupé, where silence is much appreciated and harder to come by. The music that results from one angry, caffeine-deprived man in a suit who points to the silence sign and politely hisses: “This is the silent carriage, if you want to talk, go elsewhere.”
There is also the perfectly manicured landscape, punctuated here and there by semi abandoned industrial parks that look like relics from an industrial past. As I pass station after station, and my partners-in-commute are slowly regurgitated from the belly of the yellow beast, I cannot help but wonder who these men and women are.
There is no intimacy like the intimacy of a commute. Without words we all understand the others. We look at those who don’t belong–the woman with luggage, the card driver with a discount coupon, the lost tourist en route to the airport–with derision. They don’t know what Monday morning on a train feels like, before the first coffee of the day, when the world opens up just enough to see the landscape before closing back again with the whooshing sound of an automatic door.