Asocial moments on public transport

It has officially been a year since I moved to the Netherlands, and what a full year it has been!

Since 15 October 2014, I have:

  • visited 5 european countries
  • explored 5 provinces in the Netherlands
  • moved house twice
  • bought a house
  • took up the saxophone
  • found a job at TUDelft, which I love
  • played in snow
  • swam in the North Sea (brrr) and the Mediterranean
  • cycled hundreds of kilometers
  • walked / ran thousands at least 3000 kilometers
  • and have experienced the mystery and misery known as the Dutch health care system

I have also not driven a car in over a year (which I miss), in lieu of the more accessible and energy-friendly bike and public transport options.

I was no stranger to public transport back in SA – in fact, I have many less-than-fond memories of 10-hour Greyhound bus trips that took 27 hours; of sitting for 8 hours in a seat that the previous occupant has peed on, unable to move because the bus was too full; and of riding in a packed taxi steered with a wrench because the steering wheel was missing. While I have unusually bad luck with public transport in general, I have also taken many pleasant and uneventful rides in SA taxis, buses and trains in Cape Town. Prior to the Gautrain construction, I was, however, one of very few middle-class South Africans who used a full range of public transport (at least within my own circle of acquaintances, family and friends).

In the Netherlands, the public transport system is much more widely used, with approximately 346 million passengers traveling on trains every year. Although bicycles are a favoured mode of transportation, train commuters make up at least 11 percent of the population, and on my daily commute, I see a rich representation of Netherlanders of all ages, shapes, colours and careers. This has afforded me a novel way to experience the culture and language – often more intimately than I would like.

Packed Train by Jon Bragg

Packed Train by Jon Bragg

Before we moved to Voorschoten, South Holland, which is halfway between Tom’s work and mine, I had a daily commute of 3-hours on the NS train system.

Gezellig? Pic: Pile of baby kittens by Bob Morris

Pic: Pile of baby kittens by Bob Morris

I have subsequently cut this to 1.5 hours, much to my relief. But what all this amounts to is hours of unabridged contact with strangers, often in very close proximity, which is sometimes gezellig, but more often then not, is like being coerced into playing an unsolicited game of sardines.

I am now accustomed to being cheek to jowl with my fellow commuters. Being one – as it were – with their frustrations, their conversations, and alas, occasionally their pungent smells.

For an asocial person like me, there is a sense of comforting anonymity in the crowd. It is my own Fortress of Solitude constructed from the warm bodies of thousands of other commuters. A place where I can be safely surrounded by others and gleefully ignore them all. No one expects me to talk, in fact, they prefer it if I don’t. Even eye-contact is frowned upon. It is paradise.

Except… when it isn’t. If you spend long enough on a train, you come to experience many different commuter-based emotions:

  • anger (I can’t believe I missed the train)
  • anxiety (I really think I am going to miss the train)
  • elation (thank God, I made the train)
  • bewilderment (why am I in on the Belgium border, when I thought I was on the train to Amsterdam?) 
  • frustration (why am I playing sardines again on this train?)
  • denial (surely, the sign is wrong, and my train has not been delayed by an hour?)

…and then there is fear, remorse and disgust, which I will get to…

Commuting trials as an asocial person

On my train commute on Tuesday, I was enjoying my 45 minutes of peace, blithely ignoring the other passengers, when I heard a snivel next to me. It’s approaching winter, snivels are to be expected, but then the snivel was accompanied by a hicuppy-sob by the woman next to me, then another sob. I sat paralysed in my seat, staring straight ahead, unsure of the appropriate response. Should I do something? The sobs and snivels increased in tempo, like exercise music. The guy sitting in the aisle opposite me shot me an accusing look, so did the elderly lady behind him. Great.

I glanced over to the woman next to me again – she was facing the window and sobbing into a tissue in the way that someone who is definitely crying, but pretends not to be, does.

Should I say something? My stop is coming up in 5 minutes. What if I get her to tell me whats wrong and she launches into a long story? Can I excuse myself after 5 minutes? Would that make it worse? Or should I just miss my stop and travel all the way to Rotterdam out of politeness? What if I try talk to her and I make it worse – like blowing the lid of a leaky fire hydrant? What if she replies in Dutch? What do I say then? “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you, please cry in English so I can appropriately console you?“.

I’m socially awkward in normal circumstances. Socially awkward circumstances are totally beyond my limited capacity. I fall back to my childhood defence – what did mom say? “Treat others in the way you wish to be treated” – I somehow don’t think she meant “ignore them and hope they go away”. But, this is someone’s private grief I am intruding on, so maybe I’d better leave it.

But then it hit me, what if this woman is on the verge of suicide, and one smile, one good deed could make all the difference to her world? Aren’t I obligated to say something then? The sobbing continues, but my stop is approaching and I am out of ideas. We pull up, and I hand her a tissue before leaping up and fleeing the train. I really am a coward.


Commuting trials with an asocial person

And then there was one day in summer. I was heading back home from work, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself in an almost empty carriage from Haarlem to Halfweg. I had my pick of seats – hooray! – and duly sat down after patting the seat to ensure no one had peed on it first (which is now a habit thanks to the aforementioned incident).

I started a game of sudoku, and lounged in my seat, letting the afternoon sun warm me, while I occasionally glanced out the window at passing sheep in their fields. At the next stop, I heard someone come in and sit right behind me. I could hear the beat of his music through his headphones, and momentarily considered informing him that he was likely to go deaf at this rate, but decided to continue being asocial instead and got on with my game.

Fap fap fap

I laughed quietly to myself as I heard the noise behind me. I wondered if he knew that whatever it was that he was doing sounded rather obscene. Probably not, I was clearly projecting.

Fap fap fap fap fap fap

The rhythm of the physical noise behind me increased, even if the beat from his headphones did not. I paused as a horrible thought struck me – what if he does know exactly what the noise he is making sounds like because it sounds exactly like what it is?

fap fap fapfapfapfapfapfapfap

The noise increased like a locomotive under full steam. 6 inches behind my ear, I could hear his panting, then the wet noise of his mouth puckering – mwah mwah – he exhaled between his moist kissing noises.

I sat rooted in my seat – trying to not imagine what kind of oily creature sat behind me pleasuring himself in our near-empty train carriage. A thousand thoughts went through my head – what is the most appropriate reaction to this? Is he doing this in spite of my presence or because of my presence? If so, how would he react if I confronted him? Would that be more of a turn on? If he is so comfortably beating his junk in front of an non-consenting stranger, is he likely to take this further?  

I considered reporting it to the conductor, but what would s/he be able to do? By the time they came back to the carriage, Captain Fap might have concluded his business, and then it would be my awkward words against his. Moreover, if I confronted him, he’d see my face – something which I hoped this unhinged individual had not yet done. But surely I had to tell someone?

I fled my seat and hurried to the next carriage, breathing a sigh of relief when I saw there were other women nearby.

After disembarking at my stop and heading home (checking behind me every 2 minutes to ensure that His Wet Wobbliness had not spotted me, nor followed me out of the train), I contacted the NS authorities, letting them know the train time, carriage and number. The poor NS representative was horrified. “How can people be like that!?” she exclaimed after apologising to me. I felt the need to apologise to her – after all, in months, I’ve only had to deal with one other asocial passenger.

The NS train officials are not so lucky. Beyond facing the lewd and rude, NS train personnel are regularly assaulted by hooligans and drunkards.

Here are just a few lowlights from the lowlands:

It is a thankless job, but one that is so important for so many people like me, who rely on safe and stable public transport each day. So let me rectify that: thank you NS, my thanks to you and all your conductors, who make exploring the Netherlands a lot easier, safer and more stylish.


About Danika Marquis

Danika is an e-learning developer at TUDelft and former radio lecturer at Rhodes University.
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