By Laura Haley
I’m back at home and my four-month stint in northern Europe is well behind me. I often think of all the small details of my time there that I’ll soon forget. Although I have been home for what feels like eternity, I still haven’t gotten back to completely ‘normal’ life. I haven’t visited all of my friends or unpacked all of my clothes, and I certainly haven’t mustered up the courage to get back on the bus. I push aside the thought of public transport and blame it on the almost traumatizing experiences of last semester’s commute.
The sun rains through my front window, heating up the glass on the inside, something that I have always found very comforting. As I have done countless times before, I find myself leaning against the window, squeezing my toes into the plush blue floral rug. I am left in silence staring at the wooded lawn I’ve watched grow my entire life. For once, I don’t hear any cars streaming down the road or any bike bells dinging.
The longer I stare out the window, I’m convinced it’s the sunshine that persuades me to get outside. I decide it’s a good enough time as any to endure the public bus. I shout through the house to my parents, “I’ll be back soon!” I haphazardly slip on my shoes, not wanting to overthink my decision. The drawer where I keep my bus pass slides out, emitting a creaky noise I know too well. The front door cranks open, exposing me to even more sunlight.
I find myself standing once again under the poorly designed plastic shield of a bus stop, forgetting how normal this used to feel. The light pours through the side of the see-through wall, preventing me from telling when my bus will arrive. Only a minute or two pass before my bus rolls to a halt in front of me. I begin to fumble in my bag for my pass, digging and rifling through old receipts. Finally, my finger recognizes the smooth blue plastic. I’m about to slide it out from the depths of my bag when I freeze. Suddenly, everything about my first experience using public transportation in Copenhagen hits me.
I don’t know what I’m doing. I barely know where I’m going.
Do I stand on this bus? Or should I sit? Should I even touch these handrails? They’re probably disgusting.
I check my wrist for the seventh time this morning and place a little bit of faith in the public transport system to get me to class on time. Today, the 2A bus from Amager isn’t particularly crowded. It’s mostly filled with fellow American students. As one of these nervous pupils myself, I am desperately trying to not associate myself with the rest of my peers. We’re on our way to the first day of class and I’ll consider myself lucky if I find the building correctly.
I pick out a few people to observe and hope that they know more about this city than I do. I’m too tired to be a victim of the age-old game ‘spot the American,” so looking Danish will be my mantra for the next four months.
The bus is nicer than anything I’m used to at home; its blue cotton seats seem to be inviting me to sit. I’m too anxious to accept the offer and I decide to lean against a window. The tight European streets are lined with rainbow colored buildings, each one taller than the last. Many have small double hung windows that stretch the length of the building and tiny chimneys protruding out of the top. I notice rows and rows of bikers in the lane next to me, opting for a more vigorous commute. Most of the women are in skirts and some even wear heels, while the men sport their button downs and slacks. In a nation where everyone is convinced coffee runs through their veins, I wonder if that’s why they bike so fast.
The reality of my situation hits. I am 4,000 miles from home, in a country where I know no one, and I realize for the first time, I have no idea what I’ve really agreed to do. I try not to let these thoughts terrify me and remind myself that this is what I wanted.
The bus sways more vigorously than I’d like. I start to notice the faces around me. They’re all blonde and incredibly tall, and I’m certain I’m more noticeable than ever. I anxiously open my phone to the address I’ve been given for my class; it reads: ‘N7 C 21.’ What does that even mean? I can feel my heart rate rise, trying to repeat the number and letter sequence in my mind.
After what has got to be forever, and after one bridge and one left turn, I’m at what Google believes is my stop. Someone has beaten me to hitting the ‘stop’ button, for which I say a brief prayer of gratitude. Although I think the Danes are rather clean people, that’s one less thing I have to touch.
With a vicious stir, the bus halts next to a canal. In an attempt to calm myself down, I try to take in the surroundings. I peer down the water and see a church steeple, detailed with round balls and what look like gazebos near the top: once copper, now a dull emerald green. It is not every day the roads are jam packed with bikers and I get to go to school in one of the world’s most carefully designed cities.
I watch as some of the Danes, dressed in their national attire of head-to-toe black, hold on to the handrails while the bus slows. Some have their legs at a wider stance and some who think they can handle the jolts don’t grasp anything at all. I make a mental note to be that confident by the end of my time here.
I remind myself that I aspire to be an adventurer and that people do this all the time. I decide to suck it up, make sure I look right before stepping off the bus to avoid being pummeled with bikes in the bike lane and continue straight as my map instructs. Luckily, I wasn’t the first student off the bus. I’m able to follow briefly behind the others as we weave our way past rows and rows of red roofed buildings to the center of the city.
The streets are lined with sparkling though uneven cobblestone. As I climb the narrow sidewalks, I find myself cracking a smile. I think I can get used to this place. I pass countless bakeries displaying their freshly baked breads the size of American footballs while I attempt to pronounce their names. Everyone I pass stares straight ahead, is smartly dressed, and ignores every effort to say hello. I remember what I’ve learned so far: the Danes are like coconuts, hard on the outside and sweet on the inside.
Ahead, there is a massive square filled with pedestrians, bike racks, and chairs for outdoor dining. In the middle sits a beautiful octagon fountain, with a small statue of a woman and her children topping the structure. Cutting through the area is the famous shopping street, which I’ve been told is the longest in Europe. There is not one piece of trash as far as I can see. I’ve decided this will be my new landmark.
I keep trekking up the street, past a Danish delicacy: 7-11. I’m hoping that the students in front of me with backpacks slung on their backs are by some grace going to the same building. I decide to take a risk and follow their lead.
I quickly find myself below a sign reading ‘N7.’ I feel some relief, but I’m not there yet. The sign hangs above a tall detailed stone archway leading into a tucked away courtyard. Marching forward I stop to look up at the building that will be my every day for the next few months. The red brick stretches five stories and each floor is filled with tall windows. Every corner of the building is rounded like a turret, almost resembling a castle. I bring my gaze down and notice even more rows of bike racks and the few green bushes in the square. I notice that every doorway creates an elegant arch, one of them leading me to my classroom.
I don’t want to ask for help locating my class and, in some way, need to prove to myself that I can figure it out. My eyes locate the door labeled ‘C’ and I wind my way up the tight stairs and swipe into the third floor.
I push the door open and find white walls, white floors, white tables and white chairs. The brightness of the room surprises me, just as everything else has this morning. Behind a table near the front sits my professor; extremely blonde and extremely tall, looking as happy as a stereotypical Dane. Although I can tell he is reserved, he introduces himself and I get the feeling that he genuinely cares about my experience here. I’m starting to understand why they say Danes are like coconuts.
I become overwhelmed with the feeling that my semester here will be great. Maybe it’s the rows of pastel colored houses, or the endless bakeries, or my professor’s kindness. Maybe it’s simply the adventure of trying something new that confirms this feeling. As soon as I sit down, ready for my Dansk 100 lesson, I hear a bus shift into gear. I pull out my notebook and I start to smell exhaust. I find my favorite pen and rays of sunlight cloud my vision.
I realize I am standing under the plastic awning of the Ohio bus stop, one hand on my pass watching my bus pull away from the curb. Without me on it.
I sigh and turn to walk towards home, lunging over bumps in the sidewalk, not the pristine cobblestone streets of Copenhagen, not next to the skinny canal filled with Nyhavn tourists, and most definitely not about to attempt to practice any of my Danish in front of my class.
I’m not upset as I watch the bus pull away from the curb– maybe I wasn’t really ready to try public transport again. Maybe I didn’t make myself get on the bus today because I’m too nervous to relive last semester’s transport fiascos. I suppose today is not my day to try and get back to some sort of ‘normal.’
The walk home floods my mind with the memories I made last semester. I retrieve my phone and send a text to my friends from Dansk 100 to tell them I’m thinking of them.
I push open my front door and remind myself that sometimes the scariest, most nerve wrecking and doubtful adventures are the ones most worth exploring.