An alarm rings 4,835 miles and 9 hours away from home, and I reach out my hand to stop it. It is 6 AM in Denmark and I have to go to school.
My hand finally locates the small travel clock given to me by my mother as a parting gift. I’ve always had a hard time waking up at home. If only she could see me now. I have to turn off the beeping alarm quickly because even though I have lived in this room for nearly four months, I still am not sure how soundproof my walls are. I don’t want to wake up the children of the family that have offered me their home. Their little blond heads still have an hour left to sleep. So I wrap a towel around my waist and tiptoe silently across the hall to take a shower that is much too hot and much too short compared to what I am used to — but I have started to adjust.
I have started to adjust to so many things about this country, of this place that I am borrowing.
After getting dressed, I move to the kitchen where I have some cereal. Actually, it is not cereal like I would have described it four months ago. The cereal that I knew then had bright colored toucans on the box or a demented rabbit. It had marshmallows, chocolate, and turned the milk a different color. Its sweetness guaranteed that if I somehow managed to not brush my teeth afterwards that I would be feeling it for the rest of the day. No, instead this “cereal” is muesli: some unidentifiable grains, nuts, and a few hard raisins. Some days it is simply oats, served cold, with a few raisins for excitement.
I still semi-hesitatingly place my unrinsed bowl into the dishwasher before brushing my teeth and getting dressed. There is no toothache caused by this breakfast cereal, but sometimes old habits die hard. Getting dressed in Denmark is different than getting dressed back in the States. Well, I suppose it might only be different in the winter when I wrap a scarf around my neck, pull a hat over my head, and slip on some gloves. I don’t even own a scarf back home, but here I don’t think I could brave the cold without it.
The cold is harsh. That’s nothing new. What is new is the two-wheeled apparatus in front of me. Though now I don’t think much about it when I jump on to it and bike away, even on days like today when the bike wheels flatten the snow in front of me. Before my European adventure I would not have been able to even balance myself on top of a bicycle without falling over, but now, a mere four months in, I can jump on and be moving forward before my right foot even touches the pedal.
Biking in Denmark is not a lonely experience, not even at 7 AM. Even in my small town I often encounter adults of all ages biking to work, often with a terrible instant coffee in one hand, or a pastry, or cigarette. Or sometimes I will be passed by a father pulling a trailer filled with a toddler bundled in puffy one-piece snow-suit. Once, in slightly warmer weather, I saw a man remove a sweater from his backpack and pull it over his head while biking.
On the train I settle next to a window where surrounded by three empty seats: two across from me and one to my left. The quiet Danes place themselves into other sections of the car without a word. When I first arrived in Denmark, the silence was strange. I had to wonder why everything was so quiet. My friends from home might have questioned whether someone important had just died. And then of course, I have witnessed some American friends here that do not notice a difference at all.
The stillness is bent gradually as we near the next station. People begin to shuffle about, putting on scarves, hats, or mittens, and packing away books as if to say to those seated on the inside rows, “Excuse me, this is my stop. Would you mind please letting me through? Thank you very much.” To which those addressed fold their newspaper or close their book and stand in implied reply, “Of course. Have a nice day.” As they shuffle amongst one another preparing to leave — a wordless exchange.
The silence that was merely bending before splits as a gang of snow-suit clad miniature Danes waddle through the car. Sixty or more of these children come running and yelling followed by the teachers, a young man and middle-aged woman — the typical chaperon to groups like this. Their faces carry the same contented smiles I have seen on those walking behind similar groups passing through my train car, crossing the street, or waiting in line at the museum. An old woman walks with a smile and says something in Danish accompanied by a laugh. I know laughter, that translates, but I miss the words that caused it. Something about youth, I suppose; a reminder of how she was once young. I return the smile. That seems to be enough for her because she walks off before I can begin to offer an excuse as to why I still don’t speak her language.
Silence fills the train car as soon as the door closes behind the last burbling blond bundle, her contented caretakers, and the smiling old woman. The next intrusion comes from a man who walks confidently through the car and sits across from me. I wouldn’t have noticed him at all if it weren’t for the pop and fizz I hear, universally recognized as the opening of a carbonated can. In this case, the can is beer — a Carslberg, and the man seems to have a few more in his briefcase. I suppose that in some places, the train for your morning commute is as good of a place as any for your first beer. I watch him examine his drink through downcast eyes for a moment before guzzling it down and quickly repeating the process with another. After the two, he opens a small box of licorice and consistently places one on his tongue every few minutes until we reach his stop. Grabbing his briefcase he briskly leaves the train.
With my neighbor gone, I once again engross myself in looking out the window on the foreign countryside that seems so similar to mine. Similar, yet not the same at all. At home, we have trees; we have grass; we have houses; we have athletic fields. We have all that I can see out my window. But it is not the same. There is something different about everything I see. Maybe the trees are smaller. Maybe it’s the fact that there are no hills in the distance, or the architecture is slightly different, or that the goalposts are white and shaped differently than our yellow ones. It could be an infinite number of differences. Long ago, I told myself to stop searching for incongruity and just live in the moment — but I can’t. The need to compare this experience, this landscape and the people that inhabit it, with that of my home all those miles and hours away, will not go away.
We need something to compare to because otherwise what would be the importance of travel. If we grew up looking at these trees then what would be their significance? They would simply be trees. And this architecture would just be what we grew up with, nothing more. Distance forces us to appreciate what would be taken for granted if we were not just borrowing this place. To the children on the train, the adults walking them, the man drinking at 7 AM, nothing that I experienced this morning would be strange — it would simply be. The short, hot shower would just be a shower, the “cereal” that I ate would just be breakfast, and the bike that I so proudly navigated through the snow would just be a way of getting from point A to point B.
In this way, simply being in a foreign place is what imbues the everyday with something amazing. For example, the Eiffel Tower offers visual wonderment and excitement. But much of its appeal comes from the attraction to a marked experience, something exotic — new and unknown. Do those who live under its shadow feel the same sense of awe if they pass by it every day as a child on the way to school and every day to work as a grown adult? What gives something like that its allure? It must be the same thing that makes this train so remarkable to me: it is different.
Finding something different is important. Looking the unknown in the eyes and seeing whose will caves to whose is a worthwhile drive. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. Personally, I will choose to return to my sugar-filled cereals. I may lengthen my showers. Really, I will still be an American in America. The way I was raised won’t be completely counteracted by four months. But I will miss the trains and bikes and the people on them. Perhaps I will become more reserved in public places like my adopted countrymen, or let out a judgmental scoff when friends drive instead of bike or complain about the cold. Although travel and adjustments are not battles to be won, you still win some and you still lose some. In travel, you borrow a place and borrow its customs, but have to give them all back. You cannot take them with you because they are like an exotic plant that might not survive in this new climate. So cultivate it while you are able. Watch it bloom. Remember its smell and color, the weight and texture of its petals. Keep it all in the sunshine of your memory and let it be watered when you are unhappy. This is its ideal climate and here it will grow more beautiful.
Riley Luvaas is an undergraduate at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.