Strangers on a Train

Interacting with the local people while abroad
By Thomas Aldrich ’19

I was on the train in Denmark in early September 2017. It was about a 25-minute ride from downtown Copenhagen to my homestay. I always tried to keep my earbuds in when I was riding the train. I was trying to blend in – just pass as one of the locals, which was not difficult. I am very pale, blonde, and blue eyed, so I could easily pass as stereotypically Danish. One of the main reasons I went abroad was to totally immerse myself in another culture, someplace totally foreign. I figured the best way to do that was to blend in. I had no idea the repercussions this would have.     

With the woman on the train that day, it worked a little too well. She was about five feet tall, with that silver white hair only grandmothers have. She had excellent posture and jawbones that could cut steel, which was impressive considering her apparent age.

As the train approached my stop, the Karlslunde station, we both stood up from our seats and walked towards the door. I had to grab my bike that I had borrowed from my host dad. She eyed me up and down.

She either didn’t see the headphones, or she didn’t care, and as I approached the train doors, it became apparent that she was going to try and talk to me. She kept gesticulating, at first to herself, then, as she slowly turned to me, she began to speak.

I have no idea what she said. Danish, for those who don’t speak it, can sound like quiet mumbling. It is very difficult to understand. From the tone of her voice, it was apparent that it was a question. Even in another language, the slight up-tick of her voice at the ends of her sentences told me she wanted me to reply. So, I smiled, nodded, and sheepishly said “Ja” (Yes, in Danish, which I only knew how to say from my one Danish class).

She began to laugh.

I felt like I had outed myself as the stupid American in the room. But apparently, unbeknownst to me, I had responded correctly. She looked at me and continued speaking to me in Danish.

I nodded and smiled for the next 200 years – it was probably 30 seconds. She just kept talking and I kept saying “Ja” kinda quietly. The train was slowing down and surely we had to be close to the station. Finally, I recognized one of the houses through the window on the train, and eventually the train stopped and the doors opened. I was free.

I swiftly exited and biked away, even though we were still on the train platform and I had to get off the bike to walk down the stairs. The woman got off too, half-yelling half-laughing something at me.

I suppose my plan had worked. I did blend in. And it had fulfilled the requirement for my Danish course that I talk to someone in a public space in Danish, so, it wasn’t all bad.

Over the course of the semester, I had many interactions like this, whether they were on the train, in the square near my classes, or inside the grocery store near my homestay. People would usually start speaking to me in Danish. I could convince them I was Danish until about 30 seconds in. Then they would stop and start to speak to me in English.

I got pretty decent at Danish. All of those little interactions eventually paid off. In December 2017, another Danish grandma had me cornered on the train. She asked me where I was from, and I was able to explain, in Danish, where I was from, what I was doing in Denmark, and what I studied at school. She told me she was impressed with my language skills. It was the nicest thing anyone said to me while abroad.

I really grew to love those little interactions, the times I was able to hold a conversation on the train, or order my coffee in Danish. I knew going into my study abroad experience that when I saw my friends Patrick in Paris, or Sophia in Amsterdam, I was going to have an amazing time. I didn’t know how much I would love everything in-between.

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Thomas Aldrich ’19 is a history major from Minneapolis.   

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