‘Why I love the NS’
Ever been left stranded by the NS? Expat Sara Bobkoff puts aside her frustration with the Netherlands’ rail system and bonds with fellow passengers in the name of a famous Dutch pastime — complaining.
I moved to Holland for the sake of love and escapade — a myopic, 23-year-old ingenue. And until recently, like many of my fellow rolling stones, I had always wrestled with a sense that I would gather no moss in this little country called Holland. In the meantime, however, I’ve been laying down tracks more than I should like to admit.
Recently, my life transcended from that of a drifter. Even surpassed the status of mere commuter. I entered into the realm of the fellow, suffering civilian.
And thus I pay homage to the NS.
A daily trial
I have been blessed the past few days. Truly. The angel of public transport in the Netherlands has been hovering over this American rover and offering me a stroke of holy, universal luck.
Four days a week, I am fortunate enough to travel one of the most notoriously reliable train routes to and from work: Amsterdam – Schipol – Leiden – Den Haag and back again. Door to door, that usually translates into about one-and-a-half hours each way, three hours a day.
By my unscientific calculations, I believe that on any normal week (meaning one without strikes, suicide attempts, or missing conductors) I can expect that 30% of the time I will still be hearing the words ‘vertraagd’, ‘onderbreking’ or ‘storing’. I have now learned to absorb this reality as a fact of life so that I no longer risk having a nervous breakdown upon arrival at my office and can saunter into work ten minutes late with a smile on my face.
But this time, the chaos of NS logistics managed to create the ultimate domino effect, a chain of pandemonium throughout the NS locomotive world. Firstly, the announcements (when indeed there were announcements) rang of Beckett-esque absurdity:
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Stoptrain from Amsterdam CS to The Hague CS will not be running today.’ (And?… Anything else you’d like to add?… Silence.) ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your conductor speaking.’ (And?… Well?… Continue… Hey, thanks for the introduction. Charmed.) ‘Attention commuters, if you haven’t noticed, this jam-packed train has been halted just a kilometre or so from Schipol because…well…I have no damned idea.’ (Ver betum.)
And of course, the commuters: ‘Nou, zeg!’ and ‘Ja, ja!’ and ‘He, he!’ , or my favourite: ‘Poe, poe!’ Exasperated exhaling. The loosening of ties. The rolling of eyes. The bitter scowls. The name of the NS taken in vain. And yet, even so, we were blessed.
Yes, as we all stood, kneeled, squatted or clung to the walls for the ump-teenth time in that great sardine tin that was our train; as we bore the blows of briefcases or backpacks or shopping bags that struck our faces as the odd business woman or tourist or unemployed attempted to disprove the theory of maximum density; as we were forced to breathe each other’s carbon dioxide…we became one, suffering each other’s pain, united forever
against a common enemy.
Unity. In the name of the famous Dutch pastime of complaining…
‘Er is geen beleid! ’
‘What the NS needs is a big competitor.’
‘What they need is a dictator! Like Mussolini! At least then the trains ran on time’ I cried in ironic Jewish wit.
Oops. Touchy subject in Holland. Until I explained my Semitic heritage.
Then came the smiles.
‘Where is Albron catering when you need them?’ I added.
Then the laughter.
And then…the gezelligheid.
‘What we need is an emergency coffee machine in the train that becomes accessible during delays!’
‘A free vertragings CD of the week provided by the Free Record shop for all afflicted commuters!’
Yes! Yes! Suddenly, our demands were being cried out from left, from right, from centre! A great brainstorm of national and international proportions! A trainstorm! We were one! We were the people! We were the world!
And the G-d of the NS did hear us. And the train did start again. And it was a miracle.
We arrived symbolically at Schiphol. Sucked in our bellies to set those free who needed to be. Hands went out to pull our poor, stranded brothers and sisters from other lands onto the trains, suitcases and all. People of the world joined hands…for we had started a Love Train.
And then, an hour later than scheduled, we finally arrived at the pearly gates of Amsterdam CS.
We poured out, love spilling onto the platforms and entering the world as everyone went his own way to their trams, their taxis, and their bicycles. I watched as my fellow wayfarers walked back on the paths of their own lives.
And I smiled to myself. For suddenly, I felt I had joined ranks as an honorary Dutchie.
So thank you, NS. Bless you. For you do not realise it, but you are the Great Transporter of Mortal Humanity.
Ja. De maatschappij. Dat zijn wij.
4 December 2001
Subject: Dutch rail operator NS