Commuting is something of a professional pursuit. There ought to be training courses on how to become an effective commuter and influence people.
A crucial consideration when commuting is the logistics of precisely where to place yourself on the platform. The veterans and pros know that they need to shuffle along to the far end of the platform so as to multiply their chances of earning a seat. The practiced eye will also be able to size up the various swarms and clusters and keep a safe distance away from them.
It is also important to try to second guess where the driver will stop in order to be as near as possible to the doors when the train halts and to ensure that you are not inadvertently standing outside the first class carriage. Sparring for prime position in a non-contact sport in Belgium. Attempting overtly to push past somebody or jump the queue will be met with disgruntled moans.
It is important to keep in reasonable shape and wear practical shoes, since these can mean the difference between getting on your train and seeing the doors close and the train pull away mockingly.
Now it is spring and the weather is pleasant and bright, making the commute quite pleasant. But sometimes in darkest winter days, standing on the misty, freezing and dark platform, one wonders how wise it was to move to another town – albeit a nearby one with a fast train connection – and commute to work.
Once onboard the train, securing a seat is not for the faint of heart. In an unspoken, silent turf war, a certain species of more belligerent commuter will have placed their coat and bag on the seat next to them or will sit on the outside seat (and even pretend to be napping) in order to discourage anyone from sitting next to them.
Belgian politeness and reserve will keep some commuters from making a fuss. In my view, it is important to stand up and be counted – every decent commuter must fight for his or her right to sit down. Recommended tactics range from polite gesturing with the head towards the empty seat to biting sarcasm, depending on your mood.
Reserve some biting remarks for particularly annoying specimens. Suggestions include: “Excuse me, sir/madam, has your bag got a ticket, too?” or “Is your coat sitting comfortably? Can I get it a coffee?”
Trains of thought
Belgian etiquette demands that you create your own private space and avoid trespassing on that of others – which can be a tricky feat to pull off on an overcrowded train. Headphones, newspapers and books are essential accessories to avoid eye and ear contact.
Reading is also advisable if you don't wish to feel you're wasting your life away or to avoid going off the rails at the loud snorer a few rows down. Pursuing abstract or philosophical trains of thought is also an enjoyable commuting pastime but be careful you don't miss your station.
On a Belgian commuter train, silence is golden. This is partly so that you don't disturb the intercity sleepers snoozing away in the carriage and partly because Belgians do not generally like loud banter. Objective observation has led me to the conclusion that four Egyptians on a train typically make as much ruckus as a carriage full of Belgians.
There are naturally the many exceptions, such as the groups of office friends who use the train as an opportunity to bond, or the non-commuters on their way to a day trip in Brussels or by the sea.
With time, a certain unspoken intimacy forms (and on rare occasions actual words and even conversations are exchanged) between fellow passengers who ride the same train regularly. However, a number remain stubborn and refuse to meet your eyes or acknowledge they know you, such as ‘Baldy', who always stands on the platform stiff as a regimental leader. But we know he knows us – he even kept the door open once for me – and I am determined to exchange a smile with him, one day.
An amusing exercise is to imagine what lives certain people have before and after the commute. This process is aided somewhat by coming across them at restaurants or cultural events. Budding love affairs, such as the one between the man who stares blankly into space and is never quite there with his curly-haired girlfriend, are always interesting fodder.