Let’s all sit in traffic

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 13.03.2020

Nothing can save you from a crappy job, except quitting. (I’m certain of this, having quit a crappy job last year: what a thrill!) But there’s one thing that can, to an extent, temper a horrible workplace existence or ruin a good one: the commute.

I’ve had my share of commuting luck. Probably more than most. The earliest daily routine that I loved was driving my family’s 1997 Toyota Camry to high school when I was a teenager. During long Michigan winters, I had to venture outside long before dawn to ritualistically scrape ice and snow off the old Camry, and, once inside, would freeze my butt off for ninety percent of the drive to school. It doesn’t sound pleasant, but then again I was a mopey kid (sixteen, seventeen years old: the prime age for fits of melodrama) and the car offered the two amenities that teenagers covet most: music and privacy. Indeed, before leaving the driveway, I’d painstakingly match song to mood (not actually as difficult as I then thought, the mood, of course, running a fairly short gamut from angry/urgent melancholy to sullen/hopeless melancholy). Then I’d drive off, rolling past the McMansions and strip malls of my suburb in a meditative trance. It was true adolescent therapy, being suspended between the distractions of watching the road and listening to music, too sleepy for any other worries. Back then I’d have called it the highpoint of my day. It took about twenty minutes to get to school, an extra five if traffic was bad.

My commuting luck stayed strong. After university, I moved to Lisbon for my first-ever job: teaching English to adults in a small academy. My flat was a mere fifteen-minute walk from work, which meant total immunity from all fears of traffic. I slept easy, and late, and looked forward to commuting every day, not just because of the unparalleled charms of sauntering through an old European town, but also because my coffee addiction had just started and it was fresh and exciting. Right beside my building was a pastelaria where I’d drink a meia de leite at the counter (that’s how relaxed this breezy routine was) and have something unhealthy to eat. The coffee was paramount. This wasn’t school anymore, where stumbling dreamily into class was all that was expected of me: when I got to work, I had to put on a little teacher’s act to a roomful of people. Caffeine saved me. Actually, nearly all of my teacherly effectiveness—which was modest on a good day—can be put down to the use of this drug. And so those lovely morning walks came to symbolize the powering up of my brain for the day.

The good luck continued. A couple of years and a postgraduate degree later, I got another teaching job, this time in Maastricht. Commute: six minutes on foot! Actually, it was a little too good. My studio apartment was on such a magnificently located street that my students would sometimes see me emerging from the building, and it’s never pleasant when work folk know where you live. But it was worth it: so convenient was my setup that I could, on needful occasions, run home between classes to use my own toilet. Now that’s living right.

Then I moved to Luxembourg, and my commuting luck came to an end. I lived just five kilometers from my job. Lovely spot. Bus 213 was meant to pick me up a block from home and deposit me directly outside my godawful employer, the one I’ve now had the exquisite pleasure of abandoning, in Kirchbierg. Bus 213 was meant to come every twenty minutes. Bus 213 failed me in every possible sense of the word.

It came late. It didn’t come at all. It came– and this one stung – but didn’t let me on.

When it was five minutes late, you knew it was actually twenty-five minutes late. Hell, it was probably forty-five minutes late. Often, you’d wait half an hour, easily enough time to walk to the Red Bridge (and jump off it), before Bus 213 would finally roll up. Hallelujah! Wrong. Too full to even stop, it would just drive by, the vehicular equivalent of spitting in your face. Oh, and if you actually got onto Bus 213, you had three new problems: it was one trillion degrees inside, it was so humid that clouds of sweat had formed under the roof, and it took an hour to travel five kilometers.

Obviously, I gave up on Bus 213.

Then they built a tram that was, and remains, in the most beautiful way, pointless. Unless you live right by the tracks, you require a bus to get anywhere near it—and it had damn well better not be Bus 213. And for some reason, the thing thermoregulates like a hairless cat in a blizzard.

I didn’t quit that job to escape the commute. Far from it. But doing so, besides improving my life in a thousand other ways, came with a little bonus: my commuting routine is back on track. Six seconds, give or take, from bedroom to living room. Working remotely is the real jackpot, at least for me. You can use your own toilet not just most of the time: but all of the time.

Jeffrey Palms
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