Summer of '76

conversation on a train from Narvik to Copenhagen

Leaving Narvik, the compartment had been full. She at first expected that the other five people were also going to Copenhagen, or at least a good deal of the way, maybe down to Stockholm. To her surprise, they left much sooner, with the last two leaving in Boden in the early afternoon. Before she could get used to being alone, a woman not much older than her entered the compartment. She surveyed the seats and placed her handbag on the seat by the window, opposite Carensa, so far without a word spoken. The woman placed her suitcase up on the luggage rack, with some effort and then sat down, crossing her legs.

Carensa was trying to size her up, without appearing too curious and pretending to still be reading The Lord of the Rings. She guessed the woman was in her late 20s, dressed in a black, long sleeved, fitted sweater over a white shirt with a big, pointed collar, paired with black, wide-legged slacks. A careful dresser, but not overdone, Carensa thought. Definitely not a train hiker. The woman had a big necklace with silvery loops and several stones that looked like amber. Her blondish hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

“Are you American?” The woman was looking at Carensa, who put down her book and looked up.


“Very well.”

There was nothing more said for a minute or so.

“Why are you here?”

“I beg your pardon?” Carensa was truly baffled at this conversation opener. Not wanting to stick her foot in her mouth, she tried to stall and get a clarification before answering.

“What made you come to Europe this summer?”

“Vacation.” With the conversation with the German Marxists on the train up in mind, she didn’t really want to volunteer her life’s story to this strange woman.

“I see.” The woman pulled out a thick research paper and proceeded to read it, pen in hand.

Carensa watched her for a while. She assumed it was all in Swedish, but thought she recognized something about psychology on a page that hung down.

The reading and relaxing was interrupted, so Carensa decided to do her part to break the ice.

“Looks like a heavy dissertation,” she said.

The woman looked up at her, then down on the paper, before answering.

“This? Oh, yes, I suppose so. It’s a … examensarbete at the university.”

“A ‘thesis’ then.” Carensa nodded, deciding the woman must be in a graduate program somewhere. Did they even have universities this far north? But the train was headed south. “Impressive. Yours?”

Finally a quick smile from the woman.

“Yes, I am studying psychology. This is my research project.”

“What’s the topic?”

“It’s a comparative study of the occurrence of social and sexual maladjustment in latch-key children.”

“Yeah, wow, okay, great for you. I’m sure that’s very fascinating.”

The woman seemed surprised.

“Actually it is to me.”

Another pause, fittingly marked by the change in motion and sound as the train speeded through some little train station.

Carensa was about to return to reading about Frodo and Sam traversing the wasteland on their way to Mount Doom, when the woman spoke.

“So you are one of the many young Americans who feel the need to express themselves by coming to Europe for a period of time. Something about the open road and a backpack. I suppose a search for the simplicity of nomadic lifestyle.”

Carensa pondered. She felt that there was something condescending in all that. But heck, she’d had Human Behavior 101.

“I don’t know about everyone else and I do think people travel for different reasons. Me, I just wanted my Sturm und Drang period.”

The effect was there.

“Ah, a touch of youthful rebellion, coupled with at least a fleeting familiarity with German philosophers. A little bit of Goethe naturally. Maybe even a bit of Hegel and Kant.”

“A little. I tend to prefer my feet more on the ground.”

“That’s a common response.” The woman put away her research paper. “Or maybe you respond that way because you are intimidated about what you might find out about yourself if you looked inside.” She leaned forward slightly. “Does Freud bother you?”

When Carensa didn’t answer immediately, the woman continued.

“I find that most young people who do the backpacking thing around Europe, do so to escape more so than to ‘find themselves.’ That is such a nebulous term anyway. What does that really mean?”

Carensa was about to say something in response when the woman continued.

“The real question is what you are trying to repress, what you are trying to get away from. My observation is that it is mostly the inherent stress in a patriarchal, non-equal society, focused on rabid consumption, such as yours.”

“Wow, that is really … really something.” Carensa leaned back in her seat. Was the woman in front of her for real?

“So you are saying,” she finally said, “that I am messed up because the US is an evil, capitalist empire, and I am just trying to run away from it all?”

“It’s psychologically bankrupt, yes.” The woman nodded her head indicating an affirmative. “Some of your young people drift to the Orient to seek mysticism, looking for answers that your society won’t/can’t give them. Of course, they will only find more confusion in the fairy-tales encountered there.”

“Right.” Carensa was beginning to wish she’d paid more attention in that Human Behavior 101 class, although she suspected that this woman was on a level far beyond that and not just because she was a graduate psychology student.

“So dear, is the experience here in Scandinavia liberating you?”

Carensa decided to keep the answer in the land of tangible experience.

“It’s been great. I’ve met some wonderful people and gotten to visit places I’d only seen pictures of before.”

“That’s nice. I am sure you will feel quite refreshed when you return home.”

story excerpt