Kate McWilliams ’19 – Copenhagen, Denmark

Innovative Thinking on a Long Commute
Written by Kate McWilliams PO’19​
Copenhagen, Denmark

“All of the greatest innovations are born from crises,” said Christian.

I glanced down to my feet, lightly sunken into soft, dark soil and then back to Christian. Over his shoulder, I could see the rooftops of surrounding buildings, twisting spires, and cranes. I didn’t see any other people up this high, but I also didn’t see any other vegetation. I imagined being a bird, flying over the gray city blocks of Østerbro, until I found this vibrant patch of garden sheltered high above the noise of the streets. In vague rows, arugula mingled with chard, fennel branches provided shade for kale, tomatoes reached for the sun, and bunches of lettuce flourished. From a brick roof, rose paradise. The innovation Christian was referring to was the transformation of an elevated parking lot into this haven: the rooftop garden.

During my time studying in Copenhagen, I lived 75-90 minutes by bus and train from the city. Sometimes the commute was wonderful: listening to Danish boys imitating American singers, watching a woman doing her morning make-up, and another working away at a complex knitted thing. As the days grew shorter, I could watch the sunrise at 7 a.m. from the winding bus route. The sights of the daily tour included country homes with thatched roofs, flocks of sheep, cows grazing on rolling hills, and massive wind turbines overlooking the pastoral scene. Sometimes the views along the commute lost their excitement to the monotony. Spontaneous activities in the city had to be planned in advance. The morning trains could get so crowded, that there was standing room only, though it was uncommon to make small talk or acknowledge one’s neighbor in this quiet society. I listened to podcasts and music, made lists, kept a journal, wrote emails, and often just sat and thought deeply. I’d never anticipated spending 3 hours sitting in a small moving vesicle every day that I was abroad, and I wasn’t enthusiastic about it.

We innovate to adapt: make changes in response to change.

On a blustery day at the end of November, I climbed the iron, spiral staircase four stories up to the rooftop garden. The sky was gray but I was met by sunny smiles—a smaller group than the usual crowd of expats, retirees, neighborhood dwellers, travelers, and exchange students (because of the weather, no doubt)—but any negative energy I may have been harboring, was lifted in an instant. The morning’s work consisted of harvesting nasturtium and fennel seeds. At noon we retired to the little glass shelter, where we gathered around the portable stove, our cold fingers wrapped around bowls of warm soup. Then we bundled up again for a long afternoon of “wintering,” which entailed blanketing the garden rows with seaweed harvested from the nearest beach. As bitter winds barreled over Copenhagen’s eastern neighborhood, and the early winter sun sunk below the skyline, we toiled away in assembly line fashion, hands clumsy from too many gloves and feet soaked from dripping seaweed. The process went like this: rinse the salt from the seaweed, drain seaweed in totes, then blanket the garden rows with the stringy vegetation, carefully tucking in the stems of perennial plants. The hours passed quickly. I tried not to think about how my time was dwindling in this place that I had grown to appreciate so much. I had found a beautiful community here: exchange students from Norway, Italy, the US, and Mexico; a US expat who followed her partner’s job to Copenhagen; a retired Israeli teacher; a Canadian farm recruit, and a crowd of elderly regulars, and the fiery agronomist, to name a few. I learned things about nature and shared human experiences that will dwell with me long after my time abroad. Perhaps the concept of urban gardening had risen out of desperation from wartime food shortages, but it has achieved more than its adaptive function.

I wondered if my daily commute could do the same. That night, when I took the bus and train back home to the countryside, I smiled at my fellow quiet commuters and thought about what a joy it was to pause my busy life- for a change.