Italian PhD student Silvia Stopponi is pregnant. During a recent train journey, none of the students on the overcrowded train got up to offer her a seat.
It is a Friday afternoon, and I’m going home from Groningen after a day of work. Approaching the train station, I’m worried about the situation I will find. Due to maintenance works, to go south I first have to take a train to Leeuwarden. Yesterday, this train was full to the brim.
Moreover, in the four minutes between the two trains, a mass of students was assaulting the card readers, shoving and pushing to check out or in before their neighbour. I risk missing the second train, and it would be best to run, like many were doing yesterday. But I cannot run, since I am pregnant.
On the platform, I find myself in a crowd of people, all trying to get on the train first. When I finally make it inside, all seats are taken and I have to stand. Okay, it’s only for thirty minutes, this won’t kill me. I try to enjoy the ride in the sunny countryside, but as time passes, the pain coming from my feet becomes more noticeable. After all, I am ten kilos heavier than before my pregnancy.
I look around: there are students everywhere, chatting to each other, using their smartphone, or looking outside. I also notice some looking at my belly. It is evident that I am pregnant, yet nobody asks me if I want to sit.
But I cannot run, since I am pregnant
It reminds me of other trips back in my country, where I experienced the same frenzy of people pushing each other aside, the same indifference towards pregnant women, old people, or parents with babies. So many times I went home angry after having seen similar scenes, thinking there was no hope for my country.
Some of these students will become decision makers; they will shape the world in which my baby will find herself living. I think about the beautiful studies they are doing: some will treat illnesses, others will make complex calculations to make houses stand, or will decide the content of the next advertisements.
It’s likely that many participated in a demonstration against war or walked in a march for the climate. Most study at the University of Groningen, where attention and respect for everyone are so emphasised. But are they learning something more than just notions?
In Leeuwarden, I manage to jump into the second train just before it leaves, and I discover that I have to stand again. This time in the entrance between the doors, where the temperature is tropical. The three luckiest passengers sitting on retractable seats are students in their twenties; a woman in her seventies, who was also standing, takes the first seat to become free.
I cannot believe it when the woman in her seventies asks me whether I want to sit
After more than an hour my feet and legs hurt terribly, and I would seriously consider sitting on the ground, if there only was space. Why doesn’t anyone care? Maybe just because there is no rule obliging them to get up. I cannot believe it when the woman in her seventies asks me whether I want to sit. I accept, because I really cannot stand anymore.
What I experience then is a weird feeling; a mix of shame, relief, anger, absurdity. The woman gently explains to the student sitting next to me: ‘She’s pregnant!’ The student looks at her without saying a word and turns her head to the other side. I see two cardboard cylinders in her bag: two projects, or maybe two wonderful works of art. She must have a brilliant student career.
After some stops I finally get a seat in a place with a normal temperature and with a table. This is the most challenging moment: I have my seat, and some work to do. I will leave the rest behind, I can always teach my daughter to behave differently tomorrow. I open my laptop, but I can’t stop thinking about my experience.
No, I cannot forget to have been in a crowd of indifferent young adults, who apparently don’t believe that the first step towards the better society they dream of is caring about their neighbour.
However, this time I don’t want to think that there is no hope; I must speak, because sometimes things can also change.
Silvia Stopponi (Italy) is a PhD student at the Faculty of Arts