Friday, January 11, 2008

Coming up for air

I love being out of doors. I don’t mean the great outdoors, which is a bit too big for me, if truth be told, just out under the sky, with the air on my face.
Having spent much of the last decade indoors in air-conditioned spaces, I am really enjoying – weather! I like being on the move, too.

Of course, you can have too much of a good thing…. Last term was hectic, with four or six Metro journeys a day – which means eight to eighteen Metro stations, and goodness knows how many platforms, escalators, lifts, and miles and miles of underground corridors.

I quickly came to appreciate the efficiency of a system that could keep millions of people moving through the city at all hours of the day and night; and the foresight and professionalism of all the people who made it work: management, customer service personnel, cleaners, maintenance and security staff. And that ‘We deserve the best.’ attitude that seems to have informed the design and décor of the Metro since its inception. People moan about the limitations of the Metro – well, of course! - but it works, it’s safe, and it’s generally handsome too. (But don't get me started on the cleaners' strike..............)

I also like the tolerant and chatty atmosphere on the trains, quite different from the reserve and resignation of the London Underground; and the constant small theatre of people going about their lives: parents and children; travellers en route for airport, hotel or home; couples of all ages and in all stages of relationships (teatro del corazón!); people reading newspapers and novels, doing homework, checking CVs and documents; people staring into the middle distance, as if the forced intimacy of the rush hour crush is happening to someone else. And some of the buskers are very good, even if I don’t want to be bloody cheered up!

On the other hand, shuttling sweatily back and forth through the labyrinths of Diego de Leon, Goya/Lista, Avenida de America and Nuevos Ministerios, bundled in winter clothing and laden with whatever I need for the next-and-next classes, I really feel the wear and tear on my feet, back and nerves. And I get tired of being underground.

I have learnt to smooth the edges: allowing a few minutes extra in case of delayed or over-full trains; riding in the last carriage on some routes, the second one heading north to Colombia, and the front one heading south – so that I get off right next to my next staircase or escalator; taking the lift rather than the escalator as a break from the swarm of bodies and baggage; and avoiding the grubby claustrophobia of Plaza de Castilla in favour of airy Colombia.

I’ve also worked out where and when I can get the Cercanía (suburban railway – underground in the city, but no changes) and – the bus.
I love the bus!
No going underground. No corridors.
You get the sky by day and the lights by night, and trees and handsome buildings as well as the people around you.
You get to feel the air – and the rain (Boy Scout motto!).
There are lots of bus stops, all with shelters and timetables; and lots of buses, so you can get a seat at least half the time; and they’ve all got LED displays, just like in the trains, so you can be pretty confident of getting off at the right stop too, no matter how limited your Spanish.

Basically, what we have here is an integrated public transport system that works a treat, and with my monthly Abono ticket, I can use the the whole system. Madrid is not a big capital, though it’s expanding (as is the transport network), and between the Metro, the Cercanía and the buses, everyone can get from A to the rest of the alphabet without too much grief.
You don’t get the privacy of a car, but neither do you get the particular stresses of driving – the beauty of being a passenger, after all, is that you get time out to observe, think or daydream. You don’t have to park – and you can always come up for air.

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