The stories of a couchsurfer

Madrid: A challenge begins

Plaza Mayor

Welcome to Spain. First stop, Madrid. The capital, ideally located smack bang in the center of the country built on the Rio Manzanares. The country of Spain, whilst bordering France, does not manage it’s train networks in accordance with the French network and so a flight is taken instead. The transit from Marseille to Madrid is rapid and simple – as the flight is inter-European, there are no pesky customs to pass through.

There are loads of nerves when first stepping into the airport and onwards into the country. No research had been done about Spain, about it’s traditions and customs. Knowledge of the language was limited to hellogoodbye and thank you.

Truth be told, the only reason the journey was made is because a Canadian friend of mine, Véronique, was about to commence some studies in the country so it was a good opportunity to see each other again. There was an intention to visit Spain at some stage of the European journey and, having been in Montpellier that morning, there was not that far to go.

Stepping out of the airport the metro system of Madrid was the first thing to master. Signs pointed the way clearly all the way from the terminal to the associated metro station. Makes sense and was very easy to understand. English was present in the airport as subtitles to the Spanish larger font. Also makes sense. No complaints so far.

A quick trip to the conveniently located transport information office just before the metro and I encountered a very friendly lady at the service desk who spoke a very good level of English. A purchase of an ideal week long unlimited metro pass followed for a reasonable price. Descending the escalator into the modern designed metro station, the first metro arrived minutes later and quickly carried me to my destination with confort.

In a flash, my fears had been alleviated. Spain, and it’s capital Madrid, was to be a confortable country to travel in that best accommodated it’s travellers.

Or so I thought.

Over the next few days things started to slightly deteriorate.

The metro remained reliable and quick. The weather was comfortable, providing some of the first true days of sunshine in Europe so far. The city of Madrid was actually quite clean and comfortable. The roads were large enough for the traffic that they needed to accommodate and there was plenty of space on the sidewalks for pedestrians.

But what shocked was the people. It’s hard to really judge the Spanish at this stage – partly because it’s only been Madrid that has been experience, but partly also because there’s simply a lack of communication with them. The level of English here is disastrous, worse so than in France even. The people, even in tourist attracting locations such as restaurants, are reluctant to speak it or simply can’t. It’s something that inevitably every traveler must be prepared for and wrestle with, but Spain came as a surprise as to just how far behind it is in accepting English. It seems the woman at the metro station was an anomaly. A false hope.

Perhaps it’s due to the fact that it seems that the people here just don’t seem to care. It’s difficult to find someone that enjoys their job and as a result they don’t seem to try at all. There is the impression that the waiter/waitress in the bar doesn’t want to serve you. The man in the bus station gives little assistance. The customers are nothing but an inconvenience, and there is certainly no notion of the customer is always right. It makes for some interesting, and at times uncomfortable, experiences.

The language barrier makes things magnitudes harder. In France, the language barrier existed, but by far nowhere near the same extents as it does here. In The Netherlands, the language barrier didn’t even exist, as if something wasn’t understood, English could be used and they could easily explain. And while the language barrier seems the primary issue here, there are other factors at play too. Cultural ones.

The Spanish seem in no rush to accommodate anybody else. Often while walking the streets they will simply cross in front on a collision path and expect you to move. I’m amazed at how this system works. If they all do it, how come there’s not constant pedestrian collisions? They elderly are the worst at this, seemingly ignorant of the fact you even exist, they will cross into your path and then stop to have a chat with their friend, blocking your path. They have all the time in the world and apparently believe that everybody else does also.

It’s certainly a change. There’s no sense of urgency in day to day life here. Work can wait, for pleasure is the priority. There’s the impression though that Madrid, as the capital and the financial center of Spain, does work harder than what is typical of the Spanish lifestyle. Having read numerous reports of Spain’s dire unemployment situation and financial troubles, it was surprising to see such a well maintained city with not many homeless roaming the streets. There were modern cars aplenty and businessmen in suits a common sight. An early sign that perhaps there is money in this country after all, just not distributed wisely.

The cost of living is much cheaper here than in France even. This was the first place is Europe that I was able to genuinely purchase a pint of beer for 1€. The country is famous for it’s tapas, small servings of food (typically sandwiches) that are quite regularly served free with a purchase of a cerveza (beer) or any other meal. The most common ingredient in this tapas would have to be ham. The Spanish (or at least, Madrid) live for it. It’s everywhere and it’s not uncommon to see large legs of ham hanging from the rafters of diners, restaurants and cafés. In fact, in Madrid one can find the Muséo del Jàmon (Museum of Ham).

Madrid also surprises because although it is the capital of Spain, there is not an abundance of high touristic attractions. The city actually presents itself to be quite modern. Some exist. The Plaza de Toros is worth a visit. The main bullfighting ring of Madrid, it presents some typically Spanish architecture as well as an important insight to Spanish culture. The visit inside is quite short and probably not worth the 10€ that was paid, however. The Plaza Mayor and the Palacio Real are also worth a visit. But the most enjoyable site of Madrid was actually the Parque del Retiro.

Situated just on the side of downtown Madrid, this large area of greenery is the premier park of Madrid and offers a shady escape from the loudness of the business district. There are many monuments to discover here and a lake where boats can be rented. It’s a stunning and relaxing getaway to rest your feet after a long day of walking.

Perhaps due to the lack of prior research, Madrid surprised on many levels. So much so that I can’t help but wonder if this is the true representation of Spain that I’ve always expected. Sometimes the capitals can be, not entirely but somewhat, different from the countries that they govern.

Time will tell if Madrid is one of these.

If Spain continues to be as it is in Madrid, some interesting adventures may eventuate.

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