…It’s the glory of the ride!
Just when I thought a change of direction was in order, here I am again, writing about the unavoidable topic of language.
But it’s a theme that creeps into every single aspect of daily life. We (expats and locals alike) are always thinking about it, talking about it or experiencing it. Or at least it feels that way.
This time, it was the daily commute that left me pondering.
Yes, I’m one of those still “lucky” (hmm) enough to leave the house every day for work. Mostly, I am super jealous leaving R in bed until 5 minutes before his 9am meeting starts. But when I step outside onto the streets slowly rousing into weekday life, I do feel lucky. It helps that those dark winter mornings seemed pretty short lived.
When asked what he missed most about “the commute”, it wasn’t the congestion and torrential rain on the M80, unsurprisingly. Nor was it the walk to the bus stop in 40ºC, which saw his light blue shirt turn a few shades darker by the time he reached the office. It was the “bridge” between getting up and starting work, that separation between home and office.
My transport survey (conducted with my one semi-willing participant) also found that on balance, the 30-second transit between bed and desk was favoured overall and given the choice, he would never commute again!
For so many, it is a thing of the past, fin. That 2x daily, 10x weekly routine where the thought of a crammed underground, delayed train, traffic jam or fear of being knocked off your saddle brought on a daily dose of the dreads, has been replaced by a new way of working.
After a few months of living carefree (see: unemployed) in Madrid, I longed for a commute. For somewhere to go every day, for routine. I was prepared to travel just for this experience but was lucky enough to land a job only 35 minutes from mi casa (roughly the same as my old one sin the connection at the infamous Glasgow Central low-level).
I don’t have a car so navigating the maze of narrow streets and impossibly tight parking spaces is one less stress. Instead, I have a range of cracking public transport options at my disposal.
Being a super walkable and runner-friendly city, a home-bound commute on foot is my favourite at any time of year (except July and August when I am guaranteed to perish).
Walking home late one night on the phone to my brother, he asked if it (I) was safe. I hadn’t given it a second thought. Notoriously late finishing times here mean that the streets are buzzing at this time of day, with shops still open and bar terraces packed at 10pm with most of Madrid out enjoying a post-work drink and tapa, under AC or heaters depending on the season, but never undeterred from enjoying life outdoors.
Alternatively, I would hop on the bus home on crisp winter nights, through the city centre to see the dazzling Christmas lights on Gran Vía.
But overall, the Metro is my preferred choice to travel to work. It is reliable, quick and…interesting.
5 stops. Just enough time to listen to a language podcast or complete a few exercises on Duolingo. But when I take out the headphones and look up from my phone momentarily (careful to avoid eye contact with the busker belting out a Spanglish rendition of “Let it be” much too loud for this time in the mañana), then the real learning begins.
Tuning in to a snippet of conversation here or a phone call there, just picking up a few words without context (then making up the rest in my head)!
Then there was the announcement. I must have heard it every day, but this was the first time I really listened.
Every morning for a week, I tuned in: “¡Atención! Estación en curva…”
It became an obsession. But try as I might, I just couldn’t piece it all together.
So, one day, I started typing it on my phone (super sad, or super smart, eh?)
“…al salir, tengan cuidado…”
The next day, a little more: “…para no introducir el pie…”
On the Friday morning, full of weekend anticipation and glee, I completed the sentence:
“¡Atención! Estación en curva, al salir, tengan cuidado para no introducir el pie entre coche y andén.”
Roughly translated as: “take care when putting your foot between the train and platform”. We’ve all seen what happens to the wee stick man on the posters.
WHAT a sense of achievement to see it written down in the notes section of my phone, where it remains should I ever wish to quote a public transport announcement to my new amigos. Ha! It’s also a phrase loaded with juicy complex grammar, so that helps justify the ridiculous amount of time it took for me to nail it.
There and then I discovered that the commute is an opportunity for learning, for appreciating, for understanding society wherever you call home.
It’s also a huge opportunity to feel involved in that society.
I was once told that you never feel truly settled until you live AND work somewhere. In the early days, I couldn’t understand this. Before I got a job here, I explored the city every day until my legs ached. I covered kilometres, getting my bearings and discovering things I would never have a chance to if I spent all day in la oficina.
But now I get it. Every day I meet new people, from all over the world. And I have colleagues who have been accommodating, helpful and lovely. It’s not the strangers on the street who tell you about the bra shop where they give out free cava with every fitting, or who invite you for weekends away to small towns in rural La Mancha (because that would be weird).
And every morning I get off the metro and walk for 15 minutes up Calle Serrano – the most prestigious street of barrio de Salamanca – with its tree lined streets, designer shops and glamourous people. One day I followed a pair of red soles past the Gucci shop where Cristiano Ronaldo and Georgina Rodríguez first locked eyes. Meanwhile, a homeless man with missing limbs sat outside playing ‘Despacito’ on the accordion.
Understanding society is a work in progress.
I got the commute, for which I’ll always be grateful. And while the destination may always be the same, it doesn’t have to be mundane.
Do it right and you learn something new every single day. Do it wrong and it can change your mood quicker than when the postie leaves the wee red card without even trying your doorbell. Grr.
Learning aside, it’s also prime time for precious family catch-ups and lengthy voice notes to and from my bestest amigas.
Anyway, the next time you find yourself navigating a European underground transport network where the announcements are not translated, just remember…
Mind the gap.