Sunday, February 6, 2011

Time Travel and Other Curiosities

I love the train.

For whatever reason, this mode of passive transit appeals to me much more than the Metro or the bus.  (I HATE buses.)  Perhaps it is because I am always on my way to somewhere interesting when I'm riding one, rather than the routine Madrid stops on the Metro, or maybe it is the promise of a peaceful, trouble-free trip after the hustle of managing to get on the correct train (this might tell you a fair amount about my travel prowess...).  You get on, wander the cars to find a suitable seat, and huddle up for a relaxing trip across the Spanish countryside, reading or thinking or merely watching the shrubs slip by, oblivious that we're in the 21st century.

I usually read or let my thoughts wander; trains are wonderfully conducive to pondering.  Perfect for amalgamating thoughts and theories.  It was on my most recent train ride that I realized that trains also serve as a perfect metaphor for the Spanish conception of time.  I'm still testing this theory out, but bear with me.

In America, we're pretty independent.  No shit, Sherlock! you say.  Get on with it!  Yes, yes.  Hold your horses, that's exactly what I mean.  We have everything on our own terms, most notably time.   Because we have our own cars, we can arrange dates and meetings and outings and meanderings to perfectly suit our schedules.  At home, I know for a fact I can make it from my house to my work in 40 minutes going fast enough to get off with a warning, if necessary.  Leaving a party early -- or late?  No problem, your car is parked out in front.  Come and go as you please!

Not so here.  Everything is much more communal.  Everyone is in the same boat... or bus.  Let's take a look at going to school, for example.

Step 1: Catch the bus.  They come every 7-12 minutes from 8-7, fewer before and after that time, and they stop at 11:25pm (another lesson learned the hard way).  Right.  Think about driving through Edmond.  Catching two stop lights wrong can add five or six minutes to your trip.  Here, missing a bus can add twice that.  Even waiting for one can double it.  We -- the other commuters huddled in the -3 degree wind and I -- are at the mercy of that schedule.  It builds camaraderie and pity, that's for sure; no one is exempt.

Step 2:  Disembark from bus, descend a minimum of two long escalators (usually closer to four), and catch the Metro, which comes every 4-6 minutes.  (Again, refer to Edmond stoplight analogy.)  By catch, I mean open the door and hurl yourself into the mass that is the morning commute, cramped but mostly compassionate. If you're lucky, as I am, Line 9 at Plaza de Castilla is far enough away from everything that the cars are relatively uncrowded.  There is some advantage to living in the boonies, after all.

Ride metro 30 minutes to final destination.  Again, if you're lucky, you only have to catch one metro.  Changing lines will cost you at least 6 minutes, usually more, as you have to transverse the station, board more escalators, and wait for another metro.

Step 3:  Exit Metro station - hopefully from a convenient entrance - and get your bearings.  Then walk six more minutes to school, arriving either 15 minutes ahead of schedule or one minute late (or, worst case scenario, 20 minutes late).  Reverse process and repeat for return trip.

Now then, now that you're intimately acquainted with my day, you may be asking yourself why and what this has to do with trains.  Pfft. Stop being so American.  We'll get to it when we get to it.

Oh wait! That, there!  That was it - did you catch it?  We'll get to it when we get to it.  That is, in essence, Spanish time.  (How devilishly tricky of me, I know - using the time you took to read all this as an object lesson!)  Being the efficient American that I am, this mode of thinking at first seemed lazy, then extravagant, then negligent to me.  Now it is merely inconvenient, and even this feeling probably won't last, now that I'm dissecting it.

You see, like a train, time is purveyor.  It glides by, neither fast nor slow and requires little thought once you're on your course.  It catches you up passively... it's your choice where it takes you, but whether you go or not is of little consequence; the main thing is that it runs.  The train system is surprisingly reliable, and yet, meeting times are negotiable.  Ending times are non-existent.  Time runs by whether you're with amigos or not, whether you're in a hurry or not, so why worry about it?  It's not like you can do anything about it anyway; you're a passenger.  So, obviously, the best thing to do is enjoy what you have and make do.  Dinner at 10:00?  Of course!  The day is only so long... why hurry to bed and end it so soon?  The night is young.  Churros con chocolate at 5am after a long night of discotecas?  The perfect start to a new day!  Enjoy the scenery!  Thus time delivers you to your next destination, more or less on schedule and richer for the ride.

And that is Spanish time.  When they told me that an hour's one-way commute wasn't too long, the go-getter, take-life-by-the-horns-and-then-give-it-plastic-surgery part of me stared in disbelief (give me an hour in Oklahoma and I can be two counties away, not just in the center of the city), but I guess from this perspective, it makes a little more sense.  I'm still not sure what I think of it, and most days I feel like I'm suspended over the best (or worst...) of both our cultures as a peace offering to the gods, but it might be worth surrendering to.  To slow down, to cease hurrying.  To defy the time = productivity equation.  Perhaps, perhaps.  Siesta, anyone?


  1. Thank you so very much for painting this word picture. It is very enlightening and makes me oh so curious to understand new ways of navigating this life. I as a fellow, in a hurry, efficient American, have been on a quest for the last couple of years to figure out how to simplify life and make each moment much more meaningful. I haven't done a very good job, but I am learning, and I love hearing what others perspectives are. I have had to learn that the dishes are not that important, nor the laundry, or that everything is in its place. I don't have to measure up to the Jones'. An outing isn't about accomplishing a task, but rather playing as we work is much more important. If only community was stronger here in America instead of us trying to do it ALL ourselves. I do wish to have a train to ride at times and mindlessly sail through time. Thanks again for sharing. Keep enlightening me with fresh ideas.

  2. Thank YOU for keeping up! I love to hear your thoughts! Dishes, laundry... yes. That has been adjustment here... not being measured by what you have accomplished in a day. Nice, in a way. It is interesting though, to contemplate truly adapting, as that means changing my entire sense of time. Although it drives me crazy, I think there is probably some value in intentionally slowing down (I do realize several wise people have been preaching this for years...). But to do so necessarily means a reverse culture clash when I get home and having to figure out all over again where I stand on it all - to adapt or maintain... or curl up and hide :) However, I heard a rumor that Obama plans a national rail system... maybe I won't have to re-adapt as much as I thought :P

  3. Natalie! I just spent the past hour reading your entries... what an adventure! I love that you're doing this and it's so cool to see Spain through your eyes. I hope everything is going wonderfully for you and you get to experience all types of things. Maybe we should backpack through Europe together?! Sounds amazing.

  4. Aw thanks lady! I hope things are going well for you as well. And backpacking... YES!!!


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