Catalonia Cautiously Contemplated

“So what’s going on in Catalonia?” ask U.S. of A. conocidos. The region declared independence from Spain last month. Friends are curious.

I offered my two cents in a July post, will today pitch in another penny. Cautiously. I live in Madrid, hear mostly Madrid’s side of the conflict.

()  Separatist front lines are in Barcelona, almost four hundred miles northeast of my home in Spain’s capital. Barcelonans contend with strikes, mass protests, business flight. Not me. I stumbled across the large pro-unity protest shown below in late September, now expect to frequently see window-draped Spanish flags while strolling sidewalks. Day-to-day life is otherwise unaffected.

Pro-Unity demonstration at Ayuntamiento de Madrid

Pro-Unity demonstration at Ayuntamiento de Madrid

() No one has sounded surprised by the conflict. Exasperated, yes. Irritated, occasionally. Surprised? No. Spain weathered ten months without a government in 2016, the aftermath of the Great Recession, crises a-plenty before. Natives do not expect smooth sailing of the Spanish ship of state.

() In five separate conversations this summer, Madrileños claimed that the Catalan school system propagandizes the young to be pro-independence. (A gripe echoed in recent articles in El País and El Mundo.) One local pointed to language laws promoting Catalan fluency in Catalan government employees, and said that such legislation helps stack the civil service deck with rah-rah separatists.

(If I want to hear the separatist counter-argument, I’ll have to ride an AVE to Barcelona to get it. I ain’t gonna get it here now, at least not easily.)

() I occasionally still query new acquaintances for their views on Catalonia, but carefully take their measure first, and tread on tip toes. Not a safe subject for elevator chit-chat, at least not in the autumn of 2017.

() Lucky you get a quick, incomplete primer on Spanish flags in the news:

Flags in the News

Center, above: the national flag, now often displayed to champion pro-Spanish-unity, anti-Catalan-independence sentiments. Center, right: L’Estelada, a de facto symbol of Catalan independence. Center, left: the innocuous Senyera, official flag of the Catalonia community.

A rally with many national flags + Senyeras = a pro-unity rally, probably in Catalonia. Rally with many L’Esteladas = pro Catalan independence. Rally with national flags + L’Esteladas = potential street fight.

() I don’t know what’s going on here. I can remember names, dates, events, but don’t feel the involved issues in my bones as I would had I grown up on Spanish soil. I sense that the conflict and the deliberate display of the country’s flag have awakened a defiant nationalist pride among some Madrileños, but do not see the big picture, can’t understand this pride in the larger context of things. I see Spain as an American expat, from the outside looking in.

In the states, the national anthem protests are the latest chapter in centuries-old racial conflict. I grew up with that conflict, believe I see it as other born-and-raised Americans do, from the inside looking out. It comes with the U.S. territory, won’t go away anytime soon. Americans unhappy to live alongside the conflict should consider trips in time machines for heart-to-heart talks with America’s forebears: it might have helped a whole hey of a lot if they hadn’t jammed millions of Africans into slave ships and held their descendants under thumb for centuries afterward.

The big flags were out of stock.

The big flags were out of stock.

A few Spaniards have sounded incredulous while recounting glimpses of that racial conflict during tourist forays to the U.S. They didn’t get it, just as I don’t get unrelated but similarly entrenched problems in Catalonia.

A language exchange intercambio partner offers to explain the independence movement, bewilders me by beginning not with Lluís Companys or even the Siege of Barcelona, but — my God! — with the Battle of Guadalete, Covadonga, Barcelona counts. I read about the Spanish Civil War, stumble across a quote from Francoist José Millán Astray: Catalonia and the Basque Country are two cancers in the body of the nation! I don’t get it. I know he was as partisan as they come, but I don’t understand the Zeitgeist that produced him, why anyone would ever have wanted to say such a thing.

Politicians want to put out fires. In their shoes, I suppose I would, too. They always have too much to worry about. (Like a drought.) Make the problem go away. Get it off the front page.

The December 21 elections may kick the Catalan conflict off the front pages in 2018. But, one way or the other: more than forty percent of Catalans don’t want to be Spanish citizens. Un lío, for the long term.

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How I Renewed my Spain Visa

Please note cagey blog title wording. A title like Spain Visa Renewal Steps or How to Renew Your Spain Visa would suggest an offering of authoritative advice on how to renew your Spain student visa, or au pair visa, or entrepreneur visa, or whatever the hey other type of visa you bagged to permit life-over-the-long-haul on the Iberian Peninsula.

Authoritative visa advice, in this blog?! Ha ha ha ha!

I can confidently tell you what I did to renew my non-lucrative residence visa. (Live in Spain = yes. Work permit = no.) I have no idea if my saga will help you renew your visa, or get you goose-stepped in leg irons to the Pyrenees frontier. Caveat emptor.

The rest of this entry will aspire to matter-of-fact tedium, and shall be mercifully Vaudeville hooked to a quiet .pdf of its own, linked below.

Two cautionary notes first:

()  With one to-be-described exception, I completed all visa renewal steps in Spanish: plugged Spanish search terms into Google, read Spanish instructions on Spanish government web sites, conversed in Spanish at Spanish bureaucracies. ¿No lo hablas bien? Plan on renewing your visa with professional help. I retain fond memories of Spainwide, which helped me in 2016.

() Visa-related chores are tough, tedious, devourers of time and patience.

Treat yourself to a Google StreetView look at the Avenida de los Poblados and Calle Manuel Luna centers. (Inexplicably absent from TripAdvisor’s Madrid Travel Guide.) An expat can while away hours in these places, in lines in front and in thumb-twiddling waits inside.

I am living a near life of Riley in Spain. Visa renewal is the price tag.  (On the bright side: my freshly renewed visa is now good for two years, rather than the single year of the visa issued to me in San Francisco. I won’t need to deal with renewal chores again until 2019.)

On to the bolts and nuts:

http://transitophile.com/chango/files/visa/how_I_renewed_non_lucrative_spain_visa_2017.pdf

* * * * *

Revised 8/27/17 to add information on visa term.

Posted in Expat, Madrid, Uncategorized | 1 Response

Madrid Impressions: Round Four

… or ‘Spain Impressions’ this time around, and you just might see a “Round Twenty-Five” post in the years to come.

So much here is new to me. I grew up and grew gray in California, feel entitled to judge U.S. life from the inside out. In Spain, I grasp at threads of a plot that mostly unfolded before I reached the theatre.

BULLFIGHTING

()  Publicity for the yearly San Fermín festival suggests a single-minded national love for tauromaquia. Not so. Most Spaniards oppose it. The young, especially. I stumbled into a large anti-bullfighting protest in Puerta del Sol last year, have read of others. Catalonia tried to ban bullfighting.

()  Opinions vary. Expect one POV in Barcelona, another in Andalucia.

Bullfight in a Divided Ring, attributed to Goya, 1746-1828

Bullfight in a Divided Ring, attributed to Goya (1746-1828)

()  Spain has an investment in bullfighting. Specialty breeders supply brawny, aggressive fighting bulls to over 1,700 bullrings nationwide. The Visigoths fought bulls here; so did the Moors. San Fermín and some other events are world famous. Idealists can’t easily wish away entrenched big industries with a wave of the wand. Look at the U.S. tobacco industry.

()  I can’t prove it, but see bullfighting as a rusty boat anchor around the shins of the national rep. The world ain’t going that way. Rotten PR. Well-behaved, animal-loving tourists need only see a few pix of bleeding bulls to steer their TripAdvisor searches to other countries. (Although bullfight-loving tourists may be prized by booze and cigar sellers.)

()  No one asked me, but I wonder why Spain doesn’t encourage a transition to bloodless recortador. The rings and breeders stay in business, the bulls endure only a dull bovine frustration while chasing silly humans, and the hulkiest, most homicidal animal stars live to build fan bases and attract future spectators. (“Come see the great Toro, the biggest, meanest bull in Andalucia! Toro hates everybody!”)

()  Bullfighting beats Collateral Murder and bombing a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz by a wide, wide, wide margin. An American who tries to pull ethical rank on Spain has not been paying attention.

CATALAN SEPARATION

Catalonia is a Maryland-sized region in Spain’s northeast corner; its capital, Barcelona, is Spain’s second biggest city. Catalans have their own language, flags, traditions, history; many think they ought to have their own country, too. “Think of Texas or California secession movements,” I might tell a Yankee observer, “but much, much further along.”

I feel unready to offer an opinion on Catalan independence, although a retired expat like me is unquestionably better off in a united, stable, Spain-as-it-is. Please revisit the ‘grasping plot threads’ metaphor offered earlier. I ask questions here, listen.

Catalan flag at Montjuïc Castle in Barcelona

Catalan flag at Montjuïc Castle in Barcelona

()  Separation movement roots run deep. Catalans conduct commerce and teach their kids in the Catalan tongue. One daughter of a Spanish dad and Catalan mom told me that she felt ostracized during her girlhood in the region, thanks to her mixed family lineage.

Consider the crowd size in this 2016 march. Could secessionists round up anything similar in Oakland or Houston? Even remotely similar?

()  In decades past, Spain-as-it-is survived a bloody separatist movement of the now-dormant ETA in the Basque country. Political leaders may hope that the riding out of one secessionist movement may augur well for the riding out of a second.

()  In four separate conversations, Madrileños have used nearly identical phrases to sum up their take on the Catalan independence movement: “It’s a matter of money.” Many bucks-up Catalans believe that Spain picks their pockets to subsidize bucks-down Andalucia. The Basques are bucks-up, too, but get to keep most of their tax receipts. Catalans don’t, or think that they don’t.

()  Two Madrileños opined that independence won’t happen, that opposition would mushroom as independence prospects grew more serious. Think borders, laws, share of national debt, status in the European Union, Brexit as negative example.

()  “You should talk to Jordi, he’s from Barcelona,” says an Andalucian to me in an intercambio, in response to my Catalan independence questions.

I turn to the affable Catalan Jordi, smiling in anticipation nearby.

So goes the agreeable give-and-take between Catalans and other Spaniards in day-to-day interactions here, at least as observed by yours truly. Government leaders may battle. A Madrileño may grumble that some bilingual Catalan signage is in English and Catalá, but not Spanish. Friction doesn’t seem to crimp social interactions, doesn’t reach to cafés and street corners.

(I may observe inadequately, and should note that nearly all Catalans met by me have hailed from global-as-all-get-out Barcelona, and not the Catalan hinterlands.)

DIM VIEW OF GOVERNMENT

In a year in Madrid, I have heard a single native stump for the integrity of a single Spanish politician: Manuela Carmena, city mayor. Locals seem to write off all others as hopelessly compromised. The press brims with updates of corruption-related accusations, trials, sentences: Ignacio González, Inaki Urdangarin, Rodrigo Rato. The in-power PP seems to get the most negative attention, but the folk I’ve met show little faith in alternatives, appear to believe that an entrenched political order ultimately devours the integrity of all.

“Ah HA!” many Madrileños seemed to sneer — with a wise nod, cynically curled lip — at the news that deputy Ramón Espinar of left-wing Podemos had pocketed €20,000 on the sale of a subsidized house. “See? See? That’s a Spanish progressive for you!”

In contrast, many venerate democracies farther north. I had seen Scandinavian countries’ top-of-the-charts scores for government integrity before going expat, but had expected that Spaniards would pooh-pooh such generalizations. They haven’t; if anything, some seem to put Europe’s north on a pedestal. “There you will find real civismo,” says one, and scoffs at the potential for reform. The Spanish system is too entrenched, says she, and suggests I research ex-banker Mario Conde as a negative national example.

Electorate cynicism notwithstanding, Spain’s democratic give-and-take still strikes me as far healthier and more open than what I left in the States.

LEADER OF THE SPANISH-SPEAKING WORLD?

With a question mark, because I’m not sure.

More than a billion of your fellow earthlings grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese. That nabs planetary first place among mother tongues. English takes third, with 370+ million native speakers.

In between: Spanish. 437 million native L1 speakers worldwide. Hundreds of millions in Central and South America, 120+ million in Mexico alone.

Spanish arrived in the New World with the conquistadors. The New World may resent that heritage, but many regard Spain as the madre patria still. Major Spanish banking, telecommunication and energy companies operate in Latin America. Spain is only twenty percent larger than California, but the country’s foreign direct investment in the Latin American world is second only to the United States.

Label this influence as colonialism, if so inclined, but acknowledge it as important. I sat up straight and paid attention when a South American entrepreneur told me that he moved to Madrid only and specifically to start a business. He sees Spain as the trend-setter in the Spanish-speaking world, thought a Spain zip code worthy of a move across the Atlantic.

“So could Spain become an economic powerhouse? Why isn’t it an economic powerhouse now?”

That’s what I wonder.

ODDS AND ENDS

()  Spain offers beaches, islands, heat and sun, and thus attracts many Spring Break-types eager to carouse away an intoxicated holiday. Magaluf. Platja d’en Bossa. Part of Spain’s national identity abroad is as a hedonist’s European playground, whether Spaniards wish it to be or not. “Fight drunk Brit Spain” or “drunk UK Spain” in a search engine pulls up far too many results.

()  Tourists know Barcelona too well and like it too much. Spain may regard this client base with two minds; Barcelona rubbernecker armies are griped about in the press, even as national flag carrier Iberia launches bargain-basement nonstops from L.A. and S.F. to the Barcelona airport. Go figure.

Until my next installment …

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Bucharest: First Impressions

Traffic. Fifth worst urban traffic on Planet Earth, according to the TomTom global traffic index. Visit and you’ll learn why.

Picture Venice Boulevard in L.A., or maybe Wilshire. Grant yourself godlike powers. Add a couple of lanes, dirty it up, kill most of the median landscaping. Plug in guaranteed-to-gridlock traffic circles, antiquated signaling.

Traffic on Bulevardul Magheru in Bucharest, Romania

Traffic on Bulevardul Magheru in Bucharest, Romania

Hoist this monstrosity into the troposphere, swing it across the Atlantic, slam it like a cattle brand or drunken prison tattoo through the heart of a European metropolis. Jam it curb-to-curb with smoking, rumbling, honking, squealing battalions of cars, cars, cars. Regiments of cars. Car brigades. Car armies.

Thoroughfares worthy of this gruesome imagery await your discretionary tourist funds in Bucharest. City traffic so depressed me that I twice abandoned evening sightseeing plans, instead holed up disgustedly in my hotel.

Late communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu’s systematization schemes deserve some of the blame for current Bucharest traffic woes, but only some. The man’s been dead for awhile: a Romanian firing squad gunned him down on Christmas Day, 1989.

* * * * *

Ceausescu ruled the Romanian roost from 1965 until death. He visited fellow commie fiefdom North Korea in 1971, nodded approvingly at Kim Il-sung’s personality cult, decided to encourage a personality cult of his own.

1978 rally. Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo 45286X66X71

1978 rally. Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo 45286X66X71

Mass propaganda rallies packed Romania’s stadiums; a half-million informers tattled on free-thinkers. Bucharest U flipped a quickie chemistry PhD to the first lady, a former night school drop-out, once expelled for cheating.

Ceausescu’s systematization razed more than three square miles of central Bucharest’s old town — demolished churches, synagogues, monasteries, a hospital; evicted 40,000 with a single day’s notice — to clear space for his Centrul Civic, anchored by the People’s House: the surrealistically huge Palace of the Parliament, today the world’s second largest administration building after the Pentagon.

Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Lonely Planet lists said palace as Bucharest’s top sight. Their Top Sight #2 is the Spring Palace, the Ceausescus’ personal lakeside villa. (Which includes an indoor pool, gold-tiled bathroom, private theater; Ceausescu watched U.S. shoot-’em-ups here, especially enjoyed Kojak.)

Lonely Planet chose well, but consider the bitter irony for Romania. Both palaces are testimony to Ceausescu’s rape of his sovereignty. Neither should exist.

* * * * *

Romania is poor, thirty-first of forty-five listed European states for GDP per capita. It shows. Some blocks could star in a behind-the-Iron-Curtain Red Scare documentary.

City block in Bucharest, Romania

City block in Bucharest, Romania

Tourists should not expect to speed between airport and central city aboard a plush express train, as in bucks-up Oslo or Stockholm. Prepare to ride among suffering Romanians in an old, slow bus sans air conditioning.

Metro stations show age, although many trains look new. Tram interiors are utilitarian, workmanlike.

Piața Romană metro station in Bucharest, Romania

Piața Romană metro station in Bucharest, Romania

I don’t mind that Romania is poor. I can ride a reasonably tidy old bus or tram. I mind that Romania doesn’t get the loathsome hordes of cars, cars, cars out of the way, so a bus or tram can go somewhere.

Herastrau Park is green, gorgeous, lushly-forested, well worth a stroll. TripAdvisor ranks it Bucharest “thing to do” #1. I’m a little amazed that car-crazed Bucharest hasn’t yet slammed a superhighway through the middle of it. (Maybe next year?)

Ceausescu didn’t leave future tourist entrepreneurs much Old Town to work with, but the remaining blocks are pleasant, visit-worthy, chock-full of nice restaurants. Bucharest churches deserve a long look, too, but you’ll have to deal with traffic to get to them.

Old Town in Bucharest, Romania

Old Town in Bucharest, Romania

Education First ranks Romania high for English fluency. The star test takers must have been stuck in traffic while I was there; I communicated often with gestures and facial expressions.

Three fellow tourists offered rich praise for landmarks visited in Romania’s hinterlands. The Bran Castle, perhaps. The Râșnov Citadel. These tourists visited Bucharest, too, but only for a single day. I visited for three.

Smart tourists! I suggest following their lead, and not mine.

Practical Information

()  Nope, you won’t use € here. Romanians buy stuff with lei, aka RON. Current exchange rates are about 4.6 RON to 1 EUR.

Henri Coandă airport in Bucharest, Romania

Henri Coandă airport in Bucharest, Romania

()  Only one ATM at the airport sported the Plus/Cirrus symbol I look for when withdrawing funds in a local currency. It worked, though.

()  My Spanish mobile phone plan lets me roam easily in Europe. I didn’t experiment with a prepaid SIM.

()  Two express-in-name-only buses serve central Bucharest from the airport: the 783 to the Piata Unirii city heart, and the less-frequent-running 780 to the Gara de Nord (train station). The  Multiplu transit card sold at a ticket window by the airport bus stop will cover your travel toward Piata Unirii or Gara de Nord, and back again. The price? I’ve forgotten. Sorry. It’s inexpensive.

Ceausescus in 1986. Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo 44348X171X226

Ceausescus in 1986. Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo 44348X171X226

How ’bout if you want to ride a tram or trolley bus in Bucharest proper? You’ll need another Multiplu card, you poor luckless traveler, you, and it will look exactly like the Multiplu card you bought for the 780 or 783, so you’ll be sure to mix them up. (Unless you scribble something on the front of one, as you’re free to do.) I bought my second Multiplu at a ticket window by the Piata Sf. Gheorge tram stop.

And if you wish to ride the metro as well? Another card! Yes! A third, separate, non-interchangeable transit card! At least it looks different. I paid the equivalent of four euros for a ten trip card, also sold at a staffed ticket window.

Traffic in Bucharest, 2009. User Babu, commons.wikimedia.org

Traffic in Bucharest, 2009. User Babu, commons.wikimedia.org

()  The Palace of the Parliament wants you to book tours by phone by calling +40 733 558 102 or +40 733 558 103 the day before your visit.  “I’ll listen to Your call is very important to us. Please continue to hold. for ten minutes, and then the line will go dead,” thought pessimistic moi. Wrong-o! A live human picked up after three rings, tops, booked me for the 9:00 a.m. English tour the following day.

(“The tour sounds like too much trouble,” you think. “I’ll visit without one.” If they’d let you, sure! But they won’t.)

Interior of Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Interior of Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania

Bring your passport on tour day, and be ready to hand it over to a security staffer before your tour begins. You’ll get it back when you leave. I did, or I might still be in Romania.

* * * * *

Photos!  Bucharest photos galore:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/36217981@N02/sets/72157683099064191

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Rail Day Trips from Madrid

You’re coming to Spain! You want to stroll among the beautiful people on Calle Arenal, ponder Madrazo at the Prado, chug-a-lug calimochos in Latina, black out in a Malasaña patrol car. But, before or after your well-deserved arrest, you’d like to sample the Spanish rail system, too, and book a day trip. Maybe you’ll find an unlocked restroom window in that three star Michelin restaurant, and can dine and ditch as you do back in the States.

You’re a high value tourist. This post is for you. A guide it’s not. Seat61 wrote a guide. This is a post. Casual. Incomplete. A sharing of thoughts.

Renfe Ave Class 102 ('Pato') train in Málaga, Spain

Renfe Ave Class 102 (‘Pato’) train in Málaga, Spain

Wish-est thou to travel near Madrid?

The local Cercanías commuter rail system can get you to El Escorial (the monastery), Alcalá de Henares (Cervantes’ birthplace), Aranjuez (summer palace), and other visit-worthy destinations on the city outskirts. If that’s all the local travel you seek, abandon this URL now and read my Cercanías post instead.

Cercanías is cheap and runs allatime. No advance ticket needed. Show up and go.

Or wishest-thou to travel (relatively) far?

Eager to ride the rails farther afield than Cercanías? You’re in the right place, or at least will be after digesting the Seat61 manifesto, linked twice for a reason.

Spain’s rail network is …

… far superior to USA’s East Coast Amtrak and utterly beyond the ken of anything now operational out west. I have lived in Spain almost a year, still struggle to bend aging brain cells around the hop-skip-and-a-jump mobility available between cities. My sense of time and space feel skewed; I can’t believe I can travel so quickly to distant Sevilla, Córdoba and Málaga without a plane ticket, and so picture these cities as closer to me than they actually are.

Train station in Málaga, Spain

Train station in Málaga, Spain

Consider: Barcelona is about as far from my Madrid home as Los Angeles is from San Francisco. In the states, the S.F.-to-L.A. shlep meant a six hour drive or a trip to the airport. Only a leisure traveler would book the only currently-available rail alternative: a once-a-day, eleven hour ride on the Coast Starlight. In Spain, in contrast: hourly to half-hourly departures for a 2.5 – 3 hour, central-Madrid-to-central-Barcelona ride on a high speed Ave train. A different world.

I haven’t read up on Spain’s economy, can’t judge if el contribuyente’s tax euros were invested shrewdly or flushed recklessly on the nation’s mighty rail infrastructure. I only marvel wide-eyed at what I can do aboard a system approved and built before I arrived. A visiting Californian should prepare for an unfamiliar reference frame: if you wish, you can maintain the same Madrid hotel room/tourist travel base while booking day trips to distant cities.

(To some distant cities: not to Santiago de Compostela, say, or Gijon, five hours away by rail. But to many. Visit renfe.com, plug in some destinations; experiment.)

Buying rail tickets

I bought mine direct from renfe.com with U.S.-issued credit cards. Seat61 warns that many others haven’t been so fortunate, and offers alternatives.

Renfe wants credit cards to be 3-D Secure: Verified by Visa, SecureCode for MasterCard, or SafeKey for American Express. Mine are. Call your card issuer, ask questions. I suspect that the extra 3-D Secure layer explains the high bounce rate for Seat61 users.

'Turista' seating on Renfe train in Spain

‘Turista’ seating on Renfe train in Spain

Renfe offers a related, all-Spanish FAQ page. Scroll down to: Con que tarjetas de crédito puedo comprar billetes en Internet?

You can buy some tix from Renfe by phone, too: +34 902 320 320. An English-speaking operator should be available, although you’ll hear Spanish, first.

I registered a user account at renfe.com. Maybe that helped.

If all else fails: consider buying tix in person at a Renfe punto de venta.

If your online ticket sale goes through, you’ll get a link to a downloadable .pdf ticket, and also should receive the same .pdf by e-mail. Print it and bring it on trip day. Coche = the car you’re riding in. Plaza = your seat.

How far to book in advance?

“At least a couple of days” is my knee-jerk answer, but I’ll again suggest plugging in experimental destinations at renfe.com and drawing your own conclusions. (And researching major holidays that may swamp the trains. You’re unlikely to be the only tourist who wants to visit Sevilla during the Feria de Abril.)

‘Tren completo’ means you didn’t book early enough: the train is full.

'Preferente' seating on Renfe train in Spain

‘Preferente’ seating on Renfe train in Spain

Tourist or First Class (Preferente)?

This post includes pix of seats in both. Not much of a difference; both are plenty nice. I believe a crew member passed out free copies of El País, El Mundo and other Spanish-language newspapers on a preferente ride, and not when riding tourist.

Some long-haul preferente tix include a meal, and the easily-missed option to specify vegetarian or other special order eats.

Where do I get the train?

Expect to depart Madrid from either the Puerta de Atocha station in the city center or the Chamartin station to the north (abbreviated on my .pdf tickets as ‘Madrid-P.A.’ and ‘Madrid-CH,’ respectively). The subway serves both, although Madrid strives to bewilder tourists by hanging the ‘Atocha’ moniker on two separate stations on the metro 1 line. You want “Atocha Renfe,” not “Atocha.”

Metro-to-Renfe transfer signage is reasonably clear in both stations. If unfluent and confused, adopt an endearingly helpless expression while showing your .pdf ticket print-out to a station employee. Said employee’s sign language should put you back on the right track.

Segovia-Guiomar station in Segovia, Spain

Segovia-Guiomar station in Segovia, Spain

You do not want local Cercanías commuter rail for this trip, represented by a big white-on-red ‘C,’ although Renfe operates Cercanías, too.

I have seen Spaniards board trains with minutes to spare. You’re new in town, don’t know the metro-to-rail-platform route by heart, should arrive much earlier. Expect on-the-dot departures and travel times.

300+ km/h?!?!

An LCD screen in my Madrid-to-Sevilla Ave frequently reported 270 km/h speeds (168 mph), although the train more often loafed along at 230 (143 mph). Even at 270, I could have waddled comfortably to the club car for an adipose-enhancing chocolate muffin. Fast, but not uncomfortably so.

Where do I go on this Madrid day trip?

Caveat emptor: I can compare only the Spanish cities I’ve visited to date: Toledo, Segovia, Ávila, Sevilla, Málaga, Córdoba and Barcelona.

Barcelona is the country’s second biggest city, and deserves more than a day trip.

Toledo is easiest. Hourly departures, 13€ one way, thirty minutes on the train, and the physically fit can walk comfortably from the train station to the historic Toledo of centuries past. That said …

Aqueduct Bridge in Segovia, Spain

Aqueduct Bridge in Segovia, Spain

… I might recommend that some Madrid tourists book Segovia first, although they’ll have to take the local 11 bus or taxi into town from the way-out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Segovia-Guiomar station. Similar frequency and ride time, some 13€ tix available, and Segovia offers more to stare at: the spectacular aqueduct, Alcázar, and Cathedral.

The other cities are well worth the travel time, but I’d give Córdoba and Sevilla a wide berth in the summer, unless visiting from Singapore or the UAE. Hot.

Posted in Europe, Expat, Madrid, Transit, Travel | Leave a comment

Explaining the American Accent

Europeans often recognize Yankee tourists for a trait that we Yanks often don’t know we possess: our American accents. I have one. Nearly everyone I knew in the U.S. — in high school, kollidge, beyond — had one.

But, many Americans don’t know they’ve got ’em. Regional accents exist, sure: Southern, New England, New York City. But mainstream U.S.? Come on! Readers in much of the U.S. already may regard this post with skepticism, like a literary IPO for shares in the Brooklyn Bridge.

If so, I’m sympathetic. I spent most of my life in the isolated U.S.: the world’s third largest country by area, bordered by the second largest. Seventy percent of my fellow citizens are passport-less; for many of my adult years, so was I.

I get it. I’ve been there. I’m on your side.

For lifelong Americans with similar backgrounds, please permit the following sideways sidle into an explanation:

* * * * *

Like you, I understand the sentiment that English is only properly spoken in the United States.

English may have evolved in Britain in millennia past, but has become corrupted and debased there since, perhaps owing to the notorious perversity of the isle’s menfolk. Shakespeare would roll despairing eyes at the tortured syllabification of a Richard Quest, would nod with relief while listening to an A-list American celeb like Dustin Diamond, Aubrey O’Day, Omarosa Manigault. This is English, the Bard would think, and book a one-way flight.

Hold that thought.

Some of you have long secretly believed something like this, although you’re now understandably wary of me for stating the notion in such bold terms. Fine. No argument. I stand with pacifistically outstretched arms, a peaceful emissary.

Now:

Imagine yourself in the hub of a faraway European city with many international visitors. Most passersby speak in the native tongue, but you hear much English, too: in tones that mark the speaker as German, Australian, Indian, British. And in this global crossroads of a place, you also occasionally hear English spoken as God intended it to be spoken: purely, correctly, without discernible accent. Perhaps by a visiting American.

With me so far? We’re almost there.

The English spoken ‘purely, correctly, without discernible accent’ is recognized worldwide as an American accent.

Really! I mean it!

Continue your stroll about this global crossroads. Pass other English-speaking pedestrians. When you next hear the mother tongue spoken ‘purely, correctly,’ consider interrupting the speaker with a sociable question:

“What brings you here from the States?”

Expect to be answered, not corrected. I have erred only once, when posing similar questions in Madrid; the misidentified accent belonged to a Montreal-raised Canadian.

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More than a Year with Linux

I write in the wake of the WannaCry ransomware attack, which has infected nearly a quarter of a million Windows PCs worldwide. Many victims must now be casting wistful eyes at alternative computer operating systems: Apple’s macOS, or the non-proprietary, lesser-known GNU/Linux.

I haven’t used macOS since the 1980s, can’t plug or pan. I post today to update the saga of my year-and-a-half old transition to Linux.

* * * * *

I still use Linux. I’m glad I switched. I haven’t looked back.

Clockwise, from top left: Linux 'distro' logos for Mint, CentOS, Fedora, Ubuntu, Arch, openSUSE, Puppy, Debian

Clockwise, from top left: Mint, CentOS, Fedora, Ubuntu, Arch, openSUSE, Puppy, Debian logos

I can do ninety to ninety-five percent of what I used to do in Windows as well or better in Linux. Linux is free, so I don’t have to accommodate revenue-protecting delays for product activation, digital licensing. I trust Linux developers vastly more; I’ll never forget Microsoft’s use of tactics judged malware-like to introduce Win 10, and thus would regard any internet-connected computer running Windows as a potential enemy. I also much prefer the look and feel of my GNU/Linux “distro” of choice (Linux Mint with the Cinnamon desktop). My day-to-day computing experience feels superior.

But:

The remaining five to ten percent of “what I used to do in Windows” still gets done in Windows today, albeit in an offline, software-only Windows “virtual machine.” (As explained in my 2015 post) I can’t edit .pdfs, process camera raw files or layout desktop published pages in Linux as I can in big buck commercial Win software.

The thirty-eight gigabyte Windows 7 virtual machine that runs this commercial software feels locked in amber, stuck in time. I won’t put the VM online, ever, for fear of being dragooned into a nefarious “upgrade.” The VM is reasonably up-to-date by late 2015 standards, for now and evermore.

VirtualBox is not user friendly. I also feel uncomfortably bound-at-the-hip to Hewlett-Packard peripherals, which are reputed to play better with Linux than competitor offerings. I like my new European-voltage HP printer, but also might have liked to comparison shop.

If Microsoft strong-armed the Win 10 roll-out because it could, I jumped ship to Linux because I didn’t have to go along. Maybe I can’t stop the only grocer in town from doubling the price of bread, but the grocer can’t stop me from baking my own if I have yeast, flour and a cookbook.

* * * * *

There is very little altruism in finance.
… Benjamin Graham, Security Analysis, 1934.

I think that Microsoft’s tactics in the Win 10 roll-out should have been illegal, but also am not surprised that a publicly traded Fortune 50 corporation would take such extreme steps to protect a revenue stream.

Mutual funds and other big institutions own most of Microsoft’s eight billion outstanding shares. The Vanguard Group alone holds more than half a billion, on behalf of various Vanguard funds fueling IRAs and 401ks. In 2016, the California public employees retirement system commanded about twenty-two million shares; the Canada Pension Plan investment board, about ten million.

An “index fund” will blindly hold the stock as long as it belongs in the index in question, no matter if the CFO soberly stewards the corporate ship or romps naked across interstates. Other investors hold the shares because they want money from them. They can get the money from dividends — now $1.56 per share annually for MSFT — and/or from capital appreciation, if the share price goes up.

The main short term mover of share price is EPS: earnings per share. Is the corporation selling lots of stuff? Is it making money? Consider, dear reader: it has to make money, needs its revenue stream as urgently as a mammal needs air, water, food. Shareholders hover anxiously over that revenue stream, fuss over the ratios — P/E, Price/Sales, FCF/Sales — that measure it. They notice changes. Quickly.

Selling lots of stuff + making money = all may be well on the balance sheet. I own shares in Kimberly Clark. They sell personal care products, including toilet paper. People are going to keep buying toilet paper. I’m grateful that they will, especially when they ride the metro with me. Feel free to think of ol’ Tim the next time you buy a roll.

(Or while using it, if you dislike this blog. ‘I need to cast a vote for Ronald Reagan,’ former California governor Pat Brown used to say, before trips to the toilet. I’ll be in famous company.)

Secure revenue stream! The toothpaste, soap and blended frappe consumed on Monday can’t be re-materialized for fresh consumption next week. Y’all gotta buy ’em again.

But:

What if the company sells something that only should have to be bought once?

What if the company can’t pile in any more bells and whistles? What if the old, already-paid-for version works just fine?

What does the company do then?

* * * * *

The scene: the boardroom of a publicly-traded corporation selling software in this precarious category. The CEO raps a gentle knuckle on the conference table for order, casts affectionate eyes at the industry veterans seated before him.

“Our little multinational is forty years old this week! Can anyone believe it?” He nods mischievously at a gray-haired colleague seated across the polished black walnut. “Lance! You think I’ll ever forget when you dumped that beer stein on our floppies at ’82 Comdex?! Half our inventory! We almost went belly up right there!”

Board members chuckle as Lance — a senior VP, worth millions in the corporation’s stock shares alone — hunches shoulders, mimics fear. The CEO lofts an arm.

“Raise your hand if you remember ten megabyte hard cards! C’mon, Dick, get your hand up; we were on the same team. How about hacking 286 protected mode? 12 megahertz; that was a CPU speed demon. Now I think 2 gigahertz is slow. Change came hot and heavy in those days.”

“We kept up with it,” says a board member, another multi-millionaire shareholder. The CEO grins, points a pistol finger.

“Bullseye. We did keep up with it. It’s been a long, strange trip, and we helped lead the trip. We served our customers. That’s why we’re where we are today.”

Slowly, deliberately, the CEO lets his grin fade. The board room quiets; something is coming.

The CEO pushes back his chair, rises slowly.

“We kept up,” he says. “But let’s be frank: there’s not much new these days to keep up with. Is there?”

Silence. The CEO lets the seconds tick past, nodding slightly, as if to acknowledge his own broaching of a taboo. He holds up splayed fingers, presses one down. Counting.

“What’s new and exciting now? Kaby Lake? DDR4? USB 3.1? Improvements, no question, but how much do they affect what we do? What our software does?” The CEO lowers his hand, looks pained. “You’ve heard what our critics say: the only reason we keep pushing new versions is to chisel more Benjamins out of our captive user base.

“And you know something? They’ve got a point.”

Silence. One board member slips a smartphone out of an inside coat pocket. He bows his head, moves quick fingers on the screen.

The CEO doesn’t notice. His eyes look bird bright, feverish.

“They’ve got a point. Friends, family: we’re at a crossroads.” He raises the hand again, counts off a finger. “Choice A: we can chase ARPU revenue with a software-as-service model. That would make the cash registers ring, but the EULA would be a privacy rights nightmare. We’d have to malware it onto hundreds of millions of PCs worldwide. Some of our pals in the computer press will carry our water if we buy ads and dole out book contracts, but I’ve got to look at myself in the mirror tomorrow.”

Board members squirm. Seat cushions creak. Two exchange significant glances, then pull out their own smartphones. A third follows, then a fourth. (E-trade. Ameritrade. My shares! What’s my log-in?)

The CEO laughs suddenly, too loudly. His hand shakes as he counts off a second finger.

“Or there’s Choice B: We call it a day. Stand pat. Security patches. Minor updates. But no new version unless our users can really benefit from a new version, and let’s be frank: at this stage, that may never happen. We’re officially in wrap-up mode.”

Silence no longer. Lance looks sick. By now half at the table have smartphones out, busily key in passwords for brokerage trading apps. (Sell, sell! Worry about the 10b5 rules later. Better judged by twelve than bankrupt by 6:00.)

The CEO looks triumphant. Spittle gleams on his lips.

“Of course, that’s going to put a dent in our cash flow. A big dent. A crater. Our shareholders are going to get one lollapalooza of a negative earnings surprise at our next conference call, and can expect plenty more of the same in the future.

“I’m still confident that stakeholders like you will want to hold onto your shares, out of the legendary personal loyalty that stock market investors so regularly show to the companies they own shares in.”

* * * * *

Not very realistic.

I humbly regard good government as important, think a marketplace can be carefully and respectfully regulated to check excesses. World Cups and World Series require referees. Alas, it’s tough to expect honest watchdogging from a U.S. Congress that would sell its citizens’ online privacy down the river, as in the recent vote on FCC privacy rules.

Europe hasn’t forgotten Adolf, the Stasi or the KGB, and does a better job of helping Jonas Q. Public keep his online shades drawn. The EU also still has reservations about Windows 10. (And Facebook) There may be hope!

* * * * *

(Linux ‘distro’ logos:  Linux Mint, CentOS, Fedora, Ubuntu, Arch, openSUSE, Puppy, Debian.  New at Linux?  Leave Arch alone.)

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Madrid Impressions: Round Three

Spain has worked out well for me. I might never make tenure track at Instituto Cervantes, but navigate chats in español far more adroitly than when I arrived last summer. I’ve made new friends, hope to stay put.

I stand by ‘impressions’ rounds one and two, but will humbly judge this latest contribution to be more valuable, if only because your aging author has now dwelt within the to-be-opined-about burg for nearly a year.

EUROPE-ROAMING SPANIARDS

European Union citizens can live and work at will in any one of the EU’s twenty-eight member countries, which together command a bit less than half the land area of the United States.

This map shows EU unemployment rates:

Eurostat: Unemployment rate, 2016

Eurostat: Unemployment rate, 2016

Please note up-north-blue and down-south-orange.

If you were an out-of-work millenial in Sevilla or Córdoba, what wallet-fattening life change might you contemplate? One similar to that undertaken by the impecunious young in high unemployment Alabama and Louisiana: you pack up your skateboard and move where the jobs are.

The crucial difference: the ‘Bamer might move to Utah, North Dakota or another work-rich state within the U.S. The EUer moves to a whole ‘nother country.

A Madrileña told me that she fields calls on her móvil from childhood chums now scattered in jobs continent-wide. Spaniards routinely report long work stints on European foreign soils: as au pairs in the UK, customer support reps in France.

Negotiating meaning among the EU’s twenty-four official languages? One gets by. Language challenges come with the EU territory, literally.

U.S. LIFE ROMANTICIZED

Or the U.S. life depicted in mainstream movies, especially.

Angelenos rarely romanticize the SoCal movie biz. “Film crew at work” doesn’t suggest glamour, mystique, a chance to glimpse a favorite celeb at work. To me, it meant a phalanx of trucks at the curb, and picking my weary pedestrian’s way across a sidewalk cluttered with lighting gear, buffet tables and bored stand-arounds, all likely on hand to shoot a beer commercial.

That’s ’cause I lived there. I never paused to wonder how Hollywood everything might be regarded elsewhere in the world, among Europeans weaned on films, TV shows and music vids produced in distant Southern California.

Something clicked when a Madrileño told me that he knows California from his collection of Clint Eastwood movies. An Australian expat sagely suggested that the U.S. entertainment industry may wield more global clout than any weapons system.

Gran Via near Callao metro in Madrid

Gran Via at Callao metro in Madrid

Before last year’s Trump win, I felt amazed by how often I saw Spaniards adorned with American flags on t-shirts, back-packs, other garments. Fellow Intercept readers may grumble that these Spaniards drank P.R. Kool-Aid, regarded the Obama-led U.S. through unwarrantedly rosy lens. The point here is that they did drink it, despite the colossal decade-past protests against the Iraq war and former Prime Minister Zapatero’s (immensely admired by me) early withdrawal of Iraq troops.

The U.S. flags mostly disappeared from Madrid sidewalk fashion after November 8, 2016. Spaniards have sounded afraid and scandalized while posing Trump-related questions before and since, but a few still seem to view the U.S. as a baseball-crazed Cincinnati teen might have seen Pete Rose after the 1989 gambling scandal. The U.S. flag t-shirts may now sit at the bottom of the laundry hamper, but I sense a longing to rekindle sentimental old flames.

(Others seem to have simply lost interest, moved the U.S. down the list of visit-worthy foreign countries.)

Some Madrileños also compliment the U.S. justly, appropriately. Many Americans are egalitarian, friendly. Many American businesses are well-run. Many Americans do admirably take initiative.

A DIFFERENT ASSUMPTION SET

The European comes of age:

()  amidst antiquity unheard-of in the states. Acropolis, Colosseum, Acueducto, London Tower, Versailles.

()  in close proximity with other countries and languages. Spain is only 20% larger than California. Travel 550+ miles southwest from S.F. and you’re in Vegas, yakking in English with a fellow American. Travel two-thirds that distance from Madrid and you’re in Toulouse, yakking in French with a Frenchman.

()  without an American’s illusion of potency in some international affairs. Barstool Joe in Sioux Falls may exert no influence on policy, but still holds citizenship in a sovereignty bankrolling a globe-dominating military empire. Joe can imagine he plays a part — e.g., “I’ve decided it’s time for us to take a stand in North Korea.” — as a sports fan may employ the pronoun “we” when describing a home team’s victory.

Courtyard of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid

Courtyard of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid

The European entertains no such delusions. Iraq War? Crimea Annexation? You wring hands, watch.

So far, I have shared my impressions of this different assumption set with several Europeans, and have drawn self-consciously quizzical expressions when asking for feedback. They have not been able to imagine coming of age with my assumption set, as I haven’t been able to imagine coming of age with theirs.

A BLEAKER VIEW OF THE U.S.

Spain is free to romanticize the U.S. I don’t. I feel at times that I have emerged from a propaganda haze, marvel at the bare-fannied nonsensicality of some claims routinely presented as fact to the American public. Drones and troops invading countries halfway around the globe are said to be — what? — “defending American values” or “protecting our freedoms.” (Why not say they’re “upholding constitutional principles,” if you’re going to be that silly?)

I knew this stuff was malarkey before I left, but the absurdity seems far more plain on this side of the Atlantic. I think of Soviet propaganda while watching a music video, of Solzhenitsyn’s “Don’t stop applauding” anecdote while watching the Ryan Owens speech. I feel sorry for former students. They are grown now; some must struggle to reconcile the torturously narrow scope of public debate with unasked questions begged by 2 + 2 = 4 common sense: Aren’t torture and secret prisons unconstitutional? Why does the U.S. keep getting in wars with countries thousands of miles away?

The stuff of another post, perhaps. I’ll stop here. I have not met other American expats expressing similar views.

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Spain Expat Odds and Ends

Or, a round-up of heretofore unmentioned tips for expats and expats-to-be:

MAIL AND DELIVERIES

Almost everything I once ordered through amazon.com stateside is available through amazon.es in Spain. I use the same account and log-in, have received deliveries without incident. An amazon.es CSR called to verify bonafides for my first order.

Plaza de Oriente

Plaza de Oriente

I missed a couple of print issues of the Economist after transferring my subscription, but now receive them and other items via conventional mail. Expect to plow through much red tape to book an apartado de correos post office box, if you want one.

DHL has offices all over Madrid. So does SEUR. UPS doesn’t, but does deliver here, and a UPS My Choice account can be used in Spain as handily as stateside. UPS’ Madrid phone number is 902 888 820.

Expect to pay through the nose to ship to the U.S. via DHL.  I did, twice.

BROADBAND INTERNET

Vodafone.es promotes high-speed fiber broadband. I got it, regularly clock downloads at close to 300 mbps, even through a VPN, and have found the service reliable, at least so far.

INTERNATIONAL CALLS

Or, more specifically: calls to the U.S.

I had good luck with PennyTalk for awhile, then luck bad enough to discourage further patronage.

I set up a Viber account, called a Los Angeles friend, chucked Viber after sampling the connection quality. Viber may legitimately complain that I didn’t give them a fair trial.

I don’t want to use a computer that can stare back at me, paste black tape over display camcorder lenses, and am thus an unlikely source for Skype tips. Sorry.

I tried direct dialing the U.S. from my Spain Vodafone cell phone account. The calls got through, but the Vodafone network didn’t like the sudden, unexpected appearance of so many international calls on my bill, and sent dark text warnings of account restrictions.

Cercanías platform at Madrid Atocha station

Cercanías platform at Madrid Atocha station

Vodafone’s English tech support can be reached by dialing 22189 from a cell phone with a Vodafone SIM in it, and pressing ‘3.’ You also can visit one of many Vodafone centers in Madrid for an all-in-Spanish yak about your plan, but should plan on arriving close to opening time, unless you enjoy long sits in waiting rooms.

After much back-and-forth, I now have:

()  A ‘tarifa prepago internacional’ SIM in an old smartphone. The plan is separate from my regular Vodafone plan, and I use this phone only to call the U.S.

()  An extra called ‘International Bono’ on my regular Vodafone plan. I’m fuzzy on details, but think I’m accepting a small monthly account surcharge to make relatively inexpensive calls to the U.S. As importantly, the pairing of International Bono with an account tells the Vodafone network that the customer wants to call overseas, and shouldn’t be pestered with text messages about account restrictions.

(English tech support may want to tell you about an older option than International Bono. Ask the tech to check.)

I can use International Bono if I devour the minutes on my prepaid internacional SIM, regard it as a back-up.

Please note: I set up both these plans only a few weeks ago, don’t yet entirely understand what I got, may write prematurely. I’m sharing what I know. I no longer receive threatening text messages, and think I can call stateside without spending a leg and an arm on future bills.

Competitors Movistar and Orange may be way better than Vodafone for expats, for all I know. I own Vodafone stock shares.

TARJETA ANUAL DE MUSEOS ESTATALES

36€ and the NIE number on your visa entitles lucky you to a Tarjeta anual de Museos Estatales, good for free admission for a year at the link-listed museums. I don’t have to wait in long lines to commune with de Ribera’s masterpieces at the Prado!

Strongly recommended, but you’ll need that NIE to get one. Not for tourists.

(I’m sorry, tourists! Don’t hate me! I was once a tourist here, too.)

Felipe IV statue at Plaza de Oriente

Felipe IV statue at Plaza de Oriente

SERVICE IN SPAIN

On this very URL in 2015, I wrote:

Barcelona and Madrid both struck me as efficient, businesslike places. Some Spaniards reading that last sentence may have just coughed up coffee on their shirt fronts, but that was my impression, and I’ll stick to it.

That’s still my impression today, after six continuous months in Madrid. I expect deadlines to be met and businesses to open on time, and they have. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I’m much more inclined to judge stereotypes-to-the-contrary as malarkey.

Some Spain businesses do close for several hours mid-afternoon.

BUSINESS RECOMMENDATIONS

Just one new one, for now: if prepared to chat entirely in Spanish, consider Euromof as a source for home office furniture.

ONLINE RESOURCES

I could point out other personal web sites, but think it smarter to hand off to fellow expat Bill Dietrich’s excellent Moving from USA to Spain round-up at: http://www.billdietrich.me/MovingToSpain.html .

ExpatExchange, Expatica and Expat all host online forums for Spain expats, but I suggest visiting ExpatForum first. Me thinks you’ll find the most users there.

Major Spanish-language newspapers include El País, El Mundo, La Vanguardia and ABC. Tiempo offers weather reports.

APPS

The Spanish student ready to look past Google Translate may consider:

()  Diccionario RAE y ASALE (DLE). Both dictionary and teller-about-verbs, if you press the CONJ. (for conjugate) button with a verb on screen. DLE also IDs transitive vs intransive verbs.

()  SpanishDict may be an easier conjugator-of-verbs for new students.

()  Linguee offers uses-in-context translations of phrases uneasily translated by conventional dictionaries.

I’m happy with the official Metro de Madrid and Renfe Cercanías apps.

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I introduce Madrid Cercanías commuter rail

Zurich, Berlin, Copenhagen and Munich have their S-trains. Parisians ride the RER; Long Islanders, the LIRR. Torontonians brave snowdrifts on the GO, perhaps while grunting ‘Eh?’ at one another after maple syrup-sogged moose chases. (I haven’t visited Canada in awhile.)

Cercanias en route to El Barrial-Centro

Cercanias en route to El Barrial-Centro station in Madrid

Commuter rail is the inadequate and often misleading moniker for transit services of this type. Bigger and faster than trams, with spiffier seating (usually), longer routes and their own right of way, often shared with regional rail networks. Suburban householders ride commuter rail to weekday slaves in the financial district.

I was lucky enough to sample many such systems worldwide during travels in ’14 and ’15. (But still kick myself for missing the huge regional New York grid.) I noted that the S-Bahns, RERs, S-Togs and so forth ran much more often than equivalent services in the Golden State, but can be a dense old codger at times, and never bent my brain around the big picture of how such frequent commuter rail service might impact mobility for a year-round resident. Hadn’t I privately dismissed California commuter rail as a big yawn? How many errands or meetings had I attended via Metrolink in 10+ years without a car in L.A.? 3+ hour mid-day waits between trains on the Ventura County line, no weekend service! Come on.

Cercanias platform at Atocha Renfe station

Cercanias at Atocha station

I now live in Madrid, and can remain dense no longer. The Cercanías commuter rail grid is nearly as fundamental to the transit infrastructure here as the metro, and matters far more than the relatively trivial Ligeros light rail system. Long stretches of Cercanías run underground in central Madrid, alongside the metro. Cercanías links with the metro at stations all over Madrid; riders bustle through one system’s fare gates, pass through another’s a minute later. I’ll never again see commuter rail as I did out west.

* * * * *

I’ll let the timetables talk.

On weekdays, six trains on Metrolink’s Antelope Valley line depart from suburban Santa Clarita before 8:00 a.m. for the hour long slog to downtown Los Angeles.

Signage for Madrid Metro and Cercanias

Signage for Madrid Metro and Cercanías at Atocha station

Want to ride in later? Here’s your departure schedule:

9:13 a.m., 10:05 a.m., 11:35 a.m., 12:42 p.m., 1:54 p.m., 2:44 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 5:14 p.m., 7:34 p.m.

That’s it. Nine departures.

Eager to zip downtown for a late afternoon pow-wow with an accountant, lawyer, business associate, or to bag some yummy pastries at Queen’s Bakery? Better bring a book, maybe War and Peace. How about if you don’t go to bed at 7:30 p.m., and fancy a Friday night club hop in the Arts District? Better bring a sleeping bag. The trains don’t run that late.

How about transit alternatives? Non-existent or unappealing. (Although I’m not as swift with a SoCal trip planner as in my TransitPeople years, and may have missed a route.) The loud-and-clear message: you need a car to live in Santa Clarita. Or Uber, or plenty of cab fare.

Cercanias ticket machines at Principe Pio station

Cercanías ticket machines at Principe Pío station

The Bay Area’s Caltrain runs more frequently, with one hour mid-day and weekend headways (time intervals between vehicles). But I don’t want to wait an hour between rides, and ignored Caltrain proximity while scouting transit-friendly digs in 2011. As for Ace Rail in the East Bay: eight trains a day, four westbound in the morning, four eastbound in the afternoon. That’s all.

In Madrid, in contrast, I came within a whim and a hair of a long-term apartment lease in suburban Aravaca, largely for the unit’s proximity to a Cercanías stop. Consider the headways I looked at from the El Barrial-Centro stop to the metro link at Principe Pio: ten or fifteen minutes mid-weekday, fifteen to twenty minutes on weekends.

Cercanias seating

Cercanías seating

Admittedly, this is a best case scenario. El Barrial-Centro is only a fifth as far from Principe Pio as Santa Clarita’s thirty-seven miles from Union Station, and is served by two Cercanías lines. So I’ll compare apples to apples. Aranjuez and Guadalajara are about thirty-two to thirty-six miles from central Madrid. Mid-day weekday headways are twenty to thirty minutes for the first and a mere fifteen for the second. And, mind you, Cercanías isn’t in the same league as some commuter rail lines found elsewhere.

(For reasons unknown to this newcomer, however, headways into Madrid from the El Escorial station are more Caltrain-ish: hourly on weekdays.)

* * * * *

A cautionary note:

So far I have toured the Cercanías C-2, C-3, C-4, C-5 and C-8 lines. Occasionally I have wondered during these travels if the transit pixies may have erred, and inadvertently bequeathed to Madrid a transit infrastructure intended for the booming NorCal tech hub. I imagine a benevolent Godzilla peeling back the Bay Area’s rocky crust in the wee hours — say at 3:00 a.m., when houses are moved — and depositing a cloned Madrid transit infrastructure in BART and Caltrain’s stead.

Apartments near Las Retamas station

Apartments near Las Retamas station on C-5 line

Imagine! Long-suffering commuters in San Rafael, Novato, Petaluma, Vallejo would wake up to find Cercanías hubs in their respective city centers, offering departures four times an hour to Market Street and Jack London Square. San Franciscans would blink and pinch themselves while tapping in Clipper cards at un-grimy new metro stations on 19th, Divisadero, 3rd Street, and at least three on Geary.

A Tracy native told me that some of her neighbors have to wake up at THREE IN THE MORNING to beat the rush hour jam on the 205 and 580 freeways. If only this kindly Godzilla could have its way! Tracy commuters might get to stay up later, offer homework help to their children.

I am doodling an idle fantasy here, so will not consider the legitimately bitter objections to such radical changes. I contend only that a brawny, Madrid-sized transit infrastructure would be a reasonable fit in the Bay Area. Since 1992, the populations of San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties have swelled 18, 24, 34 and 16%, respectively. Google, Facebook, Twitter and Uber didn’t exist in 1992; now they’re headquartered in the Bay Area.

As for the muscularity of the Madrid transit grid in Madrid itself: I don’t know. The trains I sampled sported goodly crowds, but I also rode past many empty acres while touring the extremities of the C-2, C-3 and C-4 lines. Sheep, trees and bare hills don’t need close proximity to Cercanías stations, but have them here. I passed attractive transit oriented apartment buildings like those shown above, but also some that struck me as grim, an auto lobbyist’s ‘transit gulags.’

3 trains an hour for these sheep on the C4 line

Three trains an hour for these sheep on the C-4 line

I don’t know. I don’t understand the Madrid economy, the Madrileño perspective on public sector spending, urban development expectations before and after the financial crisis, much, much more. I don’t understand Madrid or Spain, period, and haven’t yet met other transit buffs here.

But, with confidence, I’ll conclude:

If you’ve spent most of your life in California, as I have, please don’t think that Metrolink and Caltrain are representative of commuter rail planet-wide. They’re not.

* * * * *

Update, 1/23/2017:  You’ll find lotsa Cercanías-related photos at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/36217981@N02/albums/72157675867332463

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