Musings on Madrid

Posted on November 4, 2018
    > Epistemic status: Excited, and open to a greater conversation about this. 

After living in Madrid for several months at this point, I have decided to do a brief comparison of Madrid versus other cities I have lived in (New York, D.C). While I have not experienced much culture shock, mainly due to my personal background, there still are quite a few noticeable differences.

Transport

For starters, Madrid does an excellent job with transportation. The Madrid Metro runs on time, and the trains, while averaging on the older side, are still comfortable and clean. With 238 stations and 12 lines, it has proven easily even from where I live to get around Madrid in an easy fashion.

This contrasts my experience with the New York and D.C metros, which suffer consistently from delays.

Along with the subway, the commuter rail service operated by RENFE is also high quality. Called the Cercanías, it extends to the suburbs of Madrid but also reaches interesting tourist destinations such as El Escorial, Segovia, Guadalajara, and many other destinations. It also from Chamartín provides very easy access to the airport. I personally to get to class at the moment use the Cercanías to get to UAM (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid), and while it can be crowded in the morning, it runs on time!

The entire transport system is very affordable, considering I only pay 20$ a month for a student transport card. This is a great deal considering that this also includes the Cercanías, light metro, and bus system of Madrid. It would be great if deals like this were offered to students back in the states, it would despite the discounts likely increase ride share.

Beyond public transportation, the rise of bike and scooter sharing has spread to Madrid as well. The usual competitors such as Lime Bike and WoBike have appeared in Madrid, along with native competitors like Wind or Voi providing local competition. Interestingly, many people in Madrid instead of renting the scooters buy their own electric scooter and shops selling them exist across the city.

A big contrast is the existence of motorcycle sharing services. While slowly becoming a thing in the United States, as seen in this Atlantic article from August about moped sharing in Atlanta, it seems more common in Madrid. Startups in Madrid such as MOVO, eCooltra, Coup, Muving, and others have moped sharing as their business. While having only used them briefly, they have proven an extremely enjoyable form of transport, and it will be exciting to see this type of transport come to the United States. This will be interesting as it might create a tier system of share transport of scooter => bike => moped => Uber or Lyft. It also provides another method of solving the dreaded last mile problem after taking public transport.

The only main thing that is troubling, and that I will not miss when I return to the States in December, are the very aggressive drivers. Despite having many options of transport to rent for the road, the trouble is that Madrileno drivers seem highly aggressive. At least for me, unlike in D.C, I feel somewhat stressed using a scooter on the road in Madrid, as it seems the drivers lack about pedestrians. I suspect there would be more people using the scooters if the drivers were less aggressive.

Urban Design

Madrid in contrast to New York and D.C due to being a much older city has to put it simply, chaotic. In general, the streets are smaller and the street plan is more organic compared to NYC and D.C. As a result, the center of the city is rather walkable and quite a few streets are for pedestrians only. It is nice especially around Sol that work is being done to convert more streets into pedestrian-only streets.

The buildings are quite nice looking as well. In the many parts of the city, the retail 1st floor and residential upper floors design of housing are common. While graffiti on buildings might be common in parts of the city, it does not really make those areas feel dangerous. The best way to describe the style of housing is diverse. All the neighborhoods throughout the city have a different feel to them, depending on the purpose and when they were first built. The northern part of Madrid, which is newer, compared to the center of the city is a good example of this contrast.

A troubling part of the urban design of Madrid has to be the existence of El Paseo de la Castellana, and the highways that cut into parts of the city. The Paseo de la Castellana is rather strange because while it is a major highway, government institutions, the Real Madrid Stadium, and other important buildings line it. The height of the buildings creates this rather intimidatory aspect that tends to appear when tall buildings are meant to intimidate. Considering that Franco played a part in managing it, this might be intentional. It does not help the only real skyscrapers in Madrid are on the El Paseo de La Castellana.

The streets in the more planned parts of Madrid tend to feel more aggressive with the traffic, especially near some of the highways that run through the city. It is understandable why they exist, to shuttle people around the city from the outskirts, but the aggressiveness of the drivers makes it a bit troubling. One good thing that the government does to mitigate this, is Madrid has a lot of underground parking spaces, meaning that many cars are not parked on street level.

Culture

One thing that might seem minor but struck me is the treatment of people working in coffee shops. For starters, it has proven somewhat of an inconvenience to find a coffee shop to work in, and when one is found, often there is a catch. This ranges from being forced to work in a segregated area, to limited to no WiFi. While somewhat of a minor problem, it is somewhat of a shock coming from D.C/ NYC where at this point coffee shops are meant for people working remotely.

Language is not as much of a shock to me, considering I can understand and speak Spanish decently enough, but some things are still interesting to deal with. For starters, the stereotype of Spanish Spanish speakers speaking quickly is true, and while it has been easy to adjust, it can be a problem sometimes. Secondly, the contrast between Latin American vs Spanish Spanish is noticeable. For example, Spanish Spanish uses different words for things then Latin American Spanish does. For example carro / coche for car, manejar / conducir for to drive, or computadora / ordenador for computer. This is along with other differences such as the usage of vosotros in Spain, along with informal words using in different branches. Contrast que linda with que guay for example. It proved a nice fact to learn that guay does mean something similar, but it was a bit irritating to discover linda was not a thing in Spain.

Madrid nightlife is also different compared to the states. While one does have the option to go out clubbing until 7 am during the weekend, there are other options as well. It is nice to see at night for example, that the cafes are filled with people talking and eating even at 12 am. This tends to make the city feel rather safe, as at least I feel there is always someone watching.

An interesting observation is around the more hipstery neighborhoods around Noviciado and in general, quite a few clothing stores look like they are from Brooklyn! It is quite strange to see a real-life example of airspace play out in real life. While the clothing is nice enough, seeing the same minimal aesthetic in Madrid was somewhat strange to encounter.

Food

The one thing I will definitely miss when I come back to the States soon is the food. The meats from Jamón ibérico to Chorizo are delicious to eat on a constant basis. The general meat focus of the Spanish diet has been something much appreciated. Another perk is that food in Spain is affordable, with the cafeteria at UAM providing a full course meal for 5€, which is a steal, as an example.

The regional contrasts have been nice to explore as well. For example, during a trip to Santiago de Compostela, I had the opportunity to eat Galician seafood, along with go to the coast and see oysters and clams be farmed. I also traveled to Extremadura where I got to see the pigs that got fed acorns to fatten them up to become Jamón ibérico. Eating at that farm and quite literally having farm to table was a great privilege.

The only complaint I have about food in Spain is the diversity of options actually. Something I miss about the United States is the privilege to eat food from all sorts of groups. Especially in D.C, there is such a diversity of food, from Ethiopian to Salvadorian, reminding me of the many choices back in the states. It is a virtue of the United States to be a nation of immigrants, so at the very least, we are a melting pot of culinary traditions.

A curious note about the restaurants is how payments are handled actually! The majority of restaurants and business I have been to handle debit/credit card payments via Caixa Bank which has the ability to do magnetic chip-based transactions. Something I noticed is that it seems the usage of startup payment terminals is not common. So far, I have not encountered a payment terminal by Square or any other startup in the same category. While not a problem, it is interesting to see that at least in Spain, the usage of this tech has not spread.


It has been a great opportunity and privilege to be able to study abroad and live in Madrid for the last few months. I hope to return and possibly live again in Madrid someday.