So we’re back from a trip to Segovia yesterday. More of a trip report later, but first a small “mirror world” observation.
(For those who haven’t read William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, the reference is to an observation by the book’s main character to the effect that travel often takes you to a “mirror world”, where things are almost, but not quite the way you expect them to be.)
One of the things we love about Europe is the well developed public transit system. Large cities all have subway and/or light rail systems that (with the exception of Rome) can take you nearly anywhere you want to go around the city with minimal fuss or hassle. For longer distances, there are national and international rail systems. Overall, you can be very mobile for cheap and easy. As short-term residents/tourists, the system is fabulous for us. And the locals seem to love it too — some of my colleagues were highly complimentary of the local metro as well, and many people seem to live car-free. (Not to mention, based on returning home about 11:00 PM on Saturday night, it’s a great system to avoid needing an inconvenient designated driver. ;-)
But in the few days we’ve spent touristing, we’ve encountered some inconvenient “mirror world”-style differences. Specifically, there are many fewer public restrooms, drinking fountains, and public seats.
For example, the Charmatin metro station in Madrid, which is the intersection between the city subway system and the country-wide rail system, is a huge, beautiful, modern station. It’s actually two stations — the rail station (above ground) and the subway station (below ground). The subway station is immense, spacious, elegant looking, clean, modern, and decorated. Polished stone floors, gleaming steel, glass, a maze of fast escalators, bright light, and a fascinating two-story tall digital waterfall art piece. But no seats. Anywhere. Not in the huge halls, not near the train tracks, nowhere.
Why? I can only assume that the designers don’t expect anyone to be lounging around for long. Which is a reasonable assumption, I guess. But you can stand around 10 min waiting for trains at some points, or, say, if you’re meeting people. Not to mention people who may have physical difficulty getting around. I’ve seen plenty of older folk and even a few people on crutches using the metro. Surely they would enjoy some seats?
Similarly, the lack of bathrooms is… Almost painfully inconvenient. I guess that many Europe travel guides written for US consumption mention this, but it, um, presses home when you’re actually here.
(To be fair, the Chamartin train station itself does actually have both seats and bathrooms. The bathrooms are tucked in the back and hidden down flights of stairs, which makes me wonder how anybody with physical disabilities gets to them.)
What doesn’t get talked about as much is the lack of drinking fountains. So far, we’ve been to two museums, a palace, and a castle. I have been in to the Polytecnica’s department of Information Sciences a few times now, and we have done a bunch of shopping in local department stores and grocery stores. We have trekked through numerous metro stations and wandered confused, looking for kitties, through half of the Barajas airport.
No drinking fountains. None.
Compounded with the fact that you pay for water in restaurants and it typically comes in 0.5 l (~2 cups) units, plus the generally dry climate, I have felt constant low-level dehydration. The only thing that saved us yesterday is that the town of Segovia has a number of free-flowing public drinking fountains. But Madrid does not seem to have anything like that.
I guess this all just brings home to me some differences in world views. Spain is clearly interested in spending large amounts of tax money on having really first-rate modern public transit systems. But it appears that things that US folk would consider to be necessary in any public space — seats, restrooms, drinking fountains — just don’t rise to the level of consideration here. I assume that it’s a historical trend — there were, I guess, no public bathrooms in the sixteenth century, so no expectation of them was built. But it makes me wonder how it came to be a deep-set social expectation in the US.
Yours, in dehydration, Terran.