It appears that I am the first to greet you all with not “hello,” “ciao,” or “merhaba,” but with “hola” as we have recently arrived in Madrid!
We arrived with, and carry with us, heavy hearts after having to leaving Istanbul so abruptly and under such tragic circumstances. The past week has been very emotional, so I am choosing to focus on something a little less heavy in these next few paragraphs.
In the past 3 months, I have lucky enough to step foot in 3 continents, 8 countries, and utilize 7 different public transportation systems: the “L” and train in Chicago; the light rail and buses in Minneapolis; the metro in Paris; the high speed rail throughout Europe; the tram and bus system in Rome; the metro in Istanbul; and recently the metro and buses in Madrid. Although each of these systems share the same goal of moving people from place to place quickly and efficiently, each system varies greatly from the others.
These differences are present in the design of the system, the cars, and the routes, of course, but more interestingly, the ways in which people act while onboard are very different depending on the culture.
Rome public transportation consisted of above ground trams and was very hectic and unreliable. On our first day travelling to the Accent center on our own the tram drivers went on strike, so we had to figure out the way to the center on foot. Strikes like this are not uncommon in Rome and, just as Rome has done historically, the people adapt and the city keeps on moving.
Rome’s public transportation is the best way to get to know other people. And by “get to know other people” I do not mean in a polite, conversational way, I mean in a close quarters, “all up in your business” sort of way. Every morning the tram would pull up to the stop outside our residences and it would appear to be full – I mean completely full, jam packed! We quickly learned that even if it looks full, there is usually room – just ask the older Roman ladies, they were the most persistent to board. We became used to squishing into the tram like sardines, using the people around you as support as the tram sped up and slowed down. A tram with personal space was rare, and don’t even think about getting a seat!
Rome’s unreliable public transportation and the close quarters had become the norm for us; then we moved to Istanbul. The metro in Istanbul was much different. First of all, it was a subway system and going below ground made it much more intimidating and seemingly confusing at first. Our first metro ride consisted of 19 of us and after our experiences in Rome, we had given up hope of all of us getting on the same tram, let alone the same car. Well, to our surprise, the tram pulled up and it appeared nearly empty! We all piled on, standing – as expected.
The metro in Istanbul was incredibly clean, not too smelly, more expansive and convenient than that in Rome, the cars were larger, it told you what stops were coming up through an audible announcement, a scrolling display, and a flashing light diagram. As an added bonus, there were cats who lived in the subway and it went under water!
The metro in Istanbul, was very pleasant, as were the tram and ferry rides, but we’ll stick to the metro. The metro cars had television screens in them that sometimes displayed mini documentaries on cities around the world, but most often they were playing the most adorable animal videos you could imagine. On one of our first few rides, Emily suggested that they might be showing these adorable videos to keep people calm and happy. I thought she was joking, but the ride after that I noticed that every person who was watching the screen had a pleasant, content grin on their face. Kudos to you, Istanbul, for making enjoyable subway rides – usually a difficult task.
I have obviously had the least experience with the subway system in Madrid, but, even after taking it over a dozen times, I can say that it is definitely the most confusing and least intuitive system that I have experienced this trip. The first time we took the metro was to accent as a big group. At this point, we were used to the transit in Istanbul so we expected a pleasant, calming experience. Well, we trekked through tunnels underground for at least 15 minutes, we must have walked a mile up and down stairs and escaladers before we even got to our platform, then we took it only one stop! We were all questioning whether this could be any faster than walking to where we had to go. I finally have my head relatively wrapped around the system, but it is so easy to make a mistake or a wrong turn when there are so many options underground and so many people buzzing around you rushing to their places.
In conclusion, Istanbul has the best metro system, by far. It is intuitive, informative, calming, comfortable, and enjoyable. I have a hard time determining which system is “better” between Rome and Madrid because they both excel and fall short in different aspects. Rome isn’t very reliable and you are likely to end up body-to-body with a stranger, but it is above ground so you can see where you are, when the train is coming, and to constantly experience beautiful views of the city. Madrid’s system is more reliable and more informative in regards to signage, maps, and upcoming stops. On the other hand, it is small, smelly, chaotic and unintuitive. It is probably the most connected and expansive of the three rail systems, however.
Here are of some pictures of Rome, Istanbul, and Madrid!