The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
Saint Augustine
Ticketless in Madrid's Metro

When I arrived at Madrid’s Barajas Airport, I waited nearly 45 minutes for the taxi service I’d reserved to take me to my hostal near Plaza Mayor. When the taxi finally arrived, the driver smiled and stored my bags in the rear of the mini-bus. I climbed into the seat behind him.

Hoping to get a description of what I was seeing on the way to the hostal, I decided to engage the driver in casual conversation. I quickly learned that he spoke no English. Beyond knowing a few numbers and a few cursory greetings, I speak no Spanish. So I handed him my copy of the hostal reservation and we were on our way.

Little did I know that my experience with that driver would be repeated on some level several times during my stay in Madrid. As the week wore on, I learned to my dismay that English is not widely spoken in Spain’s capital city, at least, not as widely as I’d hoped. Nevertheless, I was able check into my room, use the ATMs, order and pay for my meals, buy tickets to various attractions and do anything else I needed to do to enjoy beautiful Madrid.

With the puny conversion rate for U. S. Dollars, I was determined to save a few euros by taking the Metro back to the airport instead of the more expensive taxi. After studying Madrid’s Metro map, I concluded that the system operated very similar to Washington, DC’s Metro near my home. I was almost certain that I could use Metro to get to the airport. However, to allay any doubt, I decided to take a test run the day before my scheduled departure.

So on a bright sunny Saturday morning, I walked confidently down the steps of Madrid’s Sol Metro station holding the exact change for a two day ticket. I stepped up to the first metro ticket dispensing machine. To my dismay, the entire menu was in Spanish. Surely there must have been a language option since all the ATMs had one. In my panic, I just didn’t see it. After guessing at the translations and getting more even more Spanish options, I looked around for a friendly face and prepared to put forth my best I’m-desperate-please-help-me look.

I first approached a middle aged couple who I learned didn’t speak English and appeared as baffled as I was with the ticket machine. Determined to buy the ticket, I then resorted to feminine wiles and moved to another line behind two older Spanish gentlemen. When they had completed their transaction, I greeted them with my best “buenos dias”, looked helplessly at the machine then at the exact euros in my hand. Recognizing what I wanted, they both smiled and one of them began punching options on the small screen.
After getting beyond a finger counting exercise to clarify that I wanted one ticket for two days not two tickets for one day, the older of the two men selected the correct option and motioned for me to insert my euros. When my ticket dropped into the retrieval slot, I thanked them both with a huge smile and my best “muchas gracias”. One of them affectionately patted me on the shoulder, smiled, said “adios” and both men went on their way.

Feeling invincible now, I walked to the nearest gate, inserted my ticket into the slot and stepped toward the turnstile expecting the ticket to pop up on the other side. When the ticket failed to appear, I stepped back only to see that it was exactly where I left it. Thinking that I had not pushed the ticket far enough into the slot, I gently pushed it in a bit further. The ticket didn’t move. I nudged it in a bit more. Still nothing. By now, barely a sliver of the ticket was visible. Fearing that the machine was broken, I used my fingernails in an attempt to retrieve the ticket. No luck.

Not wanting to walk away and leave my barely visible ticket, not to mention losing the expensive euros I used to purchase it, I looked around and readied my pathetic female tourist look. To my relief, an early thirties-looking man dressed in blue work clothes took pity on me and stopped to help. Again, I resorted to the I’m-desperate-please-help-me look, pointed to the ticket slot, raised my open hands, and shook my head to communicate that my ticket was stuck.

After quickly assessing the situation, he pantomimed with his thumb and forefinger to ask if I had a pair of tweezers. I guess he supposed that all ladies keep a pair in their purse just in case they need to tidy up wild eyebrows. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me to supply my purse with tweezers along with a street map, Metro schedule, euros, comb, lipstick, tissues and other things feminine.

At this point, he again looked quizzically at the still barely visible ticket. Appearing to have a eureka moment, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of metal keys. He selected one then pushed the ticket all the way into the slot. Still nothing. Only now, I couldn’t see the ticket at all. We took turns pushing the turnstile. It didn’t budge. We both looked helplessly at the ticket slot then at each other.

By now, I think he was feeling more determined than ever to help this hapless tourist and I was feeling defeated and guilty that he would probably be late for work or some other important engagement. He walked to the nearest station information booth only to find no one there at this early hour. Unwilling to give up, he pantomimed that I should wait where I was. He then used his ticket to enter another gate. He followed the tiled corridor around the corner and trotted out of sight. After waiting for almost ten minutes, I felt dejected and close to concluding that he had indeed given up on me as well as on retrieving the ticket and opted to get on with his day. After all, who could blame him?

Just as I was about to leave the station and forego my airport test run, I spotted him trotting toward me with a big smile on his face. He was accompanied by a red coated attendant with a small tool box on his belt. Mr. Helpful, now my new best friend, stood by patiently while the attendant opened the ticket box, pulled out my ticket, handed it to me and motioned for me to insert it into the slot of a different gate. As soon as I inserted the ticket, it popped up on the other side just as it was supposed to. Mr. Helpful smiled triumphantly as I walked through the turnstile. As I repeated “muchas gracias” several times, he continued smiling, said “adios” and skipped away toward his train.

More than any museum, park, plaza, architectural style or tapas bar, I will always remember what these three gentlemen did for me. Even though no English was ever spoken during these exchanges, all of the gentlemen took time out of their busy day to help an American visitor. It proved to me that even when we don’t speak the same language, most people are kind, generous and willing to help a stranger. And at its most basic level, isn’t that what cultural exchange is all about!

If you go

With the completion of the 2007 expansion, Metro Madrid became the second largest metro network in Europe after the London Underground. It is a fast, convenient and economical way to get around the city.

The Metro is open from 6:00 AM to 1:30 AM. Tickets can be purchased either at the automated ticket machines or from station attendants. Beware that most ticket attendants do not speak English and may not be available during very early or very late hours.

You can take the Number 8 line to Barajas Airport. However, you should think twice about taking the Metro if you have heavy luggage since you may need to negotiate steps at some stations. On crowded trains, take precautions to protect your valuables from pickpockets.

A trip from the Sol Metro station to the airport requires two train changes and takes less than an hour.

You can find a map of the Metro system in most guidebooks or here.
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