I love Spain dearly, and most of the time I find myself impressed with the country’s elegant logic – but every so often, I discover some quirk that leaves me boggled with frustration. The Spanish system for purchasing train tickets is one such quirk.
Witness yesterday morning’s misadventures in Madrid. By looking online the day before, I’d found a travel itinerary that would take me through Barcelona and into France, all in one day. However, I was not able to purchase the ticket online, so yesterday morning I went to the station early to purchase the ticket before departure.
Typically in Spain they have two systems for purchasing tickets, one is a line you stand in to purchase a ticket for same day travel, and the other is a “take a number” system to buy itineraries for another day. I spent about half an hour in the “same day” travel line, but when I got to the counter, the salesperson would only allow me to buy a ticket as far as Barcelona, and told me I needed to take a number to purchase the international portion of my journey. Would that I’d known that when I first arrived at the station!
I did take a number and began to wait again, but unfortunately my train to Barcelona left long before my number was called. A quick search on AirBnB and I found a place to stay overnight, and I let my Couchsurfing host in France know that I would be arriving a day later than planned.
When I arrived in Barcelona, I made a beeline for the ticket counter and took my number, hoping to purchase the next day’s tickets to France before I even left the station.
Barcelona’s system for purchasing international train tickets has yet another level of added efficiency, in that first you must stand in one line to speak to an agent at the information counter, who will print out for you on paper the itinerary you want to purchase. Then you wait for your number to be called, and bring your paper up to the ticket counter, complete with train numbers, departure times and arrival destinations. Presumably at this point, the sales agent has all the information he needs to sell you the ticket you have asked for.
I couldn’t help wondering if this system was intended to make extra jobs for an underemployed Spanish public, or if Spain really hadn’t considered that touchscreen kiosks, such as they have in every Metro station, would work just as well for long distance journeys as it does for local ones. (Let’s not even mention the possibilities presented by online sales and smartphones!)
Eventually my number was called, so I purchased my tickets and headed out into the city.
I spent last night in the Gothic Quarter, and this morning after a lovely breakfast, I made a tour of Barcelona’s Museum of History, which I’d totally overlooked on my last visit. After the museum I headed up to Parc Güell to take a nice long walk before spending hours more on a train.
Up at the very tippity top of the park, while standing on the Hill of Three Crosses and looking down at the cityscape, I suddenly remembered Santi and how he has this amazing capacity to keep track of train schedules. My general approach to taking the bus, the Metro, and even the train, is usually something like, “Ah, well, there will always be another one, so I will get to the station whenever I get there.” (That is, of course, when I haven’t purchased a ticket in advance.) Santi on the other hand not only remembers train schedules but can also judge precisely how long it will take to get to the station, accounting for walking distance to the nearest Metro stop, how frequently the Metro is running at that time of the day, etc. This is a man who approaches traveling like a science.
The first time I noticed the thought go through my head, I gave a little smile and dismissed it. But the thought kept coming back to me in that repetitive, insistent way I’ve come to recognize means there’s a message for me hidden somewhere inside the thought. Once I stopped to listen for the message, it didn’t take me long to realize I needed to check my own train tickets.
Based on yesterday’s process of standing in line for a printout of my desired itinerary before purchasing the tickets, I just assumed the actual departure time matched what was printed on the paper – in other words, about 4:00 pm. But oh no, in actual fact my train for France left at 9:00 am this morning, and there I was, blithely standing on a hill above Barcelona at right about noon!
The first thought that went through my head was, YOU HAD ONE JOB! Just like the hilarious tumblr that shows all the thoughtless mistakes people make in their mind numbing jobs, like painting SPOT at an intersection instead of STOP, I just couldn’t understand how when presented with a piece of paper listing train number and TIME, all clearly spelled out in black and white, the man at the ticket counter had still managed to sell me a ticket for the wrong train.
But pondering the failings of bureaucracy wasn’t going to get me to France, so down I dashed off the Hill of Three Crosses, down through a network of winding trails, down all the way to a taxi line waiting at the entrance gate. I popped into a cab that whisked me unceremoniously away from the fairytale park, and bustled into the station to wait in yet another line for imminent departures.
Once at the counter I began to explain the situation in Spanish, to which the ticket salesman continually replied in Catalan. After three or four responses of blinking eyes and “perdon?” I finally said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand Catalan, may we speak in Spanish?” – which prompted him, of course, to respond to me in English. Oh, Barcelona.
Now that we’d found a language that worked for both of us, I got a nice lecture on how it was my responsibility to double check that the ticket I’d been sold matched the itinerary I’d actually asked for. Ok, granted, I should not make assumptions, but he had JUST ONE JOB!
I smiled and nodded politely but stubbornly refused to concede this was all my fault. At some point a magic switch was flipped, and the man behind the counter went from grumpy to helpful and concerned, swapping out my ticket with all kinds of fatherly advice for staying safe in France and making sure to eat one more meal in the station before getting on the train.
So here I am on the train to Carcassonne, actually in France now for the first time ever. I’ve waited three decades for this day! Immediately after crossing the border I became glued to the window, snapping photos every ten minutes in the hopes of catching some brilliant glimpse of the countryside at 120 miles an hour. Most of my train photos are a mess of reflections and blur, but I managed to capture a few magic glimpses of my first French sunset.