Thursday, March 08, 2007

Metro Strategies

Old metro-taking strategy: When exiting the train, step onto the platform in the midst of a scrum of harried, bustling Spanish commuters. Barrel along an underground tunnel with them, carried by the current. Come to a fork in the tunnel, with signs pointing to two equally unfamiliar destinations. Thoroughly annoy the horde when you stop abruptly in the middle of the passage and unfold your giant map. Flap it about, turn it upside down, and try to read 8-point type in a language you're only just getting the hang of. Give up, and decide to follow the herd to wherever they're rushing. If so many people are in such a rush to get there, it must be good. Carry on barreling down tunnels. Eventually, daylight will appear at the top of an escalator. Let yourself be carried up, and out onto a street you've never heard of, with no familiar landmarks, and facing who knows which way. The herd will be immediately absorbed into the city. You are now alone on a deserted, unidentifiable street. Walk to the nearest intersection to begin your research. Since whoever laid out the city had a very fancy plan that involved snipping off the corners of the blocks so they are more like very square octagons than very square squares, it's impossible to see the street signs for both intersecting streets simultaneously. You identify one street, but then you have to walk around a corner, pass two cafes and a flower shop, and walk around another corner and past a cellphone store until you can identify the other street. That done, you can now identify exactly where on the map you are. That might be handy if you were meeting someone, or if you were calling a taxi, which you now begin to feel might be the best way of getting to your destination, which must be around here somewhere. But you want to walk. You want to figure this out and be done with transportation already. So that means you have to figure out which direction you're facing. So you set out down one of the streets, making your decision of which one based solely on which street is sunnier (if it's chilly out) or which is shadier (if it's hot). One block later, the map and the city will start to agree with each other in a helpful way, and you now know that you have only to walk back up the block you just came down, turn right, go two blocks, turn right again, and you're done.

New metro-taking strategy: After nearly a month of the practicing the former technique, realize that, while you don't know the streets well enough to know where you are precisely, you do know the neighborhoods well enough that whatever direction you walk in, things will start looking familiar within a few minutes, and you'll be able to navigate from there, without ever having to look at the map. It's very freeing to leave the train, not even try to understand any of the signs, just following the flow of fellow-travelers, end up on the street, and continue strolling. There is no anxiety, no map, no back-tracking. You know the city well enough to know that there's no chance you'll accidentally wander into a scary neighborhood, but it's still unfamiliar enough that there's a lot of interesting things to look at as you walk. Like the beautiful scooter parked next to the dumpster. Like the old office chairs someone has left next to the dumpster, to wait for the garbagemen. Like how the chairs look pretty clean, and they're just the right distance from the scooter to offer a really good view, and they look comfortable enough to sit on for a while while you draw.

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