It’s widely assumed that mathematics is an universal language, one that we could possibly use even to communicate with aliens one day if we discover them. But in the last year and a half, I’m beginning to have my doubts. There seems to be something not only irrational but supernaturally irrelevant in human nature, something that can shred mathematics to pieces that annihilate with each other. And in Spain, it’s more than palpable.
I live in a very interesting place. It’s a small town in the region of Castilla-La Mancha. It has a very cute little bus station where you can catch buses to Madrid, Toledo and Talavera de la Reina. It also has a slightly bigger but even cuter train station which is a stop on the line from Madrid to Badajoz. But every time I have to catch a bus I have the recurring problem of understanding the schedule, which is usually publicly posted on a sheet of paper as a beautiful table with more than 50 separate cells filled with all kinds of numbers. I call it the “algorithmic table” even though I am sure it’s much hard to decipher.
I’ve been planning to talk about it for a long time and I have always postponed for the day in which I will actually be able to understand it but alas, I think this day will never come. The only person that seems to understand it is a middle aged woman working on the Principe Pio bus station in Madrid and she’s not very keen to share her knowledge with the world.
For a Spanish person, once you put something in a table cell, it’s like casting a spell. Suddenly it starts to make sense just like that, out of the blue.
First of all, on the whole, Spanish people tend to be slightly superstitious. Second, any kind of schedule in Spain is more like a wish than a real certainty. It’s shocking for any foreigner but you learn to appreciate it as a fact of life, like for example when you’re running late yourself.
The third thing one has to consider is that Spanish people start to panic the moment you ask them to organize something. So you better don’t because the final outcome will be even more disorder. The second law of thermodynamics just doesn’t work the way you’d expect it here. The last crucial thing that contributes to the bus schedule phenomenon is that Spanish people love to draw tables and “organize” things in them. And this takes another paragraph to be properly explained.
It’s just a theory but I have a lot of empirical evidence to prove it. You see, I think that the graphic appearance of a table seems to have a soothing effect on their nerves. For a Spanish person, once you put something in a table cell, it’s like casting a spell. Suddenly it starts to make sense just like that, out of the blue. And by all means, they are not picky – whatever can go in, goes in, period.
This is how for example, you end up facing all the information about all the stops on a bus line, even though you may be in the middle with no intention or possibility to go to one of the previous stops. It’s how Villahostias – Madrid becomes Valdecabrón – El Puticlú – Gibraltar Español – Fuertechorrada – Villahostias – Puebla de la Virgen – Puebla de los Dolores – Montepetarda – Gilipopollis – La Pena del Toro – Madrid. All written with the same text size and accompanied by numbers.
Now here’s where things can get really interesting. All those numbers multiply by the number of buses that travel per day. Got lost? Wait, there’s more because whatever you do during the working days in Spain, you don’t repeat on weekends. There’s a different schedule for those holiest of days. Then, there’s the schedule for the so-called “working Saturdays”, of which I have seen none but apparently exist. The ones I have definitely seen however are in the next column and are called “Festivities on workdays”. And with the risk to really test your patience to the limit, there come the Sundays, which thank God and the Virgin, are of only one kind. I could of course mention that one time I saw a column titled “Non festive work days” but I’m afraid you’re going to hit me.
Imagine all this info on an A4 sheet, organized in the most counter intuitive way. I really wish I understood how they work, so I could proudly present it here and make a point in how intelligent I am. But what I tell you is true – nobody understands them and the best advice Spanish people can give you is to ask a person on the station itself. If you are very lucky, he would know. If not… you can always ask the driver when the bus actually comes.