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An Adventure in Sustainability

Madrid Thoughts

Friday, March 17, 2017

Xanthe Maggs is a 3D Design and Making student at Brighton University. Whilst her course encourages students to be sustainable with the materials and processes of their making practices,  Xanthe was presented with a dilemma when she and her fellow students were offered a 5 day cultural study trip to Madrid – a city to be reached, so the university plans went,  by plane.

How does a young artist widen their educational and European cultural horizons whilst also maintaining a coherent ‘sustainable’ practice?

With help from Encounters and other low carbon champions Xanthe raised the difference between the cost of a plane and a train and set off down the track to find out:

The morning after my late night return from Madrid I sat down to mark my journey on a rail map of Europe. London to Paris, to Valence, Nîmes, Montpelier and along the coast to Barcelona. Then inland and through the mountains to Madrid (on the return this leg of the journey was misty and layers of mountains gradually faded into the horizon).

Crossing borders on main land Europe is seamless. On my train from Paris Lyon to Barcelona Sants I watched the French countryside merge with the arid, mountainous terrain of northern Spain. As city drops away, green moves into yellows, greys and browns.

Over the last few summers I have been able to travel a bit around Europe. It as been easy for me so far to opt for the low carbon train alternatives, journeying on my own schedule. In September I started 3D Design and Craft at Brighton university. When a course trip to Madrid to visit the city’s art collections was proposed I knew I didn’t want to make a speedy return flight in Europe. With the help of people prepared to support my commitment to low carbon travel I decided to make the journey by train. During moments when I felt a little crazy, knowing I had their understanding reassured me.

On the way there I was painfully aware of my inability to speak the language and nervous to embarrass myself with “pardon, je ne parle pas Français, je suis anglaise”. Or “Lo siento, no hablo Español.”

However by the journey back I had settled, confident in my ability to smile and greet any situation, and at least attempt to understand!

I found the Metros of different cities the trickiest parts, they’re more fast paced and everyone knows exactly where they’re going. I had a flustered moment when trying to get into the Metro in Barcelona, putting my ticket in on the right and trying to push through the wrong barrier. However immediately a friendly man helped and directed me.

At points in my journey I was grateful for my sketchbook. During stops in Paris and Barcelona I could sit and take in the environment quietly. Staying a night with Debbie, a family friend and wandering the streets in Barcelona were part of my journey and enriched the whole trip.

I arrived at the hostel before the rest of my course and checked myself in. Although enjoyable my journey had been long. In that moment it was a shock to hear their flight had taken two and a half hours. One friend commented getting onto a plane was a bit like getting into a teleport. A magic trick.

I enjoy the meantime of trains. Time to yourself sits comfortably in ‘movement between spacial locations’.[1] I listened to the languages being spoken by other passengers and the announcements shift from different pairings of language. The train carriage becomes a liminal space where languages as well as borders merge.

I enjoyed fleeting moments, when in successfully exchanging with someone in French or Spanish, I could have been someone else.

For the others on my course the trip was different, focused on the time spent in Madrid. After two and a half days travelling setting off home only four days later felt counterintuitive. I wouldn’t again take an over land trip at the pace of air travel. The tendencies towards longer stays is one of the delights of slower journeying. For me this is a welcome distinction from jet-setting. With the knowledge that only 5% of the global population will ever have the means to get on an aeroplane I question my entitlement to fast and cheap travel.

Our trip was packed with museum and gallery visits. We saw European oil paintings at the Museo Del Prado and an amazing contemporary art collection at the Museo Reina Sofia, which also houses Picasso’s Guernica. We spent a day in the city’s huge El Retiro Park and drew in it’s crystal palace. We visited the Catedral de Almudena with its vibrantly painted vaults and ‘pop art’ stained glass and went saw some flamenco at a bar one evening.

On the rainy morning of my return trip two friends walked me to Madrid Atocha station at 7.30am. This shared first step of the journey made me feel less alone and more confident during the rest of the day’s travelling.

Arriving at St Pancras and again joining the stream of travellers into the tube I felt grateful for a strong sense of home that I can return to after cautiously navigating new spaces and cities.

As I now look forward to visiting more of Europe, some of my nervousness has passed. I am excited to get better at navigating myself through over land travel. I know that for me this is a sustainable means, through which I can develop my traveling identity at my own slow pace.


Xanthe Maggs is in the first year of 3D Design and Craft at Brighton University. She would like to thank Anne-Marie Culhane, Shelley Castle, Ruth Ben-Tovim, Julia Rowntree, Rose Fenton, Simon Maggs and Lucy Neal for understanding and supporting this trip.

[1] [The Ethics of Travel: From Marco Polo to Kafka, Syed Manzurul Islam.]