These are words you will see a lot on public transit in Madrid.
I use the word “see” instead of “hear” because most of the time, the words are not spoken, but typed.
You see, Madrid is famous for a lot of things – architecture, nightlife, tapas, churros con chocolate… but it’s also famous for something entirely less attractive: poverty.
Recent studies have shown that up to 20% of the population of Madrid live in (or at risk of) the poverty threshold.
In fact, it’s gotten so bad, that from 2010 to 2014, there was a 44.4 percentage point increase of elderly people donating their pensions to their adult children’s households to keep them out of poverty.
What does this have to do with being sorry? That is the first line of every note handed out on the train by those in need.
Even if you are only visiting Madrid for a few days, it is likely you will see them. Anywhere from elderly men to young girls, they ride the trains, asking for help. The notes are eerily similar: “I’m sorry to bother you, but I need help. I have 2 children/siblings/elderly parents and no help. I cannot find a job. Thank you for whatever help you can give.”
These notes are passed out, silently, on the empty seats of a train. Then there is nothing. The distributor waits, normally no longer than one train stop, for people to give. The hard part comes next: gathering up the notes, and hopefully anything donated. Very little is given, and no eye contact is made. The person wordlessly departs, bound for their next train.
In today’s world, rife with con artists, it is hard to rid ourselves of cynicism and instead be compassionate. Not everyone who hands out these notes is the real deal. Some people capitalize on the misfortune of some and the compassion of others. However, with statistics like the ones I’ve shown above, some of them are bound to be truly in need.
What is the point of all this? I’m not quite sure. Giving a few euro to those that beg on the train, assuming they are truly destitute, will help them for a day. But will it help them rise above their current situation and rejoin the world above the dreaded line? Probably not.
I propose a different type of giving: volunteering. There are many opportunities to volunteer your time, even as a transient expat, in Madrid and around the world. Visiting retirement homes, giving food to the homeless, teaching hearing-impaired children to speak English… the possibilities are out there.
Too often we think of “giving” as monetary; quite frankly, many of us don’t have that much money to give. However, time is something that almost everyone can spare, even if it’s only two hours a week. I think if we focus more on fixing the problems, rather than shying away from the symptoms, we are more likely to affect a positive change… whatever country we happen to be in.