Saturday, April 10, 2010

To Queue or Not to Queue

I just had some friends, Trevor and Anna, visit who are living in London and came to Italy to do some sightseeing.  They brought this cultural difference about "queuing" to my attention, and it rings wholly true with my experiences.

So, the question is: to queue or not to queue?  If we were in England, the States, or any northern European country like Denmark or Sweden, the answer would be terribly obvious. Queue. Duh. In fact, there would be no discussion about it. Just get in the single file line and wait your turn, like everybody else.  Oh and don't talk about it.  That's rude.  Just wait.

In Italy, the idea of "queue" does not really exist. The mob mentality is king. For example, when we were trying to get our Permits of Stay.  We had arrived early and were waiting outside the ominous metal gate of the Questura police station, poised at the front of the line...or so we thought. People kept coming and coming and coming, but they wouldn't line up behind us, snaking neatly to the end of the block. No. They lined up next to us, making an ever wider line, occasionally going back a row as the space didn't allow any more horizontal expanding.  They were pressing on the metal gate, rattling the bars to get in, and shouting, like raved lunatics at rock concerts.  And, to our utter dismay, as soon as the door was opened, people smashed their way through, jamming their papers at the attendant in no particular order and rushing for a seat inside the waiting room.  And the attendants allowed this! Since I had to maneuver the double stroller and, of course, any double stroller no matter how high end or awesome, simply cannot compete against the highly adaptable pedestrian, I fell behind in the line while Matt pressed forward, hunting for the family, scouring places to sit and getting our papers in the stack.  This, however, gave me the chance to observe what was really happening.  After the gatekeeper got all the papers, she shuffled them around, moving one after the other into some sort of actual order.  It appeared that they were actually going to honor the appointment times after all and call the names of the earliest appointments first!  The mob was just waiting to get inside and get seats!  But this is just one example of what happens everyday.  The bus "lines" are exactly the same way, except no one is there to arbitrate.  It's not "first come, first serve," but rather "first and fastest (or pushiest)." Cafes are the same, tobacco shops (we buy bus tickets there), stores, and most certainly, government agencies.

The only two exceptions are the post office, deli, and the grocery store checkout.  The post office and deli are each run by a number system that is very similar to the D.M.V. in the States.  You grab a number from the machine.  Then you wait until it flashes on the overhead sign.  Presto, your turn.  In the mean time, everyone loiters around looking very ill at ease.  But nothing can be worse than the annoyance and paranoia at the grocery store checkout line.   At the supermarket, Italians are forced to queue.  It is as if it sucks the life from them.  They wait impatiently, always looking irritatedly at the people in front of them and behind them.  They snatch the divider stick and emphatically place it between your stuff and theirs. I know I've written about that before, so I'll spare the details.  (If you missed that post it's here To market, to market.)

Maybe it simply boils down to a language difference.  In English we have a the letter "q".  But in Italian, they lack the letter "q".  It has become painfully apparent that they don't have a "q" about queuing.

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