The art of queuing in Europe
I was watching an old episode recently of BBC’s “Have I got news for you” starring the pillars of the program, Ian Hislop and Paul Merton. For those of you who are not familiar with the series, it’s a panel of four people and a presenter who take a comical look at news events of the past week. The topical news event for that week was the visit by the then President Obama to the UK during the run-up to the Brexit vote. During his visit he issued a stern warning to the UK population. He claimed that, should Britain exit the EU, they would be at the back of the queue when it came to trade deals with the US. The only purpose this warning served was to enrage the British public who detest being dictated to and especially by a Yank. Ian Hislop, however, theorised on the show that the British public simply heard the word ‘queue’ and immediately leapt at the chance of queuing, as they do it so well and hence the majority vote to leave the EU. I have always been used to the concept of queuing having grown up in a country that was heavily influenced by the British culture. It was only after spending two years in the army where we queued for absolutely everything every day that I made a resolution to never stand in another queue unless it was absolutely necessary.
There are, however, exceptions to every rule. I was also brought up to hold the door open for others, allow ladies to go first and other qualities that make up old fashioned chivalry. I can’t claim to be a fan of ‘manners’ in general, because some of them just make no sense. Why shouldn’t I put my elbows on the table when I eat a meal? Does it really matter if I talk while I’m eating? How is it rude to burp the National Anthem at the dinner table? As far as I’m concerned, queuing falls into the category of ‘chivalry’ and, to some extent, ‘manners’. I am happy to report that these are both still very much alive and well in the UK, Ireland and some corners of Mongolia and outer Latvia. I’m just kidding about the last two, as I’ve never been to either of those places, but I have been all over Europe and am saddened to report that on the continent the art of queuing, and chivalry in general, are consigned to the annals of history.
My first experience of this was in Basel, Switzerland, when we attended a fireworks display that marked the celebration of ‘Fasnacht’. This takes place on the first Monday after Ash Wednesday and spans three days. It is thought that the concept of throwing confetti at weddings originated from this festival, as in earlier centuries, small sugar balls were thrown at the crowd (confetti=confectionery) as the carnival procession passed by. This practice was stopped in the 19th century, probably by health and safety officers, because of widespread sugar ball related injuries. We were on our way home from the fireworks display and heading for the tram that would take us back into town, but we needed tickets for the journey. Since there was only one ticket machine to serve the throng of people, we started to form a queue. At least some of us tried to, but it became patently clear that the strategy was survival of the fittest rather than any silly ‘first-come-first-served’ notion. I felt sorry for an elderly woman at the periphery of the crowd until she raised her walking stick like a ram rod and beat her way viciously through the crowd to ticket machine. Since we had neither age nor a big stick on our side we had to rely on our natural instincts, but managed to buy some tickets without any incurring any serious injury.
Germany proved to be similar in the queuing (or lack of it) experience. Waiting for the bus in the morning resulted in some sort of rough queue forming in front of the bus stop, but the arrival of the bus seemed to trigger the me-first madness and I found myself having to fight my way onto the bus despite having arrived at the bus stop before any of my fellow passengers. My indignation was compounded by a bearded man in his thirties appearing seemingly out of nowhere and pushing into the bus first! I have found the same to be true in Denmark where the Danes seem to have no patience or tolerance for queuing. Again there is some semblance of a queue at the bus stop, but when the bus arrives, then it all goes ‘pear-shaped’ (as we say in England – meaning ‘badly wrong’). When I practice my British chivalry by standing back to let the ladies onto the bus first, they look at me with mistrust as though I’m some sort of sexual deviant that will grope their asses as they pass me by. The males take advantage of this chivalry by pushing in behind the ladies, so that I end up last on the bus again. This behaviour was confirmed by the removal men from the UK who delivered our furniture to our home in Denmark. One of them complained that, while boarding the ferry across to Europe from Dover in the UK, he had stood back to let two women board the ferry first, but a group of European males had barged past him too much to his restrained (British) outrage.
To demonstrate how accustomed British people are to queuing, I’ll tell the story of how we were on holiday in Cornwall in a village named ‘Cawsand’, a quaint fishing village across the bay from Plymouth. We had heard that there was a ferry across to Plymouth that left from Cawsand beach every day, so we decided to wait there the following morning. We arrived early, as we weren’t entirely sure what time the ferry would arrive but had a vague notion that it would be around 08:00. We also had no idea where on the beach we should queue, as we were the first people there that morning. With no sign stating ‘Queue here’, we simply picked a spot that was close to the water, but not so close that it would wet our Sunday best shoes. We talked among ourselves, looking out to sea for the approach of the ferry. When it finally arrived, we were amazed to look behind us and find that a long queue had formed on the beach. We had served our purpose as the queue marker. There was no pushing or shoving to get onto the boat, but merely a peaceful, almost ritualistic single-file obedience to the law of the queue.
God save the Queen!
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