Thursday, 6 March 2008

Queuing

When taking the inaugural flight from Perugia to Stansted last December, I was struck by one of the more interesting forms of Italian group behaviour: the queue. Obviously this was not the first time I had noted the apparent inability to form a coherent line, but it seemed a particularly good case in point. Being with the then 7 month old Cecily Grace, we were able to pre-board (these days you have to pay for the privilege, nothing comes free with our favourite airline anymore of course). Having fought our way to the front of what I can only describe as a rugby scrum to hand in our boarding cards, we were one of the first half a dozen people onto the Tarmac, along with the other people with young children, short tempers and bags under their eyes. Looking back at the glass front of the boarding gate, I half expected to see a couple of less able folks with their faces pressed to the glass and a look of abject terror as they were slowly crushed by the advancing mob of passengers. Once at the foot of the stairs to the plane we had to wait, though, and in the interim the other passengers were let loose from the bulging doors of the passenger lounge. At this point any ideas of pre-boarding privileges went out of the window, as we sharpened our elbows to fight off the hoard of fur-wielding matrons and able-bodied rabble that began to muscle their way to the front. I felt like crying out “trample the weak, trample the weak!” as I locked arms with a like-minded young dad and drove them firmly back into their own half. We eventually made it onto the plane, but not without a fight and a couple of black eyes…

To queue or not to queue? That is the question you must ask yourself the next time you find yourself waiting for something with more than about two other people in the same place. Obviously there are times when a natural order will impose itself upon a situation, such as at the supermarket check-out, but that is about the only place you will find it happening. You see, queuing is about as anathema to the Italians as tea with UHT milk is to the average Brit. Getting one ahead is simply de rigueur and, quite frankly, it does become quite a satisfying art form once you have had time enough to practice a while. One of the best places to practice is at the Posta (Post Office), where only the foolhardy would consider giving precedence to someone who might have been in the room before them. Turn your back for a second to check the weather outside and you risk someone jumping into the spot you had earmarked for yourself amongst the fray. It is a bit like witnessing the confluence of waters at a narrow point in a river, where the tumult of waters presses together for a split second before being forcibly thrust out into the wider world beyond. God forbid that you try and buy a stamp on pensions day.

There are wider connotations to the queue of course, one of which is the exhibition of another very Italian trait, the lack of personal space. Most Brits find the idea of having to squeeze together in a small space with lots of other people decidedly unpleasant, hence why the orderly queue is such a staple of life; nobody wants to be too close to the person in front or behind them. Trying to get into a sport stadium in Italy, for instance, is like one big, communal hug-in; turn around too quickly and you might find yourself accidentally snogging the bloke behind you. This nonchalance about proximity to one’s fellow human beings has other side-effects, such as the chance for young men to nuzzle up behind unsuspecting foreign girls on the train platform (witnessed at Termini station!) If you find yourself alone on a bus, don’t be surprised if the next person to get on ends up sitting thigh-to-thigh with you. This is perhaps just an example of the ease with which the Italians socialise with one another and particularly their ability to speak with total strangers as openly as they might do with their own mothers. Whilst most Brits might loath a journey on the London Underground because of the confined space, so most Italians would probably find the impersonal nature of the other passengers more disconcerting. After all, why sit in silence when you could be discussing football, health and Formula One? This is a manifestation of the openness that often sets the Italians apart from their Northern European neighbours and goes a long way to making Italy such a pleasant place to live.

1 comment:

Ader said...

Great piece! Queuing really is the pits if anyone has ever had to go through it here...