This was written on Tuesday the 19th of August.
I’m currently (and luckily) on a bus from Zagreb in Croatia to Vienna and all I keep thinking is: I miss British queuing skills. The UK is the best place if ever you want to queue. It’s polite, well-organised, and we always form a neat line one after another. If someone cuts in front of you with no explanation you can give them a look you’d usually reserve for murderers or people who get your tea order wrong. But mainland Europe is different, and they can NOT queue.
While some countries are better and form more orderly queues than others (particularly Germanic speaking countries), most of the time it’s disorganised chaos. The Croatians, the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Italians to name a few (I’ve had similar problems in all Mediterranean countries) seem to have the same queuing mentality: look out for number one. People don’t want to wait in line behind other people – there’s pushing, shoving, and usually everyone is barging to the front. I’ve seen pregnant women, old people with walkers and people on crutches having to stand up because no healthy 30-50 year old seems to move for them. I’ve actually noticed that younger generations, save young 18 year old boys on headphones, are surprisingly more considerate with people who obviously need more help.
I remember when I lived in Strasbourg that I used the trams and buses frequently. There was always the idea you’d have to push onto the vehicle in any hope that you can get on before it departs again. My friend once asked in French when she was on the Paris Metro for a woman to wait as she disembarked. Apparently all the people around her stared as if she was completely off her head and mental. It’s just not the custom or the way to consider other people when you travel.
Despite the chaos, queues are also ineffective and move slower than a snail on holiday. The French train service in my opinion is the best, fastest and best value for money system in Europe (nay, the world). However if you don’t buy tickets from the machines or online you have to face the dreaded train station queue. Although it only took me a few seconds to buy a ticket on a machine, at Strasbourg Train Station I had to queue for an hour to buy an inter-rail ticket, and 50 minutes another time when I had to query something. This wasn’t even at a peak time – both were around 2.30pm. Equally in Italy when I have bought tickets at train stations I’ve also lost my will to live as the line just DOESN’T END. Isn’t the whole point of a train station that you’re in a rush to go somewhere else?! I can’t imagine the amount of people who have made it to a train station at the last minute and then ended up being thwarted by the queues anyway. When getting on buses (I’m on my 5th Croatian bus in four days) people have even less consideration for anyone else than on trains. It seems that as long as THEY’RE ok it doesn’t matter about anything else. It’s disorganised chaos even if the buses themselves are pleasant and fine. The majority of Croatians I’ve met are also pleasant and friendly – just not when queuing.
I’ve lived in mainland Europe for a year now and can probably estimate that 11.5 of those months I spent queuing, but I have to say it’s the absolute opposite situation in supermarkets. Supermarkets abroad scan your items so fast you have to develop swift techniques to pack everything before they move onto the next customer and a mild grocery-related calamity ensues.
I have also found queuing to be very fruitless and bureaucratic in the Mainland. There is never a line for just one office where you can find out all information. Instead, you have to hop from counter to counter becoming more and more fed up. In Austria I had to queue at four different parts of a train station (AND go to my local government office) just to get a replacement paper semester ticket, similar to my tedious afternoon in Strasbourg when I queued and queued to replace my stolen Student Card. In England this would have been done at one desk. ONE DESK. Nobody has time for this nonsense.
My friend and I headed to the Plitvice Lakes National Park yesterday and had to queue for almost everything for hours at a time (to get in, to have lunch, to get a boat to where our bus was going to pick us up). An unreliable map had given us incorrect information about the boat and we ended up on an island in the middle of no man’s land with only half an hour to get across and run up thousands of steps. We were told by information services we could head straight to the front of the mile-long (I’m barely exaggerating) queue. I kept repeating “I’m so sorry, Thank you, sorry” as we walked through the metre-wide wooden bridge over waterfalls, sometimes having to almost risk our lives as (especially middle-aged men) barely budged an inch.
What I noticed was that the only people who were really lovely and concerned for our well being were the English speaking ones. Americans and Australians were even saying “of course of course”, “no WE’RE sorry,” and “would you like help to get up?” (One time we ended up in a muddy ditch). In contrast one Eastern European woman grabbed me and then my friend by the arms (I HATE personal contact at the best of times), to the extent I almost fell in and hurt myself. I had been polite, pleasant, had explained the situation in the quickest way I could but she was so full of herself I eventually had to move her arm away and continue.
In the UK we don’t like queue jumpers but if both people are clearly distressed and explaining politely then there is generally not a problem. In a way I actually think being in a queue gives everyone in Britain a sense of togetherness – everyone is in the same boat – but I found that in queuing situations most mainland Europeans just don’t care about their fellow human beings. I believe if we had had this problem in England people would have helped us get down and let us through. People would have probably called our bus company or helped us up all the stairs. Every day I’m abroad I miss British decency and politeness and more. There’s no sense of entitlement: we know our place.
But what do you think? Am I really just so British? Do the queues abroad bother you? Do you believe other countries are inconsiderate/selfish or just don’t know how to queue? Or conversely do you think British queuing culture is outdated and we need a more European approach? All comments, feedback and debate are welcome!