A Roundabout Notion of Linearity?
Though the word ‘queue’ is shared by both English and French, nothing embodies more the gaping chasm that exists between the two peoples than their attitudes to, and behaviour in this mundane line: for its configuration differs so much in outward appearance and inner workings that, for the Englishman in me, it is doing the term a grave injustic to use it to describe the loose bunching and jockeying for position which goes under this same name on the Gallic side of the Channel.
The English approach to queuing is of child-like simplicity, being based exclusively on the principle of military-style, single-file alignment in strict accordance with the rule of ‘First In, First Out.’ As a result, the Englishman is prepared to spend a not inconsiderable amount of time patiently waiting his turn – provided, of course, that others do the same. For when other queuers show the same scrupulous respect for the rule he will relax and, amazingly, even enjoy himself.
A Fascinating Diversion
For example, my own Englishman will while away time spent in a supermarket line by honing his skills of empirical deduction through a fascinating diversion which consists in determining the occupation of fellow queuers by the articles reposing in their trolley. And at the time of writing, he has identified, with a high degree of probability, an alcoholic bee-keeper, a sweet-toothed house-husband, and a transvestite hooker with bunions.
However, the slightest deviation from the implacable rule of queuing which states that the first to join shall be the first to leave will unleash unbounded fury on the part of the English – so much so that very few allowances are made. I’m reminded of an incident some time ago when my poor mother who, in her mid-eighties and only partially sighted, mistakenly joined a queue in the middle. In spite of her age and infirmity, that stony-hearted English queuing law was applied in all its relentless rigour, and she was sternly enjoined to ‘get to the back!’
The Gallic attitude to Queuing, on the other hand, is of Freudian complexity. After close observation of his French alter my English part is tempted to think that when a Frenchman appends himself to that shapeless formation which in France masquerades under the name ‘queue’ (in spite of Cartesian precedent when it comes to queuing the French have a roundabout conception of linearity), he is seized by feelings of depersonalization and a resulting loss of self-esteem. Thus, the only way for him to re-find his identity and self respect is to accept the challenge which consists in proving to himself that he has enough personal resources to minimize to a maximum time spent in the line.
Every Man for Himself
Nevertheless, far be it for my Englishman to suggest that the rule of ‘First Come First Served’ is unknown to the French, and that the Gallic is not aware that un-queueing – necessarily to the detriment of others – can be contrary to accepted standards of fair play. The importance he attaches to le Système D is such, however, that he simply has a far less degree of conviction than the English queuer. And so, though he may well be piqued on observing that another has jumped the queue before him, his annoyance (which may even be tinged with grudging admiration), results less from the fact that the offender has infringed the sacrosanct Anglo-Saxon rule than that he has proved himself ‘beaucoup plus malin’, much smarter, in finding a way round it. As a result, whenever the opportunity presents itself, the non-rule of ‘Every Man for Himself’ is applied.
In this respect my Frenchie is especially proud of one instance last year when I went along to our local supermarket to do some last minute Noël shopping. As in England, French supermarkets are very busy places at Christmas time, and my local supermarket is no exception. After completing my purchases, I wheeled my heavily-laden trolley towards check-out (in reality, it was my wily Frenchie who positioned himself so that my Englishman did most of the pushing). Now check-out at this supermarket consists of three cash desks, only two of which were, for some reason or other, in operation at that precise moment. And such was the afflux of shoppers that two long queues snaked back some twenty metres or more between the shelves. It goes without saying that my Englishman was on the point of walking right round and dutifully joining one of the queues from the back. But my Frenchie would have none of it, and positioned me laterally at the front, just by the side of the unstaffed check-out. And then, as he had certainly anticipated, a third check-out girl quickly appeared and proceeded to open up this cash desk. All I had to do (in fact, it was my Frenchie who took complete control) was push my trolley smartly over and empty its contents onto the conveyor belt. So, I was checked out first, well before those sheep who, in some cases, had joined their queue as long as twenty minutes before me!