The art of queuing in Europe

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American tourists headed toward Europe this summer need to be aware that the continent is facing a serious north-south divide. This is not the rift produced by austerity programs forced on spendthrift Southern governments that have triggered rioting in the streets. Nor is it the division between the beer-swilling northerners and wine-sipping Mediterraneans, which make the quaint centers of English towns dangerous near closing time. Rather, it is the diametrically opposed attitudes toward standing in line north and south of the Alps.

American visitors should be aware, lest they find themselves caught in a clash of civilizations.

One of the most serious drawbacks of a united Europe is the intermingling of people with different cultural backgrounds. This becomes particularly visible during the summer months, when tourists roam continent-wide.

Queue etiquette varies considerably from country to country, and primarily, it seems, along degrees of latitude. Northerners take great pride in their forbearance for standing in line, rain or shine; while southerners have never seen a queue that cannot be evaded. Whether it be the Tower of London, the Pope's Palace in Avignon or Wawel castle in Krakow, long lines for tickets are subject to various subterfuges.

The most brazen approach is to stride right to the head of the queue and engage the ticket agent in conversation, as if one has a prior arrangement or is discussing already-bought tickets. The airlines have helped out in recent years by creating so many special classes of passengers that people have become accustomed to seeing elite travelers jumping the line. But this is a high-risk strategy: If the next person in line remonstrates, the intruder will have to slink away in shame.

Perhaps the most successful stratagem is the camel's-nose-in-the-tent approach. A man stands alone near the head of the line, staring at the notice-board with a puzzled expression. Then, imperceptibly, he edges closer to the line, gradually inserting himself behind an unsuspecting group, preferably one that is large and unruly and not paying attention to their surroundings.

In the unlikely event that the interloper is challenged by the people standing behind (the people in front, of course, don't care), he will feign ignorance of any of half-a-dozen Indo-European languages. If the protest is sufficiently vociferous, the trespasser will magnanimously wave the complaining family ahead of him in line -- while taking "his" place behind them. Mission accomplished. He can then be joined by the rest of his party, who were lurking in the wings.

This incremental approach requires a certain degree of patience and theatrical ability. A more rough-and-ready tactic is the frontal assault. A large noisy group, perhaps an entire bus-load of tourists, simply storms the front of the line. Their arrival may induce the whole line to fragment into a Hobbesian dash for the front, with the line transformed into a cone-shaped scrum. This is the default arrangement for rationing access in pre-queue cultures. One factor exacerbating this trend is the sharp increase in visitors to Europe from China, a society which is still in its pre-queue level of development.

Lest the northern Europeans become too complacent, it should also be noted in the interests of fairness that they also have their own problems with equitable access to scarce resources.

The Germans may be meticulous when it comes to standing in line, but they have their own annoying solution to the problem of finding a sun-bed in beach resorts: the pre-emptive towel strike. As dawn breaks and pool attendants start to put out the deck chairs, German tourists dash out to lay towels over chair backs for later use. There is a whole genre of videos on YouTube posted by tourists exasperated at their fellow-travelers' selfish behavior. The sun-seeking British masses are also prone to sun-bed pre-emption.

Of course, there is one fool-proof way to jump the queue in Europe. Buy tickets ahead of time online or purchase a multi-day museum pass, then sail past those lines with a smug expression.

opinion_commentary

Peter Rutland is a professor of international politics at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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