Sunday, January 6, 2008

Notre Queue Française

This morning, I read a humorous article written by John Philipp on His article, posted December 31st, is entitled Waiting in Line…a new approach and it deserves a read. The author suggests that those who are “waiting” in line are “linees” while those who can reframe the experience are “liners.” He supports his ideas with examples and experiments that readers can try out. So far, the article has generated more than 150 comments from the Gather community, including several which note the behavior of people in lines in Italy and Great Britain. The article and comments got me thinking about the interesting French line behavior I have observed since my arrival last August. As they illustrate, every culture has its peculiarities when it comes to lines. My story describes clear differences I’ve experienced as a “linee” in the US as contrasted with those in France. Here in Provence, the most common thread in line behavior that I have observed is the sense of community and relationship enjoyed by most folks in these small villages.

For example, one day this fall, I was standing in line, five people deep, at my bank in le grand village of Vaison La Romaine (the “big” town, pop ~ 5,000), waiting for the seul (only) teller that works behind the desk. Each time the buzzer rang and the clerk unlocked the door to admit yet another linee, all the French folks in line turned to greet the newcomer. Not wanting to appear rude or too conspicuously foreign, I too, turned on cue each time and greeted each client as they joined the back of the line. It was a Friday and the line grew at least eight deep as I neared the counter. As each satisfied customer departed, those of us remaining in line bid the lucky fellow good day on his way out!

This French bank line behavior casts a striking contrast to the behavior I have observed of those waiting at banks in America. First of all, I have never seen any line of American bank customers, in unison, turn to greet an arriving customer. Second, we Americans tend to be annoyed that the folks ahead of us may not be appropriately organized to expedite their turn at the counter and it is not out of happiness for them, but for ourselves advancing in the line, that we are thrilled to see those slowpokes move along and leave the bank! In addition, here in Provence, no matter how long you have waited, when your turn finally comes, it would be unthinkable to simply rush up to the counter and make your demand. It is anticipated that one will extend a greeting and pleasantries, no matter how brief, before moving to the business of the day. To do otherwise will certainly peg you as an American!

Moving on to the second occasion that comes to mind, I vividly recall joining a line at a gas station on the 31st of August. It was a Friday morning and I was in a hurry to get to Avignon to return my rental car before 10 a.m. in order to avoid an additional day of fees. I was scheduled to pick up the car that I had purchased and I had to be back to my village by noon to meet my daughter for lunch. I raced into the only gas station within 20 kilometers of my tiny village. After filling up, I literally trotted inside to pay. Ahead of me were three gentlemen, and the line was growing. It was early morning and presumably everyone needed to get on about his business. After the first customer paid his bill and turned to leave, the clerk, a grandmotherly woman, slowly came out from behind the counter and wrapped her arms around the next customer, a young man, greeted him warmly and gave him the requisite three bises (kisses mutually administered one at a time to alternating cheeks; You see, not one, or two, but no less than three of these kisses are expected in this part of France). She inquired about the health of the young man’s family, chatted for a moment and then returned to her station behind the register.

What amazed me was that no one else in line seemed impatient or showed any sort of concern that the clerk’s social life was holding up our service. After a moment of reflection, I said a silent prayer of thanks that I had chosen to move to a place where people took time for each other, but I also expressed my gratitude that (Thank God!) the clerk was not on kissing terms with any of the other “linees.” After all, I had only been in Provence for two weeks and it takes time to undo decades of Americanization…

Can you imagine the American reaction to a convenience store clerk who dared behave in the way of the French grandmother? Beyond the obvious displays of impatience that would have ensued, at least one waiting customers would likely have complained to management that the clerk was spending too much time on personal business. If the behavior persisted day after day, week after week, as it surely does at the station in Tulette, such a clerk in the U.S. would eventually be called in by a supervisor and told to stop fraternizing or face termination!

My most recent French line experience of note occurred on New Year’s Eve as I was driving through a tollbooth on the autoroute near Orange. I handed the attendant my Capital One Visa, normally a very quick process. Within seconds, she reached out to hand me back my card and my receipt, but paused to take another look at, not the signature side, but the FRONT side of the card. As the file de voitures (line of cars) behind me grew, she proceeded to explain to me that my Carte Bleue was très jolie, in fact, the most beautiful she had ever seen (and I imagine she has seen quite a few!). Clearly she felt no sense of stress or urgency to clear the line. You see, my card sports the famous Vincent van Gogh painting Starry Night, c.1889. I drove away feeling happy to have shared an interest in art with that young woman, even though no bises were exchanged and I will likely never see her again. Boy, am I pleased that I had the good fortune last year, to select an Impressionist painter's work to adorn my Visa card!

Can you believe that not one single French motorist tooted a horn as I sat there with my foot on the brake? It was New Year’s Eve for heaven’s sake and surely everyone had a party to attend. Furthermore, it was obvious that we were just chatting; she had handed me my receipt and the gate had been raised. I was free to depart, but I had not moved on. Nope, I’m fairly certain that, under the same circumstances, horns would have honked at most American tollbooths! In fact, I’ve experience impatient honking on more than one occasion when I dared to ask directions of a grumpy American tollbooth attendant after being given the green light…(b.t.w. I don’t recommend asking questions or taking time to chat at tollbooths in New York or Massachusetts!)

While my little village of about 200 people rarely experiences a queue (line) more than 2 people deep, and that, usually only at the Mairie (city hall) or maybe at the Salle de Fête (literally: party room, but more like an American community hall) on lôto (a game similar to bingo) night, I do find myself in lines when running my errands in neighboring villages. Now that four months have passed, I’m behaving less and less like an American as I take my place in these French queues. As a result, I’m feeling less stressed and more patient. Alors, si l’on qui attends (Thus, if the one who waits) can stop looking at her watch and focus on relationships, the lines in these villages become social opportunities! Very civilized, wouldn’t you say?

If you are in need of a five minute break, a moment to relax, then please click this link to enjoy the beautiful music video tribute to Vincent van Gogh, created by talented artist, Anthony DiFatta. I never tire of hearing Don McLean's song, Vincent, especially poignant accompanied by DiFatta's slide show of van Gogh's moving works. Learn more about van Gogh's tragic life.

1 comment:

Evelyn said...

I discovered your blog thru Kristin Espinasse's French-Word-A-Day. I'm so glad I have another French 'connection!' I just listened/watched the Don McLean music video. How many times have I heard this song (one of my favorites) and never knew it was about Vincent VanGogh! Thank you so much for sharing; it was a lovely break in my day. I've added your blog to my favorites. I'm a true Franchophile, have visited the Vaucluse twice (I headquarter in Goult), and fully intend to live in Provence at least part of the year....someday!