A View From A Queue

Published in French Property News December 2013 Issue | Written by Polly Fielding

Paris 1
During the ten years we've owned our thirty-square-metre 'bolthole' on the edge of Paris, we've been able to observe the French lifestyle and compare and contrast it with the British way of life. There are some very noticeable differences, such as the French 'kissing greeting', whilst others are more subtle, becoming obvious only after repeated exposure. The French attitude towards queuing falls into this latter category.

To my all-too-English husband Dennis and me this particular aspect is evident soon after arriving. Following the statutory English cup of tea it's off to buy provisions for our stay. Luckily, there's a large supermarket near our flat in Montreuil. But checkout queues are often longer than in Britain with hundreds of over-stacked trolleys spilling into the aisles. French shoppers seem to be stockpiling for an imminent nuclear war. On the first Wednesday of each month, this is given extra credence because of the warning siren which is tested with Gallic regularity on these days.

Brits tend to be somewhat impatient if they are obliged to stand in any supermarket queue for longer than five minutes, with under-the-breath mutterings and heavy sighs. In time this becomes a series of louder complaints to other queuers. Drawn together by a common grievance about the lack of sufficient checkouts open, we are wont to engage in even lengthier interactions, possibly leading to long-term relationships, babies, perhaps even appearances on the Jeremy Kyle show...

The French, on the other hand, whilst being perfectly happy to drop whatever they are doing to rush into the streets and protest about some political issue, seem to have an inherent willingness to stand silently, with patient expressions and an air of resigned acceptance, however lengthy and slow-moving the queue. They don't seem bothered that the checkout assistant, oblivious to the steadily lengthening line of customers awaiting attention, keeps disappearing on mysterious errands, takes a few minutes off to chat with a colleague, answers or makes phone calls and handles any shift change at a snail's pace; behaviour that would elicit vociferous negative reactions in England.

Paris 2

And when eventually it's my turn to be served, I daren't forget the magic 'Bonjour'. I shudder still at the memory of scathing looks or pointed reprimands of 'Bonjour, Madame!' delivered in a stern voice whenever I have broken this unwritten rule.

Indeed this point of etiquette is so highly regarded that I could imagine that even were I lying on a pedestrian crossing (after I'd failed to notice that not every vehicle from any direction was obliged to stop), when the paramedics arrived I would feel obliged to utter that vital word if I hoped to merit treatment. Of course, I'm exaggerating, but etiquette is of utmost importance to the French.

On one occasion I found myself the unwitting cause of an uncustomary hilarious uproar in a French supermarket queue. Almost at the checkout, I realised we'd forgotten something.

To quote from my book 'Going In Seine':

     "Dennis, I meant to buy some packets of soup. Would you mind nipping back and picking a few up?"
     "Ok," he says. "Anything rather than stand in a queue going nowhere."
     He disappears and I content myself with people-watching...
     Having reached the front I'm looking round anxiously for Dennis He'd better be here soon...
     "Bonjour Madame."
     "Bonjour," I reply automatically.
     The girl begins to scan my goods. The man behind me smiles.
     "Would your husband like to come in front of me, Madame?" he offers.
     I look past him at the next person waiting.
     "Unless he's changed drastically in the last ten minutes, that is not my husband," I laugh.
     The checkout girl picks up a plastic gun lying on the conveyor belt and holds it up to scan it.
     "That's not mine," I say hastily.
     "Is it yours?" she asks the man behind me.
     "Pardon?" responds a familiar voice. Dennis has returned at last.
     "No," I intercept, seeing Dennis' confusion. "I think it belongs to that woman with the toddler who went through before me." I point to the back of the customer and call out to her. "Is this your child's toy?"
     She turns and accepts it gratefully.
     "Are these yours, too, Madame?" The checkout girl is holding up a set of keys - my keys - and looking at the other woman.
     "No," I say hurriedly. "They're mine. I put them down without thinking."
     People are laughing. I find myself joining in and the checkout girl starts to giggle.
     "It's so good to laugh," she says. "People usually glare, stare, or demand things and get annoyed. Here we have a happy queue! Thank you. You've made my day."
     On the homeward bus I explain to Dennis what was happening.
     "See?" I tell him. Not all French shop assistants are cross or miserable."
Another place where the French demonstrate infinite patience is La Poste which, besides being the Post Office, is also a major bank and therefore heavily frequented. I'm always puzzled when, invariably, those ahead of me seem to take an inordinate amount of time to conduct their business whilst mine takes little more than a minute. During the prolonged wait I find myself pondering over what might be happening. Are they exchanging gossip, talking politics or comparing eating places...? Or are they going through a time-consuming ritual of French politesse that I'm not yet aware of?

Bus queues may, at first glance, look very much like their British counterparts. That is, until the bus arrives, when any semblance to the order of arrival instantly disintegrates into a chaotic surge of bodies towards a vehicle whose cavernous interior appears to permit a limitless number of people.

Nevertheless, I no longer worry if the bus is already crowded by the time we get on since I never fail to be offered a seat. Dennis says it's my tangible aura of desperation which explains this minor mystery (and there was I thinking it was out of respect for my age). I do wonder though, why it doesn't work in England!

But the crème de la crème of French queuing has to be in the Tax Office where you'll find interminable lines of French taxpayers. Unlike in the UK, they are all self-assessed.

Dennis and I still smile about our first attempt to negotiate the hurdle of paying our owners' tax.

We began at the Hotel des Impôts, the local tax office, where we joined an enormous snaking queue just to state our business and get a numbered ticket; after which we sat and waited... and waited...

Paris 3
Dennis read his book, leaving me to watch the overhead screen until our number appeared. With no audible signal, I hardly dared blink, concerned that if we missed the flashing number indicating our turn it would be right back to where we'd started. Immediately it came up I nudged Dennis before leaping to my feet as excitedly as if I'd just won the lottery.

After a long-winded, formal interview an official directed us to another department in a different suburb, where we would be furnished with a document enabling us to pay at our local Public Treasury.

Having taken two buses to a neighbouring town, we arrived to find the Central Tax Office closed for lunch. Undeterred, we returned a couple of hours later to queue...

Armed with the necessary paperwork, we then returned to Montreuil and headed for the Treasury office where we stood shifting from foot to foot until we pressed our noses against a glass partition to communicate with a poker-faced official.

At last, documentation stamped, I produced my cheque book, to be informed that this desk was simply for rubber stamping my papers and that I was now required to proceed to a different window with another queue to make the payment.

With admirable self-restraint I resisted telling her that this process had taken an entire day, that she was the last straw, that her parentage was questionable and where she could stuff the paperwork...I just reminded myself that she was simply doing her tedious, bureaucratic job the best she knew how.

Although I could ramble on about queuing until I filled the pages of FPN, I'll finish with how I solved the uncomfortable wait outside the ladies' toilet in the Louvre. After watching dozens of men entering and exiting the adjacent toilet for the quarter of an hour I'd been hopping about, I made a sudden dash for the male facility. And several women followed my example. Surprisingly, it hadn't dawned on them to initiate this move despite the large number of unisex toilets in France.

Although the French are insistent upon observing etiquette, they are not adverse, with a little encouragement, to breaking some of the rules.

Now back in the UK, we're off to the local supermarket to queue patiently (i.e. a la française) to be informed of an 'unexpected item in the bagging area'!

Vive la différence!

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