Sunday, 11 December 2011

The longest line

Wandering through the Bourke Street Mall today after having a long lunch with two friends at the Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder (do try the Rodriguez Eggs) I had to break my way through  the long line of people waiting to look at the Myer Christmas windows.  Security guards were on hand should the band of toddlers and their harried parents form a fringe Occupy movement, but they did little to ensure entry and exit to the Myer department store itself.

I felt the pain of the people as I found a gap and excused myself through it.  I've written before about how my position in a queue marks the space for people to find a thoroughfare, even if I'm somewhere obscure, like the back corner.  They all looked so unhappy and bored as they stood in the line.  Deep down they must have known they were queuing to gain access to walk past some department store windows.  I don't get it, although standing in this kind of pointless line is good training for when they go to Spain and need to buy a train ticket to somewhere.

I travelled with a friend to Spain in 2003 (was it really that long ago?) and had a blast.  We travelled around for about six weeks starting in Barcelona and ending in Madrid after spending Easter week in Lisbon over in Portugal.  We'd been learning Spanish before we went and relied on the trusty Lonely Planet Spanish phrase book when we were lost for (Spanish) words.  We were planning our itinerary as we went and were having trouble finding somewhere to sleep anywhere in Spain during Easter week.  Easter is a very big deal in Spain and we discovered it's big in Portugal, but not as big.  We managed to find accommodation in an apartment within a big house in Lisbon so decided to catch the overnight train from Madrid to Lisbon.

Train travel in Europe is famous as the best way to get around.  What they don't tell you in the guide books is about the requirement to wait in long, slow, never ending lines.  And that at the end of these lines are surly unhelpful people who view you, the travelling public, as an unwelcome interruption to their endless cigarette smoking.

We decided to get the organisation of travel out of the way early and so made our way to Madrid's central train station.  We arrived mid morning and found it packed.  It was as if the whole of Europe was on the move and required to stop over in Madrid.  After some reconnaissance we realised there was a queuing system just like the one at the local deli - you take a paper ticket with a number and wait for your number to be called or come up on a screen.  We took a ticket and the number on it was something like 143.  We then looked at the screen and discovered that ticket number 43 was now being served!  That explained the large number of people hanging around.  Surely that couldn't be right!  It was.

It was time for some strategic decision-making.  Firstly, we needed to observe what was going on so we could work out how fast the queue was moving.  This was our first error.  We needed to observe how slowly the queue was moving.  The technical answer is it was moving very slowly, somewhere between the speed of continental drift and that ice shelf off Antarctica.  We decided to wait it out.  Perhaps other people would get tired of waiting and drop out of the queue.  We didn't want to miss our slot and end up having to come back another day or end up back at the end of the queue.

To pass the time, we found out all our possible travel options from Madrid to Lisbon, refined our choices and then practised asking for them in Spanish.  With the amount of time we ended up spending in that queue, I should have been more ambitious - I could have read "Don Quixote" in the original Spanish if only I'd shown some imagination and ambition.

The other thing we could do was watch the officials behind the ticket counter.  We became fixated on the man in the green jumper.  He looked impatient and unhelpful. Under no circumstances did we want to be served by him.  He also smoked at his ticket desk which contributed to long pauses in the service he offered; finding the next cigarette, taking it out of the packet, finding something to light it with, raising it to the lips, lighting the cigarette itself, inhaling and exhaling were all activities that required his undivided attention.  Was it any wonder the planet was warming faster than this queue was moving!

After about four hours, we became hysterical.  It was just too funny for words.  Perhaps we were on Spanish "Candid Camera" and a smarmy host would jump out at any moment and say in speedy, unintelligible Spanish that they'd never seen people prepared to wait so long in a queue!  And only to buy tickets to go to Portugal! Hilarious. Or maybe it would be the Australian Government using hidden cameras to gather footage to prove to the Australian public that the waiting times in a Centrelink office, or on hold to talk to Telstra, were nothing.  Nothing!

Our number came up and we jubilantly stood up and looked to see which counter bay to go to.  The only one free belonged to the man in the green jumper.  We could smell the sneer of his disapproval as we approached.  All the Spanish I'd ever learnt went out of my head and my heart started to pound.  I'd never be able to book these tickets.  We'd find ourselves in the middle of Russia before we knew it and I had even less Russian.  We'd be abandoned at a remote station somewhere in the Ural Mountains!

I took a breath and said hello.  The man in the green jumper grunted back and lit a cigarette.  I managed to get my first question out.  He looked at me, disgusted.  I had started with my standard conversation starter - "do you speak English?" Of  course he didn't.  He looked like he did really, but had smelt our fear and decided to be difficult.

I launched in with the request I'd been rehearsing for the past four hours.  As my communication became more deliberate (a slip of the tongue, an inflection the wrong way and who knew what I'd be saying?) he became more and more taciturn.  He glared at me as though my attempt at Spanish was an insult to all Spaniards.  My attempts to solicit information from him were met with silence or monosyllabic grunts.  At times he would laugh and joke with his colleagues and then turn back to us with his steely yet impatient stare.  He broke his silence only to shower me with rapid, detailed Spanish as he handed over the tickets.  I had no idea what he was saying to me and just hoped that the tickets were what we wanted.

It turns out that we did purchase tickets to Lisbon on the overnight train from Madrid.  We even managed to get seats in a non-smoking carriage.

I will never forget the man in the green jumper and the moment we realised that there were 100 people ahead of us in the queue. Come to think of it, that publicity footage could be very handy for the Government.

What's the longest line you've ever waited in?  What was it for?

No comments:

Post a Comment