Few things are as challenging about living in Italy as waiting in line. It’s a special trial at the supermarket where there is no “ten items or less” line such as American supermarkets have. I cringe when I arrive at check-out with my three items just behind someone with a cart chock-full. Sometimes, the person will see that I’m carrying few items and allow me to pass. At others, the person will avoid all eye-contact to dodge noticing my piddling purchases.
Unlike the British, who stand in orderly queues, Italian people tend to bunch up instead. In that way, people cut into the line without being obvious. There’s a funny little woman that I see in various parts of Rome. She has a bright spot of 1950s-era rouge on each cheek and wears a plaid golf cap. She always plants herself by the display rack flanking the checkout line and eases her way ahead of the others.
Another tactic some shoppers use is to leave a partially filled shopping basket in line with the pretext of going back for a forgotten item. Then the shopper returns with an armload of stuff and drops it into the basket, perhaps going back a second time. If you step ahead of the basket, the returning shopper will often complain vociferously that you’ve usurped her place.
The lines move slowly, too. In an early blog (March 23, 2011), I wrote about how cashiers stop a line by asking customers dig for small change. But that’s only one delay. Conversation has a similar effect.
In general, Italian people are chatty, and cashier and customer often engage in spirited small talk during the course of a transaction. Italian people use lots of hand gestures when they speak, and the cashier will stop ringing up the purchases to use his hands to make a point. And if the story hasn’t finished after money has been exchanged and groceries bagged, it continues, leaving the other customers waiting.
My Anglo-Saxon need for order makes me wait my turn. So I stand behind those people with filled baskets. It really gets my goat when my turn finally comes to have someone come up and say, “I have only three items, can I go ahead of you.” Since I’ll likely have only one, or two, or three myself, I always decline. And I’m perceived as rude.
Where practical, business establishments now use the “take a number” system. At the post office, at banks, at my doctor’s office (where she has office hours on a first come, first served basis) there’s a number machine. If someone tires of waiting, or changes her mind, she often puts the paper number on top of the machine for someone else to use. It’s always a thrill to find a usable number that lets you cut ahead of others without a twinge of guilt.
At my favorite busy market, several stalls have the number system, but even there people find ways to break line with various excuses. At the salumeria (cold cuts and cheese stall), I’ve often seen people say, “But I didn’t know you had to take a number,” and insist on being served ahead of us waiting our turn.
At the fish stall, I heard the best excuse ever. It’s a very popular stand, and there are frequently twenty or more numbers ahead of you. One day, a woman pushed forward saying, “I can’t wait for a number; my daughter’s having a baby.” It was unclear to me if the daughter was on her way to the hospital and the woman needed to finish her shopping quickly. Or if the pregnant woman craved fish. Or if she wanted to eat a plate of fish before delivery. Or if the mother had just learned the news and couldn’t cope with shopping in her excitement. Whatever the reason, she made her purchase ahead of the rest of us.
I do get frustrated and annoyed when these things happen. But I have to shake my head and smile, too. It’s these cultural foibles that weave the fabric of my life in Italy. There are annoyances everywhere. I try to enjoy these.