Wednesday, January 10, 2007

1st class country. 3rd world waiting.

In line at the Thermalbad in Baden, Switzerland, my monthly visit to relax in the healing waters started instead with a rise in blood pressure. After waiting patiently behind two men in what appeared to be a line to get into the spa, a lady walked in and cut right in front of me, proceeding to go through with a transaction that involved filling out some paperwork while I sighed, still not quite used to such rudeness, and tried to keep my temper from flaring.

Looks can be deceiving when it comes to lines in Switzerland. What may look like a line to an American is really just a bunch of expats and/or tourists lining up and for some transaction and who will, in due time, be left completely stunned when a Swiss person charges in front of them and goes about their business, seeming to not notice any hatred being sent their way.

It’s not just that the Swiss have no concept of a line that’s baffling. It’s that in such an orderly country it’s hard to believe how this could be possible. At the airport, there are vast quantities of lighted screens to allow you (and people picking you up) to see just how many minutes until your luggage arrives on the belt. At bus stops, signs show which buses are approaching next and in how many minutes. And in grocery stores, there are never carts floating into an abyss, rather, people put them right back where they found them (of course there is that one Franc incentive).

So things are orderly. But people are not. In retail shops, clumps of people fight their way to pay. At the grocery store, if you’re not careful to keep within centimeters of the person in front of you, you will pay the price. And on any form of public transportation, people will force themselves on while people are still getting off.

Fine. So the consequences of no lines in Switzerland make you become either more aggressive or make buying things take ten times as long. But what about situations when not having a line could be dangerous?

For example, at the swimming pool in Baden there are no lifeguards and you will find bunches of children at a time standing on a 10 meter platform ready to dive in at any given moment (not to mention many more on the 3 meter board below them). A line for a diving board is also apparently unheard of, never mind the consequences.

Now to give the Swiss some credit, a few stores and businesses, like the post office, have taken matters in their own hands when it comes to lines. They make you take a number. This makes foreigners happy as they don’t have to constantly survey the scene to see who is sneaking up behind them for the pass and the Swiss don’t complain because this way they still don’t physically have to stand in a line, but can mill about and stand in their preferred position, the bunch.

I’d say all stores should have such a system, but that wouldn’t solve all problems either. Because at some stores, like the SwissCom in Baden, they call out numbers instead of displaying them. Even if you know German numbers, you may be out of luck to understand when they call your number in Swiss German. Instead, like me, you may have to rely on watching who takes a number in front of you so you know when you are next. But this person may be unreliable. They may turn to you and say, “Excuse me, but do you speak French or English because I can’t understand a word they are saying.” At which point, you’ll sigh, crumple your number, and head to a different phone store. One where at least at some point, you’ll fight your way to the front, thinking, “This wasn’t so bad after all.”


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