On the Beach

Friday, 2 September 2011

Queues and the self-esteem issues of supermarket displays

Being a citizen of the world may sound very exciting-or totally poncy depending on your viewpoint- but it does have its difficulties and dilemmas. I have already discussed my outfit based approach to sports teams as a means of filling the void where nationalistic fervour should be.

Other difficulties include not being able to decide on a flag which you can fly from your car or porch. I mean, think of my torment and how much easier my life would be if I were a single-flag person. I can feel the swell of sympathy as I write.

Another cultural issue is queuing. You are as defined by your queuing method as you are by, say, what food you eat at Christmas.

Some nations have more recognisable ways of queuing than others. Some are very distinct, others less so, but I believe it goes to the heart of what you are like as a nation.

I am constantly faced with the dilemma: how do I queue? It's not something I think about every time I queue but, when there is a stressful situation, for instance when I am in a hurry and there are swarms of people, I have to give considerable thought to my approach and how it will be perceived in the cultural environment that I am in.

New Zealand and Norway are the 2 the countries that I have spent the least time in so I am sure that I cannot be expected to exhibit the behavioural characteristics of these nations when queuing. I feel certain that Norwegians will queue very politely in a manner that is very fair and liberal and they will do so with alarming fluency in 12 languages. The Kiwis, well, with that "can do Kiwi attitude" that I heard SO much about when I lived there, I am sure that they will deal with any queuing problem in a pragmatic and friendly fashion, all the while telling you that they're doing it better than the Australians.

No, for me the choice comes down to the nature of the Pole and the nurture of the Brit.

The Brits are famous for queuing and doing it in a very orderly fashion. The way of the Brit is to stand behind the person who got there before you, even if this was a nanosecond and, all being well, the person who arrives after you will stand behind you. At a safe distance. No eye contact. You stand mutely until your turn comes, no fussing or commenting, even if the person at the till is working at the speed of a lobotmised sloth. Now, should anyone break this peaceful spell by asking if they can just pop in front as they only have a few items, you can hear a collective intake of breath. Of course, you'll say yes, because you're British, you're polite but, my word, you'll dine out on this outrage for months. And if someone actually queue jumps- you may even go so far as to make eye-contact with fellow outraged queuers, sharing your disgust at this break of protocol. If pensioners start muttering and whispering, that means it's gone big. It's no wonder that a Brit would never consider taking 11 items to a "10 items or less" till- those stares and whispers are just not worth it.

There is the occasional passive-aggressive moment, where, during busy times a new till opens up and people will make mad and undignified dashes to get there first. Without any eye contact.

And now to the Poles. They couldn't be further away from the Brits. You can't call a queue a "line" in Poland, just a mass of plum colored hair, elbows and bad attitude. Think Roller Derby with trolleys and baskets, but without the protection of helmets. A queue at a supermarket till could look to a passer-by like a heaving mass of people waiting for Madonna to sign a long-awaited album. No, they just want to pay for the plethora of pork products in the trolley. Pushing, shoving and shouting is the norm- survival of the fittest. And after you have paid, it is quite likely you will feel like you have done the Bull Run in Pamplona. If you're planning on shopping there, get elbow pads just to buy chewing gum from the kiosk. In Poland you can call a queue an Express queue but you'd be wasting ink. If someone one with 3 trolleys wants to pay there, they will. And the shop assistant won't argue- shes's too busy feeling resentful about the fact she's not a supermodel (more on Polish customer service another time).

The other day I found myself in Pick 'n Pay at peak time with a small basket and I headed for the Express till. The name was a misrepresentation. Nothing was express about it and the 5 lobotomised sloths has taken their seats, slowly, at the tills. I swear I grew roots and the newspapers on my way out were dated 3 days later than when I arrived. But those express queues trap you into their narrow coils, you cannot escape. You cannot do anything but gawp at the magazines and other things you don't need around you. The Brit in me was outraged by the woman with a trolley, brimming with shopping in the EXPRESS queue but the Pole in me thought nothing of it, in fact, admired it.

As I shuffled along, I looked at the magazine promising me a great holiday, a stylish new home (I noted there were no children in the pictures, rubbing chocolate into sofas while a dishevelled parent cried in the background), better health etc. Finally, at the end of this bit of the snake coil was a magazine with the all too unbiquitous Gwyneth Paltrow half-naked, glossy hair billowing behind her. And as ever, I was filled with the usual self loathing, standing upright, sucking in my stomach and feeling generally bad about myself.

Every time I do this, I am so angry with myself. I am an educated, well-informed, balanced woman and I know that magazine photos are airbrushed, the star spends hours being made to look like that and, actually, it's her job to look good and sell magazines so she spends a lot of time trying to look nice. My job is make sure there is enough milk in the house at all times to satisfy my dairy queens (trust me, that's tough).

But still, every time I see a magazine like this, I have that reaction, however brief, even though I know it is not rational. And, on the whole, I am a very happy person. Must say something about female role models today.

Supermarkets know us so well. What makes you feel better if you're feeling down? Chocolate, of course, and right next to Gwyneth Paltrow's flat stomach is a wealth of items that could make my stomach look even less like hers.

Oh, sod her, at least I didn't name my first-born after a fruit. That's got to count for something in the universe.

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