An orderly queue of one

I am spending an inordinate amount of time lately in airports and on airplanes. This new-found intimacy with all things aviation has also been a voyage of self-discovery. While I’d like to consider myself a bit of a radical, fearless when it comes to speaking out against the norm, I’ve had to face the fact that, actually, I’m a conformist.

Strategic positioning

If I don’t have an assigned seat, I will queue.  I live in fear of being sandwiched between two talkative strangers on a flight that lasts longer than it takes for me to order and drink a gin and tonic. If my flight starts with a bus journey from the gate to the plane, I don’t worry about it. Nine times out of ten, if I’m strategically positioned next to a door opposite the driver, I’m one of the first up those gangway steps. But if we’re talking about direct-access planes and unassigned seating, I’m first in line. Queues, I have discovered, are the personification of civilisation. To each who waits his or her turn, come many rewards: the sure knowledge of where you are in the pecking order; a clear estimate of how long it will take you to reach the desired goal; and a somewhat pathetic sense of accomplishment once your bags are stowed in the last available overhead space. Where else in our manic, twenty-first century lives are we assured of the orderliness afforded by a good queue… the certainty, the cleanliness, the precision?

Mikes Gyorgy, that artful Hungarian writer who so beautifully captures the essence of being English, nailed it when he wrote: Some nations have queuing down to an art form. An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one. The English queue; the Americans wait in line. Both nations respect the ritual and pay homage to this embodiment of patience, this physical manifestation of civility.

Was Moses Magyar?

Some Hungarians, on the other hand, seemed to have missed out on this queuing gene. The rest of us mere mortals may patiently stand in line, but not them. Marching straight ahead without so much as a by your leave, they solider through. Elnezest is the golden word… the Hungarian version of ‘Open Sesame’. It’s like watching the parting of the Red Sea and makes me wonder if Moses were Magyar. When this happens at Ferihegy, it goes unremarked; most of those lined up like regimental soldiers have either lived here long enough for this particular phenomenon to have lost its pallor, or are tourists returning home, too knackered to care.

In Dublin Airport on Monday, boarding a flight to Budapest, I saw a couple of stylishly dressed Hungarian queue-jumping women elnezesting their way to the front. Heads held high, they charged ahead, measuring their progress in persons, the bolder of the two carving out a path for her more timid friend to follow. In their wake, they left a legacy of disbelieving frowns and incredulous glances, as their meeker Irish counterparts froze, transfixed by their audacity. Those who had charted their progress from the back of the queue were moved to comment once they themselves had been successfully navigated. Loud declarations that ‘there is a queue, love’ or ‘who the blazes do they think they are?’ reverberated around the waiting area. But our fearless Magyars pressed forward, seemingly oblivious to the caustic comments and the seething anger emanating from dozens of Irish eyes, eyes no longer smiling.

Dress for success

In Rennes airport on Friday, I was queuing patiently in a tunnel outside the terminal building. It was blistering hot. Most of my fellow passengers were either Irish or French. Conditioned as we are to queuing, there wasn’t as much as a murmur of complaint. A well-dressed man of indeterminate age began to weave his way through the line. The worn sheen of his leather suitcase spoke of years of exotic travel. The silk pocket handkerchief peeping from the breast pocket of a beautifully tailored suit shimmered in the sunlight. His gold-rimmed sunglasses reminiscent of the 1950s reflected our collective awe. He was neither a tall man nor a big man but from his immaculate white hair to the tips of his manicured fingernails, he oozed presence. He turned occasionally, beckoning to his companion, urging her to come forward. He quietly side-stepped each one of us, yet we were the ones apologising for standing in his way. As I followed his progress to the top of the line, I noticed that unlike Monday’s Maygars, this man left a trail of bonhomie. There was no acrimony, no resentment. Never once did he say ‘excuse me’. Perhaps Hungary’s one concession to politeness, the elnezest, has outlived its day.

First published in the Budapest Times 19 July 2010

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