purgatory

A bit about LINES

The longest lines I have ever seen were at Disney World in 1988. Actually, Disney World seemed to be nothing but lines, something Croatia and “the happiest place on earth” have in common. The difference being that most of the lines at Disney World end with you getting on a ride like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion. Most lines in Croatia end with you stooping over to talk to someone through a narrow slit cut into a glass window.

Croatian lines are but symbols of the country’s discriminatory (and often dysfunctional) system. On either side of the glass partition it is US and THEM. Them who have the power, the information, access. Them, the nurses, the bureaucrats, the ticket sellers. The queue is like the thread of life and we line up before the Fates, waiting to see if we get to see the doctor, if we have all of our paper work in order for our visa, I.D., parking permit. Or we line up just to ask where we can find the other line. Do you want something in Croatia? Yes? THEN GET IN LINE!!!

Believe it or not, but this is not how it is in the US. Now, I thought I understood lines when living in America, but after befriending several people from former-Communist countries I was informed that we, Americans, know nothing of lines. We do have lines in the US, but they are temporary affairs. Like a spring shower, not a storm.

You know how when you go to McDonald’s and if you stand in line for a few seconds someone will hop onto the next register and ask if they can help you? Well, its pretty much like that EVERYWHERE in America. There are no glass partitions in the doctor’s office. There are no doors that are impossible to open from the outside. Service, anywhere, is quick. If its not, then you get to complain. You get to remember people’s names, talk to managers and supervisors. You hear apologies and assurances that it won’t happen again. Even if you are stuck in line, you still feel empowered.

In Croatia, nothing drains your sense of agency faster than standing in line. Anything you have done in your life, the very things that give you some sense of self-worth have been stripped away, leaving nothing but the barebones of a pathetic, insignificant existence. You’re just another corpse in purgatory. Another number in the factory. And just when you start to take some solace in the fact that before the line we are all equal you see one of the chosen float to the front. You see an individual bathed in the divine light of favor, progressing ahead of everyone else. This angelic spirit has been gifted with the wings of veze, a heavenly connection gifted by her devotion to the gods. She sails forward. And you wait with the rest of the bums.

At this point the line descends into chaos. It morphs from a row of people waiting into a clump of animals herding, trying to get closer and closer to its end. Maneuvering through this huddle requires artistry. Years of practice seem to pay off. The older ladies are able to call the nurse by name, asking about her relations, holiday or some other personal detail lost to the rest of us. These pleasantries are like a verbal foot in the door, enabling the interlocutor to then plead to be taken ahead of her turn. For those of us lacking in the conversational talents we at least have one gift, elbows. Amid the herd we stick our arms out akimbo blocking the frail and advantage seeking senior citizens. We push and jostle until finally we press against the partition or threshold, and then like everyone else we plead our case, hoping for admittance.

I’m not sure why there is such a difference between the service one receives in the US and what we get in Croatia. It might be a scarcity of resources. Employers often keep the number of on-duty employees to a minimum. Or it might be a difference in protocol. When I worked in a large chain of bookstores lines were as hated by management as they were by the customers. If more than four people queued before the register we called for back up, just like the police. Then everyone everywhere stopped what they were doing and came to expedite customers through the line. During the holiday rush we gave out free coffee and samples of food from the in-store Starbucks. In terms of state institutions you would think that in a country with 200,000 civil servants, who are largely paid with the taxed 47% of our income and the 25% sales tax on everything, there would be more than enough people available to speed up our wait time. Then again, perhaps the long lines endure, just like the glass partitions, in order to preserve that power imbalance between those who makes us wait, and those of us who are waiting.