Sunday, July 19, 2015

adventures in queueland

One of the most remarkable sights in Paris is that of people lining up for something.  And I'm not talking about lines to enter the Louvre Museum or to go up the Eiffel Tower.  I am talking rather about everyday situations in which an average Parisian would find himself in a line.  For example, a stop at the butcher's.  A visit to the bakery.  An outing at the movie theater.  An evening at a concert hall.  Keep in mind that the venues just cited can attract queues that are formed outside on the sidewalk and that for a number of them, such is often the case.  It seems that this occurrence is something that most Parisians have long accepted.  A reasoning that some of them may offer is that the sight of a line of people in front of the entrance to a shop is a clear sign that the products on sale in that shop are of good quality, and sometimes of very good quality.  So queues in Paris can be good.  Otherwise, they are most likely just a matter of too many people to be served and too few people to do the actual serving.  Sure, other cities that I have lived in (as well as those that I have not lived in for that matter) can boast their own queues and this for their own reasons, but I had not paid any significant attention to queues anywhere before moving to Paris.  They seem to be a part of life in this city.  Given the good chances of finding one in front of the butcher's shop on Saturday morning or another outside the bakery on Sunday morning, something had to be done.  I mean, seriously.

It was only a few years ago that I discovered that there was personal value in creating interactions with people, especially those unfamiliar to me, a.k.a. strangers, and started doing just that.  One Saturday morning, on my way home from the swimming pool, I noticed a line of people waiting outside the butcher's shop near my place.  I had often seen a line there at that time of the week without giving it much consideration.  I hardly shopped there anyway.  But, at that very instant, I was seeing beyond the line.  What I was seeing was a group of people with unfamiliar faces, each having a few minutes to spare (before the moment came to place his order) for something to happen (a little entertainment perhaps).  In other words, ladies and gentlemen, I saw opportunity.  And thus, Operation Queues was born.

Well, the birth did not happen so instantly.  While opportunity had been perceived, a natural process of experimentation had to take place before Operation Queues took form.  The very first question ("What to do?") after discovery of the opportunity was answered by simply going to somewhere in the middle of the queue and walking along it to the end, saying "Bonjour" to each person in line along the way.  As this approach was another way of saying "Bonjour", it started out as a new phase of Operation Bonjour.  Ultimately, it became clear that such a style of interaction deserved its own operation, even if it was only necessary to say "Bonjour".  So a spin-off was created.

With a set of rules, Operation Queues became more formal.  Among other things, these rules state that upon stumbling upon a queue that has at least 5 people in the process of everyday living, I am allowed to run the operation on the queue.  Doing so involves saying "Bonjour!" to between 5 and 10 people successively in a line within the queue.  If the line was disorderly ‒ in other words, not a line ‒ then it was not necessary to do anything special.  Since the judgment of line of people as disorderly can be subjective, I sometimes let my instincts decide the course of action to take.  Also, if I have to say "Bonjour" to people in the queue who know each other and who are huddled together, for example, a family or a couple, I generally consider all of them as only one person, unless the line was too short and I wanted to reach the target of 5 to 10 people.  In this case, I would greet as many members of the group one after the other as necessary.  Other boundaries, such as the number of times it is possible to run the operation on a regular basis (twice per week at most), were established to avoid acting too much like a robot.

I remember roughly the very first time I ran the operation.  It was at that same butcher's shop where I conceived the idea, and it was a Saturday morning.  Before I even got anywhere close to the shop, I was feeling very anxious about what I was about to do (I was not even 100% sure that there would be a queue).  A familiar voice within me kept trying to discourage me from doing something so weird, so ridiculous, and obviously so senseless.  It was a voice that kept reminding me that the majority of the people who frequented the shop at that time were elderly people and that I should not bother them with my antics.  But I was already hooked, haunted by an opportunity that refused to leave me.  In hindsight, I admit that what I wanted really was to seize the opportunity.  The opportunity to give life to yet another idea, to yet another operation, and, in the process, to myself.  There was no way out but to follow through.  Soon enough, I reached the butcher's shop and saw the queue.  With my nerves raging, I proceeded to do what I had set out to do.  When it was done, I walked away, without looking back.

The moments that followed were a blur.  Everything happened so quickly.  Getting to say "Bonjour" to the first person turned out to be the most difficult step, as I had to overcome the resistance of the inner voice that kept talking to get me to abandon.  After that "Bonjour", the voice calmed down and the resistance subsided, even though the operation was not yet completed.  I had the impression of being out of myself during the ordeal especially after it.  But more important than anything was the feeling of accomplishment.  It was undeniable, and I was still alive.  I was happy.

And what about the people that I "met" in the queue?  They did not seem to understand what was going on (maybe they did not like it).  For the most part, they did not return the "Bonjour" nor did they do anything particular in response.  Some, especially those who had probably seen me carry out the operation earlier in the queue, made little or no eye contact when I approached them.  Besides, I was too focused on running the operation in the simplest possible way, and, as a result, I did not wait long enough for anyone to give me a reply.   I simply moved on the next person.

Over the past few years of running the operation in places such as bakeries, cinemas, museums, libraries, cafeterias, restaurants, and nightclubs, more often outside than outside, I received a small range of reactions from queue filers.  On average, most of the people returned the "Bonjour", sometimes with enthusiasm, at other times with indifference.  Other people just ignored me or even looked away.  Very rarely did a conversation ensue.  When one occurred, it was usually because I had taken the initiative to engage it with the person.  Attempting to make conversation ‒ a conversation with an opening sentence chosen on the spur of the moment for that matter ‒ was in fact an enhancement added to the operation along the way to make things more interesting, and it was only with the last person approached that I did so, for practical reasons.  Even then, every attempt did not always lead to a conversation.  Some people were just not keen on talking, perhaps because they did not know me.  Or maybe because I was doing something unexpected.

Granted, my own attitude has a lot of influence in the reactions that I get from people in queue.  The more enthusiastic and engaged I am during my interactions with them, the higher the likelihood that they will respond in a similar manner.  At least, that is what I believe.  On the other hand, if I am simply running things by the book just to get the task over with, I cannot expect to feel or give much joy during the interaction.  And here lies a great challenge that I face in this operation.  Bringing enthusiasm and engagement.  The only challenge greater that I see would be having people that I know and that know me participate in these interactions.  On that note, I am beginning to entertain the idea that with great challenge comes great opportunity.

And why all this fuss about queues anyway?  It is probably because I see in them a way for the individual to maintain or regain his freedom while still being a part of society.  Other than that, I sometimes feel like being a little different when I find myself in a group of people that seem to be doing more or less the same thing, especially when this "same thing" is expected.  It turns out more often than not that honoring this feeling is good for my health.  And if there is a possibility of having a positive effect on someone else in the process, even for one second, then that is just great.

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