Queueing is a very British thing. We're renowned for doing it, we fold our arms...and we're very patient even though we often wear fed up expressions....it's a supreme example of Britain's prowess:)

Oi, there’s a queue! … and your place is there, at the end of it!

An Englishman, an American and a Georgian met in a coffee shop in downtown Bishkek and began to “shoot the breeze”.

Although that sounds like the opening of a joke … it’s actually quite serious.

The Englishman ordered a pot of tea, the American a mug of “brewed” coffee, and and as for the Georgian … he had a problem because the coffee shop didn’t stock Chacha, Kindzmarauli or Borjomi … and, (although it was the middle of the day he chose to ignore the Italian maxim that it should never be drunk after 10 a.m.), settled for a large Cappuccino. (Well, he always prided himself on being an “independently minded” fellow).

The conversation switched from ‘this’ to ‘that’ … what they had been doing since they had last seen each other; what they had watched on the television or discovered on the internet over the last day or so; their plans for the immediate future …

As is so often the case, whereas some topics were quickly dismissed from the conversation, a theme emerged which each could identify with, had a story (or two … or more) to tell … and an opinion to voice.

 

It all stared when the American told how he had been joined the queue and was about to be served, when a young lady, (completely ignoring the line of people waiting patiently for the opportunity to place their order), and walked straight up to the counter and started to recite what she wanted. Before he had time to summon up the courage to give vent to his indignation (and work out exactly how to say it in Russian – or Kyrgyz), the man behind him, (another American), did so – in what sounded like perfect Russian: “Oi, there’s a queue! … and your place is there, at the end of it!”

“Isn’t it rally annoying when that happens? Nobody here seems to know how to queue!”

To be fair … it’s not really true that they don’t know how to queue here … they do … you’ll come across lots of examples … even if most of them don’t necessarily involve “standing in line”, as the Americans tend to put it.

In one Bank for example, the customer chooses which teller they want to be served by and then stand in front of the appropriate window … in what is, to all intents and purposes, a traditional queue. Although most people stand sedately waiting their turn to be served, that won’t necessarily deter someone from walking up and trying to inveigle themselves at the window in order to get served quickly … just like the women in the coffee shop.

The same is true in the supermarket, where you have to decide which checkout to queue for … so you look at the size of the existing queue – and what they have in their basket/trolley to get some idea as to which of the queues is likely to move the fastest. In the bank, of course, there’s no secondary information to help guide you – just the size of the queue … so the customer can join what looks like the shortest queue, only to discover that the person in front of them has a host of problems … all of which take time to resolve – and it can be really galling to see the longer line shrink while you standing stationary.

In the supermarket it is sometimes possible to switch queues … but even that can present difficulties.

What can really upset your calculations however, is when somebody else appears out of the blue and tries to join the queue ahead of you … there are usually some friendly exchanges with the people in front, and less friendly ones with you and the others behind. When someone remonstrates with them, they say that they asked the person in front to “keep their place” for them while they ran off to do something …

Some banks and agencies have now instituted a central queue, giving customers a numbered token and then calling them to a particular window whenever an assistant becomes free.

That still doesn’t stop people trying to jump the queue!

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When it happens to me, (someone tries to push in front of me), I normally say “est ocherat” – There’s a queue … and when they look at me dumbfoundedly I continue, “Vi ponimai’iti, ocherat – eta Russki slov” – “You understand, a queue – it’s a Russian word”. Sarcasm! – but it tends to work. On one occasion, for example, I was waiting in the supermarket to have my fruit and vegetables weighed and priced, when this rather well dressed women just barged in and handed over her bag of aples, or potatoes, or something. Faced with my sarcastic barb she just dropped her bag and walked off. I like to think it was because she was embarrassed … but, to be honest, I probably upset her and ruined her day. I expect she still remembers and recounts how this “mad foreigner” really upset her with his rude comments.

On another occasion I was actually in the middle of being served when someone squeezed in beside me and asked for a packet of cigarettes, or a bottle of vodka, or something. To my amazement the shop assistant stopped serving me and handed over the requested goods, took his money and started counting the change. The answer to me sarcasm was “Nu, shto?” – “So what?”, so I turned around and walked away, vowing to myself that I would never go back to a shop where they allowed that sort of thing to happen.

THE SHOP ASSISTANT WAS ACTUALLY IN THE PROCESS OF SERVING ME … BUT ABANDONED ME IN MID-SERVE!

Well, I thought, If a 25 som sale was so important to her, then I could make my point by depriving her of a sale worth several hundred som … let her think about that! As it happens, the next time she saw me walking past her shop she came out and started to apologize … explaining that she thought it was a 2 second sale that wouldn’t really stop her in her tracks while serving me … she understood why I was upset and asked me to prikhodi yeahsure raz – please come again. I relented! Well, it was my local convenience store … and she seemed to understand the point of my protest.

That, however, didn’t stop the situation being repeated shortly afterwards … but on that occasion she at least asked me if it was alright to serve the other person first.

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I have heard of another case where an American was being chastised in the market for not allowing an aksakal – an old man, literally a “white beard” – to go ahead of him in the queue. Keeping his calm he politely asked why he should do so. “Out of respect for his age”, came back the reply, “he’s a senior citizen and here we respect our elders.” “Hmmm, how old is he?”, the American asked. There was some conversation and the answer came back – something like “Sixty two”. “O.K., serve him – if it’s that important to him then, no problem … but … I am actually sixty nine – here’s my passport – so I think, maybe, he should let me go first,” (Whoops, I don’t think I would try that one myself … ).

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I can actually understand why people are so eager to jump the queue. Nobody likes waiting – it seems such a waste of time.

In some cases it really was a waste of time.

On one occasion, I had gone to pay a pay a phone bill. It used to be quite a task … go to one office and get the bill, go to the cashier and pay, then back to the office to show the receipt. That’s three different queues. On this particular occasion, I timed it just wrong … by the time I joined the queue for the cashier it was already quite long … and was moving forward very slowly. Suddenly, when I was about three places away from seeing one of the three cashiers … they dropped the shutters … it was lunch time. It was also a half day, so, we were told, “come back tomorrow!”

Thank goodness that, nowadays, things are more streamlined and automated.

There is also a cultural difference between here and in Western Europe. There seems to be an assumption that anyone can come forward and take priority. People, for example, think nothing to opening a door, (having knocked on it first – or maybe not), poking their head round the door and asking if they can come in. Most of the time, the answer is “Yes, OK, what do you want?”. But if the answer is nelzya, (which literally means ‘never’, but in this situation means something like ‘no, I am busy’), they come over all confused and flummoxed and ask “Nelzya?” as if it is the first time they have ever heard the word.

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To be fair … it’s not just here in Central Asia that these sort of things happen. People are people, and all over the world … and people don’t like waiting. All over the world people don’t like waiting and jump queues, (and, to be fair, sometimes they have a good reason for doing so).

To Brits and Americans, for example, waiting one’s turn in a line seems to be second nature …

I remember, however, being in ******. (I won’t name the country), and waiting for a bus … there was no sign of a queue developing just a melee of people standing around. When the bus eventually arrived it was one mad dash for the doors as peopled scrambled to get on … pushing and shoving.

It often seems like that here – but there is a difference. Go into a waiting room and there often no sign of a queue, just a crowd of people hanging around. The difference, on the other hand, is that there is an informal queue … an invisible thread connecting everyone there defining the order in which they arrived … and it’s typified by the phrase “Kto posledni?” – Who’s last?.

 

The American, back in the coffee house, described how he first encountered this magic phrase, and the invisible thread that it helped to define. He walked into a crowded waiting room and, looking around, wondered how on earth he could get to see the doctor. Shortly afterwords, somebody new walked in and asked “Kto posledni?”, and to his amazement, after a few seconds everyone pointed at him. Those few seconds were important because he was supposed to have said “Ya posledni” – I am the last, the end of the queue … but as they realized that he was a foreigner, and not a local, they took pity on him and did the job for him.

Once he realized what had happened, he also realized that he still had a problem … he now knew came after him in the queue … but not who was before him in the queue. Fortunately, one of the crowd took pity on him, took him be the hand and stood him before a woman saying “Vi polsli nye yeyo” – You’re after her.

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For the record: Yes, I was the Englishman in the coffee shop. The American and the Georgian will recognize themselves and, I daresay, many people here in Bishkek will also be able to identify them.

 

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This post was originally published on Postcard from Bishkek.
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