Fare la Fila (Waiting in Line)

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Cars are lined up behind me.

I’m at the Pesaro toll booth on the A-14. Usually there are at least two booths open, one automated, one manned by a late middle-aged guy in a light blue shirt. Typically he’s smoking. Typically he has great hair and snazzy glasses. Typically he’s talking to one of his associates while your transaction takes place. The toll display blinks the amount you owe. You pay and you go.

Even when I have exact change, I usually take the booth with the guy. In the automated line, every idiot in front of you has to figure out how to insert his ticket. Then he has to dig change out of his pocket, count it, and figure out where to put money in the machine. Inside the mechanism the coins spin, slide down a shute, and drop, finally, passing through the automated counter. There’s a long, long wait until the gate opens and an automated female voice says Arrivederci! Or, horrors, the money is short and she asks for the rest of the toll, in which case the above process repeats.

Today there’s only an automated booth.

And today, I’m the idiot.

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The toll is 2.30 euro. All I have is a five. When I insert the bill, the machine spits it out. Please do something, the automated female voice says. I have no idea what she said. I turn the bill over and try again. Ejected, again. Please do something. Still didn’t get that. Behind me, a horn honks my idiot status. On the machine I look for something to tap, a button to push, anything. Please do something. Please do it now. I keep turning the bill over, inserting it. Another honk. And then another.

Once, twice, three times an idiot.

Through the speaker on the machine, a blue shirt says something. I tell him I can’t insert my money into the machine. He says something again. Behind me, the horns wonder if I heard them. Just then, blue shirt is standing between my car and the machine.

“It won’t take my bill,” I say.

He casts a weary glance at the cars lined up behind me, takes my money. He tells me sometimes the machines have a mind of their own.

Seven or eight cars backed up. Everyone molto agitated.

The line is a special form of hell everywhere, but Italians seem to have a special antipathy for them. Writing for La Repubblica, Francesco Piccolo observes, “Your life is conceived with one purpose in mind: Do whatever possible to avoid lines.” When you stop at a traffic light, teenagers and adults on scooters zip around and between cars to get to the front of the line. In church, at the call to holy communion, it’s a total mob of believers from all corners of the church, pressing to the center aisle, urging forward toward the altar. It’s not, What if they run out of Christ before I get there? It’s not, I’m in a hurry because I have a chicken in the oven at home. It’s just what they do. In Amsterdam I watched an Italian nun cut the line at passport control. She cut it again when we boarded our flight to Bologna.

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Some years ago a friend of ours was in line for tickets at the train station in Rimini. She waited in line, American style, while one Italian after another pushed in front of her or executed lateral entry and bought tickets. When she got to the ticket window, our friend said to the blue shirt, “Excuse me, why do you let people cut the line like that?”

He said, “Signora, my job is to sell tickets. If you’re going to let people cut in front of you, that’s your problem.”

It’s a strain of anarchy in the Italian character, greater than or equal to the American respect for the line.

My wife and I were in line at Greenfield Village one year. The kids were small. It was Halloween night. We had to get to the front of a long line for something, to get a trinket of some sort, I think.

“Come on,” my wife said.

“What?”

“We’re cutting the line.”

Our daughter, seven or so, already indoctrinated by a few years of schooling to respect the line, looked up at her mother, mortified.

“Really?” I said, shifting our son in my arms. He was heavy. It was cold. “Really, we shouldn’t.”

“Come on.”

So we walked, sidled, sort of meandered our way forward. The lane was lined with pumpkins. Johnny Appleseeds and Walt Whitmans and Goodie Proctors greeted us as we walked. Ten feet or so from the front of the line, we gently merged. In a few more minutes, it was our turn. The kids loved their trinkets.

“I can’t believe you did that,” I said to my wife.

“Get over it,” she said.

It’s taken a while. I’m starting to get over it.

You detect piety about the line on roads in the US. You’re southbound on I-275. In two miles, signs indicate, the left lane will close for road work. Well ahead of the closure, some drivers ease to the right, slow down, maybe even stop, leaving the left lane wide open. So you are faced with a dilemma: proceed as far as possible, as fast as possible, in what remains of the left lane, or move right, slow down, maybe even stop.

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Usually it’s a pickup truck, or a big very car; usually it’s an older white guy. He’s crawling along in the right lane, boiling with righteous indigation because of the a-holes who are flying by him in the one mile or so of the not-yet-closed left lane. So he fades slightly left, holding his place in the right lane, blocking the left lane, deciding, in effect, to close that lane early. I’m sure he’s a freedom-loving fellow. He simply takes it upon himself to limit your freedom to access the mile or so of the not-yet closed left lane. To him, you’re cutting the line. It’s undemocratic. To me it’s a gray area. Usually if it’s gray, I go.

One year I was flying home from Rome. It was late June. It was hot and humid. Little or no AC in the terminal. Nerves can get raw. Alitalia check-in was open, but the line was long, very long, and the flight was a little bit delayed. People slumped on heaps of luggage, skidding bags forward a few inches at a time. I was slumped with them, many of them my countrymen. Every so often a bunch of Italians arrived, in their sunglasses and sweaters and jackets and scarves, long-legged thin guys in red slacks and yellow slacks and nice shoes, women in leather boots and tights and ropes of shiny necklaces loosely draped around their necks, striding confidently, all of them, to the front of the line, probably to make inquiries is all, probably turned away by the blue shirts working for the airline way, way up there at the front of the line.

Well look at them, I thought. And waited.

A few piles of suitcases in front of me was an American guy who watched this traffic, unnerved.

“What are they doing?” he said to his wife.

She fanned herself and shook her head.

“What do they think they’re doing?” he said.

Five or ten minutes passed. Eventually he couldn’t take it any more. As soon as he saw the next group coming, he stood athwart the lane and said, “You’ll have to go back.” Waving his arms at them in case they didn’t know where back was. “The end of the line is back there,” he said. “You have to go to the end of the line.”

Palm up, you bring your thumb and your first three fingertips together, then give your hand a gentle shake in someone’s general direction. In Italy this means, Have you totally lost your mind?

It was not a gesture that engendered great friendship between nations, any more than the waving arms did.

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A few nights ago my wife and I were in a small piazza down in Rimini for aperitivo. It’s a convivial late afternoon, early evening ritual lasting 2-3 hours. You sit outside under umbrellas and have drinks and snacks. You watch people come and go. This place we’ve adopted is called La Bottega. The service is fast, the snacks are good. Every night La Bottega is packed. There’s lots of local color. An added attraction, on the sound system, best heard indoors, they often play American music, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s. Go inside for food, enjoy a little music. I was filling my little plate this night with ceci beans and mortadella finger sandwiches when Johnny Cash came on the system. That deep, soulful, singular country voice of his: “Because you’re mine, I walk the line.”

“Che bella voce,” someone said.

Ceci beans and Johnny Cash. It was like having instantaneous contact with both cultures.

Five or six of us breasted the buffet, eying the trays. They were running low on the sandwiches. One after another, we yielded. After you. Please, after you.

Courtesy can break out when you least expect it, and isn’t that nice.

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