Jeff and I do most things together. This doesn’t mean we don’t have other people we do things with, but the majority of our time we hang out with one other. And we do most of our bureaucratic, medical stuff, etc. together. My Spanish is better than his so even if the topic has nothing do do with me I’m there for support.
There are times I’m busy and can’t go with him. Or I’m just tired and don’t want to venture out. So he has to go it alone. This is where his frustration can start. He’ll come home shaking his head.
‘I just don’t get it. I got there and there was this mass of people. No line, just people sort of standing around and sitting on chairs. Then the door opened and they lined up. Even the people who got there after me cut in front of me. I was like ‘What the Hell!?’.
Spanish queuing is a marvel to me. Every government office or medical building has a great system with numbers and letters that ensure orderly service and provide privacy to all. In the US, when you go to the doctor they have people stand 4 feet behind you ‘for privacy’ while they loudly ask you to spell your exact name, date of birth and then ask you why you want to see the doctor. I used to just say ‘I have a rash.’ This meant the receptionist wouldn’t ask any more questions – even if I was there for a broken arm. Then the piece de resistance – shouting out your name for all to hear when it’s your turn. This would never happen in Spain. Because they’re serious about privacy – not just playing at it.
So I didn’t really understand why he would be having a difficult time on his forays out into the world of Valencia alone. And then today happened.We needed to get some blood work done. Our regular doctor doesn’t take appointments. I know his work schedule – its not complicated – and when we need to see him we turn up and Espera (wait). It never takes too long. But getting labs done can take forever. They open at 8:30 so I had us there at 8 am sharp. There were already two people waiting before us outside on the pavement. I smiled and said ‘Buenos dias’ and they smiled back. Luckily there were only two others. Great! This would take no time at all.
Slowly, more and more people came and then I remembered what I had forgotten since the last time I went to the bank and there was a line. This is la vez. Each person stopped and asked those already there ‘Ultimo?‘ (it mean’s ‘Last’) and the last person who arrived before them raises their hand. Today, this went on and on until there are about 30 people standing around on the sidewalk waiting for the clinic doors to open. Not an actual line – just a collection of people leaning on cars, sitting on the one bench or the stairs of a building. All waiting. When you ask ‘Ultimo?’ you are attaching yourself to the person who raises their hand. Then, when the next person arrives and asks the same question, you raise your hand and they attach themselves to you.
This is the Spanish form of lining up, often without the line. And it is sacrosanct. There will be no cutting in line, for the line that doesn’t exist. But it does. It’s virtual and just as real as if we were all between stanchions to board a plane. Everyone has a place and it will be enforced by all who are also queuing. Break the rule and there will be words and the group will turn on you. I’ve seen it in a bank.
What la vez also does is it allows those who need to take a seat – the elderly, those with children, the infirm – or those needing a bathroom – to do so without losing their place in the either real or virtual line. If someone arrives and the last person has gone to the restroom or is sitting far away so they can’t hear, the others in the line will point out who they are so that this person understands who is in front of them. It’s kind of genius, actually. It provides order from potential chaos. I explained this all to Jeff as he was confused as to what was going on and how this would all pan out.
‘See? I’m glad we’re by the door because when they pull up the shutter there will be a crush to get in and we’ll end up last.’ He cautioned me.
‘No we won’t. I raised my hand when the next person came. That guy is before me and the lady is after me.’
He was confused, so I went through the simple rules. He was flabbergasted.
‘We’ve lived here nearly two years and you’re just now telling me this?!’
‘I forgot. And anyway, we’re usually at places that have electronic queuing so then it’s a moot point. But now that you know how it works it’s easy.’
‘If I’d known this I could have saved hours of frustration. I’ve had people ask me ‘Ultimo’ before but I didn’t know why they were saying ‘Last’ to me and I didn’t answer cause I didn’t know how to respond. They probably all thought I was rude or trying to cut in line.’
Jeff doesn’t do line-cutting. In any culture. I felt him having visceral line -shaming flashbacks from the last 2 years.
‘Well, now you know. When you walk up you say it, and then respond by raising your hand when the next person comes.’
Jeff looked thoughtful. Its like the clouds cleared out. As we were walking back to the apartment he smiled. ‘It all makes sense now.’ Which made me feel a little guilty for not filling him in since this method of queuing is so integral to getting what you need. And it just goes to show that you can learn (or remember) something new every day.