In America, I could walk up to a line of cash registers, take a quick glance, and within seconds have picked out the fastest line. I wasn’t right all the time, but more often than not, I would end up with a winner and walk out of there faster than the rest.
Not so in Romania.
Here, I seem to have a nack for picking the slowest line possible.
This “gift” has rarely ever failed me.
While standing in line in America is a fairly routine, boring thing to do–you simply follow along behind the person directly in front of you–waiting in line in Romania is a bit more adventurous. Let me explain.
There seem to be four basic categories into which Romanian lines fall: (1) the Jumbled Mass, (2) the Knotted String, (3) the Secret List, and (4) the Mysterious Complication.
(Before continuing, please note that I love Romania and this is all written in good humor and, while representing my experience, may not be completely factual. In fact, there’s a good chance it’s all completely made up.)
1) The Jumbled Mass
This is the preferred line at McDonald’s restaurants throughout Bucharest. The basic concept is quite simple really and requires only minimal preparation beforehand. The Jumbled Mass consists of a counter behind which at least one employee stands and in front of which is a jumbled mass of people, all pushing forward attempting to get the attention of one employee or another. The basic rule in this case: elbow, knee, nudge, kick, and push your way to the front or you don’t stand a chance of getting that 3-lei hamburger. Easy. Now, let me mention my most favorite aspect of the Jumbled Mass line, a point which not only makes it worth saving but even worth exporting. While most lines are functional but completely unexciting, the Jumbled Mass is functional and it incorporates the excitement of a truly unique lottery system. Upon entering this line, older women and parents of small children are automatically entered into a lottery. The winner of the lottery gets a free ride to the front of the line. Unfortunately, not all customers will respect the lottery winner, so be prepared to glare at any opposers and revert back to elbowing, kneeing, nudging, kicking, and pushing your way to the front.
2) The Knotted String
If you’ve ever owned a pair of earbuds, you know all about the concept behind the Knotted String line. There is no mistaking that those earbuds are just one cord, but the cord is so tangled you’d swear there were at least a dozen in there. Although this type of line drives me nuts (both when my earbuds revert to it and when I find myself waiting in one at the post office), it is one that I seriously believe only Romanians have the mental capacity to be able to pull off effectively. Now, while Americans are certainly not dumb, there is no way we could pull off the Knotted string line. Why? Because although the line is in no way straight, it is certainly always in order, and somehow everyone remembers that order despite the knotted nature of the line. In such a line, your best hope is to remember who walked through the door right before you and right after you. You, no matter where you happen to stand, are smack dab in the middle of those two. Be aware that you will most often experience this type of line at a post office during cold weather and at Starbucks.
3) The Secret List
This type of line is really just the Knotted String variety… stretched over many miles. This is also the most rare of Romanian lines, and probably it’s not naturally Romanian as I have only ever encountered it at the Immigration Office. Most likely, this came to Romania through rats infested with fleas carrying Yersinia pestis. Those rats, being foreigners, were of course required to file endless forms with the Romanian government. One rat, thinking he was smarter than the rest, showed up at Immigration at 6 a.m., smiling broadly as he imagined waiting a mere three hours to earn the privileged “first in line” status when the doors would open at 9. However, destiny was not so kind to our adventurous little rat. Although he was in fact the only one waiting in front of the doors in the bitter cold at 6 a.m., he was not in fact first in line. You see, he was standing in a line with a secret list, and there were about forty names (all in triplicate, stamped, and notarized) already on that list. He would be number 41, no matter how long he waited in the cold, no matter how close he was to the front. Seriously, though, this line is by far the worst of them all. If you’re standing in line for something, STAND IN LINE. You snooze, you lose. The early bird gets the worm. You move it, you lose it. There’s no calling “saved” on a spot in line so you can go get a nice sleep or a drink of coffee or smoke a joint. If you’re not physically there straining just to stay on your feet, you are not in line. And I don’t care what you think that little piece of paper says. Except that I do, because everybody else has bought into your little list, and so I sign my name with the rest and then go back and, in protest, continue to stand in line as if it matters (because it’s the principle, you see). Honestly, with this type of line, the best thing might be to scream and holler and pretend an alien is coming out of your stomach; with any luck it might then revert back to the Jumbled Mass, but you might also get a jail term.
4) The Mysterious Complication
The Mysterious Complication line is not peculiar to Romania by any means. It’s just that in Bucharest, I seem to have gained some strange ability to *attract* such lines to me. These types of lines happen throughout Bucharest, but I have most often encountered them at Carrefour, LIDL, and the RATB kiosks. The Mysterious Complication line is the sneakiest line because it appears exactly like a good old “American as apple pie and baseball” line; it’s straight, moving in one direction, quiet and orderly, acting in every way just how a line should act. Everything looks perfectly normal. But there will be someone–or someones, they often travel in pairs around me–at some point who for some reason or other makes the line stop. What happened? Is the man paying with all 1-bani pieces? Did the meat juices leak out and get the scanner all gross? Do we need to run for a price check? Nobody knows. I seriously think about 50% of the lines I stand in end up with a Mysterious Complication. So, if you see me shopping in Bucharest, don’t stand by me unless you like waiting… and practicing patience.
While those descriptions aren’t completely factual and are certainly full of exaggerations, since living in Bucharest I have come to learn that American and Romanian lines are two completely different breeds with two completely different sets of rules.
Before he left for Italy, I asked my Romanian tutor Edi if I should use the Romanian word “linie” (geometric line), “coadă” (tail), or “rând” (turn, round) for line. “Use coadă,” he said, “because linie means it’s straight, and lines in Romania are not straight.” He went on to explain that budding in line (a băga) has been normal ever since the days of Communism, when everything was rare (except for budding in line, which, of course, was quite common). So rând, implying an order, probably isn’t the best choice either. And so coadă (tail) it is.