house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

In Wait

Some people wait better than others. A few things come to mind: ferry terminals in the Maldives, queuing for food in Communist Romania, bus stops in Scotland. (I am not counting the refugee camps of the world, where waiting fills the space between fences and flowers into a formidable way of being.)

Now I realise North Portugal can also claim to know the peaks of pointless patience. Go to the tax office, any post office, the hairdresser, the stationer – everywhere, waiting rules. It is what you do and then, when your turn comes, what you inflict on others (by asking as many questions as possible, sharing personal stories, never finding your purse and then returning for the pen you left behind). A subtle balance is achieved this way, and you can move on with total satisfaction, seemingly unaware or merely unconcerned that minutes, hours have been draining from your day...

I did have ample opportunity to observe, and found queues fascinating: first, there is no reliable rhythm to reassure you; they go faster (you brighten up, get your stuff ready), then they unaccountably slow down or stop altogether (you slump); conversations are struck with strangers; on a good day you may meet startling people, learn something, make friends; you can get all sorts of advice, because there is nothing else to do; once, waiting for a meal in a restaurant, a big discussion started - about food - with full recipes and culinary tips swapped; everyone contributed: customers, waiters, at one point the chef popped out of the kitchen to tell everyone how she made the rice. Queues are also hot houses of tics and quirks: nails are bitten, chewed and swallowed, hair is twisted between fingers, lips licked, moustaches pulled, teeth sucked.

A feeling of solidarity flows through a queue. Sometimes there's shared compassion for the person at the top (who forgot a piece of paper and turns to go home empty handed), sometimes there's deep hatred of those who ask too many questions, or vendors who are too slow. Friends of the functionaries, who use twelve minutes to catch up and another five to ask after old aunt Maria dos Santos are fervently and patiently loathed. A calm collective disgust is reserved for people with ladders in their stockings, greasy hair or stained clothes. Equal vitriol for the few who rebel and complain – far from being instant heroes, they are scum. Heads turn, eyes narrow, feet shuffle and if small grunts could kill...

Waiting for a haircut (since appointments only indicate when you must turn up to START your wait!) I scribbled my umpteenth treatise on waiting. I wondered grandly how much energy dissipates and disappears while waiting in a queue? How many ideas flicker by and vanish (a few good ones among them)? How many thoughts are processed or tolerated? How much pain endured (all those ingrown toenails, wedgies, cramps, heartache)? How many insects fed? Worries spinning and growing by the minute? Rage smouldering? Imaginary speeches made? Egos inflated? Egos crushed?

And so on. To wait well, you need to be either very strong or completely vacant. Anyone in the middle is at the mercy of the Fates. Watch me, still waiting to have my hair cut. A friend of the hairdresser's appears, they exchange kisses and gossip. I wait, the person with hair dye and aluminium foil plastered in her hair waits, the other waiting people wait... Maintaining an impeccable immobility, we all learn, among other things, that the weather is going to change, that cod is cheaper at Coca, and that Madalena is going to a party. The hairdresser giggles and pushes her towards the wash basin, shouting a few words to an assistant. What? Madalena, who has just arrived without an appointment, is at the front of the queue. Around me, no complaint, not even a twitch. Worse, do I see a few little smiles? It's more than I can bear. I jump up to make a fool of myself in terrible Portuguese, to knowingly burn my bridges and bear the curse of bad hair forever.

I turn to point a trembling finger at Madalena, then stop. She's only having her moustache removed, squirming a bit, wincing. I sit down with a sigh and a small smile. Nao faz mal. I am relieved and ready to wait a little more.

1 Comments:

At 19 December 2008 at 10:52 , Anonymous Sarah Campbell said...

I count my lucky starts that life on a small island does not involve qeuing. However, you write so beautifuly about the small dramas that I almost wish I were there...for a moment or two.

Much love

Sarah (from Lismore)

 

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