Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Airport Etiquette

Customs, as we know, vary from country to country. One very British custom is queuing. People like to joke that we will join a queue even if we don't know what we are actually queuing for, so strong is the emphasis on waiting your turn.
I'm no different. I'm an inveterate queuer and a stickler for politeness, generally speaking. But this isn't always true of Belgians. Here, you must always be on the look-out in case you lose your turn. Nothing can be taken for granted.

I made the mistake of letting my guard down while waiting at Zaventem airport last week. On arrival, tired and dazed after a week of hell in Strasbourg, I joined the back of the line while my friend went to get us a much-needed coffee. On returning ten or fifteen minutes later she commented that I hadn't moved very far in that time. Indeed, on turning round, I discovered I was still very much at the back of the line.

The only thing was, though, that some Indian guys who had walked past five minutes or so before were spearheading a new tributary to the queue which had started from the other direction. I was in a hurry. I hesitated - should I, shouldn't I? Then thought what the hell and went to reclaim my 'rightful' place just behind them.
It caused uproar. I was shouted down by a Flemish gentleman about my lack of manners, and a couple of angry ladies who claimed my action was thoroughly unscrupulous. I tried to explain, in French, that the people I was standing behind had clearly arrived later and that, in the freeforall, the main queue - mine - had effectively been sidelined. Useless. Or perhaps that was my language skills. After a few minutes I decided just to keep silent and stand my ground.

On nearing the partitions for the checkout desk I was surprised by a sharp jab in the ribs. A Belgian couple behind me were clearly squaring up for a fight and before I knew it the man had lifted my suitcase clear over his trolley while his wife took great delight in placing it firmly in the middle of the concourse, at the end of the line. He didnt mince his words either, demanding i 'bouge mon cul' and other equally unflattering remarks.

To reinforce the point his wife then took hold of the trolley and proceeded to run over my foot in an effort to evict me bodily. Realising it was just creating more of a scene her husband took over the reins and shoved me a good four or five metres with it as I protested loudly.
Finally an airport worker came over and threatened to throw them both out the queue. In some ways I had won the argument. But I was very confused and upset.
My question, I suppose, is who was in the right? I wouldn't have asserted myself if I didnt feel I had a point. But then, what seems right and wrong and what are right and wrong are very different. If everyone else felt I had committed a fault, should I have accepted that was just and backed down? Or was I right to stand up to this situation?

Terrified of running into my fellow passengers, I spent some time hovering around the security gate before ducking into the plane at the last possible second. On emerging with my bags in Delhi - without further run-ins - I presumed myself safe.

But bizarrely, I did run into that ferocious couple again, this time 50k or so from the Tibetan border on Shimla's main street. This time, my partner had skipped the queue and - not recognising them - I pointed out they had been waiting before us. I couldn't work out the cold reception at first nor their certainty that I must be 'Belgian' (my accent being a dead giveaway). Maybe that was karma completed for this trip...

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