Random thoughts on staying in line…here and abroad
In Italy, there was a pedestal in the middle of Piazza Emanuelle, where a policeman stood to ostensibly control traffic. At times, I would take a cappuccino to an outdoor table just to watch the conductor of the day orchestrate the flow of circular traffic. Whistle in mouth, he would wave one lane along in front of him while halting traffic with a behind the back move. Violators would get a loud whistle. Insistent horns would try to hurry his beat. But, Italians being Italians, he would eventually be overwhelmed and the traffic would clog to a standstill to the sound of an orchestra tuning-up. At that point, the policeman would throw up his hands, wend his way through the cars and head for a coffee and cigarette, or three, until the mess resolved itself. The personal touch of an officer of the law has only so much impact on the drive to drive. At least he wasn’t a robotic traffic light.
Italians (I generalize here) and many other populations seem to be insulted by a light telling them what to do. As good conservatives will profess, the less rules, laws and constraints on a person’s liberties, the better. In some cultures, a traffic light might suggest a certain traffic-flow sequence, but only if fits the individual’s timing and convenience. Hence the mass confusion of downtown traffic in Addis Ababa, Guatemala City, Beirut and Cairo. Driving a Syrian refugee home from his English class recently, we were waiting for a four-way light to go through its sequence. After the first of three green lights, Achmed said, “In Syria, we would turn now.” I knew what he meant. In some countries I’ve lived in, the premise behind driving is… ‘I’m free to go where I want, when I want, unless you actively stop me.’ We Americans, on the other hand, appear to like and need clear signals to control the flow of our lives. For example, they’re installing new traffic-light poles at an intersection near my house. Apparently, the current system with facing lights hung over the middle of the intersection was inadequate. Now we have four poles with traffic lights facing each street and pedestrian access buttons at each corner.
Northern Europeans generally ‘mind the queue’ as a win-win way to access service. Others seem to work from a first-come, first-served…and I’m always first mindset despite the inefficiency of a surging mob trying to get on a bus. At times, the British inclination to order can seem extreme as in the scene from the movie Dunkirk where British soldiers stranded at the ocean stand in neat rows waiting life-saving evacuation while being dive-bombed.
Years ago, a group of us Americans shared a student flight from Rome to London with Italian undergrads. Upon landing, we headed for the non-resident custom booth and were first in line. When the Italians saw that, they swarmed over and around us and soon we were at the back of the line. Irked, I pointed to the ‘British Residents’ booth and shouted… “Italians over there.” They all ran over and we were back at the head of the line. I glanced over to see the custom officer shake his head at the first Italian student and then point back at our line. In no time, we were last in line, again. We Americans seem to have a carry-over inclination from our British forebears to mind the queue.
Perhaps what we share is a respect for orderliness, for rules that make life work more smoothly. To be honest, however, not all Americans share this value equally. One person will stop and wait for a green light at a 3 AM empty intersection while another will blow right on through at 3 PM at the slightest opening in traffic. Some of us look for and expect controls while others proceed at our own pace until stopped. Which makes the emergence of driverless cars an interesting paradigm shift. Would Europeans take to driverless cars? How about Americans who see their car as a horse which they can ride hither and yon in random search of open space and freedom?
Trains are different. We allow the constraint of rigid tracks and fixed stops because trains slice a path through endless prairies and clogged cities allowing us to engage in social media, reading or sleep during the commute. Cars, on the other hand, are an extension of ourselves, an assertion of individuality and a privacy bubble in which to indulge music, phone conversations, ball games and nose picking. That’s why it is so jarring to have somehow yell at us and our driving. We have to be careful about that. I once noticed a woman on the highway ahead of me oblivious to her turn signal blinking for the last five miles. I proceeded to get even with her in the passing lane and was about to toot my horn to let her know of her errant signaling, when I noticed that she was blissed out, stroking a cat sitting on her lap. I decided I might cause an accident if I jarred her out of her zoned-out state.
So, trains over cars for some of us…unless they are driverless? I wonder if a highway in the future, seen from a distance, filled with driverless cars and trucks will look like a train with detachable, self-exiting compartments and no dining car or conductor. The ultimate queue.