Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A bit about LINES

The longest lines I have ever seen were at Disney World in 1988. Actually, Disney World seemed to be nothing but lines, something Croatia and “the happiest place on earth” have in common. The difference being that most of the lines at Disney World end with you getting on a ride like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion. Most lines in Croatia end with you stooping over to talk to someone through a narrow slit cut into a glass window.

Croatian lines are but symbols of the country’s discriminatory (and often dysfunctional) system. On either side of the glass partition it is US and THEM. Them who have the power, the information, access. Them, the nurses, the bureaucrats, the ticket sellers. The queue is like the thread of life and we line up before the Fates, waiting to see if we get to see the doctor, if we have all of our paper work in order for our visa, I.D., parking permit. Or we line up just to ask where we can find the other line. Do you want something in Croatia? Yes? THEN GET IN LINE!!!

Believe it or not, but this is not how it is in the US. Now, I thought I understood lines when living in America, but after befriending several people from former-Communist countries I was informed that we, Americans, know nothing of lines. We do have lines in the US, but they are temporary affairs. Like a spring shower, not a storm.

You know how when you go to McDonald’s and if you stand in line for a few seconds someone will hop onto the next register and ask if they can help you? Well, its pretty much like that EVERYWHERE in America. There are no glass partitions in the doctor’s office. There are no doors that are impossible to open from the outside. Service, anywhere, is quick. If its not, then you get to complain. You get to remember people’s names, talk to managers and supervisors. You hear apologies and assurances that it won’t happen again. Even if you are stuck in line, you still feel empowered.

In Croatia, nothing drains your sense of agency faster than standing in line. Anything you have done in your life, the very things that give you some sense of self-worth have been stripped away, leaving nothing but the barebones of a pathetic, insignificant existence. You’re just another corpse in purgatory. Another number in the factory. And just when you start to take some solace in the fact that before the line we are all equal you see one of the chosen float to the front. You see an individual bathed in the divine light of favor, progressing ahead of everyone else. This angelic spirit has been gifted with the wings of veze, a heavenly connection gifted by her devotion to the gods. She sails forward. And you wait with the rest of the bums.

At this point the line descends into chaos. It morphs from a row of people waiting into a clump of animals herding, trying to get closer and closer to its end. Maneuvering through this huddle requires artistry. Years of practice seem to pay off. The older ladies are able to call the nurse by name, asking about her relations, holiday or some other personal detail lost to the rest of us. These pleasantries are like a verbal foot in the door, enabling the interlocutor to then plead to be taken ahead of her turn. For those of us lacking in the conversational talents we at least have one gift, elbows. Amid the herd we stick our arms out akimbo blocking the frail and advantage seeking senior citizens. We push and jostle until finally we press against the partition or threshold, and then like everyone else we plead our case, hoping for admittance.

I’m not sure why there is such a difference between the service one receives in the US and what we get in Croatia. It might be a scarcity of resources. Employers often keep the number of on-duty employees to a minimum. Or it might be a difference in protocol. When I worked in a large chain of bookstores lines were as hated by management as they were by the customers. If more than four people queued before the register we called for back up, just like the police. Then everyone everywhere stopped what they were doing and came to expedite customers through the line. During the holiday rush we gave out free coffee and samples of food from the in-store Starbucks. In terms of state institutions you would think that in a country with 200,000 civil servants, who are largely paid with the taxed 47% of our income and the 25% sales tax on everything, there would be more than enough people available to speed up our wait time. Then again, perhaps the long lines endure, just like the glass partitions, in order to preserve that power imbalance between those who makes us wait, and those of us who are waiting.




  1. .... "gifted with the wings of veze" ..... love it!

  2. Oh boy, I thought so, growing up in Zagreb. But then I moved to Portugal. Dude! Here they developed it to perfection :) And they enjoy it!!!
    Great reading, as always!

  3. this is so true ..I had talk with my friend here saying omg you are the only one who like American customer service but they don't know lines ..they think DMW is scary place to go I just can smile on this one it is funny and I hope things will change in Croatia soon

  4. The answer is very simple. They are not motivated. They have no reason at all to work faster and serve more customers (except, of course, when they know someone personally, which you interpret as _veze_, but it's just the usual "OMG, what will he think of me if I don't serve him right now"). Usually, the place they work is a monopoly: the only place in the whole country you can get what you need. So they know you won't escape to their competitors. And usually you are required by law to get that thing you're waiting for, so you can't give up. Why would they hurry? :-)

  5. Living in Split for over a year now this is one area I cannot seem to get over. The grocery store, the police, even getting on the bus.... it drives me insane. A refreshing read!

  6. you forget that of the well over 200k civil servants, maybe 10% of them actually work. the rest came upon those highly coveted, above-average-paid jobs with all the benefits through the despicable "veze"-mechanism. it's one of the top 5 reasons why croatia is in the pathetic economic state that it is right now :)

  7. Very true about the bureaucracy in Croatia. Probably because people are still not quite aware that they are actually paying through enormous levy all those extremely poor performing bureaucrats. Luckily I don't have to deal with them so often. But when I do, it's a disaster.
    Queue in the privately owned whatever? I don't wait there. But you must admit that in majority of those places the service is improving though still far from the States level.
    States probably have the best service in the world, but is it really so that there are no lines anywhere? Not according to the movies and shows I watch. Also what about the phenomenon of multiple hours/days queuing? I don't think before we started importing "western" memes, anyone would even remotely consider of standing in the queue for hours or days to buy a newly released product or tickets for the concert or whatever. (Probably tired of waiting for the bureaucrats to have mercy on us) That's something I and I believe many other compatriots of mine still can't comprehend.

  8. You think Croatian lines are bad?! Here in South Africa..it's diabolical! The worst of them all is Home Affairs, you need to mentally prepare yourself for the day when you need a visa. I find your blog hilarious and so true. :)

  9. Lines today are nothing compared to lines we had 20-30 years ago, belive me :)

  10. "Lines today are nothing compared to lines we had 20-30 years ago, belive me"

    Yes, thanks to computer revolution not smart moves.

    It is enough to look at the laws to see where the problem is.

    Primitive laws, primitive organization, primitive procedures...

    We need office for ??? purpose. Right so we need this, this and that. OK.

    That means we need paper for this, this and that. OK. So that means we need building for this, this and that. OK

    Job completed !?!?

    Less thinking = more overcomplicated result is. Politicans are too lazy as most people that work in banks, post office, etc...

  11. Some things for us domesticals living here in Croatia have become nothing else then a routine and we consider this normal. But even we are prepared for lines all life, we still don't like to end in one. And so called "jumpers" over the lines are the ones you would like to shoot in a place. In my conversations with other people I came to conclusion that, for example, in supermarkets, Shift Managers intentionally doesn't want to send more people to work on avaiable cash desks, as the rule is that cashier always has to be busy. So It's better to have 2 long lines, and 8 available free cash desks then for example 5-6 open cash desks to cut existed lines... At least in our lines we have opportunity to show our kindness to others if they have just few items so we let them pass in front of us...:o)))

  12. You are exactly correct.

    Indifference is the name of the game.

    I have worked here for 10 years and I hate my job, I hate you, I hate myself and now I will make you miserable too.

  13. The grocery store is the worst. Unavoidable and you are trapped. The next grocery store is too far away and the two employees are in no hurry.

  14. Long lines only exist in the States at government offices. Even then, only at the worst ones like the Department of Motor Vehicles.

    Retail stores are almost always fast and add employees as soon as the lines get long.

  15. I wouldn't relate the "lines" issue with "discriminatory system". Dysfunctional maybe, but discriminatory?
    In my humble opinion the "lines" are result of not having a Casual employment or "temps". When did we hear a term "Casual employment" in Croatia? Never. Doesn't exist as regulated workforce.
    And this is enabled in the US (or West) by default. The employer rings you in the morning to come to help in the afternoon. Or next day. Or weekend.
    Even for the Government the "temps" or "Casuals" are everywhere in here (downunder:). Volunteers as well.
    Which makes a service everywhere much faster since the workforce is much, much more flexible (and work laws as well).
    But, Svicarska (Swiss) is on top with the bureaucracy and queuing everywhere. Australia is probably 2nd (where the PostOffice shuts the door at 5pm, come to see this queues every single day:).