MY French husband and I do not line up in the same manner. Pierre fait la queue, he does the line like he does the backyard or he does the dishes, sometimes. I stand in line, I don't do the line but I do do the dishes. One of the first lines I encountered in France was at the student restaurant at Grenoble University. The dining room was upstairs. Instead of lining up downstairs, everyone would shove onto the staircase.
At first, fresh from the States, I couldn't believe it. I thought I'd help everyone by showing them how much more simple it was to wait in line. Impossible. It seemed no one understood what I was talking about. They'd just plow right in. More than once several of us would slide backward, only to be pushed forward by those behind. No one ever really fell. We just swayed back and forth together.
Then I met Pierre, who introduced me to ski-lift lines. Before I could learn how to ski, I had to learn how to ``do the line.'' We entered a hallway leading to the ski lift. I had no idea how many people could fit into one lift but everyone around me seemed certain they'd make it.
We were carrying our skis. I held mine close in front of me like a suit of armor. Pierre spread his arms out around me and at the same time he pushed us both forward. As we approached the cable car, he quickly surveyed the situation, calculating where the line would give in and move forward. We moved, or rather he moved me, in that direction. And sure enough the man with the red ski cap, who was standing in front of me when I entered, ended up rows behind me as I took off in the ski lift.
How'd Pierre do it? And how'd he do it even in the midst of fellow Frenchmen? He was born the first of eight brothers. Each winter they skied near a little village in the Alps where his parents had a chalet. The eight of them would arrive at any of the lifts or tows and the line would somehow dissolve. I saw them do it. They'd first split, and then from the left and from the right they'd encircle everyone and meet in front, where they'd pretend to be very surprised to discover one another at the head of the line.
When we were first married, we lived in a small village in southern France, where there were rarely enough people for a line. This was back in the '50s. The only lines I remember were at the fresh-air market each Saturday. Without Pierre I'd wait the whole morning for just a melon. It would be my turn but no one would notice me. Not even the vendor. As the months went by, I learned to push my way up front and to stay there until I was served. I was starting to become French.
Then we moved to Brussels where there were lots of lines. Pierre was delighted. It was all the more sport, thwarting those Belgians who waited patiently. We were once in a line to see the king's flower gardens. So many people were standing in front of us that we couldn't even see the entrance. For close to an hour we inched our way forward along the outside wall. It started to rain, a real downpour. Pierre took shelter in a doorway. He tried the door. It opened. He ushered me into the garden and quietly closed the door behind us.
Our next move was to Italy where I learned that Italians and Frenchmen have at least two things in common: their aversion to anything resembling a line and their elation when they outsmart one. Our fourth and fifth children were born while we were living there. When it was time to bring the fifth baby home from the hospital, traffic was blocked for miles and everyone was honking and shouting and gesticulating. I was holding five-day-old Lucie in my arms, wanting to remain calm and protective. Pierre was trying to figure out how to get us home. Lucie started to fuss. Pierre spotted a police car on the other side of the road and hailed the driver. He told him we had a newborn baby and had to get her home.
The Italian policeman seemed to inflate like a balloon with the urgency of the situation. He instructed us to follow him and turning on his siren he escorted us down the opposite lane, speeding past all the stalled cars. Pierre relished each moment. I closed my eyes. Once we were in front of the traffic, the policeman took off his cap and waved us onward. ``Salute Signori. Arriverderci.''
When we spent a year in the States, I wondered how this French father of five would adjust. One day we were visiting New York City with my parents. When they showed Rockefeller Center to their grandchildren from Europe, I wanted to stay with them and asked Pierre to stand in the line for theater tickets in the middle of Times Square. Since he found a French newspaper, he willingly agreed. By the time we returned, we figured he'd be nearing the front of the line. But he was nowhere to be seen. It was our oldest son who finally spotted him, sitting on a bench with his newspaper. Before I could say a word, he held out the tickets with a smile. Just by chance, he had seen a Frenchman at the head of the line and joined him at the box office.
Then we settled in Switzerland where lines seem to be second nature, at least to the Swiss. Even inside the elevators, people stand in line and are expected to get off in order. With training, our children learned to snap into single file as soon as they went out the front door. Then together all six of them would follow one after the other. That is how I once lost one. We were shopping in a new mall where there were lots of bright colors and exciting things to see. I was leading the family line and was surprised to hear on the loudspeaker, ``Five-year-old Lucie is looking for her mother.'' Somewhere along the way she had dropped out.
Now, after 30 years together, Pierre and I are again alone in our lines. Our basic cultural difference remains: I stand in lines, Pierre does lines. He even does them just for his wife. Recently I was flying alone to the States for a short visit to my parents. Pierre was carrying my bags for me. There were long lines at the check-in counters. I was waiting, happily anticipating the trip and looking at the people around me, when suddenly Pierre bounded forward and arrived first in front of a counter just opened. ``Just for my wife,'' he said to the people now lining up behind him. He had made his day, and I had a good seat on the plane.
The best of two worlds....