It always feels a little peculiar returning from foreign travel to France, which has become for me at once comfortingly familiar and disconcertingly other. Sometimes this strange contradictory blend of sensations induces in me a sort of euphoria: we actually now live in this land of holidays! Unfortunately, today was not one of those days. Perhaps it did not help that I had just landed after a 13-hour flight from a hot country and that it was grey, rainy and cold in Paris. But I am British after all, and rarely deterred by a bit of drizzle. No, at the root of my sense of gloom was not the weather, but the fact that, in my absence, it seemed that France had mobilised with the specific aim of making sure that all my pet gripes about this country manifested themselves in Charles de Gaulle airport at the precise moment of my arrival there.
It was on the bus from the plane to the airport that my tale of woe began. About five minutes after leaving the tarmac, the bus that I was travelling in suddenly came to a grinding halt about 20 metres away from the door through which we were clearly intended to enter the terminal building. The bus doors remained resolutely closed. At first we all just looked around in bemusement. After six or seven minutes, people began craning for a better view. A small child who had wailed throughout the majority of the flight resumed his lamentations.
Of course, this might just as well have occurred in the UK, but it was the reaction of the airport staff that marked this instance out as being French. In Britain, any sort of transport delay is announced to the passengers within moments of it occurring. There is always an apology and a reason given (the weather, if all else fails). When the reason for the delay is unknown, the apology will usually be followed by a frank admission that the driver hasn’t the foggiest idea what is going on, but that he’s giving his superiors grief about it, because, after all, everyone is in it together (the famous Blitz spirit). On occasion the driver finds the official reason for the delay absurd, and it is normal for this too to be mentioned over the PA system. I can recall one announcement on the tube, for example, when the driver took about 30 seconds to spit out his message because he was giggling so much at having to tell us all that we were stuck in a tunnel because there was chocolate on the line ahead. Of course no announcement in the world can alter the fact of the exasperating delay but this informative approach does make us feel that someone cares about it on our behalf, or at least enables us to have a chuckle amidst the general despair. This is a phenomenon commonly called customer service.
Meanwhile, back on the French bus, which remained at a standstill, the driver got off and spoke to his colleagues. They were all observed to wield their talkie-walkies with an air of self-importance. The driver got back on the bus. He kept his back to us. The PA system remained silent. We waited some more. The small child continued to scream. The buses stacked up behind us, and still we waited. Indeed, we waited a full 23 minutes and not a single word was uttered in explanation, even when we finally completed the last 20 metres of our journey and walked into the building past eight scowling members of staff, who, being the owners of the aforementioned talkie-walkies, presumably had some idea about what had occurred. What struck me apart from the lack of information or apology provided was the attitude of the French passengers, who were heard to utter to one another that all this was most probably the result of yet another grève. This was said without particular chagrin: another day, another strike, what else can we say?
Once in any terminal building I usually plough directly on, determined to get through the airport formalities as speedily as possible. In this case, the interminable wait on the bus had taken its toll on my bladder, so I was forced to take a pit stop. When I arrived in the ladies’ toilet, all the stalls were already occupied and there was a queue of two. These two people disappeared off when their turns came and, just as I was about to take my own step towards the sound of a toilet flushing behind a closed door, a smart-looking woman appeared as if from nowhere, walked straight past me, announcing in French that she was in a rush (presumably I was not), and barged directly into the spare cubicle as soon as the previous occupant emerged. I stood there, a bit shell-shocked: this really was not cricket. Then I remembered that I was no longer in Vietnam, the land of good manners and smiling, helpful faces, but in France, where queueing is optional, and almost never applied in the case of determined old, or even middle-aged, women.
Having finally relieved myself, I then joined the queue for passport control, which I had to endure for a total of 51 minutes. Despite the length of the queue, there were only two windows for people travelling on a European passport. One of these was processing people with admirable efficiency under the circumstances, but even from a long way away, I could see that the official at the second desk was enjoying scrutinising the documents provided to him in the officious and suspicious manner peculiar to many uniform-wearing public servants in France. He kept one hapless individual waiting for a total of four minutes and 37 seconds as he looked menacingly from the passport up to the face and back again. I wondered whether it was because the man in question had very un-Gallic ginger hair and freckles.
Of course, long queues at passport control are a global phenomenon, but once again there were several factors that set this particular example apart. Firstly, there was no falsely jovial public information to keep your spirits from flagging, such as you would find at stringent US border controls. Secondly, the lady from the toilets had clearly travelled with several of her friends because queue etiquette was distinctly lacking at several junctures, leading to bottle necks and unseemly elbow clashes (without eye contact). And thirdly, whereas in a British queue you could cheer yourself up with a good grumble with your neighbour, in the French queue I cast round for quite some time but found nobody who was willing even to look at me, let alone engage in some therapeutic muttering. There is absolutely no fun in a long queue if you can’t share a jolly good complaint about it with your fellow travellers.
Finally through passport control, I streaked through baggage reclaim, where my suitcase had presumably done about 600 tours of the carousel in my absence, and marched past all the dawdlers to the airport station because by now I had quite comprehensively missed my train and needed a new ticket. I arrived there to find the same long, ill-disciplined, non-grumbling, ill-informed queue for the ticket office. But what really made me lose my rag was that, as I was helplessly joining this queue, the SNCF jingle came over the loudspeaker. After my lengthy ordeal its cheery breathlessness, so similar to that of French yoghurt jingles, quite frankly enraged me enough to make me want to tear down the sign which had just caught my eye and which bore the deceitful inscription: Bienvenue en France.
If you are interested in reading about what French people think about the British attitude to the queue, you could visit lost and found in London to find out.