Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Holding My Own in Line

I always try to be careful before jumping to conclusions; however, after more than 7 weeks in Brazil and after being back in the USA for a little bit of time I feel safe in making this assertion – Brazilians don’t seem to have line rules. I am not talking about the line rules for soccer. They have a deep knowledge of all regras futebol (soccor rules) but there are other much more subtle line rules that I, and most of the people I know, seem to operate by everyday that just don’t seem to exist in Brazil.

Confused – Well let me explain. Don’t you remember that first year of school when the first week of school your teacher focused on how the class should line up. Everyone was to find a spot behind someone else. If you teacher was a particular type of person, you would line up by alphabetical order, other teachers lined the class up by height and some teachers were satisfied with any line where the children were aligned relatively straight. So the first rule of lines were that one person had to be behind the other in a relatively straight formation.

Once you learned how to get into line you learned how to walk in a line with each person making sure that they didn’t step on the back of the person in front of them. You had to pay attention to how the line was moving and adjust to the speed and direction of the person in front of you so the order that the line was maintained.

Then there was that child who was closer to the back of the line either because his last name was Williams or because he had a growth spurt over the summer that put him 3rd from the end of the line. For this child recess was the best part of the day and he was not inclined towards orderly quiet processes. For this very reason the teacher had already forced him to walk around with his finger to his lips to remind him to be quiet. This child, lets call him John was trying hard not to get in trouble since it was just the beginning of school and he had been promised a new truck if he could have a good first week.

John was trying hard to follow the rules when the line stopped. As number 22 in the line John could not really hear what was going on up there but he was very interested. He strained to hear what the teacher was saying and he really didn’t even notice that he had stepped out of the line and slowly moved up to the spot where the 5th student was standing in line. The teacher was talking to another teacher about lunch – an extremely important topic for John to know about. But as the conversation ended he realized that he was out of line and that the teacher would turn around and find him out of line. He tried to squeeze into a space close by at which point the bossy girl who was number 7th in line said – “NO CUTTING. JOHN YOU CAN’T CUT.” In that instant John, and everyone else learned the most important, sacred rule of the line – NO CUTTING.

Our society is founded on this important rule. In fact I think it should be right up there under the golden rule. I don’t know if I was scarred by my grade school or if I am just a stickler for rules, but I take the rules of the line very seriously. So you can imagine my slight dismay when I found myself in a country that did not seem to believe in the line rules. When I first got to Brazil I was trying to be polite. I was a visitor and I tried to operate with the graciousness of a good visitor. The first time that someone cut me I assumed it was an accident. Maybe this person didn’t learn about the line rules. I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. On my second week in Brazil, I was cut by two nuns in the airport in Belo Horizonte. I remember it so distinctly but I drew the conclusion that maybe there were different line rules that said women of the cloth can always go first. I chaulked it up to a cultural tradition that I didn’t know about.

As the weeks went on I started to realize that if I didn’t take matters into my own hands I was going to get cut all the time. So I started to learn the art of defending one’s place in line from those who don’t believe in the “no cutting rule.” By my 5th week when I was passing through customs in Sao Paulo, I lost my position to three carts but I cut off two people who were trying to gain on me. Over the next couple of weeks I kept perfecting the art of protecting my space in line. By the time I was leaving I had this art down to a science. In my final line entering the airplane in Rio I got right into the line and didn’t allow these two women to cut me off.

As I got in line to go into the plane I noticed a guy trying to take me from the left. The line had gotten a little crooked making it unclear exactly where one should stand and he was trying to take advantage of the situation. I shifted my purse to the side where he was approaching and spread my feet apart so that he would have to step over my left foot in order to cut me. The universe began to work with me as the line began to straighten and it became clear that there was only one spot that was the right place to stand – and I planted myself firmly in that space. He relented and accepted his place – BEHIND ME!

I am not sure whether I am proud of the person I have become. I have to admit that as much as I miss Brazil I am glad to be back in the US where it doesn’t take so much work to defend one’s place in line. I am not sure why this is the case in Brazil. Maybe instead of learning the No cutting rule they are taught the Carpe Diem (Seize the day) rule. Maybe the fact that the Brazilian school day is generally 1-2 hours shorter than the American school day means that there is not enough time for teaching the rules of standing in line. Or maybe Brazilians figure that if they have to stand in line that it is more fun to make a game of it. Who knows why it is what it is, but all I know is that I have learned to defend my place in line.