Hebrew Hear-Say: Lining up

Even lining up the carts at the market has a certain method to it.

Queuing in Israel is an art form. Forget everything you have been told about Israelis not knowing how to wait in line (lehamtin/lehakot bator). They know how to do it - their way. It's the newcomers and outsiders have to get used to a very different manner of minding their Ps and Q(ueue)s. When I made aliya many years ago, I unwittingly caused havoc out of an order I didn't understand. As I waited patiently British-style in a queue at the supermarket, people came up to me saying "ani aharayich" and quickly disappeared before I had time to ask what that meant. About 10 minutes later, I discovered the hard way when push came to shove in my line. All the those who had told me "I'm after you" seemed to return at the same time loaded down with shopping and emotional problems, all convinced I was saving them a space in the queue as if we had been childhood friends. Even lining up the carts has a certain method to it. For some reason, shoppers insist on lining them up lengthwise, which takes up far more room and blocks the access from the aisles. The carts, agalot, are an integral part of the Israeli shopping experience, driven like the average vehicle on the roads. And there is always one agala (the one I get) with the survival instincts of the government, one minute veering sharply to the right and the next pulling wildly leftward with no clue where it's meant to be going. As you wait in line, people around you will openly peruse the contents, assess your lifestyle and comment on it to pass the time (leha'avir et hazman). Even the cashiers (kupa'iyot), rushed as they might be, have no qualms in asking how much cat food you really need. The queues are always much longer than they seem not only because of the "Ani aharecha/aharayich" brigade but also because of those who refuse to use the express checkout (kupat express) despite claiming to have "just one item," "rak parit ehad." In my now vast experience, they might have just one small item, but they will never have the small change to pay for it. The "just one item" folk elsewhere turn into the "just one question" people. Wherever there is a line - at the bank, post office, health fund or any government ministry - you will easily find them. Or more to the point, they will find you. They will come in after you but push ahead having announced: "Li yesh rak she'ela ahat." At the bank, for example, that one question is something like: "What is the best way to carry out a multi-international transaction involving at least three different types of currency, all in countries that don't work on Sundays [if that's the day you are waiting]?" In banks, where time really is money, the practice is annoying enough. At the health fund, it sometimes feels like waiting in line is a life-and-death matter (inyan shel haim vemavet). Here, exactly when you are feeling your worst, you'll discover all sorts of people who, no matter how feeble they look, will summon up the energy to push ahead of you. Jumping the queue seems seems to give these potential flat-liners a new lease on life. Possibly this is because few words in the Hebrew language are as hated as "kah mispar veyikre'u lachem," "Take a number and you'll be called." By the time you get in to see the specialist, all but the most complex medical conditions will have cleared up on their own and you'll be calling the staff all sorts of names under your breath. The numbers game is bad enough. But worse is the habit at hospitals of telling everybody to come at the same time for an appointment and then just standing back safe in the knowledge that the place is equipped to deal with any blood that might be spilled in the ensuing scuffle. It could be a form of triage - the fighting fit get dealt with first and can they leave the room for those with not enough energy to scream and shout. Wherever you are, there will always be the poor sucker who fell prey to a bureaucrat and was sent off to bring one more form (tofes) or approval (ishur). "Hayiti kan kodem," "I was here before," is not a ruse. Etiquette demands you let the guy saying this go ahead of you because next time (in about two minutes), it could be you. Definitely the most chilling in-line words are: "Tavo mahar," "Come tomorrow." Everybody hears them sooner or later. Tip: Find out the opening hours "tomorrow" or you might find tomorrow never comes. No matter how irritating an Israeli queue might be, lining up for so long gives you plenty of opportunity to meet people. I've known friends to leave the post office with Shabbat lunch invites and job offers from strangers. Whenever you queue, remember you need plenty of patience (savlanut), a good book and a positive approach to the idea of the end of the line. liat@jpost.com