Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Conveniently inconvenient

Many of us who came of age in the 1970s practically lived by the famous "Don't Panic" mantra of "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:"

A recent trip to Ireland and England gave me no reason to doubt Douglas Adams' sage advice. But I realize another quote from protagonist Arthur Dent may be the real clue to the operation of our little world. Faced with an almost unfathomable alien bureaucracy, Dent becomes the hero by volunteering to negotiate the waiting line:

"I'm British. We know how to queue."

While that line was likely lost on American audiences, it is essential for understanding how the European Union is competing with the United States. We are more aggressive. But they are better at waiting in line.

The key to Europeans is their high tolerance for inconvenience.

This became very clear to me when we took a discount Ryan Airlines flight from Dublin to a suburban London airport so we could attend a family reunion. Ryan is one of those airlines that your read about in the U.S. and shake your head in disbelief. Sometimes flights between Ireland and Britain sell for under 10 euros and they allegedly let people board the plane free if their are empty seats. It wasn't quite that cheap for us, but it was still a bargain.

I think. For the price of the discount, you get a very different level of service. Instead of serving pretzels and soft drinks, the cabin crew comes down the aisle selling everything from sandwiches to watches and perfume. It's kind of like flying for an hour and a half on the Home Shopping Network.

But our seasoned fellow travelers took it in stride. What do you expect for those prices?

The real kicker, however, came when we arrived at London/Luden airport. The plane was short on overhead bins, so we had check our luggage. So we hurried to the carrousel after landing -- and waited. And waited. It took nearly an hour before our bags trundled down the conveyor.

The Americans waiting for their bags were livid. They -- we -- paced back and forth, muttered oaths and peered through the slot into the baggage room where we could see that a single small crew was casually handling all the luggage from one plane at a time. It was agonizing beyond belief.

But not for the passengers who get their paychecks in pounds or euros instead of dollars. They know how to queue.

The Europeans stepped out for a smoke, when to the cafe for tea or a beer or just leaned back and chatted with each other as if this was the highlight of their vacation. No one seemed the least anxious -- when the bags arrived I swear I heard one man say "That wasn't bad..."

Afterwards, I started paying attention to how non Americans cope with the little indecencies of life. Because it has a boom economy, Ireland is filled with workers from all over the European Union, so it is a good slice of life -- European life.

As everyone who has read a tour-guide knows, that European life is quaint and bucolic. Supermarkets exist, but they have to compete myriad tiny stores that sell just produce or just meat or just baked goods. That means a walk down the street rewards you with sights, sounds and especially smells you would never find in a U.S. mall. And then there is transportation. "Petrol" is God-awful expensive, so folks walk, take the bus or catch a train. It seems so civilized.

Civilized, yes. Convenient, no. Shopping for tonight's dinner can take an hour if you walk a quarter mile to the produce shop, then down the street to the butcher and pop over to the baker -- stopping each place for a friendly chat. And that double decker bus looks great, but slogging up the steep stairs to the top deck while it is dodging through a narrow street quickly loses its charm.

So how do they put up with it? By building inconvenience into their lives.

My son-in-law, Will, was incredibly frustrated by the pace of his new job at an Irish architectural firm in Dublin. He showed up at 7:30 the first day of work so he could get an early start. Then he had to wait outside the building until someone showed up at 9 with the key. Work starts at 9:30. Lunch is an hour and a half starting about 1. And you are ushered out at 6 p.m. even if you have a project to finish -- employees don't get keys.

But for Europeans, that schedule makes perfect sense. It means you can get your children off to school in the morning ("Schoolbus, what's a schoolbus?") and actually go home for lunch with your family. Or you can take that mid-day break to do your shopping, banking or other personal business without the stress of an American pace. The system provides extra time that we Americans might see as productivity-killing. But our friends Over There know they will make good use of that time. After all, you need to stand in line...

And Europeans know how to queue.

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