Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Danger of Priority Lanes

This post is intended to fill the gaping hole in the travel advice issued by the UK government to those citizens visiting Portugal:

People of Britain, avoid the priority lane in Portuguese supermarkets.
At all costs.

A recent change in law makes it compulsory for Portuguese supermarkets to designate one of their checkout lanes as priority.  Elderly, disabled, pregnant or people with young children can cruise straight to the front of this queue, ahead of any other shoppers, to be on their way with the minimum amount of inconvenience.

I didn't take a photo in Portugal, but it turns out they have these lanes in France as well

"Great", I hear you say.  "Well done Portugal for pushing forwards to help those less able".  Well just hold your horses there, sir or madam, because until you've tried it, you don't realise what a truly horrible system this is for those poor Brits who find themselves entangled within its sticky web.

In-arms, on a walk
Our involvement with this system comes from having baby Beth, who we take everywhere with us in our arms or, more usually, worn in a baby carrier.  We won't touch on the pros and cons of this approach, but it does mean that we don't have a buggy to get in the way and are just as mobile as ever when wearing her.

We didn't realise that the priority system existed to begin with, but inadvertently joined the priority queue, which can be used by anyone.  It's not like a 'basket only' queue, it's just that if a 'priority' person turns up, they get to join right at the front.

When we joined the priority queue, not knowing anything about the system, we joined the back of the queue as usual.  I was carrying Beth in my arms and she was squirming about a bit as she was getting tired and hungry.  Anyway, it was business as usual for us until a Portuguese gentleman came to join the queue with his two kids.  He told us that we could move to the front of the queue, except that we didn't initially understand what he was saying.  After a bit of gesticulating at the priority sign hanging from the ceiling and pointing at Beth, we understood what he meant.  He kept telling us that we must go to the front.  We were somewhat taken aback and, not being accustomed to queue jumping, told him that we were OK to wait and that he could go ahead, which is what he did with his youngsters in tow.

That experience was all a
Writing a blog post while Beth sleeps
bit awkward, so the next time we visited the supermarket, we made sure to join one of the normal, non-priority queues.  We didn't mind queuing, especially as Beth was in a carrier on my front this time, fast asleep, so with 4 free hands between us we considered ourselves less of a priority than even able bodied shoppers doing the weekly shop on their own.  Moreover, as upstanding British citizens abroad, we were acting as ambassadors to the Empire.  As such, we felt obliged to queue to the best of our ability at every opportunity offered, in an attempt to educate, by example, our European brothers and sisters on the finer points of queuing etiquette.  Despite what I'm sure are their best intentions, they just don't quite manage to always get it right.

The priority system wouldn't let us slip through the checkout process this easily, however.  The sharp-eyed, diligent cashier saw us join the back of his queue so he stopped serving the current customer and stood up so that he could call to us to leave his queue and go and use the priority lane.

This took us totally by surprise.  We thought we had got it all figured out this time so with only a short walk to the priority checkout in which to think, I panicked and, dumping my share of the shopping in Kate's arms, told her that I would just walk round the front with Beth and she could join the queue as a non-priority customer.

Playing crazy golf together.  She loved this

Having a cosy sleep on Mummy
For our next trip to the supermarket, we knew that we didn't have any choice but to embrace the priority system, if for no other reason than as a cultural experience.  When in Rome and all that.

This time, we were able to mentally prepare for the queue jump ahead of us and to look up what to say when we pushed in at the front like heathen barbarians, I mean, as the law stipulated that we should.

I've got to say that what happened next was one of the most cringe-worthy experiences of our lives.  We were loaded up with a ton of shopping this time.  Beth was again sleeping soundly in a carrier, not causing us any bother whatsoever, the supermarket was heaving with the after-work crowd with everyone busy and grumpy, just trying to get home after a hard day at work.  All checkout lanes had long queues.

Undeterred, as I had rehearsed in my head, we shoved our way confidently to the front, which wasn't easy as the lane was quite narrow, I uttered my memorised "Can we go in front because we have a baby" line in my best Portuguese and then we started to put items from our bulging basket onto the conveyor.

Going sailing, but missing it while sleeping
This is where we found the first logistical issue with the system.  Of course, by the time you get to the front of the checkout, the conveyor belt is already full of everyone else's shopping.  As we deposited our shopping down, the people who already had stuff on the belt had to start shuffling theirs backwards to make room as we shoved more and more on at the front.  Once we had emptied our over-sized basket (one of the deep ones with wheels and a long plastic handle, which can hold as much as a small trolley), I was then faced with the second logistical issue with the priority queue: I had to get my basket back to the stacking location at the start of the conveyor belt.  I imagine that had I have been a doddery senior citizen in true need of prioritisation, people might have offered to pass the basket back for me, but being the annoying-guy-that-just-delayed-everyone-from-going-home-after-work, who clearly didn't need any help shopping, everyone averted their gaze and I had to push back through the narrow queue to put it back myself.

Had this have been happening somewhere in the UK, I think this would have been the point when resigned annoyance would have given way to outright fury and the bravest amongst the crowd would have been forced to quietly tut in order to let me know how discontented everyone had become.  However, it seems that even this part of queueing etiquette hasn't made it all the way down to the south-west corner of Europe yet and so the waiting customers held their tongues and just looked on with steely gazes.  I felt that I should at least teach them the tut, seeing as I had given them ample reason to use it, but I didn't feel that I could tut myself as that might have delivered a confused message.  In my line of work, clarity is king, so I decided to forgo the self-tut and focus instead on pushing my way past the queue for the third time, to rejoin Kate at the front.

Once there, we just had to wait for the customer that was halfway through being served when we started this ordeal to pay and pack and then we could be on our way.

Facing forwards on a walk in London

Our queue jumping complete, I could start to relax a bit.  Looking around, I noticed that the man directly behind us was returning my friendly smile with a much more annoyed expression that the rest of the mildly annoyed people in the line.  A glance down at the conveyor belt helped me understand why.  He only had a couple of measly items that he needed to pay for and was now held up behind our mountain of food.  Had I not been such a novice at using the priority system, I would have noticed this when we turned up and pushed in behind him, but I feel that this is only partly my fault.  You can't just go ahead and legalise queue jumping, without supplying leaflets explaining how to do so courteously, without expecting people to get it wrong, so I think that the angry man should have directed his inner rage towards the Portuguese government instead of me.

This cautionary tale will hopefully help others out there to avoid, at all costs, the priority checkout lane in Portuguese supermarkets.  Use them at your peril.

Just because it's nearly Christmas, here is a Christmas baby