STORY: Three Cheers for French Efficiency
When it comes to the cuisines of the world the French can rest confident that they are, at a minimum, on the short list for greatest in the world. I have no doubt that many of the people walking along side me as I made my way through Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG) had visions of croque monsieur and cassoulet dancing merrily in their heads. I confess to being quite envious of them - they'd get to pass through customs and immigration and head into the city to enjoy some of the finest dishes Europe can offer. I would be hauling my overstuffed suitcase to a nearby airport hotel and struggling to find something edible in the wasteland that constitutes the airside concessions of one of the world's largest airports.
As mediocre as a hotel restaurant can often be, my hotel was too small to even offer one. For dinner I found myself taking the free tram that connects the various airport terminals at CDG and praying I'd find something worth eating. After finding an endless stream of Brioche Dorees offering unappetizing stale pastries, I resigned myself to following the pungent greasy scent that called my nose to the familiar yet decidedly unFrench establishment - McDonald's.
Three cashiers stood behind their cash registers talking to customers, the machines sitting on top of the rounded white plastic counters that can be found in thousands of cities across the globe. One of the juggernauts of the US's cultural export machine, McDonald's sits in just about every major airport across the globe like an embarrassing makeshift American embassy. And much like an embassy you often don't appreciate it until you find yourself in difficult times and needing help. It was there to rescue me tonight in the form of a royale with cheese and some authentic "French" fries.
A man stood behind the three cashiers patiently awaiting his turn to place an order. I dutifully queued up behind him, fully unaware of the chaos my decision to stand behind him was about to unleash upon this little airport McDonald's.
I glanced about in boredom as time ticketed on. My grasp of French is nonexistent so I was unable to decipher whether the customers placing their orders were just incredibly indecisive or if the employees were dragging their feet, but needless to say after a few minutes of waiting the line behind me had grown to about 10 people that were all lined up behind me. Out of the corner of my eye I see a many in a blue suit saunter up from behind the line and stand directly behind one of the customers placing their order. I cocked my head to the side in mild confusion, as did many of the folks in line with me.
This disrespect for the queue didn't sit well with the man standing in front of me, as he called out to him in terse French. Blue Suit absorbed the angry barrage of words and fired back with his own volley of words that despite my lack of comprehension I could tell were laced with vitriol and derision. My untrained ear did manage to pluck a single word out of the air though - "efficacite". It was familiar enough to it's English equivalent for me to understand - efficiency.
In my head I laughed a little to myself. The concept of efficiency and the French have a long history of jokes in the United States, and for all I know in other countries as well. Whenever one wants to deride the efficiency of an idea or concept, all you need to do is suggest the French would find it suitable. The implication is, of course, that the French and their society function in a manner that is quite the opposite of efficient. Clearly this is nothing more than a silly stereotype and I have written it off as such for my entire life. There couldn't possibly be a grain of truth to the idea. Or could there be?
Blue Suit's retort set off a firestorm in front of the McDonald's. Suddenly the relative silence was flooded with a tidal wave of angry French streaming out of the mouths of just about every person around me. The cashiers were shouting incoherently at the crowd before them while the customers they had been taking orders from turned to offer their two cents to the dialogue. The man in front of me and Blue Suit continued to spar while the customers awaiting service in line behind me set me awash in a sea of tense French phrases. Suddenly I wasn't quite sure whether I was standing in line at a McDonald's or in the middle of political debate on the floor of the French National Assembly. I stood in uncomfortable silence watching the erratic tennis match playing out around me.
Like Moses parting the Red Sea, suddenly the argument ended and people began to scatter about. Having no idea what was going on, I simply stood there like a maypole as French folks danced about me. Within a few seconds the dust had settled and I looked around to survey the land. In what I'm assuming as a heated argument about whether to remain in a single line or line up in three individual lines it appeared the decision had been made to ..... create FOUR lines. From what I could tell there wasn't a consensus on the course of action so everyone simply did what they thought was best. Those who wanted a single queue stayed in the existing queue. Those who thought it would be better to line up behind each cash register did just that.
So there I am - standing in the middle of a basement food court in a French airport with hunger pangs standing in the fourth line for three cash registers. Needless to say, this hardly seemed like a workable solution to me. "French efficiency.....!" I thought to myself. I began debate whether to try sticking it out in the fourth line to nowhere or strike out on my own to brave the stale pastries at the Brioche Doree when I noticed one of the employees behind the counter gesturing for Mr. Blue Suit to step up and place his order.
It seemed that despite the four line system that seemed like it wouldn't properly function, the employees behind the counter were going to make sure to rotate between serving someone in the line in front of them and calling over the next person in the fourth line. I decided to wait a moment to see how this played out. Sure enough, the next counter attendant finished up with his customer and waved me over. I tentatively walked over to the register and placed my order, expecting at any moment for a string of angry French to assault me from behind.
But it never happened. To me or any other person waiting in the various lines.
I carried my tray of food to an empty table, plopped down and began to thing about what just happened. The idea of having four lines seemed so foreign to me that I instinctively dismissed it as inherently wrong. It was outside of my comfort zone and it didn't make sense within the context of how I normally interact with the world. What I forgot to remember, and what often happens to people in life, is that what seems "wrong" to me is totally normal or valid to people in a different situation. What appeared to be an incoherent, silly system for lining up apparently worked just fine for the French folks all around me.
In this situation, the system wasn't wrong - I was.
One of the great things about travel is how it teaches us to consider new ways of thinking, to learn about new ways of interacting with the world around us. Travel challenges us to look at the things that make us uncomfortable and ask "Why?" Often we react poorly to something that challenges our status quo, which was what my mind tried to do when I considered simply walking away from the line. I was confused. I didn't understand what was going on, so my initial instinct was to flee the situation entirely. But years of travel have taught me to stick it out. See what happens. See how things pan out.
As I lifted a crispy, salty french fry to my lips I knew I had proof in my hand that just because I though something was wrong didn't mean I was right. Who would have thought that after the insanity of Marrakesh's maddening medina that I'd get the best lesson on learning to go with the flow and be open minded about life at a McDonald's inside the Charles de Gaulle airport? There's always more than one path to a solution, and people across the globe are often taking varied paths toward the same goals. Whether it's efficient, orderly lines in Tokyo or a chaotic crowd of people in Rome, as long as it works for the people involved - it's not right or wrong. It just is.
With all the insanity consuming our lives in this day and age, I think it's important for people to learn when it's appropriate to just let things be. We don't always have to make everyone walk the same path. Not everyone takes the same journey. We're American, French, Moroccan. We're heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. We're Christian, Muslim, and Hindu. We're Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. We walk our own paths, we live life in different ways, but in the end most of us are walking toward the same goals. Why waste time arguing about how we get there?
My introspective thinking was interrupted by a new bout of angry French streaming from a group of people arguing at the McDonald's. Yup, you guessed it - the lines again.
As I brought my medium Coke Zero to my lips, I smiled as I silently gave three cheers to French efficiency.