Manners most unbecoming for Britons

30th May 2003 at 01:00
Over Easter I spent a happy holiday in Sicily but I learnt some disappointing lessons about people.

Out of the main towns the pace of life, apart from driving, was slow. There was no rush to do anything and everyone seemed to have time to stand around and talk.

Our hotel was mainly occupied by elderly French couples. I quite like the French as a people and have always found them helpful and pleasant. That is until this spring.

Their school training had obviously omitted any sense of queuing or the principle that the person who arrives first has the right to proceed first.

Our first experience was when we tried to ascend the lift. We were first.

As the lift doors slid open four elderly ladies with elbows swinging overtook us on both sides and entered the lift. We, sheepishly, squeezed in behind them.

The next morning a new group of French tourists had just arrived at the hotel. They were standing at the lift with their cases as we tried to leave it. There was no way out. We had to gingerly pick our way around carrier bags and cases as they surged on to the lift using their luggage as a battering ram.

The hotel provided an hourly shuttle bus to the nearby town. The bus stopped at the entrance steps at the correct time daily. If it was busy, a second bus arrived. The French assembled like a hoard gathering for an assault on the Bastille. Every millimetre of stairway was blocked. When the bus doors opened they all charged forward, totally blocking the entrance to the bus, to the hotel and to our hire car.

We discussed this with our fellow Britons and felt quite superior. We know how to queue. We had been brought up properly.

This training starts in school. Our primary classes line up in the playground in ones and twos and do not move until told to do so. They do not leave a room until signalled by a bell or following the admonition "The bell is for me, not for you" from the teacher.

Our main queuing skills are taught in the queues for lunch. Children are supervised by teachers or, more usually, headteachers. They are taught to line up in an orderly fashion, to enter the cafeteria only when instructed, to stand in straight lines for their food, to eat politely, to return their dishes and to leave quietly.

We are superior. We know how to queue.

Come the last day of our holiday, we were transported to Palermo airport.

Two planes were scheduled to leave at 20.15, one to London and one to Glasgow. We arrived at 17.15. No check-in booths were open and the queues - not as orderly as I would have hoped - stretched through the doors into the car park. After about half an hour a single check-in opened and people charged forward.

Were these the same people who had been priding themselves on the ability to queue properly?

A second and then a third check-in opened with similar scenes of impatience. We now had three approximately straight lines of people and luggage shuffling slowly forward.

The Sicilians then closed the first check-in and opened another two at the opposite side of the queues. The skills learnt from a week of watching the French were rapidly employed. These polite Brits were shouting at each other. They were pushing three abreast in each queue. After all, it was only two hours until take-off.

As you would expect, I played no part in this disorder and simply stood in my queue. I was astonished to be told by an elderly lady sidling past me to be careful of her case because it had breakables in it. I suggested, politely, that if she didn't try to sneak past there would be no difficulties.

By the time everyone had checked in there was only an hour to wait for our plane plus the 40 minutes it was late.

Is there a job for retired headteachers dealing with airport queues of Britons abroad?

John Mitchell is headteacher of Kilsyth Academy, North Lanarkshire

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