It’s that time of the year when Tony and I start thinking about what we like to refer to as “the Northern countries.” This first began when we were living in Saluzzo, Italy three years ago. As in most of Italy, summers there get quite hot. And just when it gets so sweltering that it’s barely possible to even move outside without a gelato in one hand and an Italian ice in the other, the downtown travel agencies start putting up large, tempting photos of gloriously icy blue Norwegian fjords. It had never occurred to me that I might like to visit Northern Europe, but all of a sudden, countries that bordered the North Pole or had names containing “ice” began to sound incredibly appealing.
Now, before I moved to Italy, my ultimate exotic European destination was Italy. And Italy is indeed a sparkling gem of Mediterranean perfection. But it is also at times very . . . Mediterranean. In the sense that rules, schedules and timelines are at best guidelines, and at worst hopelessly unattainable and even laughable ideals. Personal space is virtually nonexistent. Dropping in unexpectedly and staying for hours is a great compliment, often given. Driving is maniacal. And as for lines or queues, come on! It’s so much more fun as a free-for-all. Which brings me to the fact that Tunisia may be more Mediterranean still.
At times, the very same laid-back, friendly, bella vita atmosphere that attracted us to these lovely, warm, and inviting countries in the first place suddenly begins to grin down at us diabolically with the Janus-face of culture shock. My classic example of this was once when I was standing in the passport line with some friends for the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco to Spain. It was a long line, and yes it was about this time of year, and hot in a very sticky, sweaty way. The line (which was even longer than it looked, due to the fact that it was so bunched up at the front, as these lines always are) was moving slowly because there was only one person in the booth. Then that one person opened the door , stepped out, and walked off. Maybe he needed to consult with a superior, perhaps it was for a coffee or cigarette break, or he could have just needed to use the restroom. But it was the snapping point for my friend Jerry. He raised his arms incredulously and called with exasperated helplessness to the receding back of the immigration officer, “develop your country!”
Of course it was an absolutely unforgivable “ugly American”-type thing to say. But I have laughed at it in my head countless times when I have been stuck in similar situations while traveling in hot, beautiful, and yes, somewhat undeveloped countries. In fact, sure enough, in the line for the ferry from Sicily to Tunisia last week, the exact same thing happened (minus the yelling at his back, since we didn’t have Jerry with us). By the time the officer finally returned, my children (who had gotten up at four in the morning for a two-hour bus ride to the ferry) were tussling, and the six-year-old had succeeded in making her three-year-old brother cry. Fortunately, a nice female officer showed up just at that moment, called him bellisimo, chucked him under the chin, and ushered us to the front of the line.
But still. It’s times like this that I hear Björk singing in my head, “I thought I could organize freedom; how Scandinavian of me,” and I decide that it’s time to immigrate to the North. Because social organization and etiquette are relative, and I’d like to have a try being the one who’s late, and stands too close, and chats too long. I do draw the line somewhere, though. I’d never in a million years plan on cutting in the queue.