“Who’s last?” The mysterious art of queuing in Russia

If anyone asks you what the major symbol of the USSR is, forget the hammer and sickle. It’s the “queue” (or the “line”). The line of people. All dressed in dark colours with a sad look on their faces. If you have lived in Russia for more than ten years, this image is most likely to be burned into your brain. It’s a part of our culture, and it’s not the best part.

One particular kind of line is the line in a hospital. In Russia, each hospital is assigned to a specific part of town, so everyone must register at their local hospital and not at any random one. Technically, you can receive medical treatment in every hospital in every town, provided you have the necessary papers, but if you go to the wrong hospital in your own hometown, you are doomed.

The hospital I go to is number three. When you arrive there, the first thing you need to do is to sign in at the reception desk. The reception “desk” is one of those strange remnants of the Soviet past: it’s not exactly a desk but a small window at waist height. So you have to swallow your pride and bend down! By the way, one thing you absolutely must do before you actually sign in is to make sure you know which window you need, because there are two of them and each one is for different doctors.

Who will be first in line? Hospital No. 3.

The hospital opens at 7:30 am. The first patients appear at the doors at 6 am. I know this because I was there one day. Yes, I wanted to be the first. I turned out to be the third one.

So, for a headache-free sign in you need to know the following rules:

1. There are two windows at the reception
2. One is to the right, the other to the left
3. Each one of these windows is for different doctors

If you don’t know at least one of these rules, you will screw up the whole queue. And, to be absolutely honest, no matter what you do, you are bound to screw the queue up at some point anyway. One would think that a nation that stood in lines for fifty years would have some natural line-forming instincts, but, unfortunately, it does not.

Usually, when you are in the queue, you can hear these kinds of conversations:

– Who’s the last one for the left window?
– Is that window number one?
– Not sure…
– Who’s the last in the line to see the surgeon?
– Which window is that?
– Dunno…

Eventually, the line becomes shaped like a DNA spiral.

Reception desks 1 and 2.

I don’t know why adults don’t know how their local hospital works, but I have three theories:

1. They never got sick in their entire life
2. They suffer from amnesia
3. They ask silly things and do silly things on purpose

The question is: why don’t you just call the reception the day before the appointment? Because why bother? That’s why. It’s not like you’re going to annoy an angry mob.

But the worst kind of people are the ones unfamiliar with the basic “line etiquette”. For example, a guy with his pregnant wife arrives by a car. They try to find out “who is the last one” in the queue and get a grumpy answer. Then they both return to their car, naively expecting someone to be kind enough to “hold the place” for them, which never happens. And the guy obviously doesn’t have the guts to stand in the queue for his beloved’s sake. Naturally, five minutes later, everybody in the queue just forgets about them, and when he and his wife return, the “you-weren’t-standing-here” fight begins.

Speaking of “you-weren’t-standing-here” fights – they are common. Almost every time I am in a line of more than ten people at the hospital, something goes wrong. Like there is always someone who asks to cut in and jump the queue, because they “just need to ask something” at the reception window. Usually, the response from the queue is a disgruntled “we’re all here to ask something!”. Or sometimes there is someone in a real hurry to go to Moscow and their train is departing in an hour. “We are all going to Moscow in an hour”, the queue replies. This is actually when the “true Russian nature” – or the “Russian soul”, if you like, – shows itself. And yes, it is not very friendly. You have to obey the rules of the queue and jumping is just a no-no. Don’t be a smart ass. No one likes it.

Two babushkas near the hospital, probably discussing their experience.

There are also the Babushkas. Oh yeah, the famous Babushkas! They are a natural part of every line in the universe. They wake up at 5 am, they get bored and decide to go to hospital. Because why not? It’s not like they have anything else to do.

– Hey there, Petrovna, you got sick?
– Oh, woe is me, my left heel is itching!
– Gee, what a coincidence, mine too!

Be patient (pun intended) with babushkas though. Babushkas should be respected. They fought for you in the Second World War. Maybe even in the First one too (the First World War – DP). And now when they have just two days to live, they don’t have time! They have to be everywhere, in every line, or they’ll kick the bucket right in the main hall. So they show up, ask who’s last and then vanish for ten minutes. So this happens:

– Who is the last in the line?
– There was a woman in a green jacket, she left a minute ago.
– Righty then, I’ll be after her. (Leaves)

Five minutes later:

– Who is the last in line?
– There are five men after me, don’t know where they are…

 As a result:

– Hey, mister, you’re breaking the line!
– I was here an hour ago, I just went to see another three doctors!

Who needs to see more than three doctors in one day, you may ask? Aside from ebola victims, it’s just regular workers who need to get their medical check up every year or so. Normal, healthy, sad people waiting in lines to get their papers stamped.

Hopefully, finally you get to see the doctor. If the doctor suspects something more serious than a common cold, you will have to do a blood test. You should be grateful if you get it right after seeing the doctor. Or else you go home, wait another day, and come back the next morning. Yes, that actually happened to me. By the way, guess how many lines are near the blood lab? It’s three: sick people, those waiting for the blood sugar test and those waiting for regular occupational therapy. There are only one or two nurses, and I have no idea how having so few nurses can help anyone.

So there you have it. The moral of the story is this: don’t get sick or else you’ll regret it.

[Featured image by L. P. Dzhepko, c. 1981]


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