I held in my hand ticket number 559.
From what I can tell, it’s possible the Danes are the world’s biggest fans of the numbered ticket system. To Americans like me, the system is reminiscent of ordering sliced cheese and maple glazed ham at the deli counter or renewing your driver’s license at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Not so in Denmark. The Danes have embraced ticketing in a huge way; the bakery, the pharmacy, the post office, the hairdresser. Momentary panic breaks out when the ticket machine malfunctions. Confusion and delay abound. Elbows come out and the elderly and infirm are flung aside in the scrum to order coffee and a wienerbrød. But in general, we all wait, sometimes not so patiently, in the giant DMV line of Denmark.
I held in my hand ticket number 559. Waiting, not so patiently, to collect a package at the post office. I tapped my foot, wondering how a post office branch in a major, international city could justify having one clerk on duty. Tap, glance at my watch, tap, glance, check phone, send text. The digital number display ticked over. 558. Two sprightly ladies, perhaps in their seventies, approached the counter. They stamped and chatted, purchased and chatted, gesticulated, chatted. Gossiping, making small talk, expressing shock at the current postal rates, inquiring after the clerk’s toddler grandson. As I don’t speak Danish, this is all conjecture, but they sure seemed to be taking a long time.
Tap, tap. Glance.
A woman walked by speaking sotto voce in my direction. I shrugged and smiled, the universal sign language for “I don’t speak Danish.” I blithely assumed she was grumbling about the sprightly perhaps in their seventies ladies and their chattering and stamping, chittering and purchasing. They did seem to be taking an awfully long time.
Instead of tutting and clucking though, she surprised me. “It’s a shame they are going to start closing down these small post office branches,” she said in English with a tilt of her head in the direction of the sprightly two. I smiled and nodded. The digital display finally clicked over. 559. As I approached the counter, little paper chit in hand, I felt slightly ashamed of myself for wishing the sprightly old ladies had hurried up.
I was merely collecting my Amazon package, hurry-scurrying between errands. With two grade school children, my life is often one big errand; a lot of back and forth, a lot of hop, skip and jumping through hoops. But for a lot of folks, especially those who may be entering those sprightly golden years, errands are more than just a way to get the ham and collect the post. For many, I realized guiltily, those small interactions–with the butcher, the florist or the bakery, the clerk in the post office–are a way of staying connected. Connected to the world at large, to the community, to each other. Closing down these small outposts of connectivity, whether it’s in a village or a bustling city, feels a little like we are systematically dismantling the foundation of human interaction, in the name of convenience and cost effectiveness.
A little less conversation doesn’t sound like a terrible price to pay for economy, for efficiency, for lowering production costs and increasing productivity. But I wonder if we are haphazardly slashing and burning. Are we cutting back those things that make us smile and feel and sympathize and understand, streamlining them into nothing more substantial than bytes and bits?
As the world gets smaller, our interactions with each other get less human. It can sometimes feel as if we are sucking the life out of modern life, as if we are taking the human-ness out of being human. The little things, the chit-chat, the conversation, the laughter over a coffee. The pace of our lives keeps escalating, the expectations keep rising, the bar set higher and higher. It’s par for the course to check our e-mails on vacation, to eat lunch at a desk in an artificially lit cubicle or take work calls when you’re ready for bed. I am guilty of texting instead of e-mailing, e-mailing instead of calling, thinking a happy birthday Facebook message is a substitute for the real thing. We order our food without feeling the weight of a fruit in our hand to test its ripeness, fall in love without ever feeling someone’s arms around us, read without the crink and crackle of paper and the smudge of ink, converse in soundbites of 140 characters or less.
If we are not careful, it won’t be a question of stopping to smell the roses as much as making sure there are still roses to smell. A virtual rose, as life like as it may be, is never going to entice us to stop and take the time to breathe it in, to share the experience with someone else. Over coffee, at the butcher.
Or even with a lone Danish postal clerk.