Time stood still in bank line
I love the country of Portugal but sometimes everyday routines can be much like their castles: medieval.
On one recent trip to Portugal, I walked zombie-like down the steps of the Air Transat Toronto-to-Lisbon flight. After getting through security, I eased my rented Opel out of the parking garage and began the slow, unwinding drive across the new Vasco da Gama Bridge and on down to the southwest coast of Portugal. After a brief reunion with my friend Fernando, I moved my things into one of his kitchenettes overlooking the sea at Vila Nova de Milfontes.
As much as I wanted to crash for a couple of hours, I remembered the banks would be closed the next day, so, functioning mostly from memory, I walked downtown and spent half an hour in line at Nova Rede, a national bank with outlets everywhere in Portugal. Later, much, much later, I would learn that Nova Rede doesn’t actually change money. Tough way for a bank to make a living – not trading in currency.
So I lined up at Credito Agricola, an agricultural credit union that now sees many more tourists than farmers. At Credito Agricola they welcome new customers by trapping them in the foyer. The outside door locks behind you and the inner door doesn’t open until they approve of your appearance. “Hmm, a geek in shorts on a winter day with a ball hat and backpack? This should be fun.” Bzzz – I was allowed in.
Inside the tiny office were 22 customers, four wickets and two tellers, who were working so slowly they looked like Canadian postal workers on Valium. I noticed the customers were split into three lines, an odd number given the two tellers. But the lines kind of blurred and merged as everyone talked and visited with people in other lines. It was like a town-hall meeting. Old men with hands behind their backs discussed, I don’t know, cork trees and tent caterpillars, while women emphasized their points by slapping fingers in open palms. A baby was much adored and cooed at. It was the Buena Banco Social Club.
Heads down, the tellers were oblivious to the milling crowd. They might well have been napping. Whenever a customer completed a transaction and moved away from the counter, which didn’t happen all that often, people rushed the teller from the front of all the lines. Then the losers returned to their respective lines and continued to pretend there was some sort of service system in place in this bank. A short guy with thick glasses circled the lines like a roving tailback ready to punch through any opening at the front.
Unfortunately, the woman at the head of my line was: a) non-aggressive b) polite and c) determined to retell the story of the Old Testament to the woman behind her. More genuflecting was going on than you normally see in a church, let alone a credit union.
Much grumbling went on in my line, as well as a few choice words in English.
Suddenly, there was an opening and the rover and the woman at the front of my line hit the counter in a dead heat. It was like watching the Buffalo Bills on fourth down and goal to go, without a quarterback. Words were exchanged, hands were thrown up and the woman backed off and returned to the head of my line, no doubt resuming her story at Jonah and the Whale.
I stood in line for one more hour before I got to change my money. It could have been a lot worse. As it turned out, half of the people in the bank weren’t there to do business, they just came along to chat with those who had some sort of purpose there. So they left in twos and threes and once the baby was gone, the party seemed to peter out.
I’m telling you, the Canadian dollar dropped six cents in the time it took for me to get my money changed. The inner workings of a Portuguese bank are so disorganized, I don’t think you could actually rob one without packing a lunch and checking your gun a couple of times for dust accumulation.
And yet, in the window of a shop on the Strip in Albufeira, I came face to face with Shop 24 – where nine rows of merchandise, including vodka, Scotch, wine, underwear, toothpaste and cooking and sanitary products are fetched for you by a robot after you drop your money in a slot. In the same country where it takes an hour to change money, they’ve got a 207-item vending machine that is operated 24 hours a day by R2D2.
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