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ARE WE IN THE RIGHT LINE?????

It's dangerous to generalize... but that's what makes it fun. In general, Europeans can tend to be a bit more... how do I say this... literal, when it comes to interpreting rules than Americans are. And that fact still seems to surprise Americans who are less familiar with life in Europe. In America, we have movies with titles like "Breakin' All the Rules". We love it. You can get rich in America by breakin' all the rules. We call it "thinking outside the box," and associate it with rewards, superior intellect and pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American gumption.

By contrast, Europeans have no instinctive delight for doing what they think is maybe not the right thing to do. In fact, in the European experience, thinking outside the box is more apt to backfire than anything else. Experience makes for wariness, and in my experience as an American expat living in Europe, many people here prefer to remain in the scalding frying pan than to jump into the fire. 

OK, perfect example of what I am talking about. So, in Portugal, it is commonplace for elderly people (or people with lawyers) to skip to the front of the line. In fact, at the various tax or immigration offices I frequent, there are signs announcing priority in line for "Idosos" - which means "aged people" - pregnant people and (last but not least) people who are accompanied by lawyers. If you are waiting in line to get a Portuguese driver's license, don't be surprised if a 100 year old blind man shuffles his way to the front of the line to get his driver's license renewal first (you can be alarmed, maybe, but shouldn't be surprised).

As you might expect, some people who fall short of "Idoso" status sometimes like to take advantage of the system.  They like to "think outside the box" so to speak. While we were in line to board a plane yesterday at Lisbon International Airport, a woman (I put her at 60 to 65 years old) finally decided to step out of the lengthy and crowded boarding line for economy class passengers where we were waiting, and briskly strode to the head of the priority line for business class passengers. Now, this failed to go over well with the business class passengers who had paid for the privilege of boarding the plane before everyone else, and a verbal scuffle broke out between them and the woman. She began to speak very loudly, and after an exchange of anti-cordialities, she pulled out the big guns. She turned towards everyone in the economy line and made the following public announcement: "I am demanding a wheelchair."

She didn't look like she needed one, but the real reason why an audible groan went up from the crowd is that usually in Portugal, people with mobility needs invariably get top priority over everyone else, including idosos, pregnant people and (last but not least) people represented by counsel. Now we'd all have wait for an extra who-knows-how-much-longer.

Checkmate. 

But wait... it wasn't checkmate.  Yes, the airline staff dutifully set about ordering up a wheelchair, but then they started to board everyone ELSE onto the plane first whilst the wheelchair was being summoned. They made her wait until everyone else had boarded the plane first! At one point she even protested and said she didn't need the wheelchair, but they told her that even if she didn't need to ride in the wheelchair, she'd have to wait for one anyway. So it was long after everyone else was seated that the woman was finally allowed to march onto the plane and down the aisle towards her seat. Frequently in the European experience, "thinking outside the box" or "breakin' all the rules" rewards you with nothing more than extra delays, costs and an audience discretely (but audibly) snickering at you somewhat less than outside of your peripheral vision.  

On the trip back from London, I got off the plane and made my way towards Portuguese immigration. When you land in Portugal, there are three lines to chose from at the immigration section of the airport: electronic passports (which is the European equivalent of Global Entry), EU passports and "All Passports." The line for EU passports was absolutely enormous - at least an hour and half long, maybe even two hours. The electronic passport line was sailing along as always, but the "All Passports" line? It didn't exist. Not one single person. Literally, zero. There must have been 1,000 people parked in the EU passports line.

What distinguishes American passengers from all other passengers is that an American will turn to ask a perfect stranger the quintessential American travel question, which is "am I in the right line?" Europeans generally are content to stand where they think they are supposed to stand, resigned to simply follow the rules that they think they are supposed to follow. Americans, by contrast, are more apt to look for answers. 

I walked straight into the "All passports" line, and there was a woman walking behind me who stopped me to ask "excuse me! Am I in the right line?"

I was trying to think this question through for a moment - she had an American-as-apple-pie accent, but for all I knew, maybe she carried a French passport? How could I assume one thing or another about her passport? I was in the process of concluding that I didn't have enough information to answer her question, and must have had a puzzled look on my face which prompted her to ask the second quintessential American question: "do you speak English?"

I said that I did, and then in a sudden flash of inspiration I realized that indeed I did have all the information I needed to her question. Since "all passports" means "ALL passports," that would include any passport she might happen to be holding. This is the sort of question you might get on an LSAT.  Logically, she had to be in the right line, so I circled the "you are in the right line" oval with all the confidence of a man wielding a sharp number 2 pencil. 

"Yes."

But she seemed very confused and troubled and pointed out  "but there's nobody else in this line! Why is everyone else over in that line (pointing towards the EU passport line)?"  

"Well, my guess is they think they belong there because they carry EU passports, and that line is specifically for EU passport holders, whereas this line is for "all" passports, generally."

"But if this line is for ALL passports, why don't they use this line too? There's nobody in this line... so this CAN'T be the right line!"

Often, when something is too good to be true, it's either not true, not good, or both. I told her we'd find out in a moment, and when we got to the front of the vacant All Passport line, a guard immediately summoned her to the desk, checked her passport, and cheerfully admitted her into sunny Portugal. She turned around to wave at me while I waited for my turn. She had this look on her face that said "well, I can't explain it, but hey, I avoided a two hour line. What's not to like?"

Sometimes it is both good and true even if it seems too good to be true. We learn that lesson early and often in America, which I think explains the American tendency to just go for it.  And that lesson sure as hell wasn't lost for long on the other 1,000 people waiting in the interminable EU Passport line. The first person gingerly crossed over the thin retractable nylon line post, then the majority of the other 999 people simultaneously charged. I'm glad I got out when I did. 

They say that if you put a $1 bill on the ground in front of a bunch of people who believe in the efficient markets hypothesis, nobody will lift a finger to take it because they all assume it will be arbitraged instantaneously out of existence. Some of them will even argue that because nobody has flexed a pinky to pick up the dollar, the dollar actually doesn't even exist.  But as all of you know, some people make a good living collecting those non-existent dollars.  Somehow, I suspect that there may well be valuable analogies to draw away from the EU Passport Line and into the murky world of investing, but I'm not sure what lessons are to be drawn. If any. Maybe the best that each of us can do is to ask ourselves whether we're standing in the right line. It doesn't matter where everyone else is standing.