Forget the Prime Minister, forget a system of government. Spain is a country that is run by numbers. If you want to get anything done, you need a number. Need to mail a package? Take a number. Need to inquire about getting a bank loan? Take a number. Need to ask a question about setting up a business at the city hall? Take a number.
In such cases, once you have a number, you need only to wait until your number is called. It may take half an hour or an hour, maybe more, but they’ll be sure to get to you eventually.
In other cases, like when you want to register as a returning Spaniard, as was the case with David, you take a number and, on the number, there’s a date when you’re supposed to return – usually about a week later – to wait for your number to be called. It’s annoying but not as annoying as when you don’t notice that there’s a date on your number and you sit down to wait for your number. You spend the whole afternoon, actually, waiting for your number. And then when you’re finally exhausted from waiting, you come out of your comatose-waiting-state and you start pondering why your number doesn’t look like any of the numbers that have been called yet that day. All the numbers so far have started with an “H”, “A”, or “F”, for example, and yours starts with an “X”. You decide to ask why, only to find out that your number was never going to be called that day. Nor was it going to be called the next day or the day after. The earliest it would be called, in fact, would be in a week, on the date that appears on your number.
In other instances, like when we returned months ago to the police station to report our “stolen” scooter as found, numbers are issued but then, instead of calling the next number, the policeman – the number caller – simply says, “Next.” Although it certainly adds confusion that the actual number is not called, what really adds chaos is when the number issuer, unbeknown to you, runs out of numbers from the first roll and starts on the next which means that the numbers start over with “1”. Then, people who arrived after you technically should be in front of you because of their numbers. And then what creates real disorder is when you have people like David and me who are new to Spain and haven’t yet realized that numbers aren’t always issued for the purpose of actually being used but rather just for appearances. That, instead of depending on a number to keep you in order, you’re supposed to take mental note of who was there before you and who came after you in order to know where you are in line. Unfortunately, when the number caller said, “Next,” we hadn’t yet been enlightened by all of this, so David took it upon himself to educate the people in the room about how the number system works. That brought the whole confusing situation to a boil and, before we knew it, tempers were flaring, old ladies were shouting, and then a policeman appeared and I thought, “Thank goodness, he’ll sort everything out.” But instead of bringing any semblance of order to the crazy situation, he only created a whole new round of disorder by calling out, “Next”.
And then there’s those numbers that are like gold. Only a certain number of them are passed out per day and, because they’re so limited, they become hot commodities. You dream about getting one and sometimes you don’t sleep at all in your pursuit of one. When David’s mom, Luisa, came to visit this summer, one of her main goals was to get her Spanish identity card. Since she has been living in France for the last 20 some odd years, she never renewed her Spanish ID after her last one expired. Getting a new card seemed simple enough, but it actually signified a monumental challenge because the office which issues these cards hands out only 40 numbers per day. Knowing that the numbers were limited, we arrived at 8:15 a.m., 45 minutes before the numbers started being passed out at 9:00. The office opened, the lady with the numbers appeared, and the line moved forward as the numbers were issued, one by one. And then the line stopped. The last number had been issued to the person directly in front of the person ahead of us. We couldn’t believe our luck. Frustrated but knowing that the task needed to be done, we returned the next day, this time at 7:30. We estimated there to be about 20 people ahead of us when we arrived and prided ourselves in getting there early enough to get a number this time. But, somehow, by the time the doors opened at 9:00, the small crowd of 20 had multiplied and grown until the line ahead of us was bulging with people. And just like that, our number which had seemed so certain was suddenly perilously in question. The lady with the numbers appeared, and the line moved forward as the numbers were issued. And then, sure enough, the line stopped. And then, in a horrible moment of déjà-vu, the last number was being issued to the person directly in front of the person ahead of us. As the reality of the situation settled over us, we all went into autopilot. I silently came to terms with the fact yet another morning had been wasted; Luisa expressed her shock and frustration with the people behind us, and David was infuriated and so determined to get a number that he didn’t sleep that night and was back in line by 6:00 the next morning. And, although, even then, he wasn’t the first in line, he did get a number that day and Luisa returned to Paris with her Spanish ID in hand and her mission accomplished.
At first, I trusted the number system as the only systematic, fair way to make sure that everyone waits his turn. But now I’m not so sure. Once we realized our folly at the police station and started looking past the numbers, I came to understand that numbers are, in reality, just a waste of paper. For what I had witnessed there was a pure demonstration of the Spaniards’ uncanny ability to remember faces and create order without the aid of numbers or a physical line. And, every week at the market, I see the same thing again when we join the crowd in front of the olive vendor. From the outside, it looks absolutely chaotic. There is no line and people freely join in at what would be the middle of the line – if there was a line – and enter in from the sides, but miraculously each person knows exactly who he’s after and where he belongs and the “line” moves forward and everyone is served.
It’s when you see feats like these that you begin to wonder if you really should blindly follow the arbitrary system of numbers, that you really start to doubt whether such a system is necessary to keep people in order, and that you really begin to stir from your comatose-waiting-state and start to question what purpose they actually serve after all.