I have written in the past about things that I wish were in England like in the States and about things that are seemingly better here. The truth of the matter is, none of those evoke strong emotions from me one way or the other. There is one that does, though, and recently it kind of inaugurated a short and as-yet-unofficial What I hate about Europe list.
I am talking about “pay inside” approach to car refueling.
In New Jersey, with its blanket full serve mode, you always pay at the pump, whether the attendant takes your credit card to a booth to run it through or simply inserts it into the pump’s credit card reader. I drove – and certainly bought gas – in at least fifteen other states, with many self-serve stations, and I do not recall a case where the pump would not be equipped with a credit card reader.
In Europe, pumps equipped with credit card readers are relatively rare. If a gas station is advertised to be open 24 hours a day, then there would be a designated pump with a reader, but otherwise, even at the majority of the motorway rest areas, the financial transaction is expected to occur with the participation of a cashier (doubtlessly, reduced unemployment figures are a fringe benefit of this method). Fueling is overwhelmingly done in the following fashion: You pull up to the pump, operate the nozzle to fill up as much as you want, then walk into the ever-present convenience store while leaving your car by the pump, pay for the gas, walk back and drive away.
Let’s emphasize that it is almost never a designated gasoline cash register that you pay at, but the same one where other people may be paying for groceries. Let’s further add that these convenience stores are often like mini-supermarkets, frequented by locals on shopping errands. These stores offer you an opportunity to stock up on whatever you need, seeing as you already have come inside. Never mind the toilet facilities…
See where I am going with this?
Imagine yourself pulling up at a gas station behind a guy who is already in the process of filling up. You sit there and wait, as there are lines at every pump. He finishes fueling and goes inside the store. You sit there and wait, since he needs to pay before driving off. He disappears into a toilet. You sit there and wait. He reappears after several minutes and starts browsing the aisles. He cannot not know that you are waiting for him to drive off, but he hardly has a care. You sit there and wait. He fills up his shopping basket and joins the queue for the cashier. You sit there and wait. He finally pays, comes back and drives off.
Twelve minutes of your life wasted, and now you are free to get gasoline…
Now, suppose that you are the fourth car in the queue…
Which actually happened to us on our way back from Switzerland, somewhere in France, the other week. (There have been many annoyances of this kind at our neighbourhood gas stations, but nothing remotely on the same level).
The rest area had a gas station on one side of the shop/restaurant and a general parking area on the other side of it, so naturally no one bothered to move their cars away from pumps until they were ready to get on their way (I have to say, the fact that people not even bothered to show some courtesy to those in line behind them just boggles my mind). All pumps had several cars waiting in line, and it was not really possible to change lines in these conditions, so I picked one with just three cars ahead of me, and sent the girls into the store so they could stretch their legs.
First, a German guy finished fueling and disappeared into the store for what felt like ten minutes or so. When he came out, the Englishman who was next in line was already quite irate, but the German dismissed him with a disdainful look, while slowly pulling out. The next guy was a bit like me, in that he quickly did what he needed to, briskly strolled into the store, apparently paid to the cashier without attending to any other activities, and moved off, maybe to be on his way, maybe to search for a parking space (available aplenty, as it turned out, less than 50 meters ahead, but not visible from where we were).
The next guy, an Englishman as well, starts fueling. I am next in line. When he is done, he walks into the store and then reappears at a brisk gait within a minute or so. Could it be my lucky day – two considerate motorists in a row? Nope! He is back simply to check the pump reading, and then disappears into the store for good.
Ten minutes later, a boy of about fifteen comes over and leans on the car at the pump. I am ready to blow a gasket – it’s been 25 minutes since I got to the station. I ask him whether it is his car, and he morosely responds that it is, in fact, his dad’s car. I ask him whether he knows where his dad is, and he asks me what my problem is. Seeing as he is just a kid, I do my best to courteously explain to him that I have been waiting for the longest time for his father to move his car so that I can get on with my business. Whether compassionate of my plight or scared of my simmering anger, he promises to go and fetch his father.
As the boy walks away, I realize that the pump next to me has miraculously just become vacant. I quickly jump into my car, make some hurried maneuvers, and – joy! – finally have a pump to myself.
Natasha and the girls come back with puzzled looks, i.e., what’s taking you so long? As I am finishing to gas up, the guy who was in front of me comes back to his car with his kid and wife. I am way beyond the point of letting him go without giving him a piece of my mind, so I inquire of him whether he has any awareness of the fact that this is not, as it were, a parking spot.
“What would you want me to do?” he indignantly inquires back with an indication that there is no parking space within our immediate line of sight anywhere.
“I want you to show some consideration to other people, pay for the gas, come back, move your car somewhere where it is not blocking others, and only then go do whatever else you might want to do”.
“You can wait”, he responds with a dismissive wave of the hand.
What followed was me losing it a bit and calling him a moron, and then him losing it a lot in response, with a full verbal assault at the top of his lungs, multiple bird-flipping, and an all-around amusement for a couple of dozen onlookers. I must say that seeing that guy make a total ass of himself publicly made the whole experience just a tad bit more bearable.
And that’s how the scarcity of pay-at-the-pump options in Europe came to be highlighted as my topmost object of scorn.