In Search of Lost Time in France

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Time is rather fluid in France, which is understandable given the French preoccupation with the past and a general conservative disdain for change.

But a disregard for punctuality in France shows up in everything from store openings to television broadcasts. Even the digital video recorder built into the French telecom companies’ rather primitive cable boxes suggests adding 10 minutes to any show you want to record. That’s because nightly news shows run anywhere from 30 to 40 or 45 minutes. And the little filler shows that follow – music videos, weather, lottery drawings – can take up unspecified minutes until that night’s shows start. Evening programming begins, according to schedules, around 8:55 p.m., but that’s apparently just a suggestion. The French, a nation of self-proclaimed philosophers, are philosophical about the nature of time. So whatever the clock dictates isn’t actually time itself, but your idea of it. Lateness is all in the head.

At the gym, exercise classes begin when the instructor shows up. If the instructor shows up. I stopped going to one branch of my gym to take its spinning classes since I’d never know once I got there if the class – whose hours would be posted online that very morning – would actually take place. Or if the class would have been cancelled because of the holidays (summer holidays, school holidays, whatever), or if the gym manager decided to move it to another time just for that day to accommodate people who wanted to take it following another class that ended shortly before the spinning class was to begin.

For an American this sort of thing is frustrating. The French consider our adherence to the clock a bit bizarre – life is too short to be prompt about certain things except your scheduled breaks for cigarettes or coffee – but it takes a bit of mental reorganization to become used to how French nonchalance about time is actually also a laissez-faire attitude toward commerce.

Operating hours posted in a store window are, at best, approximate. The store may or may not open during those times or even on that day. I’ve also gotten used to afternoon pauses. The excellent cheese shop on the Rue Poncelet in the 17th arrondissement, for example, closes from 1 to 3 – and most butchers throughout town do the same thing (a staff has to eat). But opening hours at smaller boutiques seem to depend on the whims of the owner. Making a sale is secondary to making sure you’re taking care of yourself.

It’s not uncommon to see a sign in a bakery that declares that the store is open all day, uninterrupted, since that can be considered somewhat unusual in a city, and country, where the customer often comes last. And many stores still have signs that say “Entrée Libre,” or free entry, since in the past you never entered a store unless you were actually going to buy something – today, browsers are tolerated, if not always particularly welcome.

As a guest I’ve exasperated my French hosts on occasion by either showing up exactly on time (it’s better to be at least a few minutes late, but better to arrive a quarter-hour after the time you’re called for), or showing up an hour early because I’d misinterpreted the 24-hour clock that most people use. I’ve done the same thing as a host. I once asked people to dinner at 8 p.m., but had indicated 21 hours (9 p.m.) instead of 20 hours (8 o’clock), and I’d sat around wondering if I’d given them the wrong date, rather than the wrong hour.

Asking people to dinner at 9 p.m. isn’t unusual (though most dinners are for 8 p.m., and people generally leave around 11, more as a social custom – you don’t want to overstay your welcome – than with an eye to the clock). The French think Americans all dine at 5 p.m., which might be a result of American restaurants keeping longer hours in general than French ones. Restaurants in France are open at proscribed times (brasseries have more liberal opening hours). At restaurants, lunch is about noon to about 2 p.m. and dinner 7:30 p.m. to about 10:30 or 11. If you show up at 7:30 you’re likely to be the only diner in the room.

This is simply another way of organizing your day. You get used to when restaurants are open, when stores may or may not be open. And when trains are late. Which is often.

People in France are also pretty patient about inefficient French trains (which are still 100% more efficient and agreeable than American railways). But the French railway companies themselves often test the patience of their customers. Most intercity trains arrive late. Even the fast TGV trains can arrive as much as an hour or more later than scheduled (the sister of a friend of mine was recently on a train from Toulouse to Paris that got in 12 hours late – her consolation was a free sandwich).

But that may change – beginning this week, in keeping with European Union regulations, French railway companies will have to reimburse passengers when a train is late by as little as 30 minutes, regardless of the reason. It’s a small step, but likely to push the companies to claim the trains are late by citing unspecified excuses (usually something vaguely technical or in sympathy for one of the many strikes or work slowdowns that make up French life) and to actually get the trains moving.

Who knows if it will work? France isn’t Switzerland, and punctuality isn’t prized. The French savoir vivre means you don’t worry about the clock: you’re more concerned with the experience. That is, once people actually show up.

7 thoughts on “In Search of Lost Time in France

  1. Love this! Spot on. I guess that when a ation has genetic imprinting from ultiple wars, it is only natural that time is relative and why cigarettes are so pervasive

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  2. This is amusing, though it isn’t my experience. Friends show up for dinner at the stroke of 7 (for aperitifs before actual dinner at 8); they also stay pretty late–after midnight anyway. My gym classes are spot on time, too. Even the dentist sticks to the schedule. Small shops are far less reliable, but many are owner-operated, one-person affairs, and things come up. I think it’s noticeable only because there are so many of these small shops.
    When we cross France for the holidays, we always stop well before noon to avoid lines, and sure as the sun rises in the east, the autoroute will be nearly empty between 12 and 2 as the French pull over for lunch.
    All that said, the French work to live, not live to work.

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    • I”m glad your gym is more reliable than mine has been. It opens on time, but classes are often cancelled or rearranged. As for dinners, maybe it’s only my friends who leave before midnight, knowing that I get up early. They certainly don’t show up at 7! Yes, there are many small shops that are single-owner, so perhaps that’s the reason their hours are less reliable — since, as you say, things come up. I’ve become accustomed to this, as you have – still, I thought it worth noting. Thank you for your comments!

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      • I will admit that the post office is extremely unreliable. “Fermeture exceptionel” is never very exceptional. They don’t replace sick postal employees in small villages; they just close the post office.

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