Being On Time: A Cultural Mystery

18 May
As close as we get to hurrying around here.

Many years ago, I stood waiting for a train in Switzerland.  Shortly before my train was due, a very apologetic-sounding announcement came over the loudspeaker.  By the third repetition, I had the Swiss-German mostly deciphered: our train would be two minutes late, and the management was deeply sorry for the inconvenience.  A collective sigh went up along the platform.  The elderly ladies waiting beside me were particularly put out, and continued to grumble until the train arrived – precisely two minutes late.

As a Canadian, I can’t say I would have noticed a two-minutes-late train.  That falls within the standard error of “on time” as far as I am concerned.  A five to ten minute grace period doesn’t seem unreasonable.  In Germany, they want to run their trains like the Swiss but in fact run them like the Canadians, so, again, waiting an extra few minutes from time to time isn’t much of a surprise.

But the French, as has been widely noted through history, are different.

Last week, the girls and I were invited to spend Sunday with friends in another bay.  I took a look at the bus schedule, and determined our bus would leave the station at 9:58am.  And, since I wasn’t sure exactly where to wait, I decided to get there a few minutes early, just to be on the safe side.  As we crossed the street at 9:45am, I saw our bus pull into the station.  We sauntered in, joined the end of the line, paid our fares… and the bus pulled out.  I looked at the clock. 9:47.  I can understand leaving a few minutes late, but early?  That hardly seems sporting. Surely this was an aberration. Maybe the driver forgot the check the clock.

I forgot about the incident until Thursday. The girls and I were off to visit Erik in Brisbane, and I had booked the airport shuttle for the three of us: 2:35pm, in front of the shuttle offices. As we left Stylish’s school, my phone rang.
“Hello, Mrs Schaefer, this is Ar-en-ciel.  The shuttle is waiting – will you be here soon?”
I checked my watch.  2:20pm.  “We’re two blocks away,” I said. And the girls and I huffed over the hill with our bags.
As we settled into the shuttle, we endured some disapproving looks from the other passengers. Clearly, we had made everyone wait.  I double-checked the time on my receipt.  Yes, 2:35pm.  But, somehow, still late.

We arrived back from Brisbane last night at one in the morning.  I shoveled the girls into bed and fell asleep myself.  At 6:00am, my phone alarm went off.  It was suspiciously bright outside. As I rolled this information around in my brain, I realized that I had forgotten to change my phone back to Noumea time: it was really 7:00am. And, inevitably, this is Parent’s Week at school.  Indy and I were due at her school for breakfast… at 7:00am.  Which, given recent events, meant we probably should have been there at 6:45.

I exploded out of bed, threw clothes and baguette at the girls, locked up and ran.  As I went, I called my neighbour who usually drives the girls to school.  I was late and sure to be in trouble with her.
“Not to worry,” she said, puzzled at my tone.  “We still have plenty of time to make the breakfast.”

And, sure enough, all of the parents were at least 45 minutes late for the coffee and pain au chocolat.  The event went on in a leisurely fashion until 8:30am,when everyone tossed their cups in the trash in a synchronized fashion and left.

So, I still don’t understand French timekeeping.  Sometimes you have to be ten minutes early.  Sometimes you are better off being half an hour late.  I suspect everyone has a cranial implant that lets them know which is which.  But maybe Tourist information could publish a handy guide to help clueless anglos like me. And, in the meantime, I’ll try not to miss too many planes.


  1. First Last

    I live in Mexico. I once had a date with a girl. The first time she was three hours late. The second time 1 1/2 hours late. By the way, I am from the mid west of the US.

    I made arrangements with a Mexican friend of mine; he would text me when he wanted me to help him deliver some food. I waited and waited. I went by the restaurant; it was closed. The next day he text me “that he waited for me”. Even though the arrangements were he was to text me, he did not do so even though I was “late” I queried him. He was “too busy” to text me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*. Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive. For more information, please see our Comments Policy.

More from the AIM Marine Group