The Rhythm of Time

Posted on March 30th, 2012 by

“That’s not good for your health,” my host father said, as I approached the breakfast table with my French exercise book in hand.  At first, I thought he was joking, as he often does.  However, he explained that “in France, doctors say that you either eat or you work, but not both at the same time.”

He elaborated that it’s a question of the brain, and not being focused on too many things while trying to eat.  And of course, if you are eating while working, that means the meal isn’t a pleasure, but a kind of task.  I considered this as I gently set my books down and went to get some coffee.  I think it is a question of the brain, but even more so, I think it’s a question of Time in France.

Perhaps this post is sounding a little repetitive, considering that I just did one about what it means to dine in France.  But this post isn’t about food.  It’s about time.  If they overlap, it is because you can’t really understand French meals without understanding French time, and you can’t really understand French time without understanding French meals.

Not only do French doctors advise people to separate working and eating, they also say not to eat outside of the three meal times every day.  American doctors advise the opposite:  spread your food out so you eat less but more frequently.  In France, it’s three solid meals, and no snacking!  Of course, we American students always get a smirk when we hear this.  France is an old country, stuck in their ways—but American doctors know better.  It’s just hard to explain to French people that they’re wrong, when they have almost no obese people, and we practically invented the disease.

For Americans, time is a commodity.  It is a uniform substance that can be used to get things done.  It is a liquid asset, equivalent to money.  To turn more time into more money, we invented fast food, eating on the go, and 24-7 service.  The times I feel most American here in France are often on Sundays, when I get frustrated that nothing is open, and there are almost no trams or buses.  But this is because in France, Sunday isn’t just another day.

For the French, time is not a commodity, but a space. It flows rhythmically forward through diverse periods.  There is a time for eating, there is a time for walking faster, and a time for walking slower.  There is a time for rest, and there is a time for work.  As a day of rest, Sunday is less religious to them than Americans (Americans being a more religious people), and yet they keep it more religiously.  Time cannot be as easily exchanged or diverted, because all time is not the same.  The day, the week, and the year cannot simply be rearranged, because they have different elements with an order to be preserved.

When you build a home, you have different rooms.  There is a kitchen, a dining room, bedrooms, an office.  And you do not  put a bed in the kitchen.  This is what I mean when I say that in France, time is a space.  Just as the office and the dining room are two separate physical spaces, the space of the day in which you eat and in which you work are different.  Bringing my homework to the table is a bit like dropping a computer desk on top of the kitchen table.

And maybe they have something figured out.  For the past month or so, I have been battling with deep anxieties about what I will end up doing for money and housing this summer.  I am constantly worrying about finishing my application for my honors thesis, and there’s also that question of what I’ll do when I get out of college.

These worries have been working around the clock to prevent me from enjoying my time in France.  Yet they are only allowed to do this because my American clock has no spaces in which to keep my worries.  All my future concerns are allowed to flood into every moment of every day.  Like I bring my homework to breakfast, I bring my worries not just everywhere, but every time–constantly convinced of their urgency, and exhausted by their weight.

So, perhaps I should listen to my host father.  Instead of trying to live in every moment of my future, as well as the present, perhaps I need to try and keep everything in its proper time.  I need to collapse myself down to the present and enjoy my bread, butter, and coffee.  I need to slow down the multitasking of the mind, because when we think we are doing many things at once, we are usually doing none.



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