In several recent conversations with my American “roommate” of the semester—a University of Wisconsin student staying in another chamber of my host mother’s vast apartment—we’ve discussed shared feelings of trepidation and bewilderment in regards to the abundance of free time we, as international students in Lyon, have at our disposal. I’ve had similar dialogues with other Americans as well as Chinese and Australian friends. We’ve marveled at the unhurried pace of life here and furtively tried to suss out whether the others have discovered the secret to navigating this temporal territory that to us remains a mystery. Meanwhile, I’ve noticed that acquaintances of European and South American descent seem to have no problem with the adjustment to this pace of life—perhaps because they’re not really adjusting at all. When I climbed up to the Fourvière amphitheater last semester, I was amazed to see my companions wordlessly plop down for an afternoon doze in the sun. I at first attempted to follow suit but eventually gave up and took to exploring the area. Although I’d like to think I’ve made progress in the ensuing months, there are certain East Coast tendencies I can’t seem to shake. For instance, on a recent Saturday evening I was once again walking along the top of the Fourvière hill with a European friend at what I failed to realize was a fairly blistering pace. Eventually, my friend dared to question my Manhattan-at-9 a.m.-on-a-weekday gait. The defense that immediately rose to my lips faltered as I realized that there was not, in fact, any need to push past the elderly couple in front of us on the narrow sidewalk in order to maintain the semblance of efficiency.
Just because I myself haven’t entirely gotten the hang of European time doesn’t mean I haven’t made my fair share of observations on how those around me manage their days—after all, I’ve had ample opportunity to do so. I’ve already commented on the degree to which individuals value their relaxation time, but I’ve noticed that these tendencies extend even into the professional world (which is, after all, made up of individuals). While in the US it is essentially a societal guarantee that commercial establishments will adhere with rigid precision to their stated hours, often devised with a view to burn the candle at both ends, it is not uncommon for businesses in France to be “exceptionally closed” without prior notice during their regular operating hours, already abridged by U.S. standards. Furthermore, as a corollary to this reverence for leisure, nearly everything starts later and lasts longer than in the U.S. This first point wasn’t exactly a revelation to me, as I’d been prepped for a deferred schedule, but the latter concept took some getting used to. I’ve found that it manifests primarily in two ways. First, there are meals; my hosts family regularly sits down to dinner as late at 9:00 p.m. on weekday nights and it is not unusual to leave the table near 10:00. Then there’s classes. I knew prior to arrival that high schools in France operate logistically more like universities in the U.S. in that each day’s schedule is different but for some reason I had assumed institutions of higher education in the two nations were similar in regards to scheduling. Not so. Each of my six classes at Sciences Po Lyon meets once a week for a minimum of two hours at a time. This produces the tandem effects that by the second hour of any given class finally ticks around I feel like I’ve spent eternity in the lecture, and, in the long periods between classes (during which I rarely have school work) I nearly forget I’m here to be a student.
Despite my continued misgivings about whether I’m using my time “correctly” and whether that worry in and of itself demonstrates that I am not, I do actually feel that I’ve adjusted to this pace of life for the most part. When I look back on my semesters at Georgetown, I puzzle over how I managed to survive with deadlines imminent at all times and what all my To-Do list items were in the first place. In fact, my worry at this point is that after another half a year on the Old Continent I will have forgotten how to operate in a live-to-work time-is-money stress culture.
On final note: as for what do I actually do during all this free time here, I plan to make that the subject of my next post (if I ever get around to it, what with my hectic schedule and all). For the time being, rest assured I (believe) I’ve found worthwhile ways to pass the time while engaging in culturally relevant activities. At the very least, I’ve refrained from watching Netflix any more than I do at home, which I consider a major accomplishment in its own right.