August 31, 2011

“Time is an illusion. Lunch time doubly so.”

The French and I have very different notions of time. I was prepared for this in some aspects. I learned about cultural differences in my French class.

The French eat later than we do. It’s okay, expected even, to be 15 minutes late to a rendez vous. They call it le quart d'heure de politesse (the quarter hour of politeness).

What my American brain was not prepared for is the lack of precision in time in its entirety.

I first noticed it when asking the time. Instead of getting precise answers to my questions of “quelle heure est-til?” (what time is it?), people would respond with things like “20 ‘til 6” or “quarter past 3” when in reality it was something like 5:38 and not 5:40.

The French seem to care very little about the precious difference between 8:14 and 8:17 (I mean, you can do a lot with 3 minutes!), and will tell you it’s “huit heure et quart” (quarter past 8).

This fluidity in time telling doesn’t stop with the world clock. It also is found when estimating wait periods. When informing me how long it’ll take the delivery guy to get to my apartment, or how long I have to wait before picking up my delicious pizza, I am often told things like, “un petit vingt minutes” (a small twenty-minutes) or “une grosse demi heure” (a fat half hour).

A small twenty minutes? How can twenty minutes be any smaller or bigger than it is, considering it is an exact measurement of time?!

It seems that the French use petit(e) and gros(se) in order to express the American equivalent of about, around, or, between two times (ex. 15– 20 minutes).

That said, the most easily recognizable difference in perception of time comes down to whether FBF or I do the cooking.

Ever since I went off to college and started cooking for myself, I always follow the times written for the food I cook, whether it be pasta, frozen pizza, or a more complex recipe.

FBF does not.

Despite the fact that it is written clearly on the pasta box that to get Al Dente you need to put the pasta in boiling water for 10 minutes, he just wings it. He puts the pasta in and then after a moment determined by who knows what, he goes and does the taste test.

The same thing goes for frozen pizza. Despite the box informing you how long you need to cook the pizza, FBF and La Maman just put them in the oven until they look good.

They don’t set any timers. They don’t keep track of the time.

Sure, if after the ten minutes my pasta is not cooked, I will cook it for longer. But I always set an addition timer.


  1. I learned how to cook in France and i'm more likely to wing it as well. You know what i've noticed though is that there are so many different types of ovens here that you can never know just exactly how long to cook something. We had a toaster oven in our first apartment so obviously we had to improvise on the time, and in our second we had a gas oven/stove combo where things were never cooked well enough after the amount of time had passed. Now we've got a convection oven, and depending on where we are in the fan cycle thingy (if I understand it correctly, which it's likely I don't) our food will either be burned to a crackly crisp or not cooked thoroughly enough. For me it's a total guessing game. I think in the US our stoves and ovens are pretty standard from one house to the next. You set the timer, you set the temp, and voila. Here, you've got these little gas marks and it's like, do I need to cook it on a 3 or on a 5? What does this even mean?? So I turn my oven to the running man with a hamburger symbol, pop the food in, and check on it every couple of minutes. Not the easiest way of cooking, but it does get the job done :)

  2. You made a very good point! I myself am amazed at how much rough the notion of time can be for me sometimes. :-) I always observe the "quart d'heure de politesse" when I'm invited to someone's place, I have a cooking timer that I barely use, I don't always arrive exactly on time at work in the morning, but there's one thing that I always take very seriously: being on time when I have to meet people outside or attend a professional meeting. I never make people wait and I expect the same thing from them. Well, I don't mind waiting a few minutes - I'm not that narrow-minded! - but I cannot count how many times I had to wait for friends or colleagues to arrive for so long that I could have used my time staying at home and do some more useful things than just wait for nothing. Unfortunately, I think making people wait is typically French! :-/

  3. It drives me bonkers that The Wife is perpetually late. I typically cook by taste and texture, but I always use a timer. Always. I set it short of the time so I'm reminded that it's close to being done and to pay attention to it.

  4. I've noticed at my internship with the local government here, people are slightly better about being on time for appointments, but that's probably just because they're usually there asking us for money, lol. Internal appointments seem to be on time, again, maybe because it's lots of money talk. Also maybe because we deal with a fair amount of foreigners, so habits are adapted.

    For me it's one of those things I'm glad to have it when I need it (even if I rarely do, I come from a super punctual family), so I try not to get too upset when others use it.

  5. Really, Americans will tell you exactly if it's 3.38 or whatever? My watch only has 4 marks at the 12, 3, 6, and 9 position so I couldn't tell you that precisely even if I wanted to! (And I would round it anyway even if I could, unless there was some good reason to be precise like we were catching a train or something)
    PS Just came across your blog, hi!

  6. Cooking by a timer is the way I have always cooked. Winging it isn't in my DNA. It is the same with measurements. I always measure everything and use a timer. My mother-in-law never used measuring cups on spoons but used a timer. My grandmother also never used measuring cups and always used a timer. Hence, whenever I asked for a recipe they could never give me the exact amount of the ingredients to use...a dash of this... Start out with a cup...Mix it until the consistency feels right? It just never worked that way for me! LOL

    I never like to be late and don't appreciate having to wait for more than 15 minutes. I think it is rude for people to do that. As for telling time, I always try to give the correct time as close as I can. I think it all depends on the culture.

  7. Amber: I hadn't even thought about the varying temperatures of ovens effecting this! But even with my toaster oven I set a timer. I feel lost without one.

    Émilie: I think it's more acceptable in France to be late, but I do agree that it changes slightly in the business world. That said, even when teaching English to people who worked in big companies I would be made to wait sometimes.

    Joshua: I think it's a common pet peeve in America. I myself tend to be a late person so France isn't the worse place for the likes of me! As for cooking, I'm similar to you. I don't always follow ingredients to the pin and do a lot of tasting, but I always always always set my timer, even if it's just to add 2 minutes. I think it's because then I'm not responsible for keeping track of the time.

    Andromedea: I am always on time to government appointments! But they control my life at the moment so I try to make it easy on them. I do feel like the quart d'heure de politesse is more common in friendly situations as opposed to business ones, but even then I don't feel like everything is super punctual.

    Gwan: Welcome! Where are you from?

    I do think a lot of Americans would tell you the exact time! I didn't wear a watch before moving to France and would use my cell phone to tell the time, so it was a digital clock. This was true for most of my friends, and out of those people that I know who have a watch, most of them wear digital watches. That being said, I haven't done any professional sociological studies about it or anything.

    Kris: I'm more like your mother-in-law! I always always use a timer (even if it's just to add an additional 2 minutes), but I wing it sometimes as far as how much of what spice to use. I think that comes along with experience, however. I also never do that the first time I'm trying a recipe!

    My American brain agrees with you that 15 minutes is a long time to make people wait, but I'm more of a late-person than an on-time-person so I'm happy about the quart d'heure de politesse. Also thanks for having my back on the precise times thing!

  8. I also don't know how I'm just realizing that your post title is from Hitchhiker's Guide.

  9. Joshua: YES!! I was wondering when somebody was going to say something about it! You win :)

  10. that's funny I always have winged recipes and my french MIL thinks its so annoying that when I give her a recipe I don't say how long to bake something for (I'll say until it's golden brown). she puts timers on for EVERYTHING in the kitchen and doesn't understand how I don't even own a kitchen timer...

  11. In Greece time is in *ish*....small step after francious

  12. In Ireland we call it Irish time...always 10/15 mins might be a European thing

  13. seems so challenging! i agree about needing the difference between 3:14 and 3:17! how does this translate to bus times?? when i'm catching the bus is when i'm most concerned with individual minutes and seconds - because it means the difference between a pleasant ride to work and a frantic scramble to find an alternate route!


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