Two Views of Tempus Fugit

First published August 10, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

As I write this, I’m sitting on France’s TGV train from Paris to Lyon. I’m one week into our European vacation, and so far it’s been wonderful, with the exception of an unfortunate pickpocket incident in Paris’s Chatelet metro station (my father-in-law was the victim, not me), and an ensuing long and somewhat fruitless conversation with the French gendarmerie. It’s been a struggle getting back into SEM mode to write about search engines and whatnot. It’s hard to believe that in San Jose, there’s little happening that doesn’t have to do with search engines.

Travels with Gord

This is really my first time on the Continent, as I can’t really count trips to SES in London and Stockholm. So far we’ve been in Milan, Paris and a city in the French Alps called Chambery. I’ve had my first gelato, a few bottles of excellent French wine, and way more cheese than I should have. So what’s to write about?

It strikes me that the one thing that differs most here is the approach to time. Perhaps it’s the fact that Europeans are surrounded by constant reminders that time is not fleeting.

I wrote a blog post a little while ago about digital compression. I think this is more of a North America phenomenon. In our society, and particularly in anything to do with the Internet or high tech, time seems to compress noticeably. Look at how far companies like Google have come in such a short time. It’s a global enterprise, with thousands of employees, and it’s been around for less than a decade. To go from nothing to Google in a few short years requires the significant shortening of any timeline that would be considered reasonable. Contrast that with some of the construction projects I’ve recently had the opportunity to see, such as Notre Dame, hundreds of years in the making. Time is a much more durable commodity in the Old World.

Deadline by Deadline…

In the world I normally live in, time is constantly ticking towards the next deadline, and those deadlines usually come in sets, stacked on top of each other, dictating that impossible amounts of work get done before the seconds tick away. Companies have to go from start-up to sell-out in years, or even months. Most of the business establishments I’ve been in the past week have been running for decades, and some for centuries. People are driven to amass fortunes in a few short years that would previously take generations to build. We try to squeeze weeks, months and years into tiny little 24-hour containers.

The Internet encourages and enables this compression. It’s a phenomenon that goes hand in hand with the digital wiring of the world, but for some reason, it’s much more noticeable in the new world than the old.

Time Times Three

Here are just three examples I’ve seen in the last week. When we eat, it’s usually little more than a gastronomic pit stop, shoveling in the food as quickly as possible, so we can rush off to our next pressing deadline. In France, dinner is a multi-hour affair, with distinct stages that merge seamlessly from one to the other. It’s a well- choreographed event, almost ritualistic in its importance, serving as a cornerstone for social interaction, or just observing the world go by. In Europe, the world seems centered around the dinner table, not the clock.

Another example is vacations. Most people we’ve met can’t believe we’re squeezing a multi-country European vacation into three weeks. As my hosts in Chambery kept saying, “No time, too little, too much to do.” They were even more surprised when I told them this is the longest vacation I’ve ever taken. In Europe, eight- to 10-week vacations seem to be the norm.

The final example was our encounter with the police in Paris following the theft of my father-in-law’s wallet. We went to the nearest police station to report the incident. Thank goodness we were accompanied by a family member who lives in Paris and could translate.

At first we were told that it would be about four hours before we could make the report because they were so busy, and we should really come back tomorrow. I was quite prepared to accept this explanation at face value and was heading back to the hotel, when our Parisian companion explained that this wasn’t acceptable and prepared to launch into a long and passionate plea, very little of which I understood. At various times, we had up to five officers participating in the conversation, which lasted about 40 minutes. During that time, the reason why we couldn’t file the report went from too busy to not having computer access to not having the right form to the vague explanation “It’s all political,” accompanied with the very typical shrug of the shoulders.

Finally, our companion convinced the police to accommodate us that day, and the report was filed in about 25 minutes. But it seemed that while there was plenty of time to argue for several minutes, there was no time to actually get the job in question done.

Time To Go

I state this not to pass judgment but simply to note the differences. For some reason, time is reckoned differently here. While we rush forward towards some vaguely defined future that almost certainly has to be better than today, my new friends in France and Italy seem to be in much less of a hurry to let today slip by. While this attitude can be a little frustrating in certain circumstances, in most cases, I have to say they’ve got it right. So far, the only things that seem to go fast here are the trains, Italian drivers and my vacation time.

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