Trains & Time: What Happens When You Cross Cultures?

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Trains & TimeWhen it comes to time, it’s quite accurate to to view northern Europeans as more time conscious than southern Europeans.

Of course, this is an oversimplification. There are extremely timely Italians, Spaniards, and Greeks, and there are an equal number of time-challenged Swedes, Germans, and Britishers.

I did, however, have an experience while I was living in Italy that lent credence to these time stereotypes.

Spring Break Travels

I lived in Florence, Italy for two trimesters during my college years. I studied Italian literature in the villa where Mussolini stayed whenever he came to Florence. During the spring break between my two semesters, I decided to travel, so I bought a one-week Eurail pass and began to plan my adventure.

As an impoverished student, I planned to use the train as my hotel. I would choose a destination a night’s rest away from whichever city I was visiting, sleep on the train, and arrive in the new place rested and ready for the day. My first destination was Heidelberg, Germany.

The train left on time. This was a bit of a miracle as, during my first semester in Florence, the railroad workers had been staging a series of random strikes (scioperi) to protest low pay.

Travelers would often go to the train station, get on a train, then learn it would not leave for four hours. I also took one trip to Rome where, due to a sciopero, the train stopped randomly for one hour in the middle of the trip.

A Small Town near Como

But this train left on time. I glided through beautiful Tuscan countryside and enjoyed the blissful anticipation of a week of vacation and serendipity ahead.

The train stopped at various towns along the way, and I particularly noticed one town near Lake Como as I was preparing to pull down my blind and sleep for the night.

The town was picturesque with cobblestoned streets, flower boxes overflowing with color, and a myriad of towers, many of them sporting clocks. I noted that none of the clocks had the same time as any other. In fact, not even one had the correct time!

A Timely Stop

I retired for the night. The clacking of train wheels on track lulled me to sleep.

Awhile later, I awoke to the strange sensation of the train being stopped. I jumped out of my berth, pulled up the shade, and looked out at a small German town with cobblestoned streets, colorful flower boxes, and twice as many towers with clocks as the village near Como.

All the clocks had the same time, and all were accurate.

German time versus Italian time.

A Personal Reflection

I am half northern European, half southern European (Italian). So is my wife. So, you would think our perception and approach to time would be similar.

Not.

As one of five boys growing up, respecting time mattered. We all participated in various sports, musical and other activities. Being in the place you said you’d be, especially when we each started driving, was a cardinal rule.

Plus, I believed being timely communicated respect.

Then I married a woman whom I deeply love, of course. But our concepts of time were almost 180 degrees opposite. And this would frustrate both of us. In fact, we had to overcome this major hurdle early in our relationship.

We did, of course. I became less uptight when we ran behind and learned how to use the waiting to get other things done. She learned to respect time commitments better, especially when it really mattered.

We came to realize how much our upbringings influenced our perspectives and approaches to time.

Caroline says she grew up in an “-ish” family. That is, “We’ll get there at 9-ish (+ or – 10 minutes). That thinking permeated her childhood. So I understand how it spilled over into adulthood, of course.

She touches upon these and other intriguing cultural character issues in her blog post, Intercultural ME: Finding Myself In The Messiness.

Also, Caroline admitted to viewing time more in terms of events or projects. In this way, she would place greater value upon finishing the event or project than being on time for the next engagement.

Once we identified these different approaches, we were halfway to finding a resolution to this issue in our marriage.


So, how about you? Are you a timely person, or do you view life as event by event?


Image Credit: PeteLinforth on Pixabay, Creative Commons

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Dale DePalatis

Dale DePalatis

Editor & Interculturalist at CultureWeave
The husband of the principal founder of CultureWeave, Dale is a high school teacher of English with an M.A. in English Literature from Stanford University. With a passion for language learning (including Italian, German, and Japanese), he loves the way the brain expands when studying overseas and experiencing new cultures. He also loves reading, traveling, running, and enjoying meaningful conversations about life’s deep questions.
Dale DePalatis
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The husband of the principal founder of CultureWeave, Dale is a high school teacher of English with an M.A. in English Literature from Stanford University. With a passion for language learning (including Italian, German, and Japanese), he loves the way the brain expands when studying overseas and experiencing new cultures. He also loves reading, traveling, running, and enjoying meaningful conversations about life’s deep questions.