Monday 9 March 2009

The Relativity of Time

By Richard Morley.

The Buiding of the Comunidad de Madrid with its famous clock.

Here’s one of those logic puzzles:
You are sitting alone in a classroom. The lesson should have started ten minutes ago, but you are the only one there. You arrived on time. You don’t care, because you are still getting paid. Who are you?

Here’s another: You have arranged to meet some friends at a place and time of their choosing. Through good timing you arrived five minutes early. It is now twenty minutes past the agreed time and you are wondering if anyone else is going to come.

The answer to both of those is that you are British, North American, Australian or Kiwi, (Delete as applicable.) and that you live and probably teach English in Madrid.

If you are reading this between 7am and 8pm Madrid time I can almost guarantee that there will be a lone English teacher sitting in some empty classroom.

I can also be quite sure that some time this week I will be waiting for someone long after the agreed time.

Keeping the trains running on time at Atocha Station.

If there is one thing which really highlights the differences between the Anglo and Spanish cultures it is our respective attitudes to time.

To the Anglo an appointed time means what it says. To a Spaniard it means – maybe.
Well, actually it means “Maybe – and a few minutes”. Printed TV schedules should be taken as an estimate. Bus timetables guarantee a bus arriving, “cada 7 to 14 minutos”. It would be a waste of time to be more specific.

There was a time when this annoyed me. But after nearly four years I have become quite resigned to waiting. It is not yet a matter of if you can’t beat them, join them. I still can’t bring myself to be purposely late. To me, that’s just rude. But I no longer feel slighted when my arranged appointment runs late. I just worry that I will now be late for my next one and that will reflect badly on me. That’s my hang-up. My next appointment probably won’t care and would be surprised at my timely arrival.

As Franklin Jones said, “The trouble with being punctual is that nobody’s there to appreciate it”.

But at any meeting PA, if one existed, I would have to stand up and announce, “My name is Richard and I am a punctuholic”.

Clock Tower in the Plaza Mayor.

I can’t help it. Every week I meet some people for lunch. For our first meeting the agreed time was 1:30pm and they have never arrived before 1:40 (and sometimes later) and yet I am always there at 1:25 or even earlier. I have thought about planning my journey to arrive at 1:40, but then I worry “What would they think of me if I was late”?

Perhaps, as an Englishman, I should blame Shakespeare who wrote, “Better be three hours too soon than one minute too late”. Cervantes would never have written that!

But another Englishman, Evelyn Waugh commented, “Punctuality is the virtue of the bored”. Is my life so boring that I have nothing better to do than arrive promptly for appointments? Do those I am waiting for lead lives that are more interesting?

Well I can’t answer for the second, but there are times when my busy schedule means that I have to bust a gut to organise my day so that I get everywhere when I have promised I would - and then find myself leaning on a lamppost and checking my watch.

Even attempting an answer to the second leads one down the steep path of paranoia.
Is the reason the Spanish are always late is they have something better to do than meet with me? Oscar Wilde had one of his characters comment about another, “He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time”. If I insisted on them arriving on time, and then how would they consider me (?), would I be robbing them of precious time in their own lives?

Stands the clock at ten to three and is there ice-cream still for tea? The Haagen Dazs clock never changes.

Not that they would know it. I know many Spanish that don’t even wear a watch. They even boast of it. Then they badger me for the time because they have to be somewhere! And we both know they’ll get there late.

It is possible to buy a watch in Madrid!!

There is no point on me dwelling on this for long. Nothing will change. Albert Einstein worked it all out a hundred years ago. In 1905 he postulated that a man who travels faster than another will perceive time to move more slowly. As Spain is closer to the equator than northern Europe, it moves faster as it revolves around the earth in the course of a day, so time takes on a more leisurely pace.

I once worked in a country even closer to the equator than Spain. The language of the country was Arabic. If you ever asked for something to be done then the answer was always “Buhkra”, tomorrow. When I queried this, I was told that “Buhkra” was similar in meaning to the Spanish word “Mañana”, but without the sense of urgency! Einstein rules – relatively, as some graffiti author might write.

I am too old to change, but I certainly wouldn’t want to change the Spanish, even if I could. I enjoy two-hour lunch breaks with friends who instead of returning to work on time will take another coffee and be late. It says, “I’d rather be with you”, which is nice!
Sundial at the Puerta de Toledo.
That shows that the Spanish are not “tardy”1, or even “tarde”2, but rather that they allow the time to slip away in ways they find more enjoyable. If the most enjoyable thing in their lives at that time is to be in my company, who am I to complain? I should, and do, feel flattered. For I enjoy the company of my Spanish friends also, and if that makes me late for my next appointment, who cares?

1English word meaning: delayed, behind, overdue, belated, or slow.
2 Spanish word meaning: late.
Do you have an opinion on timekeeping? Feel free to comment below?


  1. Hahaha! Richard, I promise you that before an arragement with you, there's nothing more important in my whole life than you! ;-)

  2. What are we punctuholics to do?

  3. The comedian Lenny Henry had a great philosophy which he shared with me one day when we met - be late and go straight.

    He claimed that when he was on time or even early he would spend time (wasted) waiting around, yet when he was late there was more a sense of urgency, so they would get straight down to business. frankly I agree!