It’s All Relative: The French Understanding of Time and Space

-Jessamyn Biette

A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with my hosts about my plans for traveling during my semester in Toulouse. I explained my desires to go to London, Rome, the Loire Valley castles, Paris and to many other European destinations as well. They told me that I had ambitious plans and that brought the discussion to the the subject of the differences between France and the United States’ conceptions of time and space.

Addressing this subject, my host’s mother taught me the phrase “it’s all relative.” This means that the different understanding of space and time of the two countries is because of the size of the two countries. France is a very small country in comparison to the United States. For example, I come from Boston, but I go to college in Pennsylvania. To get to college, I have to drive eight hours. In the United States, eight hours in the car is not very long. However, in France, by driving eight hours, we can travel to other countries. When I told my hosts that my college is not very far from where I’m from, they told me that in fact, yes, according to the French, my college is far.

This phenomenon is also evident when talking to other students who live in Europe. During my studies, I have met Italian, German and English students among others. At an ERASUMUS event (ERASMUS is an organization for European students), I asked my European friends if they were going to spend winter vacation at home. They seemed very surprised when I asked them this question. For them, to return home for winter break is too far and too expensive. For me, to go to Italy or Germany for a weekend is not all that far or expensive.

In Europe, it’s the norm to have access to other cultures that are completely different. In the United States, particularly in Pennsylvania, we have to spend a lot of money and a lot of time travelling to experience new cultures and new lifestyles. In the United States, the ability to travel in Europe is a novelty, but Europeans are used to being surrounded by other cultures and therefore, their perspective of time and space is different than that of Americans.

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