I am still not quite used to punctuality. It is cultural. I grew up in Lebanon. The “inshallah” concept was the predominant time standard. Let’s say a plumber is called to intervene to solve a Lebanese housing emergency. If that well-meaning person announced that he would be there in an hour “inshallah”, it could mean anything from five hours to two and a half weeks. One never knows why that is. While this is not unique for Lebanon, elastic time being endemic in the Mediterranean region, it has to be said that the Lebanese elevated the practice to new heights. When you call a Lebanese friend who is late for a meal you two are going to share, he or she usually says “jeyi” which means “coming”, or “on the way”. The concept in itself is not inaccurate. Only where on the way is not immediately clear. The said person could have just left Paris, or walked out of a shower and is intending to come join you while taking a few calls, or stuck in the famous Beirut traffic looking at a few hours’ wait to get to your planned lunch. The important thing is that they are on their way. It is the gesture that counts in LaLa Land.
Moving to Switzerland was undoubtedly a culture shock. Living in loud and hectic New York just before moving to polite Geneva had not prepared me well for the structured finely tuned life in this pristine Helvetia, land of cheese and chocolate. My husband, who is from down under, had lived in Lebanon for a few years and found the system amazingly wonderful. Creative Chaos, he called it. He himself is a quasi superman with boundless energy and a thing for managing emergencies, yet he seems to operate in his own time zone. He is not known to have arrived on time for anything, and has a clear contempt for people who do – “boring” he calls them. He bitterly recounts his experience of missing flights and connections with only two airlines, Swiss and Lufthansa, because they will flatly stop him from boarding when he arrives at the airport ten minutes before the flight. “I can’t understand their attachment to their precious rules”, he would complain. To him, the Swiss are too structured and lack the flexibility that he craves. Their failure to bend rules to fit his hectic lifestyle frustrates him.
The Swiss’s fascination with time is epic. Where else would you see people huffing audibly when their train is half a minute late? They constantly look at their watches, not trusting the railway clocks with their accurate revolving red hand. They repeatedly twist their wrists to look at their watches as if willing time to go faster so that they can justify complaining when the train is seriously late, a couple of minutes or some such disastrous delay. See, in Lebanon by comparison you’d be lucky if you had a train in the first place. No trains exist after the war, and buses were regularly used for target practice. The post-war quality of public transport is nightmarish, rivaled only by the approximate timetable that tells you very little about when you leave and when you are likely to get wherever you are going. Everything referring to time seems to be indicative or a kind of wishful thinking in the Mediterranean region.
That’s not quite how things are where the Swiss are concerned. Suppose a worker, an electrician, is supposed to come to my house and we agree on a time, say five. Me, being from the border of the famous Mediterranean Sea, will come home hurriedly at five O five to be met by another specimen of a huffing individual obsessed with his watch. The Swiss will call to apologize profusely when they are five minutes early. I act scandalized when they do, it so amuses my Eastern sense of “are you kidding me”. But what do the Swiss do when they are late? Or when they don’t show up? Yeah, this question is purely theoretical. In years of living here, this has never happened. Not even once. I would like to be given a chance to huff and look at my nicely designed Swiss watch, purely for revenge purposes, as well as a kind of scientific and anthropological experiment, alas that chance was never given to me. But, I am an optimistic person and I still think I will get the Swiss for being late for something. Inshallah.