Buenos Aires

The epistemology of punctuality

You need a better clock

I live in Argentina, specifically Buenos Aires, a city with many interesting and compelling aspects. It is the paradigm of faded grandeur, a model for the crumbling nature of the past, and still so full of itself that any progress into the future is hopeless. Each halting, staggering step Buenos Aires takes forward follows three steps backwards. When two square meters of notoriously hazardous sidewalk gets repaired, ten square meters crumble further into a minefield of decay.

The people who can (the 10% of the population who do not live in flagrant poverty in the ever- encroaching slums) dress as if they are going for a pleasant evening stroll along the Seine or the Thames, or for a promenade on the Rambla. But one cannot stroll along the river here, it is too dangerous and filthy, and the real Rambla is faraway in Barcelona. Here it is simply a hopeful pretending.

Buenos Aires breathes pretense; it is all appearance. Generations feeding from the trough of the true glory of a now far distant past, pervert an already distorted set of beliefs about how they must act, how they must appear, to maintain the illusion of the long gone away.

One clear and annoying example of this is the pretense of flaunting punctuality. It is a deadly breach of one’s pure craving for image to appear anywhere on time. This desperation is taken so far that people must actually calculate and plan just how late they must be to sustain their image of themselves: degrees of coolness.

A man makes a date with a woman. He will meet her at ten o’clock in front of the theater. She knows he isn’t going to be there anywhere near ten, so she doesn’t have to bother getting ready and being there until … ? Ah, now the tiptoeing dance of how late will he be? If he really does want to be with her and spend his evening with her, every minute he is late is a minute lost, but neither can he afford to have her think he is anxious to see her. Argentine men are programmed to think that Argentine woman will think he is a desperate nerd if he’s punctual. So how late does his image require? Is half an hour late still too uncomfortably close to desperation? Is an hour too long, she will think he’s being rude and obnoxious? How long will she wait? If she waits half an hour only, does that mean she has other, better offers? If she waits an hour, does that mean she’s horny enough that getting laid is guaranteed?

How is this taught? Did children practice their lack of punctuality, so they get a periodic table of time? If you’re too early, you’re a nerd; too late, you won’t get laid.

How long do you wait for friends, how long do you hold dinner as your guests straggle in over the course of hours in the evening?

The fact of the matter is — cultural oddities be damned — being late is rude. It sends an unsubtle message that I, the late, value my time more than I value yours, implying that what I am doing is more important than what you are doing. I met a couple of friends on the way and we stopped for a drink … while you stand on the street or wait on your sofa expecting to go out at any moment. Your time wasted, his having fun. What he does is simply more important than what you’re doing. This is the unambiguous message of being late.

How does inculcating a cultural habit (the expectation of lateness) impact a society in other ways? If such a fundamental aspect of human relationships and interactions is based on an essentially rude element of behavior, does the casual acceptance of rudeness spill over into other aspects of relationships?

What does this say about the sad lot of the Porteña (the female residents of Buenos Aires)? What happens to the self image of young woman who prepare themselves for an evening out with a man who interests them, then find themselves treated as casually as a lamppost, waiting often an hour, two hours, more for their date to finish a whole lot of more important things before showing up for your date … and he still gets laid. Boy, you sure taught him a lesson!

Argentine men treat Argentine women like property, and not even very expensive property … something between a maid and a puppy, but with privileges. They make them sit around fidgeting while they have a little nap, or stop by the bar for a drink with their chums, or change a tire, or watching a TV show with Momma. If you complain about sitting on a bench for an hour and a half waiting, he’s going to feed you some astonishingly dumb bullshit line, such as, but darling, time is but river and we must flow with it.

And she's still going to bed with him ... if he ever shows up

And he still gets laid.

When you are late, anybody, anytime, anywhere, you are implying unequivocally that your time is more important than the time of the other, which is the same thing as saying that I am more important than you are.

Yes, I know, so many excuses, so many awkward rationalizations, so many extenuating circumstances … say what you will. It is simply rude behavior.

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6 replies »

  1. Ha ha ha. A year ago I met this young Argentine who happened to stay in HK for a few months. He was from Buenos Aires and moved to Holland once he got out of college – because, like you’ve said in so many words, Argentines are slackers. Any capable young person might as well leave and have a career elsewhere.

    Now that you mentioned it…he did tell me that in Argentina, there’s a lot of push and pull like that between men and women. The whole dating thing is a contest of who cares less. That it’s common for a girl to say No for too many times before saying Yes to a date. Things like that.

    When we hung out, though, he was always on time and super keen – I don’t know if Dutch guys are usually on time, I’ve only met a handful of them here in HK. Despite being always on time, and terribly keen, he didn’t get laid. Not by me.

  2. I’ve noticed in the few Argentines I know who went abroad and lived there for a while that they quickly adapted to the local culture, even to the point of learning to eat dinner (in the States) at 7 or 8, instead of 10 or 11, like here. It doesn’t take long to figure out that in cultures that honor the courtesy of punctuality you are going to look like a boor if you are always assuming people are going to sit around waiting for you.

    Personally, I don’t wait. Period. God invented cell phones so you can notify a person when some circumstance will make you late,so that person can decide if it’s worth waiting. But no notice, no waiting. Oh, when I’m in a good mood and enjoying wherever I am, I might wait 5 or 10 minutes. An hour? That’s a flagrant slap in the face to the person being made to wait.

  3. We’re hoping for Mexico City, which shows you how dismal the other choices are — they are truly, truly shitty. Mexico City starts to look like Paris.

    Just back from 10 days in Costa Rica, where the slogan is “pure vida,” which translates to “I don’t give a shit.”

    My point is, don’t tell me something you don’t mean. If you are never going to show up, then tell me: “I’m never going to show up, fucker!” I think people who have this culture-notion of having to be late X-amount of time to be cool, can be as late as they bloody well want to be … just give a hint: 30 minutes, an hour, two hours, tomorrow, next week, never. Because idiot fucker that I am, I show up on time and am expected to stay around leaning against a wall or staring at the sky for X-amount of time until the cool moment arrives.

    Nope. You’ve got 5 minutes, then you can go fuck yourself.

  4. You need to spend some time in Paris before you can make that judgement.

    But it is a game, Rose. At least it is here. It is not that, oh well, I have some other priorities and you are not very high among them, it is a none too subtle expression of power over another.

    Because any way you look at it, one person is being made to wait, to spend time waiting, for someone who has other priorities — whether a nap, a beer with a friend, slowing to smell some flowers … . So I don’t wait. I have other priorities. It is kind of amazing how quickly people figure that out — he isn’t going to wait.

    I don’t too well just accept being at the mercy of some other person’s whim.