TIA: ‘Pickup time is at 3:30’

I enrolled my two older children in the local preschool, which is quite expensive compared to a standard daycare operation. I’m keeping them there for now because the boy will start kindergarten in the fall, and the girl will go somewhere else next year.

It’s so expensive that I only have them in for a half day. We drop them off at 12:30 p.m. and pick up at 3:30 p.m. It’s almost not worth the hassle given I can’t get much done in that window, but it is a great experience for them.

Soon after enrollment I noticed en route to picking them up that I was a little late. I would be walking in at around 3:40 p.m.

“Let’s give them a little bit of the South American Way,” I smiled to myself. “After all, if I’m going to pull any of my one-hour specials, they need a warm-up. Gotta break em in early.”

It wasn’t common but it wasn’t unheard of for me to more than an hour late to pick up the children from their preschool in Lima. In fact I would never get them promptly at the pickup time of 1 p.m. All the other parents swarm the entrance at that time because, unlike preschool here in the States, the Lima school required each child to be walked out by a teacher.

You had to compete with the other parents to get the teacher’s attention so they would bring yours next. Given I have two in the new Peru (where One is the New Two), I would sometimes receive one child and have to wait up to 10 minutes for the other, which is a long 10 minutes with an impatient toddler. So I developed the habit of never showing up before 1:15 to give the teachers a chance to clear out most of the other students before mine.

Of course on days when I was running errands around town, I might not get there until 1:30 or even 1:45. And about once every couple months, I would take the wife out for a nice lunch and we wouldn’t arrive until after 2 p.m. On those days I’d leave a tip of 20 soles or so and that would be fine.

I was thinking about all that, still grinning, as I walked into the school and noticed the grim look from the secretary. Behind her were my two children, wearing their coats and backpacks, seated against the wall. Being quiet.

How did she manage that? I know how to put their coats and backpacks on, but sitting down and being quiet? They almost looked scared.

“Pickup is at 3:30,” the secretary greeted me, not smiling. She’s never smiling. Now I knew why. She’s anticipating the day she’ll need to drop this line on people. More than a line, a firm declaration: “Pickup is at 3:30.”

I looked at the clock to see the damage … 3:40.

“This first time is a warning,” she explained. “The next time you’re late, the fine is $1 per minute.”

Jesus, I thought. That means no one-hour specials. Not for 20 soles anyway. I acknowledged the message and left with the children.

The next day, both of my children’s teachers had placed a letter in their backpacks. It was a MEMORANDUM explaining the $1-per-minute policy. I had saved the memorandum in order to upload here for shits and giggles, but alas it has been lost (wife’s fault).

That was a surprise, they typed up a memorandum about it. They had documented my noncompliance. This was serious.

They effectively want me to be early. What’s that about?

One of the first cultural adjustments you undergo in Latin America is time orientation. The cold gringos (read “productive cultures”) of the world are monochronic, while everybody else is polychronic.

In short, being on “p-time” means it’s OK to be late. With gringos it’s frowned upon. To illustrate the difference, especially with the uber-monochronic Germans, they say “the trains run on time.”

This was one of the easiest cultural differences to overcome for me personally. Yes, other people will be late for things in life. But in my mind, that is a small price to pay for my being able to arrive late to things in life. It doesn’t jibe with some gringos, But for me it did, almost as easily as being able to drink in the streets and in taxicabs.

Going back to monochronic time is proving more annoying that going off was. You’re always in a hurry in Gringolandia. And for much of that hurrying, you’re behind the wheel of a car, which is not a good combination.

One day soon after moving back and it was still snowy or icy on the streets, we saw a car slide off a mean cloverleaf ramp and into the grass. I didn’t even consider stopping to see if the woman was OK. Driving right past her was a no-brainer, a reflex. I tell myself in retrospect that I could see she wasn’t hurt as I passed by. But I was already passing by, and it’s not like I’m driving a tow truck.

Sorry lady, pickup time is at 3:30!

Another day I was trying to coordinate a play date with an old friend who has three children. The weeks were passing by and we still hadn’t hung out, so I reached out. He responded on, say March 12, that the next Saturday they had available was April 6. Should he mark it down on the calendar?

He was talking about four Saturdays out, and marking it off now would reserve that spot. I pictured his calendar with all kinds of scribbles on various days, in two different handwriting styles from him and his wife.

And I imagined our calendar, which of course doesn’t exist. I wondered if we should get a calendar, and of course a marker to mark off various dates with activities.

In Latin America you generally play it by ear. I might make plans for this Saturday, but you mostly just give somebody a shout on the day of. What are you guys doing? Can we stop by or do you want to come over? You would only give four weeks’ notice for something like a birthday party. And that would be the max notice. Some people will spring it on you the week of.

Time orientation is always covered in international management courses. But back in b-school I never thought I would be taken by surprise, and never from the other side. Repat Chronicles, TIA.

This is the latest installment in the This is America series about repatriation.

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