From the Adventure Files of Cassidy Grubbs
“Each time is true, but the truths are not the same.”
― Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams
What time is it? Don’t look at the clock on your laptop or phone.
What I am really asking is: What type of time are you living right now?
You see, one 'time' does not fit all. On any given day, you experience time differently. When you’re working on something you don’t want to do, fifteen minutes can feel like five hours. When you’re engaged in something you’re passionate about, five hours seems like fifteen minutes.
There are people who adhere to military time, sticking to the old adage: “If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re dead.” Then there are the people who are chronically late--who apparently operate in their own twilight zone. Entire cultures live by this fluid time system, like the southern Italians.
Here is something I’ve discovered: living abroad allows me to experience time in a completely surreal way.
I’ve experienced this twice in two very different places: Riva San Vitale, a tiny Swiss-Italian town, and Istanbul, the megacity that spans East and West.
A Swiss Villa In Riva
Riva was my home for nearly five months when I was selected for the inaugural Virginia Tech Presidential Global Scholars program. I lived in an 18th-century Swiss villa with 29 other people (the ideal setup for a reality show, really).
Sometimes I felt as though we’d stepped back in time. I didn’t own a phone. Nothing in town was open on Sundays. The church bells from across the street marked the hours of the day. School children skipped through our garden to go home for lunch. We all ate dinner together, serving each other family-style.
Those few months felt like at least two years.
All but forced to spend so much time together, we quickly ditched small talk and started forming strong relationships. In the evenings, you could find people talking in the fireplace room. Many a night, I stayed up late with a friend in the library that we could only access by a secret little stairwell.
One day I frightened myself: I realized that we had clocked more hours together than some couples do before getting married. I then resolved that I would never marry someone if I hadn’t traveled with him.
Rather than feeling trapped or bored in this environment, life in Riva felt distilled and poignant. There was something peaceful about playing the piano in the villa’s foyer before dinner or running alongside a stream in the shadow of Mt. San Giorgio. At the same time, I wonder if it is the place or the people you are with that really makes the difference when you travel.
Our group relied on each other, especially in difficult moments. Our last month in Switzerland, one of our friends died unexpectedly. The night we heard the news, several of us gathered by the lake--everything was silent and still, except for the train lights passing in the distance. Staring up into the night, I felt much older, as though I had completed a full cycle of life in just those few months.
Making The Move To Istanbul
After this intense experience, I was prepared to venture out farther. Two years later, I decided to take a full Gap Year and move to Istanbul, Turkey. I lived with a Turkish family in the boonies of Istanbul--in a small village area called Dereseki on the Asian side of the city, an hour and a half from the European city center.
While we were relatively isolated in Dereseki (as isolated as you can get in a city of 20 million people), I appreciated spending most of my initial months adjusting to my new home. I spent my “work days” with a four-year-old reading books, coloring, and rediscovering parts of my imagination. I find it amazing how children don’t think about time--they cannot read a clock or tell you the days of the week; they are focused on being happy in the moment. On the weekends, I taught a creative English class for Turkey’s gifted education institute and explored the city a bit.
Some of my cherished memories from Dereseki are simply drinking çay (tea) and eating ayva (quince) while watching a movie with the family, walking with the baby around the persimmon tree in the garden, or watching the grandmother make lentil soup. Sometimes a neighbor would hand us fresh eggs or cucumbers through the gate; another neighbor would often stop by to catch up, always taking her shoes off at the door, as is custom. Istanbul has a rhythm of her own--the city has a soul. Instead of Swiss church bells, my days were marked by the daily calls to prayer resounding from the mosques.
Istanbul is one of the most dynamic places on Earth: it has the hectic bustle of a metropolis fused with the welcoming vibes of a Mediterranean culture. I’ve never been so cramped on public transportation like the metrobüs at rush hour, but I also never felt rushed to finish a meal and leave a restaurant. Waiters often brought çay after I finished eating without asking if I wanted to stay a while. The city emanates a sense of nostalgia and melancholy--as though I saw everything through a sepia or black and white filter.
My Own New York Minute
Now I live in New York City, where I’ve quickly learned there is such a thing as a “New York minute,” and it lasts about a second. With the awareness I developed through my Gap experiences, I can recognize when I’m rushing and deliberately slow down. Sometimes it’s as simple as turning off my phone while at dinner with a friend. Sometimes it’s something bigger, like committing to a regular activity that brings me closer to others, that connects me to myself, and that--for a moment--stops time. For me, that is tango dancing, something I started in Istanbul.
I ask you “What time is it?” because I want to know: What are your church bells, your calls to prayer, your tango nights? When you’re talking with someone--a friend or a stranger--are you really reaching each other, or just “killing” time? Essentially, how are you choosing to experience time—and by the same token, your life?