It was perhaps merely a coincidence that I came across Frank Bruni's op-ed about the myth of quality time while lying awake in bed, giggling deliriously with my wife at 3 AM in our Paris hotel room. Both of us suffer from severe jet lag each time we make the trip, so half of our vacation often ends up taking place between the hours of 1-5 AM, reading books, talking, and just waiting for sleep to finally come. What's funny is that—as antagonizing as some of these nights can be—I often look back on our trips together and find myself nostalgic for those lingering hours. As much as we try to plan our perfect vacation moments, the times when we think we're creating memories that will last a lifetime, it's not always possible to be at your best on command. Most of the time—like most things in life—simply forcing yourself to have fun ends up feeling empty and...well...forced. Quality time is not so easily molded. As Bruni points out, it can only occur naturally.
They say that traveling broadens your horizons and expands your world view. It reminds you of who you are and where you come from. Nothing makes me feel more American while on the road than the anxiety I inherently feel regarding time. Yet nothing could be less important to the French. Stores in Paris open and close around general parameters. Lunch may last an hour, or three—depending on how things go. No one is in a hurry to do anything, especially bring you another coffee. I imagine it must be torture for any tourist to be on a strict schedule while traveling through France, but what you soon realize is that most of that anxiety is self-imposed. You can stay up all night, tossing and turning, forcing your eyes closed in a vain attempt to induce slumber, but that only increases the tension and general impatience. Us? We've learned to roll with it. We bring books. We make jokes. We buy foods specifically to eat during those darkened hours so that we actually have something to look forward to. What was once a source of nervousness and frustration has become an integral part of our quality time.
But then eventually we head home. We forget about these lessons. We rediscover our fascination with the second hand. We buy bottles of fancy wine and declare things like: This is what we will drink when we have this specific meal, on this specific date, for this specific occasion, and it will be a perfect moment because we have taken every precaution. We will take photos, smile on queue, and then show other people those images in order to prove—to them and ourselves—just how great those carefully-crafted moments were. We foolishly think that we can dictate our connections to this world and to each other. Yet, here in this hotel room we cannot even dictate a few hours of shuteye.
That's not how sleep works, unfortunately. Or really anything, for that matter.