Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb


is the Spanish siesta under siege?

I recently read a New York Time’s article entitled, “Spain, Land of 10pm Dinners, Asks if it’s Time to Reset the Clock.” It outlines the ongoing debate about whether Spain should scrap its long-held tradition known as the siesta: a topic near and dear to my (former) Spanish expat heart. My immediate reaction to this question is a desperate “Nooooo!” as I long for the days I lived in Spain and enjoyed long lunches and “afternoons” that extended well into what we in the US consider evening, making days seem almost endless. But with Spain’s economy still suffering and unemployment at a whopping 26%, people are starting to question whether a move to a more 9-to-5-like schedule would be a good one.

The origin of the siesta

The word “siesta” comes from the Latin “sexta,” which referred to the sixth hour after sunrise, when the sun was at its highest peak. Historically, people in Spain and other hot European countries would take a break from their work at this hour, the hottest point of the day, and return re-energized to their work later in the afternoon. This tradition has persisted through the years, but this is slowly changing. In big Spanish cities, many businesses now stay open through siesta hours, and the idea that the siesta could be hurting Spain’s already broken economy is gaining strength.

The nap myth

In any discussion of the siesta, I feel the need to dispel this myth, as a service to my Spanish friends and “family.” Contrary to popular belief (and contrary even to what this current NYT article says), the afternoon “siesta” does NOT typically include an all-out nap.  I was asked by many of my students if we foreigners actually believe that they nap during siesta. When I told them that yes, most people do believe that, they were practically offended. They strongly reject the notion that the Spanish are lazy people who sleep the afternoon away. It’s not uncommon to see people taking a quick snooze on a hillside or park bench over the extended lunch hour, but almost no one is going home and crawling under the covers. The long break is to allow time to join with other family members and/or friends, have a nice, big meal (there, lunch is the biggest meal of the day) and have a little time to go for a walk or just relax after eating.

“Longer” work days

One point in favor of doing away with the siesta schedule is that it would give families more time together in the evenings. A standard Spanish work timetable is one of two options:

1. La “jornada continua/intensiva” (8:30ish-3:30ish, no lunch break) The people I knew with this schedule were teachers and a few dentists and specialist doctors. They do take a short mid-morning coffee break for a quick snack, but basically these people don’t sit down to a full meal until what we in the US would consider “late afternoon.” This is the less common of the two schedules, but the preferred one for most people. There is a slight pay cut, in most cases, for those who have this schedule, as they are working only  35 hrs/week.

2. La “jornada completa” (8:30ish-2ish, break for “siesta,” 4ish-7ish) The exact hours vary by business/profession, but the moral of the story is that most employed Spanish people don’t return home for the day until around 8pm, and most businesses (except for restaurants/cafes) have both mañana (morning) and tarde (afternoon/evening) hours, but are totally closed for business from 2pm until 4pm or 5pm.

Living on Spanish time

The Spanish timetable really is a striking feature of their culture, unlike any other in the world. A Spanish banker interviewed in the aforementioned article puts it this way: “It is the Spanish identity, to eat in another time, to sleep in another time.” This feature of Spanish identity and culture is something I was absolutely enchanted by living there as an expat. Obviously the midday break was fabulous, and another feature I really enjoyed about their shifted timetable is that they consider it to be “afternoon” until about 9pm. This makes each day seem so much longer, especially in summer. There is no hurry to get home and be in for the night. On the contrary: you’re encouraged to squeeze out every last drop of every day that you possibly can. That is a beautiful thing. On weekends and in summer, this almost endless day slides easily into an extended night, with late dinners that can stretch on past the bewitching hour.


Post-lunch relaxing under the siesta sun

Post-lunch relaxing under the siesta sun


Long lunches: excessive or essential?

Brazil recently released new food-based dietary guidelines, and 3 of the 10 guidelines (#s 4, 5 and 8) talk about the importance of taking your time eating, being with others and being present (i.e. not eating while working, driving, etc.) The siesta allows for this. This stands in stark contrast to the US, where most people race through their lunch break with just 30-minutes allotted, and many just eat at their desks or on the run while still working. All you have to do is compare the overall health of the population in countries where long, drawn-out family meals are the norms and compare it with that of countries where efficiency and convenience rules in all arenas (including dining) and you can see that this need for speed is really detrimental to the population. I would be sad to see Spain pushed over to that side.

The “night owl” culture

A common exercise with lower-level EFL students is to have them tell you their daily routine (I usually get up at ____, then I ____. After that I ___. I go to bed at about ____., etc.) so I became quite familiar with the “norm” of a daily routine for a typical Spaniard. My students were of a variety of professions, from engineers to dentists to teachers, and they almost all reported their “bedtime” as 11:00 or later on work nights. I also lived with two young Spanish professionals–a lawyer and a med student in residency, so I can confirm these norms first-hand. As the NYT article points out, the “prime time” hours for TV are 10pm-1am, and 12 million Spaniards are still watching TV at 1am. Families with young kids do tend to eat dinner earlier, around 8, and put the kids to bed by 9. But on weekends, it’s not unusual to see entire families (young kids and all) out to dinner past 10pm, and keeping kids up that late on weekends is certainly not looked down on like it is in the US.

So I guess my answer is this: they sleep about the same amount that we do, but seem to be much more resilient in flip-flopping their sleep schedule from week to weekend. During the week, they do go to bed later on average than Americans do, and maybe get up slightly later than the average American worker. On weekends, they stay up and out MUCH later than most Americans do, as the bar nightlife doesn’t even really get going until about midnight, and goes strong until as late (early?) as 6am. Those who go out do then, of course, sleep much later than the average American does on the weekend.

An uncertain fate

It’s hard to say whether the siesta will continue to be phased out as it already seems to be in the larger Spanish cities. I can’t even begin to hypothesize on potential solutions to fix Spain’s broken economy, but I’d like to think that getting rid of something so ingrained in Spanish culture isn’t the way to do it. It is these cultural differences that allow us to learn from each other, see things in new ways and reconsider our own way of doing things. Would the world really be a better place if everyone adapted to the model of the 9-5 grind? I think not.

¡Viva la siesta!



the Camino experience

A month ago yesterday, I arrived on foot in Santiago de Compostela, a city in the northwestern corner of Spain, after hiking the last 200km of the Camino de Santiago. The experience was, hands down, the most incredible of my life to date. Even a month later I’m finding it really difficult to put it into words. Part of that could be that I went immediately from the Camino to the whirlwhind of moving back to the US, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think I’ll be processing the experience for months, or maybe even years to come.

Maybe you’ve never heard of the Camino and don’t get what all the fuss is about. Maybe you’re curious about it or even considering taking the plunge yourself, and you’re hungry for advice, insight, inspiration. Or maybe you’re a fellow former peregrino (pilgrim) and you know just exactly how I’m feeling. Even though everyone has an entirely different experience on the Camino that is very uniquely their own, there is something that connects every peregrino del Camino.

No matter which category you fall into, I hope I can share a little Camino magic with you today.

So…what IS the Camino de Santiago?

The Camino is a famous pilgrimage of Christian origin that has been around since Medieval times. Legend has it that the remains of St. James were brought from Jerusalem to what is now Santiago de Compostela. For over 1200 years now, people have been making this journey on foot to pay homage to the Saint.  The pilgrimage was recently re-popularized by this 2010 film, which rather accurately portrays the fact that nowadays, the tens of thousands of people who set out to do the Camino each year have widely varying reasons for doing so: some religious and some not at all.

There are several routes one can take to reach Santiago. Traditionally, pilgrims set out for Santiago from their own homes, wherever they might be. There are still some people that do that today, but typically people choose a place to begin along one of several routes, based upon the amount of time they’re able to dedicate to the journey. The most famous route begins on the French-Spanish border in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France and heads down through Pamplona, across north central Spain and up into the mountainous terrain of Galicia in the northwest of Spain for the last 200km stretch. From beginning to end, this route takes most pilgrims about a month. Pressed for time, my friend and I did only the last 200km which are, as many have said, “the most difficult, but the most beautiful.”

Who does the Camino de Santiago?

Anyone. Everyone. According to my guidebook, two-thirds are Spanish people, and among the third that are foreigners, the Germans and French dominate. But I met people from everywhere: Australia, South Africa, Japan, the US, Brazil… Most are in the 25-35-year-old range, but the next biggest group is probably the 50-80-year-olds.


Why do people do the Camino de Santiago?

As I said before, modern-day pilgrims’ reasons are quite varied. Some are religious, some are looking for an answer to some question they have in their life, some are doing it in honor or memory of a loved one, others are alt-tourists looking for a more adventurous way to spend their holiday. I personally wanted to do a portion of the Camino as a sort of capstone on my experience of living in Spain for over two years. It was a time for reflection and clarification. You can’t go into the Camino knowing exactly what you’ll get out of it, but I can just about guarantee the one thing you won’t feel at the end is regret for having done it.

In our room at an albergue in Palas de Rei: "In our room at an albergue: "Don't run, pilgrim. It doesn't matter how far you go, but rather who you are, how you feel and who you're with."

In our room at an albergue in Palas de Rei: “Don’t run, pilgrim. It doesn’t matter how far you go, but rather how you are, how you feel and who you’re with.”

What does the Camino de Santiago look like?

If you don’t already know, Spain is a land of incredibly varied landscapes. The main route take you from the rocky Pyrenees into the lush green Basque Country, my beloved former home. There’s a flat, dry stretch through the high plains of north-central Spain and the final third of the journey is once again very mountainous, and quite green.

Sometimes you’re walking on the shoulder of a highway, other times you’re walking along a shady, forested path. You’ll pass through big cities, small towns and tiny villages. You’ll see lots of farm animals and have to dodge a lot of manure.

There’s a video at the end of this post that might give you a better idea of what the Camino looks like.

What does the Camino de Santiago sound like?

Mornings are peaceful. Birds chirping. The crunching of your feet on the rugged paths. The other pilgrims you pass along the way wishing you a “buen camino.” You’ll probably be lost in thought, or maybe having an enlightening conversation with your Camino companion(s) or a random peregrino you’ve just met.

Afternoons are more challenging. You might be noticing the sound of your breath more and thinking you sound tired. Maybe you turn on your iPod to block that out for awhile.

Evenings are joyful and then peaceful once again. You’ll talk and laugh with the other pilgrims over dinner and vino, then face-plant into your pillow at the albergue.

What does the Camino de Santiago smell like?

Manure, mostly. Sometimes flowers.

What does the Camino de Santiago taste like?

Espresso and fresh fruit in the morning. More espresso and Spanish tortilla in later morning. Tuna empanadas or salami bocadillos for lunch. Cold beer pick-me-ups. Three home-cooked courses for dinner, washed down with fantastic Rioja wine.

before bedtime ritual: journaling and wine

before bedtime ritual: journaling and wine

What does the Camino de Santiago feel like?

The Camino feels like an analogy to life. There are peaks and valleys, easy stretches and treacherous ones. There are times when you feel like you can’t go on and a friend picks you up, and times when you’re the one offering a shoulder to lean on. There are times to be serious and times to laugh and realize life can’t be taken too seriously.

The Camino feels like freedom. Freedom from the modern-day construction of what life is “supposed” to be. A blast to the past, a much simpler time. No responsibilities except putting one foot in front of the other, all day, every day.

The Camino feels like unfettered emotion. The usual day-to-day emotional hindrances are gone, and you’re left to really feel your feelings. You might get really sad about the heart-breaking things of the world and then look up at the landscape around you and cry tears of joy at the beauty of it all.

In the mountains of gorgeous Galicia

In the mountains of gorgeous Galicia

I leave you with a video I compiled of my footage of the journey. Here you’ll get a sense of the sights and sounds of the Camino. Your sensory imagination will have to fill in the rest.


What’s this “Basque” business all about?

If you’re a meggrblog “regular”, or one of my close friends or family members, you have heard/read my references to the fact that I live the in the “Basque Country”, and that there is a totally different language (besides Spanish) here. Many of you have probably also heard of the controversy here regarding the Basque Separatist terrorist group, the ETA. I would be doing this blog no justice by not addressing this issue that is very pertinent to studying/living in this area. At the same time, I’d like to throw out a disclaimer in regards to the fact that this is an extremely complex and controversial issue that even many natives of this area don’t entirely understand. Add to that the fact that I am by no means an expert in politics or European history, and you will find that my knowledge of the political/cultural situation is entirely experiential and second-hand, though I will say I’ve done a significant amount of research to learn more. I will do my best to highlight some of the most important issues and facts in a concise way, but remember that this is only from the standpoint of a foreign language student (who studies Biology, nonetheless!) So without further ado…..

What is the Basque Country? The entire Basque Country includes a small region of northeastern Spain and southwestern France (see the map above.) The Basque Country, or País Vasco in Spanish, is also one of the 17 autonomous communities of Spain (like tiny versions of our states.) Bilbao is the biggest city in País Vasco, and Vitoria is the capital.

Ok that’s great. So why is it so special? The ancient history of the people of this region is one of great mystery. Not much was recorded until after the 8th century, although there is evidence of human occupation here as early as the Paleolithic period. What is perhaps most mysterious is the origin of the Basque language, Euskara.  This language seems to be in a league of its own, seemingly having no relation to Latin or any other root language.

  • A (very) brief history: The people of this region were probably able to remain quite isolated for many years due to the surrounding mountain ranges, and this added to the purity of their native tongue. For example, during the 500-year occupation of Spain by the Romans beginning in 205 BC, the Basque Country was unaffected. The area was finally conquered by the Muslims from the south and Vikings from north, but not much changed because the area was already quite populated and the people didn’t care to relocate. The Basque people fought for their independence for many years and remained largely successful. Fast forward to 1939, the beginning of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. The oppression of the people of Spain during the dictatorship was strong and widespread, but it was felt in an additional sense in the Basque Country: Franco prohibited the use of the Basque language, and worked hard to create a sense that speakers of this language were low-lifes in society. The combination of fear of legal repercussions and a growing negative feelings toward Basque language use caused a considerable and steady decline in the teaching and use of the language during the entire dictatorship of Franco. After Franco’s death in 1975 and the creation of a democracy in 1978, Basque Nationalism was on the rise, and so was terrorist activity by the ETA. History buffs can find more info here.

ETA, eh? Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (which is Basque/Euskara) basically translates to Basque Freedom and Homeland. Formed in 1959, the group is an offshoot of a pro-separatist group of university students from right here in Bilbao. The group is fighting for the Basque Country to have complete independence from the Spanish government. Since their foundation, they have been responsible for 800 deaths; mostly of Spanish military and police personnel, and also mostly in the 1980s. Today, the ETA is responsible for less than 10 deaths per year and it continues to decline. Their main philosophy is not to kill, but rather to draw attention to their cause by acts of vandalism. More on the ETA here.

What is it like to live in the Basque Country in 2010? There is an overall feeling of slight controversy here, but it is rarely voiced. I do know of several people here that do not consider the Basque Country to be part of Spain, and therefore consider themselves Basque (Vascos) and not Spaniards, but the overall support for the extremist view of the ETA is very little. The main focus seems to be one of cultural preservation, and at the heart of this is preservation of the language, Euskara. Euskara is the only tangible evidence of the Basque culture that can be used as a way to effectively set themselves apart, and therefore the protection of the language is of high importance here. The fact that Euskara has survived many centuries without being influenced by any other language is a rare, incredible thing, and it fascinates me. I will say, however, from a foreign language student’s perspective, dealing with the extra language can be frustrating at times. Things are in Euskara before they are in Spanish, and sometimes signs and ads are only in Euskara. 40% of the population here speaks fluent Euskara (all speak fluent Spanish as well), and interestingly the largest age group of fluent speakers is 16-24 year olds. They have taken the place of the former largest fluent age group: the 65+ year-olds. This is due to a combination of two things–the fact that those entering the 65+ group were the generation affected by the Basque oppression of the Franco dictatorship, and the fact that there is a rising sense of need to preserve the language, so schools here teach most classes in Euskara, with Spanish and some English on the side. In the streets, mostly only Spanish is spoken, however, one very peculiar case is that the people almost always use the Euskara word for goodbye, “agur”. I have yet to hear anyone say “adios” for goodbye, so take that as my advice to avoid one more thing to make you stick out like a sore thumb while you’re here 🙂

So, wait…the Basque Country ISN’T dangerous? NO! A thousand times, no! Spread the word! I recall that one of the first reactions I got to my decision to study here was, “Bilbao? Why there? There’s a terrorist group there. It’s not safe!” The irony is that the Basque Country of Spain is one of the safest places not only in Spain, but in Europe in its entirety! The crime rates here are some of the very lowest in Europe. Don’t believe me? Read this. I will go as far as to say that I actually feel much safer here than I do in North Dakota. Ridiculous, you say? Bear with me. Recall that I’ve said the culture here is astoundingly more social here, and that the people here do their socializing outdoors and at all hours of the day and night. When you are in the streets, it would be rare for you not to be in the company of a variety of people ranging from small children kicking around a soccer ball to young adults sipping some vino to grandparents laughing and walking with their children and grandchildren. Of course it might not be wise to walk down a dark alley alone at night in a rough part of the city, but couldn’t you say that about ANYwhere in the whole world!?? The gigantic misconception that this is an unsafe place is very disheartening because it means that so many people are missing out on all it has to offer in fear that they are jeopardizing their safety. This is simply not the truth.

*Phew!* This really barely scratches the surface. There is so much that could be said, explained and expanded upon. I hope that if you have any questions or would like anything clarified, I hope you will email me at:

I will leave you today with a sample of current popular Basque music which was shared with me by my Basque intercambio (conversation partner) Aritz. The song is in Euskara, and this video has a Spanish translation on top with the Euskara transcription on the bottom.  I hope you enjoy it. ¡Agur!