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!




¡Buenas tardes!…I write to you from the comfort of my bed this afternoon as I settle down for a little siesta. I feel that even after three weeks, I have not entirely recovered from jet lag. After reading a portion of the book “Maximizing Study Abroad”, I fear I never will. One student wrote “Living overseas is exhausting. There needs to be a chapter on naps.” This very valid comment was followed by several others from students saying similar things. Let me put it this way: at home in the US, you can get X number of things done in a day. Here, it’s probably less than 1/2X because things that were once simple are now difficult and exhausting. Your brain is in overdrive for most of your waking hours, so the minute you can crash, you just do. I usually make one goal for each day OTHER than going to school, and it can be a struggle even to accomplish that! It is getting better though. As I become more familiar with everything and more fluent in the language, my daily activities are becoming less of a struggle.

In my short time here thus far, I have made some observations about cultural differences. Some I had heard a bit about before I came here, and others were surprises. So here is my list of “wish I woulda known then what I know now!” (Prospective study abroad students–take notes!):

Watch your step! Or you might wind up with a smelly mess on your shoes. There seems to be no rules–customary or legal–concerning cleaning up after your dog’s doo-doo anywhere you go. You could be outside of a nice department store, and if that’s where your dog needs to go, no problem. Don’t worry about cleaning it up. Try to get him to go in the grass, but if it’s on the sidewalk, no worries. I’ve been lucky so far, but I have had many “ahhh crap!” moments when I realize I haven’t been paying attention to where I’m walking for awhile. One of these days it is going to happen.

On the same note, I’ve observed a couple other peculiarities with their relationship with man’s best friend. It seems that dogs with owners and dogs that are strays coexist in a 1-1 ratio. It’s often hard, however, to tell a stray from non-stray as most dogs here are so obedient they don’t need leashes. Many people “walk” their dogs without leashes, and astoundingly the dog will stay within a 10-foot radius of the owner at all times. Many dogs will even wait patiently outside of a store for their owner. What kind of puppy-training programs are they running here?? We should probably look into that.

What are you lookin’ at? How long are you comfortable with someone making eye contact with you? I’d guess maybe…3-4 seconds, unless they’re your significant other. People in Spain tend to make direct eye contact for a period much longer than most US Americans are comfortable with. If there was a world-wide staring contest, Spain would kick our butts. I’m unsure of how long people are actually staring at me because as a habit, I always look away after a second or two. I suppose part of the issue is that I look a bit different than them (although the brown eyes do help me to blend at least a little!) I’ll get used to it. I’ll probably get so used to it that I’ll make all of you uncomfortable with my extra-long eye contact upon my return!

Do I know you? It’s not rude to stare, but forget saying “hi” to someone you don’t know. I found this out the hard way. I smiled and said “Hola” to an old man on the street and he actually stopped, gave me a confused look and said “Ehhh, ¿te conozco? (Do I know you?)” I have now confirmed with one of the professors here that it is weird to say hi to someone just to be friendly. Next time I’ll just stare.

Hurry up and wait. Two things I am not: patient and timely. Both are things I’d like to improve upon, and this is definitely my chance. There is no “leaving at the last minute”, and “eating on the run” is seen as rude here. I’ve done both of those things almost daily for my entire college career. Here, you must plan ahead to be on time for public transportation, to allow LOTS of walking time, and often, to allow time to get lost and have to ask for directions. The other side of this is that you must get used to waiting….for…a….loooooong…tiiiime. The next bus doesn’t come for an hour? Hope you have a book. All of the stores are closed all afternoon for siesta? Hope you didn’t need anything right this minute. Spaniards often use this waiting time to socialize and relax. It will just take time for someone, such as myself, from an always-on-the-go culture to adjust to this pace.

¡Besame! It is customary for women to greet each other, and men to greet women with two “fake” cheek kisses, starting on the left side. They’re “fake” because you don’t actually plant a big wet one on their cheek (eeeew!), you just sort of brush cheeks on each side and make a small “muah” noise.

Burst my bubble. If you’ve been to Europe (especially Spain and France, as far as I know), you know that everything is pretty tight quarters. You get up-close-and-personal with cars, buses, buildings, and of course, other people. Being only 5’7″ and not particularly gordo, even I feel too large for this country sometimes. Spanish people are, on average, smaller than US Americans (both in height and, well, width!), but they are also more accustomed to bumpin’ elbows.

Keep the change. One of the most common questions when visiting any foreign country is in regards to their tipping policy. I have heard a broad range of hypotheses on Spain’s tipping policy: everything from “Tip just like we do in the US!” to “Tipping is considered an insult!” So needless to say, I had to do a little myth-busting. I perused several articles on the internets, and found that this article was the most helpful. If you don’t care to read it, it basically just tells you that they’ll certainly accept a tip, but it is not at all customary to leave one, so you may as well save your euros for a rainy day.

These boots are made for walkin’...or at least they better be. My feet are killing me. I may be a gym rat, but I still have been no match for the havoc wreaked upon my feet here. I suppose it depends where you’re living, what the landscape is like, what your commute to school or work is like (in my case the mountains, steep, long commute)…but as a general rule, you will walk a whole lot more here than you would in the US. I already have 4 blisters, and my feet are becoming quite calloused. I’m going to have to ask my mom to send my Ped Egg.

I will write more soon about what I’ve been up to, however my intent with this blog is not for it to be a comprehensive diary of my daily activitys, per-say, but rather a chance for you to walk along with me through my cultural adjustments and observations. That being said, I invite you to view my newest album on Picasa, “Hike to Sopelana” in which you will find breathtaking photos of my cliffisde hike from here in Algorta-Getxo all the way to Sopelana, a beach/surf town further down the Basque Coast.

To my fellow North Dakotans: ¡Mantente abrigado! (Stay warm!)