Some years ago, on our first night in Barcelona, we decided to dine al fresco at the beach. It was late, almost 9:15 PM, when we got to the restaurant after a day of sight-seeing and the place was almost empty. I worried that we were too late but the waiter reassured us, saying that it was just the start of the dinner hour. He was right because, by the time we finished our meal at a half past ten , the restaurant was jam-packed and people were still arriving.
That was my first experience of Spanish schedules, where office goers have an extended lunch break of two hours or more before returning to the office and working until 8 at night. The siesta is a carryover from agrarian times when it was too hot to work in the middle of the day. Farm workers would knock off for lunch and a nap in the heat of the day and work well into the evening when it was cooler. That became a norm for everybody, including office-goers in air-conditioned buildings.
Naturally, with such a schedule, everything gets pushed back. The evening meal is usually taken around 10 PM and most people sleep at midnight or later. Fully a quarter of the population watches TV between midnight and 1 PM even on weeknights. No wonder they have a long coffee break almost as soon as they get to work next day.
The siesta is at odds with the practice in every other country and critics have claimed that it leads to reduced productivity. After years of dilly dallying, it seems as though the Spanish government is contemplating changes that will make Spain more in sync with the rest of Europe. Last September, a parliamentary committee recommended an 8-hour work day, with a lunch break of an hour or less . This would also necessitate other changes such as scheduling TV programs one hour earlier and turning clocks one hour back to put Spain in the same time zone as neighboring countries.
I would have thought that this proposal would meet with widespread approval. At present, the workday stretches until 8 in the evening which means there is little time for family life . Accustomed as I was to a 9-5 office schedule, I can’t imagine how Spanish families cope. With so many families in which both parents work, how do they handle picking up the children from school ? When d0 they cook the evening meal ? When do they get to spend time with the children? And can they really get back to work after a heavy lunch and a nap, and work full tilt once again ?
I was surprised therefore to find that most people who responded to the New York Times article ( 12/17/13) thought otherwise. These included Spanish office-goers, foreigners who had worked in Spain, Spaniards who had worked in Spain and abroad as well as tourists, and their reasons were also varied. The consensus seemed to be that the Spanish way was more civilized and healthier, that the extended lunch facilitated group settings with close friends and co-workers that fostered true relationships and that it actually recharged the batteries and made workers more productive. Having a big meal at lunchtime and a small supper, the argument went, made for a healthier lifestyle. As for the criticism about lower productivity, proponents of the status quo said it had more to do with Spain’s geographical location in the south of Europe than with the siesta. Some correspondents went even further and saw the Times article as an attack on Spanish customs and decried the rushed American lifestyle of sandwich lunches and takeout coffee. Even foreigners sided with the Spanish saying that they would much prefer the Spanish lifestyle.
It is difficult to know where the truth lies but one response struck a chord with me. A reader from Spain wrote to say that the siesta is a myth, that workers do not enjoy an extended an extended lunch break but they still work late into the evening. He saw the present set-up as a way for employers to extract more work from their employees because it legitimizes the late closing. This may be true in some private companies though I doubt that it is the norm and I doubt that it happens at all in government institutions, banks etc. One thing I do know is that the 9 to 5 office schedule is a thing of the past. From what I have seen in New York City, many(most?) employees are forced to work more than forty hour a week in the name of efficiency and keeping up with global competition. If in fact Spain does away with the siesta, Spaniards could very well find themselves with a shorter lunch break and the same long hours as before.