The Change In Spain: Adiós Siesta, Hola Greenwich Mean Time

News broke over the weekend that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has proposed two fundamental legal changes which would have a profound impact on daily life in his country, both for residents and visitors: the elimination of the siesta, that long afternoon break which Spaniards traditionally take between lunchtime and late afternoon, and the changing of time in peninsular Spain from Central European Time to Greenwich Mean Time. At present, the combination of these two factors produces some rather bizarre results, such as the sun not actually being at its highest point in the sky at noon. However the passage of such sweeping changes will not only have a significant ripple effect in other aspects of Spanish life, but one wonders whether it will fundamentally change the character of the country.

If you have visited Spain, you know that the siesta seems, at first, to be a great idea, but as the days roll by you become sick of it. The first time I can recall feeling deeply annoyed by the siesta was around twenty years ago. My brothers and I were sitting on the front steps of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, the most beautiful church in Barcelona, waiting to get inside. The scheduled reopening was 4:30 pm, but whoever was in charge had apparently decided that the posted time was more of a suggestion than a promise. As we sat there for over half an hour wondering why it was taking so long to unlock the doors, and watching other waiting tourists throw in the towel and leave, it occurred to me that not only was the practice of the siesta an outmoded custom, but it was holding Spain back from taking full advantage of its potential.

The siesta has its origins in the relationship between climate and economics, and while the Spanish version of the practice has become the most famous, other countries such as Greece and Italy have practiced their own versions for centuries. Generally speaking Spain is a hot country, and when there was a largely agricultural-based economy, farm workers simply could not toil for hours in the blazing afternoon sun, or they would drop like flies. Later as the Industrial Revolution arrived, factory workers, too, could not work in the hellish conditions of a factory floor all day, prior to the invention of modern cooling methods. Taking a break during the hottest time of the day, in order to allow the temperatures to cool down, meant in theory that Spanish workers could return to work into the evening, refreshed and revived.

Today however, there seems to be little practical necessity for art galleries or banks or shoe stores to grind to a halt in the middle of the workday. How many tourists over the years have given up on shops or sights in Spain, because even though they were ready, willing, and able to plunk down their hard-earned holiday money, merchants and custodians were too busy taking a long lunch/nap to engage in commerce? Even in comparatively more business-friendly Catalonia, where the siesta has never been quite as important as elsewhere, the notion that I have to sit around downtown Barcelona, waiting for a shop to roll up its metal door, long after I have had my lunch, seems utterly arcane.

Regarding the proposed change of Spain’s time zone, I must confess that I was completely unaware that the setting of the continental Spanish clock to that of Central Europe was of comparatively recent invention, dating from the Franco era. Prior to the Civil War of 1936-1939, Madrid had been in the same time zone as London. As a child I always wondered why it was that London time was an hour behind Madrid, given that when you look at the two cities on a map Madrid actually lies further west in the Atlantic. Granted, the cartographers among you could explain all of the political and geographic reasons as to why there can be such exceptions, but as an exercise in logic, this change seems to be a no-brainer.

There are also certain practical advantages that one can see, beyond the logical ones, of shifting the time zone in Spain. Even with the advent of 24-hour markets, I imagine that there must be benefits to investors and to the Spanish economy, if trading times for both the London and Madrid stock exchanges were to be aligned. If the Bolsa were to remain open one hour longer than say, EuroNext, would American and Asian investors find it more appealing? My finance readers will please correct me if I’m wrong on this, of course.

And then there are all the Brits living in Spain – in fact, there are quite a lot of them, as southern Spain has become the Florida of Great Britain. Current estimates of the British ex-pat population based permanently in Spain are around one million people, and a huge percentage of those are retirees. In addition, approximately 14 million Britons visit Spain every year for business or pleasure, more than from any other country, with a significant portion of that number made up of those who have second homes in Spain. As flights from Britain to just about anywhere in Spain – flying time from London to Barcelona is an hour shorter than that of New York to Miami – are short to begin with, eliminating jet lag by eliminating the time difference between the UK and Spain could, I imagine, make the journey just that little bit more appealing.

All that being said, I wonder about other things that may fall by the wayside, as a consequence of Spain redefining the experience of being Spanish. For example, what will happen to the wonderful “Menú del Día”, the three-course menu at a reasonable set-price which, under Spanish law, must be offered in licensed restaurants at lunchtime on weekdays? If there are to be no more two- or three-hour lunches, will anyone other than tourists have the time to actually take advantage of such an offering? This seems particularly ironic, given that these multi-course affairs were originally created in order to help Spanish workers who could not get home for the siesta, and who will now not have the time necessary to eat them.

And then there’s Spain’s famous nightlife, with people in cities like Madrid emerging like vampires – albeit ones with skintans – to go out to trendy restaurants that do not even open for dinner until midnight, or hitting clubs that only start to get going until the early hours of the morning. Even if you are not going out for the evening, Prime Time TV viewing in Spain only starts around 10 pm, and runs until around 2am. Will these things, too, fall by the wayside, as people rest less and work more during daylight hours?

In about a month and a half, I’ll be in Barcelona and Madrid on vacation. There will still be the siesta, and the time will still be 6 hours ahead of the East Coast. However it’s entirely possible that I’ll be witnessing the final days of things which have been part of the culture for so long, that it’s hard to imagine what things in Spain will be like without them.

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Siesta by John Singer Sargent (1905)

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6 thoughts on “The Change In Spain: Adiós Siesta, Hola Greenwich Mean Time

  1. Living in Italy, I understand exactly your feelings on the Siesta, as Italians also close down for three hours or so in the middle of the day. This, however, is changing, especially in the North, as I see more and more shops open all day, in particular the chains and commercial centers. But, how would a president make the Siesta illegal? What I see in Italy is a natural movement, most likely a response to a flagging economy and people trying to encourage more commercial activity. Despite this, the midday meal remains sacred. Even on Sundays I now see shops opening, but they will open in the morning – during Mass time – and close again midday. The midday break is more sacred than Mass. (Even in the States you can see shops give a cursory nod to traditional church time and often open at 11 or 12.) I wonder how a law could change the country’s cultural habit of sitting down for a meal? I admit that there are benefits to respecting mealtime, Americans exaggerate far too much by eating lunch at their office desks or while walking, for example. All the rhythms and structures surrounding this schedule would have to change, more flexibility in work schedules would have to be introduced, (I do agree that traditional tourist structures should be open throughout the day.) and, most of all, people would have to get used to the idea of not taking a long break in the middle of the day. I told some of my Italian friends about the president of Spain’s proposal and I can assure you, I’ve never had more blank looks in response in my life!

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    • Thanks for reading and for sharing your experience. As far as the legal mechanism is concerned, Spanish law dictates opening and closing hours for licensed businesses in the country, so it could eliminate the legal siesta entirely, even if individuals still chose to take one. However most businesses would probably not allow office or factory workers to do this, I expect. Thanks again!

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  2. Italy has similar laws. Eliminating proscribed business hours would dramatically alter the economy and the culture. I’ll be watching Spain to see what happens. Enjoy your trip!

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  3. Thank you for a good read William.

    The siesta time in Spain (2pm to 5pm) doesn’t provide relief from the hottest time of the day, on the contrary. The hottest time of the day is between 3pm and 4.30pm* (assuming 12pm is when the sun is at its highest point in the sky). In summer Spain is 2 hours ahead of UTC (GMT) and being roughly on the same longitude as Greenwich, the sun is therefore roughly at its highest point in the sky at 2pm. Therefore, resuming work at 5pm (3pm UTC (GMT)) ironically means a resumption of work at the start of the hottest time of the day.

    Obviously this wasn’t the case before Spain adopted CET/CEST when at least one hour of the hottest time of the day was missed 🙂

    * https://nbc5weather.wordpress.com/2008/07/28/what-is-the-hottest-time-of-the-day/

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