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.


Siesta by John Singer Sargent (1905)

Ocean’s Fourteen? Con Artists Get Conned In Art Swindle

Every now and then, a great crime story emerges from the art world, one worthy of Danny Ocean and his crew of con artists.

Back in 2003, two art-collecting brothers put down a 20k euro deposit on what they believed was a portrait of the Spanish artist Antonio Maria Esquivel, by the very great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya. Goya, if you are not already aware, is generally considered to be the dividing line between the Old Master painters and the beginning of what we would consider Modern art. Thus his importance, and therefore the value of his work both from an historical and indeed a financial perspective, cannot be overestimated. A single, authentic Goya drawing can sell for millions of dollars.

The brothers were supposed to pay the seller 250k euro in order to complete the transaction, but began to doubt whether the painting was the real thing, despite the certificate they had received from the seller that the work was genuine. According to press reports, in 2006, a leading Goya expert determined that the painting was not the real deal, but rather a copy or fake, albeit one painted in Goya’s time. A court ruled that the brothers could keep the painting, but they did not have to pay the remaining 250k owed to the seller, due to the seller’s knowing misrepresentation. Again, according to the press, what originally tipped off the expert hired by the court was the fact that the portrait was lacking two medals which Esquivel had been awarded, and which appeared in what the press described as the “original painting” (more on that later.)

The fun part of the story begins when the brothers decided that they were going to use the painting to try to rip someone else off. They found a broker who told them that he knew an Arab sheikh who would be interested in acquiring the work. After a successful meeting with the Saudi collector, the brothers provided the same false certificate of authenticity that had been used to trick them. The collector agreed to pay a price of 4 million euros for the painting, while the brothers agreed to give the broker 300k euros as a finder’s fee; they borrowed this money from a friend, who paid a representative of the broker on their behalf, promising that they would repay him the next day with an 80k euro bonus for allowing them to borrow the money.

The pair then traveled to Turin, where they met a representative of their Saudi buyer, who brought them a bag filled with 1.7 million in Swiss francs. Wisely, the brothers had purchased a machine used by currency experts to verify that these were real notes and not counterfeit. Unwisely, at some point before they left Turin for Geneva, the bag containing the real notes was switched, and replaced with one containing counterfeit notes.

When the brothers arrived in Switzerland to deposit their ill-gotten gains at their Swiss bank, they were informed that the notes were nothing more than photocopies of Swiss francs. Realizing they had been tricked, they then tried to make it back to Spain via train. Rather stupidly, they decided to bring the fake bank notes with them. Unfortunately, they had the further bad luck of being stopped by French customs police in Avignon, and charged with trying to smuggle 1.7 million counterfeit Swiss francs into the country. Oh and if you hadn’t already guessed, the broker and the sheikh have disappeared, along with the 300k euros.

If you have ever seen the British television show “Hustle”, the story reads like an episode of that program. It was a brilliantly planned and executed con, and one that targeted two people who were trying to con someone else. However, here’s the problem I have with the story.

Antonio Maria Esquivel (1806-1857) was a portrait painter who was born in Seville. He moved to Madrid in 1831, in order to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts there. In 1840 he was awarded the Order of Isabel the Catholic, arguably the most prestigious prize that Spain can bestow, and became an official painter to the royal Court in 1843.

If you know something about art history, then you have already seen what the problem is with this timeline: Goya died in France in 1828. In fact, the painter had been living there in exile since he left Spain for the last time in 1824. In other words, by the time Esquivel moved to Madrid, Goya was long dead; by the time Esquivel was awarded the Order of Isabel the Catholic, Goya had been gone for almost two decades.

Moreover, the painting is clearly a poor copy, not of a Goya, but rather of Esquivel’s own “Self Portrait”, which hangs in the Lázaro Galdiano Foundation in Madrid. While I cannot say that I am familiar with all of Goya’s work, it would seem to me that there is a logical impossibility that Goya painted the picture, based both on the timeline of artist and subject, as well as the fact that this is arguably Esquivel’s most famous painting, or at least one of them. Thus, it seems odd to me that none of the news articles that I have read on the case, whether in English or in Spanish, have pointed out that no one in their right mind would have thought this a Goya, to begin with.

Still, whatever the reason why this fact as overlooked, the story itself is certainly a highly entertaining one.


The fake painting and fake Swiss francs

Church Vandalism in Spain: Credit Where It’s Due

Who would have thought that, in the 21st century, one would be able to regularly blog about or even tweet regarding acts of church vandalism in Spain? From Madrid to Barcelona and beyond, it seems that every week there is a new story of uncivilized, sometimes politically motivated, acts of violence against the fabric of the Church. As appalling as these events are however, it is extremely important to stress that cooler heads must prevail when reporting on these events. Not every physical attack on a church building comes about as a result of political action.

Recently for example, I learnt of a new act of vandalism in the historically important city of Burgos, located in central Spain. Two 13th century statues on the main entrance portal of the church of San Esteban (i.e. St. Stephen) were decapitated sometime late on Holy Thursday or early in the morning of Good Friday by an unknown person or persons. San Esteban was built between the 13th and 14th centuries, and is considered by some architectural historians to be the most important example of Gothic church architecture in the city after the Cathedral of Santa Maria La Mayor. It was declared a National Monument of Spain in 1931, and at the present time it serves as the Altarpiece Museum for the Archdiocese of Burgos.

This morning Spanish authorities announced the capture and charging of an individual in connection with the case. The heads of the statues of St. Peter and St. Lawrence were recovered by the National Police from the individual, and these have been returned to the church for restoration. The defendant is a local man, who had been arrested and charged recently with antiquities theft in another matter, but was out on bond at the time of the San Esteban incident.

From the beginning the Archdiocese of Burgos has been very careful not to jump to the conclusion that this was an anticlerical act, and expressed its belief that this was probably an act of theft. Vandalism of ancient churches to feed the black market in looted antiquities is a problem throughout Europe, and Spain is no exception. When the incident was first reported, a spokesman for the Archdiocese noted the important detail that the heads were taken away, rather than left at the scene, as would normally be expected from leftist vandals. Nor was there any accompanying graffiti or other indications to suggest that the vandalism was a politically motivated act.

A similar, commendable restraint was shown by the Archdiocese of Barcelona and local authorities last week, when the sacristy of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia was torched by a mentally ill man. Neither the Archdiocese nor the police alleged that there was any connection between the individual and leftist anti-Catholic actions. By taking this cautionary approach in Burgos, Barcelona, and elsewhere, the Church is doing exactly what it needs to do, even if authorities are often powerless to prevent vandalism – politically motivated or not – against its property.

There is a trait in the Spanish character at all points along the socio-political spectrum to jump to conclusions about the cause or motivations behind an act, which at the moment the Church appears to be avoiding institutionally, unless there is undeniable proof of an anti-Catholic motivation. Perhaps the most famous example in recent years of the Spanish tendency to form an opinion with insufficient evidence occurred on March 11, 2004, when the Madrid subway system was bombed three days before national elections were scheduled. The conservative government and some elements of the media immediately blamed ETA, the Basque separatist group, which denied all involvement – and admittedly the charge against them seemed rather bizarre to outside observers at the time, including this writer, since attacks like these are not the usual m.o. for ETA.

Through subsequent investigation it quickly came to light that the Madrid subway attacks were carried out not by Basque separatists, but rather by Muslim terrorists. The public reaction against the conservatives for making ETA the scapegoat for 3/11, as the subway bombing has come to be known, was harsh and swift; the small lead which the conservatives had enjoyed as the election was drawing to a close completely evaporated. This catapulted Mr. Rodriguez Zapatero and the Spanish Socialist Party into office, where they remain at the present time.

There is without question a rising sentiment of anticlerical fervor in Spain, and this needs to be addressed both through engaging those who seek to harm the Church, and by insisting that civil authorities do their job to maintain law and order. However, the bishops, the media, and the laity need to act with restraint when assigning blame to acts of Church vandalism. Tarring with too a wide brush will only hurt the perception of the Church in the court of public opinion, creating a “boy who cried wolf” situation. And it is among the members of the law-abiding public, Catholic or not, where the real power to combat deliberate acts of anticlericalism resides.

The 13th century statues of St. Peter (L) and St. Lawrence (R)
on the entrance portal of San Esteban in Burgos, prior to last week’s vandalism