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)

The Florence You’ve Never Seen

Along with the restoration of its famous Baptistery, recently mentioned in these pages, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – or “Duomo” – in Florence is also celebrating the reopening of its museum, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, following a two-and-a-half year renovation. One of the highlights of the newly-expanded Opera is a recreation of the original façade of the Cathedral, which was never completed, and ended up being demolished in the 1500’s. Based on careful analysis of old drawings of what the Duomo’s original façade looked like before demolition, researchers created an installation which copies the lower half of the structure in full scale, in what is now one of the single largest exhibition rooms in Italy. They have also included the original sculptures from the façade, or copies of them, placed in their approximate original location.        

This reconstruction may come as a surprise to many, of course, since visitors to Florence may be unaware that the present façade of the Duomo is not what the entrance originally looked like. Built between 1876-1887, the “face” of the Cathedral is lavishly decorated in colorful marble, with geometric shapes and statues that coordinate well with the neighboring Campanile and Baptistery. With Italian unification and independence, not to mention the scores of foreign tourists passing through Florence on the Grand Tour, no doubt it became obvious to the 19th century Florentines that they should really get round to finishing their most famous building.  

Because of the expense involved in building and decorating the entryway to a vast church like the Duomo, it is not at all unusual in European architecture to find a significant lag between the start of construction on one of these historic houses of worship and their completion. Two other famous churches in Florence, for example, never received their final facades. The Basilica of Santo Spirito and the Basilica of San Lorenzo, both of which house works of art by some of the major artists of the Florentine Renaissance, were principally designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the same architect who built the famous dome of Florence’s cathedral. At present, both have plain, unfinished facades, even though Brunelleschi’s designs for the former, and Michelangelo’s model for the latter, still exist. In fact, there is currently an ongoing debate in Florence as to whether Michelangelo’s design for San Lorenzo ought to be built.

In other cities, with the arrival of the industrial revolution, newly wealthy elites were able to fund the completion of such projects. In Barcelona, Holy Cross Cathedral was finished by about 1420, after around 150 years of construction. However the main façade, with its soaring, pierced towers crowned by angels and saints, was only completed in 1913, when the money became available to dust off the original 15th century plans. Similarly in Cologne, the current Cathedral of St. Peter was built in stages, but major work effectively ceased in 1473. The project only resumed in earnest in the middle of the 19th century, with the main façade finally being finished in 1911.

While experts at the Opera admit that their reconstruction of the Duomo’s original façade is, in places, an educated guess, the end result is enormously interesting to those of us who appreciate history, art, and architecture. What is also particularly instructive with this installation is the greater appreciation it gives us for the virtue of patience when it comes to completing a great task. With our contemporary society being used to having a fully-cooked meal in hand within 90 seconds or less, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that sometimes great things can take a great deal of time to complete.


Reconstruction of the Duomo Façade, Florence

Read This Blog – Then Go Read a Book

If you’re reading this blog post, chances are that, like me, you’re reading “stuff” all day long. You glance at the news headlines online and scroll through the blogs you subscribe to; you sift through emails and text messages; you open the mail, read office memos, and so on.  Thanks to these multiple demands on our attention, I suspect many of us who enjoy reading find it difficult to put aside some time to sit down and read a book.

For a bookworm like myself, this is also a practical problem.  When people know that you love books, you tend to receive books as gifts, such as at Christmas or on your birthday.  Similarly, should you find yourself at an event where books are being given away, or where there is a book-signing, you can’t help but pick up a few volumes for yourself.  Within the past six months alone, while I choose not to actually count and tell myself the real number, I would say that I have thus accumulated about two dozen books.

As time passes that stack of unread books, which you have done little more than crack open to have a thumb through, grows ever taller.  Perhaps you hide them away somewhere so you don’t have to look at them, but in the back of your mind you know they are still there, verbally haunting you with a plaintive cry of, “Read me!”  You may even feel guilty about the fact that for months now, these things have been waiting for you to give them a try, while you have wasted countless hours online watching cat videos, arguing about sci-fi movies, or taking quizzes to find out which 90’s pop idol you are (Justin Timberlake, apparently.)

Far be it from me, someone who loves and appreciates what good the internet can do, to tell you to stop using it altogether.  Plenty of good reading material can be found online, and we can use the internet wisely as a tool to expand our knowledge of a subject.  There is also the social aspect of reading something on the internet, which can quickly and easily be shared with our online communities – something that a solitary reader of a book would find it difficult or impossible to do.

Yet that being said, there is nothing quite like settling down on the couch or under the covers with a new book, and savoring the words within it, all by yourself.  Within the pages of a book there is no “share” button to click on, no comments section to scroll through, no ads for unwanted or unpleasant products on the side.  There are only words, which have to stand or fall on their own, depending on how adept the writer is at stringing them together.

The problem remains, however: where do we find the time to have these experiences?

As my readers know, I decided to give up Facebook for Lent, apart from a cursory visit on Sunday mornings just to clear out my inbox and notifications.  Over the past couple of weeks, with that activity out of my life, I have been reading like mad: six books so far.  True, that’s not much of a dent in the stack of unread volumes I need to get through, but it’s a decent start.

The pleasure of quietly reading, with only the scraping sound of a turning page to break the silence, is something too easily drowned out in the noisy assault of media on our senses.  When we are constantly bombarded with visual and audible stimuli, the subtleties of language and the joy of a well-chosen turn of phrase or insightful observation can be utterly lost.  On top of which, I had forgotten that when I pick up a book, I’m reminded that in reading other people’s work, I’m often inspired to pursue my own writing interests.

So now that you’ve read this post, gentle reader, my challenge to you is to go read something else, preferably bound between two covers and printed on paper. Turn off the computer and the television, silence the phone, and spend some time enjoying an activity which today, we too often take for granted among all the bells and whistles of 21st century technology.  For wonderful as that technology is, there really is no substitute anywhere in new media for the experience of quietly paging through a good book.

Detail of "Crackers in Bed" by Norman Rockwell (1921) Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass.

Detail of “Crackers in Bed” by Norman Rockwell (1921)
Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass.