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Unveiling the Dilemma: Spain's Siestas-and-Late-Nights Lifestyle and Its Unhappy Consequences


The Siesta Dilemma: Unveiling Spain's Unique Work-Life Culture

Spain's daily rhythm is renowned for its elongated timeline. Lunch doesn't commence until a leisurely two in the afternoon, work often extends past seven in the evening, and dinner is scarcely considered before half past eight, at the earliest. Embraced by intrigued tourists seeking a taste of a distinct lifestyle, numerous eateries keep their doors open well past midnight, ushering staff home in the wee hours. Therefore, when Yolanda Diaz, Spain's second vice president and minister for labor and social economy, labeled the country's nocturnal culture as "crazy," she struck a chord. "No sensible nation operates its restaurants until one in the morning," she remarked during a recent parliamentary assembly. "It's absurd to persist in extending these hours until we lose track of time entirely.

Yet, the response from Madrid's mayor, Isabel Ayuso, on the social media platform X, swiftly polarized the debate along political lines. "They advocate for us all to conform to puritanism, socialism," she retorted. "To be bored and confined to our homes.

Despite the lengthy day, statistics show that Spaniards work only marginally more than the European average, clocking in at 37.8 hours per week, as reported by the European Commission. However, they do log fewer hours of sleep compared to their Northern European counterparts, averaging 7.13 hours per night, according to Public Health Maps.

Marta Junqué of the Time Use Institute, consulted recently by the Spanish government regarding adjustments to working hour laws, notes that Spain's late-night culture wasn't always the norm. "Spain stands out now for its late working hours," she observes. "This wasn't always the case. My grandparents adhered to the same routine as everyone else. They rose with the sun and ceased their labor when darkness fell. Nowadays, even as dusk approaches at six or seven, we're still at our desks.

Junqué attributes this temporal shift to one figure: Francisco Franco, Spain's military dictator from 1936 to 1975. During World War II, Franco synchronized Spain's time zone with that of its German ally, pushing everything forward by an hour—a change that has endured to this day. "We ought to be aligned with Lisbon or London," Junqué asserts. "Instead, in winter, we operate on Berlin time, and come summer, we're on par with Istanbul.

But what about Spain's famed siesta, the long afternoon break? The debate continues.

Unraveling Spain's Siesta: Tradition, Economy, and the Battle for Time

Derived from the Latin term for the sixth hour after dawn, the siesta was historically a customary reprieve for agricultural laborers in Spain and Italy, typically observed around noon, as the scorching Mediterranean sun reaches its zenith. However, in Spain, the siesta gained even more prominence during the Franco era, asserts Junqué, as economic hardships compelled individuals to juggle multiple jobs. "People would commence work at daybreak, toiling for six to eight hours, then pause for two to three hours to recuperate, dine, and commute to another job. Subsequently, they'd continue working late into the evening.

Despite its etymological association with napping, less than 18% of Spaniards now regularly indulge in siestas, according to a 2016 survey, with over half of respondents claiming they never partake in this tradition. Nonetheless, the siesta, coupled with Franco's time-zone alteration, has ingrained a nocturnal rhythm into Spain's economic fabric. Many businesses shutter for a two to three-hour midday hiatus, elongating the workday for employees and fostering what Junqué terms as "time poverty." This burden disproportionately affects Spanish women, who bear the brunt of household responsibilities and caregiving duties alongside their professional commitments. The Time Use Institute reports that 30% of Spanish women with familial obligations experience a complete dearth of personal time, potentially contributing to Spain's lagging productivity levels compared to its European counterparts.

Junqué argues that the prevailing model in Spain, characterized by extensive work hours, a culture of presenteeism, and limited autonomy in scheduling, correlates with diminished productivity. "All evidence suggests that the longer one remains at the workplace, the less productive they become," she contends. The conundrum of Spain's internal clock has transcended political divides for years. In 2016, Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party unsuccessfully attempted to revert Spain's time to Greenwich Mean Time. Presently, the Socialist Party-led government under Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez advocates for shorter work hours and increased flexibility. Additionally, it has mandated salary hikes for those working between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Spain's Late-Night Dilemma: The Impact on Service and Tourism

The ripple effects of Spain's nocturnal culture are keenly felt in its service and tourism sectors, particularly in the realm of late-night dining. A recent Thursday evening in Valencia's bustling El Carmen neighborhood epitomized this phenomenon: at 8:30 p.m., scarcely a third of the terrazza tables were occupied. Fast forward two hours, and securing an empty spot amid the tapestry of tapas and bottles of Rioja and Rueda would prove a stroke of luck. In Spain, the dinner crowd doesn't peak until after 10 p.m., as noted by restaurateur Dani Garcia. This delay places a significant burden on restaurant owners, who bear the brunt of associated costs.

Sure, you might encounter German and English tourists anticipating dinner at 6 p.m.," Garcia explains, "but the local clientele doesn't start filling tables until 10 p.m." Rushing diners through their meal would be deemed the epitome of rudeness and fundamentally un-Spanish. "You can't rush the customer," Garcia insists. "You can't have them witness as you haul out bags of trash. Yet, if they dine late, expenses skyrocket. Not only in terms of wages but also in facilitating staff transportation home at two in the morning.

Spain boasts a term for leisurely indulgence in post-meal camaraderie: sobremesa. Literally translating to "over the table," it encapsulates that enchanting interlude following a satisfying repast among friends and family, punctuated by the lingering enjoyment of coffee or digestifs. This ritual holds particular allure during Spain's luxuriously prolonged summer days. Even past midnight in El Carmen, terrazza patrons abound. While the fare may dwindle, wine bottles multiply, laughter reverberates, and spontaneous bouts of dancing ensue.

Despite political discourse surrounding working hours, it appears that Spanish diners are steadfast in their commitment to late-night dining rituals, with no indication of a shift on the horizon.

In conclusion, Spain's late-night dining customs, deeply ingrained in its cultural fabric, present a double-edged sword for its service and tourism sectors. While attracting visitors enamored with the allure of leisurely evenings and vibrant nightlife, these traditions impose significant challenges on restaurant owners, who must navigate increased operating costs and staffing logistics. Yet, amidst the debates over working hours and economic efficiency, one thing remains clear: the cherished Spanish tradition of lingering over meals, epitomized by the concept of sobremesa, persists as an enduring emblem of conviviality and joie de vivre. As terrazza tables continue to fill long past midnight, fueled by camaraderie, wine, and laughter, it becomes evident that for Spaniards and visitors alike, the allure of the late-night dining experience transcends mere culinary indulgence—it embodies a celebration of life itself.