My Spanish Siesta

Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Last week, many people weighed in on whether Spain should change its time zone and “traditional” work hours, which include siesta. Reading the articles, I found it interesting how many people in the United States supported Spain’s fragmented work schedule. In fact, many claimed that it’s one of Spain’s cultural charms, and warned Spain not to conform to western ways. It’s funny, before moving to Spain, I would have agreed with these people. Cultures are different and should be respected if not celebrated. This was one of my reasons for moving abroad, to learn a different way of living and thinking. I distinctly remember saying to myself, now that’ s a culture that knows how to live. They work to live not live to work.

Having lived in Spain for the past 3 almost four years, I’ve learned a lot about what it’s really like to live with siesta. While siesta and fiesta may rhyme, there is nothing fun about siesta, particularly if you’re over the age of 2, working full time, and trying to raise a family. I say 2 because toddlers are about the only people I know, who actually nap. For the rest of us siesta simply means longer, interminable workdays.

My situation is a little unique; I work for a private academy and since my job is service oriented, so are my hours. Essentially, I work from 8am to 9pm Monday through Friday, with a huge 5-hour gap between classes. Sounds do-able, right? Yeah that’s what I thought too. However, siesta basically doubles my day. Thanks to siesta, instead of driving to and from work once a day, I have to drive to and from work twice a day, thereby doubling my 40-minute commute. Mind you I live 12 kilometers away, but again; because of siesta, there’s also twice the rush hour since everyone else is also trying to go home for lunch.

At first, I tried to use my time productively. I’d write my blog, go grocery shopping, pick up around the house and if I had time, stop off by the bank because it closes at 2 pm and unlike the shops, doesn’t reopen at 5 when siesta ends. This lasted all of a month, when eventually exhaustion took over. Somehow, in spite of a 5-hour break, I never managed to get anything done or stop moving. I basically live in slow motion, which is not as entertaining as it sounds. I’ve thought about resting, but there’s so much to do and I know if I wait until after work, stores will be closed and I’ll be too tired to do anything. Plus, it’s hard to relax when you know you have to go back to work in an hour.

It’s like wearing a pair of heels all-night and realizing your feet hurt. Part of you wants to take them off just for a second, but you know if you do, it’s going to hurt so much more when you put them back on. Well, going back to work after siesta is like putting that damn heel back on, painful.

By the time I come home, it’s around 9:30 at night; my brain is completely numb from going 12 plus hours non-stop. Mentally, all I can handle is the lowest form of entertainment, garbage like Jersey Shore. Back in the U.S I used to wonder who watched these types of programs, now I know, empty shells of human beings, me now being one of them. So it goes, every night until the weekend, which is when I go completely comatose. Sadly, it has affected my friendships, my relationship with my partner, who for better or for worse I hardly ever see awake, and even my decision to have family.

I want one; I do. Yet, I can’t imagine raising children when my partner and I are working all day. Technically, his contract says his hours are from 9 to 7; however, here, people are expected to enter early and leave late. In reality, he works from 8:30am to 8:30pm with an hour break for lunch. Unfortunately, his situation is probably more exemplary of the typical Spanish workday. Since these norms aren’t written, they’re cultural; it makes them that much harder to change.

Putting in all these hours, you’d think we’d be rich but we’re not. Unlike in the U.S, here things like overtime, extra-pay, are like Big Foot, more of an urban legend than anything else. My partner and our mutual friends aren’t paid for those late nights or weekends. It’s their job so they do it, because despite the stereotype, the Spanish aren’t lazy. Besides, in this economy workers are nothing but a number. Replaceable.

Don’t get me wrong, in Spanish terms my partner and I are very lucky. For one, we both have steady jobs, which when you’re under 30 in Spain, is practically a miracle. Not to mention, here, we’re considered middle-class. And yet, I can’t help but feel like we’re at a fancy restaurant being served mutton dressed as fillet mignon. How fortunate are we, if we’re being paid to never see daylight? To work so that our future children can be raised by government-funded childcare?

Not everyone in Spain works insane hours. Some people, who are well connected, have cushy jobs. However, they are the 1%. Also in larger cities, siesta is less of a problem because many businesses have already adapted to a more condensed work schedule because the demand is there. However, Spain only has a handful of big cities: Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia. In theory we could move to one of them, but what would that really fix? All of Spain's population can't fit into three cities. It's a problem that affects us all in Spain. Some of us work an hour less or an hour more for a bit more or a bit less, but almost everyone I’ve asked agrees, siesta makes them more tired.

I want to emphasize, I don’t blame people for wanting to support Spain’s heritage, but that's not what this is. Spain hasn’t always had a siesta. Even if it did, my time abroad has taught me that cultures are different, yes, but also fluid. Like everything, they are constantly changing. Perhaps it’s time for Spain to return to a more practical way of working and living.

Understandably, the opinions expressed last week stem from a place of cultural sensitivity, which sadly, is not the same as a fully informed opinion. I include myself in this category of people who are not fully informed. I’m not an expert on Spanish policy, culture, or history so please don’t use me as a source of information. Everything written here is just my humble opinion based on my singular experience. If you find my opinion and account to be highly critical of Spanish culture, well then you’re right. But it’s no longer some romantic fantasy of what it’s like to live in another country. It's my life. These changes directly affect me and the people I love; so I think I have a right to be critical. Wouldn’t you be?

Just because I don’t support siesta doesn’t mean I don’t support Spain. To the contrary, I love Spain, which is why I want to see families have more time together, including my own, albeit hypothetical for the time being.

What do you think? Tweet me #AdiosSiesta

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