In Praise of the Spanish Siesta

Birds do it. Cats do it. And Spaniards most especially do it–every day, in broad daylight.

They nap. Proudly, without a hint of embarrassment. Grown adults–executives, teachers, civil servants–wink off in the middle of the workday like kindergartners at mat time. From 1 or 2 o’clock to 4:30 or so every afternoon, Spain stops the world for a stroll home, a leisurely meal, a few z’s. Common Market technocrats have informed the Spanish that this is not the way things will get done in the oft-threatened unified Europe. The Spanish reply with a flourish of rioja and snooze alarms. ¡Viva siesta!

At a time when productivity is the world’s largest religion, the siesta tradition lives on. In Spain, work operates under the command of life, instead of the other way around. No task is so critical that it can’t wait a couple of hours while you attend to more important matters like eating, relaxing, or catching up on sleep from a night on the town. When the midday break hits, offices empty and streets clear as if by the hand of Rod Serling. Befuddled foreigners left behind quickly learn that they have entered a new circadian order.

“At first, I kept looking for things to do in the afternoon, and I just couldn’t believe that nothing was open,” recalls Pier Roberts, an Oakland writer who lived in Spain for several years. “I walked the streets of Madrid looking for somewhere to go. It was a thousand degrees outside, you could see the heat waves, and it was like a ghost town.”

The vanishing act confounds and exasperates agenda-minded outsiders and has long made the Spanish the butt of lazy-sod jokes. Yet travelers who get off the mad-dogs-and-Englishmen circuit and take time to indulge the siesta lifestyle may find that it’s the Spaniards who have the last laugh–well into the wee hours.

Taking a long break in the middle of the day is not only healthier than the conventional lunch; it’s apparently more natural. Sleep researchers have found that the Spanish biorhythm may be tuned more closely to our biological clocks. Studies suggest that humans are “biphasic” creatures, requiring days broken up by two periods of sleep instead of one up-till-you-drop “monophasic” shift. The drowsiness you feel after lunch comes not from the food but from the time of day. “All animals, including humans, have a biological rhythm,” explains Claudio Stampi, director of the Chrono Biology Research Institute in Newton, Massachusetts. “One is a 24-hour rhythm–we get tired by the end of the day and go to sleep–and there is a secondary peak of sleepiness and a decrease in alertness in the early afternoon. Some people have difficulty remaining awake, doing any sort of task between one and four in the afternoon. For others it’s less difficult, but it’s there. So there is a biological reason for siestas.”

Unlike the average lunch break, the siesta is a true break in the action because there is no choice but to come to a full and complete stop. You can’t do errands; the shops are closed. You can’t make business calls; nobody’s at the office. Most people go home for lunch, or get together with family or friends for a glass of vino, and nod out afterwards.

The Spanish need their sleep. They’ve got a long night ahead of them, because another key component of the siesta lifestyle is its nocturnal orbit. After the afternoon work shift, from 4:30 to 8 p.m. or so, they may join friends for a drink. Dinner starts at 9 or 10 p.m., and from there it’s out on the town until one or two in the morning.

“It’s a bad night in Madrid if you get home before six in the morning,” laughs Roberts. In the big cities the night-owl habit produces traffic jams at a time when the only thing stirring in America is psychic hot lines.The siesta’s origins lie in climate and architecture. Like people in other places around the globe that are blast furnaces much of the year, Spaniards turned to shade and stillness to avoid incineration in the middle of the day. At night, packed, simmering dwellings drove people into the streets to cool down. Add to that the old-world tradition of the neighborhood constitutional, and you’ve got some sidewalk jams.

While climate is still a factor, the siesta lifestyle today is driven primarily by the social imperative of Spanish life, which places an equal if not greater emphasis on life outside the office. “We are not so obsessed only with work,” says Florentino Sotomayor of the Spanish Tourist Board in Los Angeles. “We take a break and have the opportunity of having coffee or a beer with friends and thinking and talking about different issues, not only the work, you know?”

I wish I did know. Like a lot of us in the land of time scarcity, I find it harder and harder to shut it off, to switch off work mode and be social–that is, be unproductive, and just be. The divide is blurred by a volatile economy of all-consuming competition that has turned off-hours into off-site catch-up. Blink and it’s Monday again. The culprit, says David Scott, an associate professor of recreation, park, and tourism sciences at Texas A&M, is the accelerating cult of efficiency.

“We are an efficiency-oriented society,” he says. “It is perhaps the dominant value in this culture. The faster things get done, the better off we’re going to be. The idea of efficiency at all costs seems to be all-pervasive. It tends to invade our leisure. Unfortunately, socializing doesn’t have a ‘yield.’ It’s hard to develop relationships; those things take time.”

The siesta lifestyle is rooted in a culture with values that are anathema to the ascendant economic order, so don’t expect the rest of Europe to adopt Spanish hours. A few Spanish firms have begun shortening their siesta time as the eurodollar era approaches. But maybe, being the great taskmasters we are, we could find a way to put one quality-of-life item on the agenda each day. We could even give it a productive rationale: Life expectancy in Spain is two years longer than in the United States. Think of all that extra output.

From Escape (July 1998). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 5159, Santa Monica, CA 90409-5159.

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