Spain, land of 10pm dinners, asks if it’s time to reset clock

LAST UPDATED: 18 Feb, 2014 @ 18:47
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Spain, land of 10pm dinners, asks if it’s time to reset clock

An article in the New York Times has sparked controversy in Spain after suggesting the country does away with the siesta and brings its working day in line with the rest of Europe…

  • What do you think of the idea? Have your say in the comments below!

DIPPING into a bucket filled with Mahou beers, Jorge Rodríguez and his friends hunkered down on a recent Wednesday night to watch soccer at Mesón Viña, a local bar. At a nearby table a couple were cuddling, oblivious to others, as a waitress brought out potato omelets and other dinner orders. Then the game began. At 10 p.m.

Which is not unusual. Even as people in some countries are preparing for bed, the Spanish evening is usually beginning at 10, with dinner often being served and prime-time television shows starting (and not ending until after 1 a.m.). Surveys show that nearly a quarter of Spain’s population is watching television between midnight and 1 a.m.

“It is the Spanish identity, to eat in another time, to sleep in another time,” said Mr. Rodríguez, 36, who had to get up the next morning for his bank job.

Spain still operates on its own clock and rhythms. But now that it is trying to recover from a devastating economic crisis — in the absence of easy solutions — a pro-efficiency movement contends that the country can become more productive, more in sync with the rest of Europe, if it adopts a more regular schedule.

Yet what might sound logical to many non-Spaniards would represent a fundamental change to Spanish life. For decades, many Spaniards have taken a long midday siesta break for lunch and a nap. Under a new schedule, that would be truncated to an hour or less. Television programs would be scheduled an hour earlier. And the elastic Spanish working day would be replaced by something closer to a 9-to-5 timetable.

Underpinning the proposed changes is a recommendation to change time itself by turning back the clocks an hour, which would move Spain out of the time zone that includes France, Germany and Italy. Instead, Spain would join its natural geographical slot with Portugal and Britain in Coordinated Universal Time, the modern successor to Greenwich Mean Time.

“We want to see a more efficient culture,” said Ignacio Buqueras, the most outspoken advocate of changing the Spanish schedule. “Spain has to break the bad habits it has accumulated over the past 40 or 50 years.”

For the moment, Spain’s government is treating the campaign seriously. In September, a parliamentary commission recommended that the government turn back the clocks an hour and introduce a regular eight-hour workday. As yet, the government has not taken any action.

A workday abbreviated by siestas is a Spanish cliché, yet it is not necessarily rooted in reality. Instead, many urban Spaniards complain of a never-ending workday that begins in the morning but is interrupted by a traditional late-morning break and then interrupted again by the midday lunch. If workers return to their desks at 4 p.m. (lunch starts at 2), many people say, they end up working well into the evening, especially if the boss takes a long break and then works late.

“These working hours are not good for families,” said Paula Del Pino, 37, a lawyer and the mother of two children, who said an 8-to-5 workday would ease the pressure. “Spanish society is still old-fashioned. The ones who rule are old-fashioned, and here, they like it like it is.”

The national schedule can be traced to World War II, when the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco moved the clocks forward to align with Nazi Germany, as also happened in neighboring Portugal. After the defeat of Hitler, Portugal returned to Greenwich Mean Time, but Spain did not.

At the time, Spain was a largely agrarian nation, and many farmers set their schedules by the sun, not by clocks. Farmers ate lunch and dinner as before, even if the clocks declared it was an hour later. But as Spain industrialized and urbanized, the schedule gradually pushed the country away from the European norm.

“People got stuck in that time,” said Javier Díaz-Giménez, an economist. “Eventually, the clocks took over.”

In the early decades of his rule, Franco ordered radio stations to broadcast reports of news and propaganda twice a day to coincide with mealtimes at about 2:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Television arrived in the 1950s and followed the same mandate, with daily programming on the lone government channel ending at midnight with the national anthem and a portrait of Franco

“Then everyone would go to bed and procreate,” said Ricardo Vaca, chief executive of Barlovento Communications, a media consultancy in Madrid.

By the 1990s, with Spain’s post-Franco transition to democracy underway, television also began evolving. Mr. Vaca said new private networks, eager for profits on popular shows, made programs longer and pushed prime time into the early morning hours. Now, he added, surveys show that 12 million people are still watching television at 1 a.m. in Spain.

Changing the prime-time schedule is one of the recommendations bundled together by Mr. Buqueras, president of the Association for the Rationalization of Spanish Working Hours. At his office in Madrid, Mr. Buqueras burst into a conference room and immediately checked his watch.

Mr. Buqueras argues that changing the Spanish schedule would be a boon to working mothers, allow families more free time together and help Spain’s economic recovery. “If Spain had a rational timetable, the country would be more productive,” he said.

Whether an earlier, more regimented schedule will translate into higher productivity is a matter of dispute. Mr. Buqueras’s group says Spanish workers are on the job longer than German workers but complete only 59 percent of their daily tasks. Measuring productivity is an imprecise science, and while many experts say Spanish productivity is too low, Spain actually outperforms many European countries in some calculations, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency.

“These three-hour siestas don’t exist,” said Carlos Angulo Martín, who oversees social analysis at the National Statistics Institute in Madrid. Nor are habits uniform across the country, he said, noting that in the Catalonia region, mealtimes and work schedules are aligned more with those of other European countries.

María Ángeles Durán, a leading sociologist with the Spanish National Research Council, is skeptical that changing the time zone will reverse low productivity, which she attributes more to the structure of the service-oriented economy and a lag in technology. But she agreed that normalizing the work schedule would help women: She cited a survey she conducted of female lawmakers in Europe, who complained that men deliberately scheduled important meetings in the early evening when women were under pressure to return home.

“For men, this is perfect,” Ms. Durán said. “They arrive home and the children have already had their baths! Timetables can be used as a sort of weapon.”

At the Mesón Viña bar, Mr. Rodríguez and his friends contemplated the Spanish clock. One friend, Miguel Carbayo, 26, was appalled at the notion of a nap-free lunch. He had worked as an intern in the Netherlands, where his co-workers arrived at 8 and left at 5, with a half-hour to munch on a sandwich for lunch, a regimen he found shocking.

“Reduce lunchtime?” he said. “No, I’m completely against that. It is one thing to eat. It is another thing to nourish oneself. Our culture and customs are our way of living.”

But, he admitted, a shorter nap might be acceptable. “They say 20 minutes is enough to boost productivity,” he said.

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5 COMMENTS

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  1. Cobblers. The Spanish should stick to their guns. Eating a proper lunch and having a break is civilised. It’s the rest of the world that needs to wise-up.

  2. Yet more meddling that will not result in anything positive – it will just **** people off even more. And what is the point of going onto GMT? Having an extra hour of daylight in the evening is a positive thing and prevents seasonal affective disorder. Hope they are not thinking of doing it to be in line with the UK because they are constantly talking about going onto CET. Definitely one for the bin.

  3. Maybe this will be the shock to the system that is required. Do it now ! Spain has to wise up and arrive into the modern age. Then perhaps the northern European power houses would invest more into the country . Lets be honest who is going to deal with a country who starts work about tenish then disappears for breakfast around elevenish , have a long lunch from anytime time from midday to about four then complete maybe another couple of hours work ! Yeah right not many.

  4. Ted,
    spot on comments. After my favourite desayuno of tostado at the Calatrava I would go shopping and return for a coffee before going home.

    At 10.30am it would fill up with post office /office workers/lawyers. They would all stay for a minimum of 30 minutes but often 45 minutes – this simply would’nt happen in any north European country. I even had a neighbour who worked as an olive oil salesman who returned home for a morning coffee break – it was a 10 minute journey in each direction.

    In the afternoon at 1.30pm, 3 bank managers would arrive – they never left before 4pm.

  5. This is ridiculous. If there is a problem with the current way of doing things, just don’t have a siesta and don’t eat dinner at 10pm; there is no need to change the clocks. That will just make things here worse, e.g. it will be getting dark in Spain now at 6pm instead of 7pm and unless you actually say ‘don’t have a siesta anymore’, changing the clocks alone will not stop people having a siesta. Rather than changing the clocks there needs to be a change of mindset in Spain: In the old days when people went about on donkeys and worked in the open air, the heat of the summer meant there was a need to get out of it in the middle of the day and retreat to a stone-built building with tiny windows until the worst of the heat was over. There is no justification for the majority of working people who today work in air-conditioned offices, bank and shops or in airports, factories or public buildings for example to do this, it is just clinging to a cultural desire for the sake of it. It is also wasteful to expect people to have to effectively commute twice in a day, even if for a short distance; just think how much they could save by only having to make the journey to/from work once per day! If you work 9-5 and have a normal hour-long lunch break like everybody else you can get home earlier and you don’t need to eat at 10pm…. you can change it if you want to.

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