Backstory: Sleepless in Spain: The siesta recedes

The centuries-old custom of a nap and a long lunch declines as Spain restructures its workday in a global economy.

Luís Alonso of Bilbao, Spain, used to go home for lunch each day at 1 p.m. He'd slip into his favorite pinstriped pajama bottoms and sleep on the couch for an hour. Then he'd get up, comb his hair, and head back to work - revived.

But three years ago, Mr. Alonso took a job with a software firm in an industrial park. Suddenly, his lunch hour became just that - an hour break at a nearby restaurant. Now Alonso, like many other Spaniards, is more likely to spend his lunch in a pinstriped suit than pajamas.

"The siesta, it's a glorious thing," he says wistfully of the old days.

Spain is rapidly restructuring its workday and, along with it, one of the most well-known customs in the world - the siesta.

The midday ritual that has played out for centuries on shaded terraces, under silk sheets, or on couches is giving way to more modern work habits and - qué lástima! - sleepless afternoons.

In an age of global competition and European integration, Spain is under increasing pressure internally and from neighboring countries to do away with its famously long lunch breaks, which can last two to three hours. Many Spanish companies have already responded by shortening employee lunch sessions to one or two hours. Call it a clash between profits and the pillow.

This month the siesta received another setback when central government workers adopted a new schedule: an hour lunch and 6 p.m. punch-out time. Supporters hope their schedule becomes a model for businesses both large and small countrywide, from the industrial north to the sun-drenched south.


Those who favor such overhauls say Spain is out of line with the rest of Europe. Increasingly long commutes, coupled with the presence of multinational firms that operate on "normal" schedules, have made the traditional siesta an anachronism. Though many firms still allow long midday breaks, it's getting harder for Spaniards to go home for lunch.

The result, according to Ignacio Buqueras, president of the Independent Foundation, a group lobbying to change the workday, is that most Spaniards start work between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., but don't eat dinner until 10 p.m. He blames the drawn-out schedule for poor work habits, accidents on the job, and difficult child-care arrangements. A Madrid think tank, Business Circle, reports that Spaniards work more per year than many Europeans, but their productivity is below average.

Reformers would like to see the country adopt a Greenwich Meal Time: A lunch break that begins at 12:30 and lasts no more than an hour. "The current situation is a mission impossible," says Mr. Buqueras.


Old habits die hard, though. From the height of their empire in the 1500s through a civil war 400 years later, Spaniards have adhered to the ritual that Nobel laureate Camilo José Cela calls yoga, Iberian-style. The word "siesta" derives from the Latin "sexta" for "sixth." It was at the sixth hour when the sun was at its hottest and workers needed a break. Eventually the custom spread from field to city, becoming the centerpiece of "family time" and an ingrained respite.

The siesta has long been the muse of poets, the repartee of humorists, and a source of national pride. As the saying goes, a lunch without a siesta is like a bell without its clapper.

Late lunch and dinner hours, however, are a more recent adaptation. Historians speculate that schedules shifted in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, when hunger forced the populace to seek dual-employment. Many Spaniards would eat lunch around 3 p.m. between jobs. "We have stayed with the worst of the epoch, when it's not necessary today," says Nuria Chinchilla, head of the International Center on Work and Family at the University of Navarra in Barcelona.

Many Spaniards believe the attempt to coordinate their schedule with the rest of Europe dilutes a way of life. Diego Rubio, who works for the local government in Seville, says his father could never fathom working through the day uninterrupted. Back then, whole towns shut down during the afternoon. That is still the case today in small cities, but mega supermarkets and department stores are now open all day, forcing butchers and shop owners to adjust, too.

Spaniards of Mr. Rubio's generation, in their 30s, are starting to shift their perspective on the utility of extended lunches. Although he spends his two-hour break at home with his wife and daughter, Rubio would welcome the chance to eat through lunch and get errands done later - if it worked. "In theory, it's a great idea," he says. But he has watched friends take jobs with shorter lunch breaks who don't get home earlier. "If I eat quickly, just to stay late, what's the point?"

Economic realities have helped restructure the Spanish day, but so have social movements. For Gonzalo Martínez, who works at a mari- time transportation company in Bilbao, the demise of the siesta is a sign of women's rights. "In a way it was always a man's thing," he says.

That view is underscored by an old joke: What is the woman's siesta? Washing the dishes. And it is not that far off from what life was like when Mr. Martínez was growing up. His mother stayed home and prepared lunch for her two sons and husband, who would eat, sleep, and return to work while she continued with her chores.

These days, both he and his wife work. He comes home for lunch; she does not. Now his company may move its offices from the city center, which would make a mid-day commute home impossible. "It's less quality of life," he says. "But that's how it is today."

Spanish schedules are in flux. In some towns in the South, "silence proclamations" have been in effect for years banning construction work and other noise from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. In the hectic hubs of Madrid and Barcelona, the pace remains constant throughout the day. In cities like Bilbao or Valencia, there is no standard.

Alonso says that some 30 percent of his friends have a traditional siesta. For those who can't make it home, one company (Masajes a 1000) offers clients a massage and chance to sleep during lunchtime.

As mid-day rituals change, few expect Spain's nighttime to transform soon. Prime-time television doesn't begin until 10 p.m. Those who try to eat out early - say, 8:30 p.m. - often find that restaurants are not yet open.

Even Alonso will only adjust up to a point. While he doesn't make it home to his pinstriped pajamas anymore, he's not about to adopt lunch American-style - devouring a sandwich in front of the computer. If it doesn't require silverware, napkins, or, most important, companionship, it isn't lunch. "If I have to eat alone, I'd rather not eat," he says.

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