You don’t get jet-lag taking the short hop to Spain – after all, they’re just one hour ahead of UK time. There is however, a definite time warp to get accustomed to. With lunch typically at 3pm, no one, but no one, goes out for dinner before 10pm – many restaurants don’t even open before then. Spanish friends will always suggest meeting for drinks at 10, then going on for something to eat later – I’ve even been invited to start an evening out at 1.30am! And it’s not just the youngsters – a recent post-Christening party began at 11.30pm (giving guests time to have dinner before they arrive…). Luckily, for those not acclimatized, there are plenty of wonderful tapas bars which tolerantly allow you to eat tasty small portions at more or less any time.
Only the tourists fill the early tables, however. In the Plaza close to my home, very much a place for locals, the bars are empty at 7 or 8pm (see photo above – you’ll just have to believe me that it was 7.30pm!). Indeed, if I suggest to a Spanish friend that we have a beer or glass of wine at 7pm, they giggle nervously (in the way you might if I suggested such a thing at 10.30am…). Closer friends just come straight out with: “At this time?”. By 11pm the place is thronging – with children as well as adults. They all come out together and there’s a playground for the kids while their parents enjoy a relaxed meal nearby. It’s very strange for foreign eyes to see children on climbing frames at midnight!
But it’s a lovely, inclusive atmosphere in the deliciously warm evenings, when the intense heat of the day has subsided. And because the children aren’t made to sit up straight at the table, but are free to run around (within sight, but not around the tables), generally there is none of the intrusive wailing or whining, dreaded by adult diners.
Because of the heat, office workers start early (about 7.30/8am) and stop for lunch at 3pm – to return to work at around 5pm after a siesta. On occasions when a return to work isn’t required late afternoon, there is the potential for a serious boozy lunch – and no one does a boozy lunch like the Spaniards! The last one I was invited to began at 3pm and ended at 7.30pm… Everything is taken at a leisurely pace – I have had to curb my natural tendency to scoff everything in front of me as if it’s about to be confiscated. Shared food in the middle of the table is picked at slowly, while drinks slip down rather more quickly and the focus is on the chat, the teasing, the joking.
I’m half way acclimatised now… Going out with English friends for supper this evening and not meeting till 9.30. It’s fine when, as in my case, getting out of bed on a morning is a ‘when I feel like it’ affair and you always have time for a siesta in the afternoon – everything just shunts forward a few hours and pans out rather well. I certainly couldn’t do it if I had to start work at 7.30am – hardy people, these Spaniards!
Only problem is, by the time I get my butt into gear and want to grab some shopping, the shops close for a few hours (2 till 5 or 6) – maddening! This brings me to a more serious point about Spanish working hours. A Sevillan friend tells me that, though enjoyable in many respects, Spanish working hours are a problem currently under review by a National Commission. For a start, parents’ and children’s work and school hours don’t coincide. Of course this is often a problem in the UK as well, but it’s exacerbated in Spain by their different social and eating habits. For example, almost all children go home from school for lunch at 1.30 – but lunch time for parents is not until 3pm… Then they still have the problem of needing someone to collect them after school, as we do in the UK and elsewhere. This means that Spanish people spend a higher proportion of their household budget on childcare than other Europeans – and given that the Spanish value family life so highly, it’s an anomaly. It’s even been suggested that it may partially account for the low birth rate in Spain!
Not surprisingly then, a Government report* found that Spanish workers were experiencing high stress levels in trying to reconcile work and different aspects of their personal lives. Added to this, their working hours don’t coincide with the rest of Europe – either in the timing or duration of their lunch break – making it difficult for businesses to communicate with other European countries. The same report found that while Spanish working hours are among the longest, their productivity is in the bottom 3 (beaten only by Greece and Portugal).
Given the economic problems the country is currently facing, this is clearly a problem which needs addressing urgently. But these practices are so deeply engrained in the life and culture of the country, it’s not going to be easy…. I’m pleased to say that one of the recommendations is that shops should open at hours which suit customers! Looking forward to its implementation….
 Ministry of Public Administration and University of Navarra, ‘White Paper on working time structure in Spain’ 2005