Spanish Lateness: It’s all Hitler’s Fault!

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Spain is a late country. I don’t mean this in terms of poor timekeeping but rather that life here goes on at a later hour than in the rest of the Western world. What time is dinner? From two to three o’ clock in the afternoon. And the evening meal? As late as nine or ten p.m. When do small kids go to bed? Later than this, obviously. Shops stay open until eight or eight thirty p.m. Most people won’t finish up in their jobs until at least six or seven p.m. A revealing statistic states that by eight o’ clock in the evening only 50% of the working population has made it home. By ten o’ clock this figure reaches 80%.

Keeping late hours can have consequences from the trivial to the more serious. Prime-time* television is later in Spain than in other Western countries and many of the most watched programmes do not finish until after midnight. If you want to see the latest episode of The Walking Dead, Bones or the Spanish equivalent of Letterman, you’re going to have to keep those peepers open until 12:30 a.m. and to hell with the less than seven hours sleep you’ll be getting. Perhaps the sleep deprivation your average Spaniard suffers from accounts for the low productivity of the workforce. And perhaps the low productivity is why your Spaniard is forced to work longer hours than their French of German counterparts, which means your average Spaniard arrives home later, eats later, watches TV later, goes to bed later, gets less sleep . . . It’s a chicken and egg situation.

It is quite common to see small kids out on the street here past midnight, especially in summer, when the only break from the dead heat comes with the post-sundown breezes. Kids being kids, they’ll be up and at ’em at the crack of dawn, so your average Spanish kid isn’t getting near enough sleep either. (I still have a visceral reaction to seeing tiny tots and their parents out and about in the wee hours. My heart screams “Skobies” or “Junkies” and I have to force myself to not to cross the street or check the pocket where I keep my wallet.)

Besides a national propensity for dragging everything out and never wanting things to end (Sunday lunch can last two-three hours, wedding banquets at least twelve, saying goodbye to a friend despite just having spent a whole night out in their company, an extra half hour) there is a valid reason for this lateness. It’s all Hitler’s fault, in fact. Spain is suffering from jet lag and this phenomenon dates back to the Second World War and a certain small, chubby, mustachioed fascist dictator’s attempts to ingratiate himself with another (slightly taller and slimmer) mustachioed fascist dictator. Up until 1942, Spain was in the same time zone as Britain, Ireland and Portugal, which makes eminent sense when you look at the figure above. After Germany’s invasion of France and moving of the latter into its own Central European timezone, General Franco, forever trying to suck up to his German counterpart, decided that Spain too should have the same time as Berlin. Thus, the peninsula adopted a wholly unsuitable time which stands to this very day.

The experts, the National Commission for the Rationalisation of Spanish Time, claim that reinstating Greenwich Mean Time (or Coordinated Universal Time as someone has changed it to behind my back) would have significant benefits for Spain. The morning would be shorter and people would have their lunch/dinner at an earlier hour. Midday would at last correspond to when the sun was highest in the sky! The evening meal would be an hour earlier and sunset would occur at a time more in keeping with circadian rhythms. Whether or not resetting the time (or timezone) would have a deep effect on behaviour patterns built up over three quarters of a century is a matter for debate, but at least everything would be pushed back by an hour. So instead of kids being out at midnight, they might be taken in, bathed and put to bed at eleven p.m. The Mentalist would finish up by eleven thirty p.m. and the country’s workers could get their beauty sleep. Productivity might go up! There would be less industrial accidents!! Spain would rise from the ashes of recession!!! And all because of the simple act of changing the clocks. We do it twice a year anyway.

I’ll let you know if the National Commission for the Rationalisation of Spanish Time gets its way.


*There is a siesta-time prime time in Spain as well — from 15:00 to 18:00 — when many folk will turn the TV on, kick back and have a postprandial snooze. Many shops will close from 13:30 to 17:30 to allow their workers go home and eat and have their siesta. In Madrid, the only folk wandering the streets between these times are tourists, scratching their heads and wondering why no shops are open. Me and my family usually do our big weekly grocery shop during siesta time on a Saturday — we have the supermarket to ourselves!

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About ucronin

Born in the country town of Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland in 1975, I now live in Madrid with my partner and two young daughters and work in a research institute. While I was always a hungry reader and harboured vague notions of being a writer, as a young man writing was the furthest thing from my mind; after leaving school, I did a B.Sc. in Biotechnology in Galway's NUI, an M.Sc. in Plant Science in University College Cork and a Ph.D. in Microbiology in the University of Limerick, the plan being to dedicate my professional career to scientific research. While having written extensively within my technical scientific field, I had never contemplated becoming a writer of fiction until a road-to-Damascus moment on the N69 between Listowel and Tarbert, Co. Kerry in the summer of 2011. Since then, most of my spare time has been occupied with writing. In whatever other free moments I have, I like to listen to music, play the guitar and garden (which here in Madrid means a lot of watering of plants and spraying for red spider mite). My ambition is to become as good a writer as I possibly can, eventually freeing myself from the cold clutches of science and earning a living through my scribblings. The type of writing that excites me is honest, intelligent, well-constructed and richly descriptive.
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8 Responses to Spanish Lateness: It’s all Hitler’s Fault!

  1. We have 5 different time zones here. Some states have daylight savings time, where we move the clocks forward or back to gain sunlight. We all just accept it.
    We don’t have siesta time. I would think that is why everyone has to work late. Ditch that and everyone could go home at 5pm. I would rather have all my time off in one lump, in the evening. 😃 Great read!

  2. LadyLuck says:

    First of all, I understand your point of view. But let me say {as spanish girl} that there are some facts about Spain that are just urban legends.

    – Spanish have no fault about our time zone. We don’t choose it. As we don’t choose our working hours. We TOO have daylight savings time and we TOO move the clocks forward or back {twice a year}
    – Nap time does not exist. I don’t know any spanish who does it. If some shops are closed {I don’t know any in Barcelona} from 13:00 from 14:00 {not from 13:30 to 17:30} it is because we have the right of eat something. Some of us have to eat something quickly so we can come back on time at the office. {which is not my case. I have lunch everyday just infront of my laptop at the office}
    – “It is quite common to see small kids out on the street here past midnight” really?? Where?? In this case, it is parents fault, some parents in particular, not all of them in general.
    – Here, shops stay open until 9 p.m

    Although I agree with you on what you say about the working hours {I would like to start earlier and finish earlier} I don’t think that is the reason for the low productivity. That is because of the big amout of spanish employees that are leaving Spain looking for new oportunities in other countries.

    LadyLuck {Spanish, awake at 7 a.m., worker from 9 a.m. to 19 p.m. non-stop, no frequent naps}

    • ucronin says:

      Hi LadyLuck,
      Thanks for your detailed comment. I’ll try to address each of your points.
      I agree that the Spanish people are not at fault for the time zone imposed on them. As the title jokingly put it, it’s Hitler’s (or more correctly Franco’s fault). I think the sensible thing to do would be to ammend the time zone so that people have a chance to live within a more suitable day/night cycle. This might go some way towards relieving the huge time pressure I see my Spanish friends and family (and myself, coz I live in Madrid) suffering from.
      As for the long hours worked in Spain; that has soemthing to do with the time zone mismatch but the larger factor is cultural. As an Irish man working in Madrid for the last five years I am astounded and unhappy with the long hours you (and me!) have to work compared to other countries. There seems to be a cultural thing here that equates long hours (presentismo) with being a good worker and doing a good job. I have my theory as to why this is so (the cacique system, very recent emergence from dictatorship, the highly regimented and even militarised nature of the workforce, the high percentage of today’s middle managers and executives whose first “work experience” outside of school was military service) but that’s another post or two!
      I would beg to differ with you about siesta time. At least in the parts of Spain where I have mostly been – Madrid and Zamora – lots of people go home from their jobs at lunchtime, eat, take a siesta and go back to work. Walk around a village in Castilla at 16:00 and you’ll be the only eejit on the streets! I agree that in office jobs and lab jobs like my own we take a half hour to eat and get back to our posts so there’s no siesta for us, but the siesta is alive and kicking.
      About the small kids on the street . . . stand on my balcony in Madrid at midnight and there’ll be dozens of kids running round the cafe’s terraces and in the parks. I can’t speak for Barcelona, but it’s a real phenomenon here. Parents leave their kids up very late.
      The productivity. A Spanish worker compared to a Germana worker produces about a quarter less measurable output per hour’s work. This isn’t because the Spanish are stupid or lazy. 50% of the blame has to go to the arcane management structures and the “boss is always right” culture that I have found here. Another hefty percentage has to be assigned to corruption. How many of us can’t do our jobs properly because of some political good-for-nothing appointee screwing everything in the company up? And then I would assign the rest of the low productivity to exhaustion, low morale , swinging the lead, seat-warming and all the stuff that comes with having to work ridiculuous hours.
      I have huge respect for the Spanish work ethic and people like you (and me) who work longer than they would like for far less money and respect than they deserve. The objective of my post was to point out the time-related anomalies that a foreigner like me might find travelling or working in Spain. I mixed that in with an attempt to come up with an answer for some of the things us foreigners find strange. I hope I didn’t offend you. The last thing I want to do is come across as the typical foreigner who makes a hobby out of bashing Spain. The only people I want to bash are the wicked and corrupt politicians who have us all running around like nutters, working like dogs, scrimping and scraping to afford things while they bleed the country dry and give out the goodies to their followers and those that fund them.
      Thanks for taking the time to read the article.
      U.

      • LadyLuck says:

        Sorry if I sounded offended.
        I understood what you meant about job policies.
        My intention was to clarify the (false) myths told about Spain.
        As a graduate in HR I agree with what you say about the management style and I remain hopeful thanks to the new generation of young directors with fresh ideas and the number of new companies that are emerging.
        LadyLuck

      • ucronin says:

        No need to apologise. I think your comments were valid and understandable. I guess I should be more careful generalising. Spain is so diverse that my idea of Spain might sometimes only apply to the areas I’m more familiar with.
        By the way, I’d love to be in Barcelona this weekend for Primavera Sound. My buddies couldn’t make it this year, so I didn’t go. But I’ll be there in spirit.
        Bye,
        U.

      • LadyLuck says:

        Hahaha! Casualties of life… this weekend I’ll be in Madrid. I love that city and I like to spend some days there when I can.

        I will take a look about what you mentioned 😉

  3. Doug says:

    In fact, there are four countries to the EAST of Spain which fall neatly into the UTC time zone: France and Benelux. See the following link for a map:

    • ucronin says:

      Great map. Very illustrative. Thanks! France was under GMT until the German invasion in WWII, after which they changed timezone to be in line with The Third Reich. For some reason, they never changed back — just like Spain.

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