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Siestas: Learning from the Spanish about living a more relaxed life

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The Fountain of Youth, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and Narnia. What is common about all these places? It could be that they all involve a cupboard. I was thinking, though, that they all seem too good to be true. Let me throw another fairy-tale idea into the mix: siestas. An idea that is much more than a simple nap. To an American, the idea of an extended, sanctioned nap in the middle of the day—a work day—is as fantastic and unrealistic as the Fountain of Youth or Narnia.

It is an arranged daily break from one’s work that begins with a modest lunch enjoyed in the company of friends and family and ends with you falling into a peaceful, satisfied slumber. When you emerge from your shroud of gratification, you gladly return to your work for a couple of hours. It is much more ritualistic than America’s forced, unsettled routine of napping.

I’ve tried many naps. The during-class nap, the ridehome-from-school nap, the nap where you fall asleep when it’s light and wake up when it’s dark. You name it, I’ve tried it. And yet, there has been no single nap that has consistently satisfied my yearning to be rested. That, I think, is because of how we approach naps. What is the common theme of these American naps? They are born of exhaustion. They occur abruptly and are even frowned upon as signs of laziness, stress or disinterest. We hide our naps behind prop eye glasses, whereas in Spain, they embrace the nap.

Understanding simple cultural differences, like the nap, shows broader, more complicated cultural differences, for in America, we live to work. Eight hours a day our focus is on deadlines and dollar signs, supplemented with double shots of espresso and who-can-eat-thefastest-alone-at-their-desk lunches. Producing results and making money intoxicates us. And our economy thrives as a result. Maintaining this rate of production, though, requires moving at an unnatural pace. To compensate, the American spirit imposed its will of a sleepwhen-you-can-in-orderto-maximize-productivity attitude. Naps are used as a means to an end. In the end, though, we often burn out. Spain, on the other hand, is the world’s leader in leisure time, and still boasts the 14th highest GDP per capita. They are the masters of tiki-taka, who adhere to the natural rhythms of life, welcoming the ebb and flow of human energy. Te whole structure of the Spanish day is thus affected. Work days are longer, but the way in which time is portioned creates a more relaxed environment. You don’t feel as if you are working longer because a constant sense of pressure to produce isn’t apparent. However, declaring an absolute verdict about which approach is better would be naive and impetuous. I will toss in my two cents, though.

Perhaps by luck, but more likely by fate, an opportunity to seek out the mythical siesta was presented to me. Academically, I may be studying philosophy in Madrid for the semester. But just as importantly, my acceptance to the program also warranted an acceptance of a duty to understand Spanish culture. I came on a quest to secure a definitive answer about the existence of the siesta in order to thrust open the flood gates of immersion.

The first day in Madrid, my buddies and I were fairly jetlagged and weirdly hungry after a night of extensive debate, and reluctant agreement, of whether we were desperate enough to eat airplane food. Yelp may be the greatest app on the planet. And by that I mean we had already scoured pictures of contenders for lunch; it was about half past tacos o’clock. We all knew what we were going to order. The excitement was increasing minute by minute.

12:30 p.m. Someone screamed “Let’s munch!” The stars were aligned. And this is where my quest reached an abrupt, albeit bittersweet, climax. No tacos were munched that day. No food at all was to be had for that matter. The streets were vacant, the cafes closed. Suddenly it dawned on me: We were in the midst of the daily siesta. Everyone else had already enjoyed lunch and now was napping. It was too late to salvage our mistake. We trudged home, our heads lowered in defeat.

But my quest was not over. Resiliency took the reigns, and we tried again the next day. The memory of what could have been was fresh in our minds; there would be no miscalculations. Yet that was our fatal flaw. We were deliberately seeking out what we should have let come to us naturally because that’s what we were used to: forceful imposition of our will. It was not until I voided my internalized notion of punctuality and replaced it with a natural ebband-flow attitude that I was able to experience the siesta in its fullness.

I woke a couple days later to the sounds of a siren, decided to go for a run, read and finished homework, enjoyed the company of my friends at lunch and then we all teetered off into a tranquil slumber. Just like that my quest was fulfilled, and the siesta was no longer foreign to me. I didn’t seek it out. It wasn’t a deadline. It was as natural as breathing, or the sun rising and setting. We try to control everything in our lives, and the siesta is where I think the Spaniards have honed in on a fundamentally necessary activity of life: allowing ourselves to step back from the pressurized world of production and enjoy the natural flow of the day.

1 Comment

One Response to “Siestas: Learning from the Spanish about living a more relaxed life”

  1. Matthew Raden on February 10th, 2017 7:22 pm

    Few Spaniards have enough time to take siestas these days. It’s been that way for some time now, I’m afraid. One exception is where they are in vacation. Also, the longer lunch break at mid-day means that many workplaces don’t let out until 8:00 pm. When I lived in Salamanca, my barber worked 10 hours per day. This was back in the 1990’s. At that time, schedules had already begun to change over from the Spanish schedule to the European one. He told me about a customer that came by upset that he was closed during the mid-day break. He explained that he is in his shop for 10 hours every day, and that that time is the only time he has to spend with his family. Things they were ‘a-changin’ even back then.

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