Spaniards wake to new reality


Siesta: With international trade increasing, Spain is abandoning its long tradition of an afternoon nap. But old habits die hard.

April 08, 2000|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRID, Spain -- Maria Jose Mateo's midday routine is a daring act of defiance against a force that has ruled Spain for centuries. The 29-year-old bank employee tries to stay awake.

Up at 6 a.m. after six hours of sleep, she works from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., has a heavy lunch at her parents' home and dashes back to the office by about 5 p.m. to work till 9 p.m., leaving her father dozing on the couch and feeling quite drowsy herself.

As hard as she resists, the 40-minute subway ride usually lulls her into submission. At the end of the line, the stop beneath her skyscraper office, she wakes up slightly embarrassed, though she's rarely the only one on her car who has fallen asleep.

This, for most working Spaniards, is what the siesta has come to. With Spain under pressure to adjust to richer neighbors' timetables, the ritual three-hour break for lunch and a nap is disappearing. But the historic urge to nod off keeps fighting back.

Spaniards say they are working harder these days and sleeping less, feeling at once more prosperous and fatigued. Their economy has awakened in recent years to become one of the liveliest in Europe -- in part because of more industrious habits that, according to one nationwide survey, have reduced regular siesta-takers to 24 percent of the population.

The siesta is losing ground in other Mediterranean strongholds as Portugal, Italy and Greece also rush to catch their more advanced partners in the 15-nation European Union. It suffered a blow in Mexico last year when 50,000 public servants saw their long midday breaks cut to one hour.

But only here, in the country that gave the siesta its universal name, is the trend bemoaned as an assault on a national symbol. As Spain's corporate culture spurns the idea of daytime dozing as unproductive, a vocal minority -- led by a few sleep researchers and a nap salon entrepreneur named Federico Busquets -- has rallied to its defense in the name of tradition and good health.

More than save the siesta, Busquets is trying to reinvent it. His Barcelona-based chain Masajes a 1.000 offers victims of shortened lunch breaks a fast-food version of the siesta: a five-minute massage and a half-hour nap for 1,000 pesetas, or about $5.80.

With 16 franchises, the 2-year-old chain is growing sluggishly. For many Spaniards, the siesta is inseparable from the custom of going home to the family; the habit of napping anywhere else would be a change as radical as simply staying awake at midday. But Busquets is a relentless salesman.

"We are Spain," he says. "Losing the siesta would be like losing bullfights or sangria or paella."

The siesta still dictates the rhythms of towns such as Plasencia, population 41,000, where construction noise several years ago prompted the mayor to decree silence between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

But in sprawling, traffic-clogged Madrid and Barcelona, few working people have time to go home for a nap, even during the three-hour breaks that some privileged public employees still receive.

Similar schedules

In private business, breaks longer than an hour are getting rare as Europe's single currency, the euro, draws Spanish companies, stock traders and multinationals onto similar schedules with clients across the continent. Also, Spain has its share of Internet start-up wizards and wannabe millionaires who seem to work day and night for weeks on end.

"We used to put on the answering machine and leave for a two-hour break, but clients started calling more often and hanging up on the recording," says Gloria Garcia, a lawyer at a Barcelona company with international clients that is now open all day.

Big city department stores stay open from 10 a.m. to 9: 30 p.m., forcing smaller shopkeepers to skip the siesta. More shops and offices have air conditioning to beat the summer's midday heat, which often tops 100 degrees.

At the Madrid branch office of TotalFina, the French oil company, managers and salespeople are given coupons for nearby fast-food outlets -- an incentive to take quick working lunches.

But the siesta's biggest setback is an exodus of women from the home. Spain is creating 400,000 new jobs a year, the highest rate in the European Union, and women are taking the bigger share, which leaves fewer at home to cook the hot meal that traditionally precedes the siesta.

With so much conspiring against the siesta, employers and labor leaders favor contracts calling for earlier starts and shorter, more intense workdays. Instead of a 9 a.m.-to-8 p.m. day broken by a 2-p.m. to-5 p.m. siesta, for example, they prefer a continuous 8 a.m.-to-4 p.m. shift with a brief coffee break but no lunchtime. Workers facing long commutes like the idea of finishing the day earlier.

Late habits

In many cases this means less rest, not more, for the weary.

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