Sundays, Siestas, and Spanish Values

By: Alejandra Baez

February 23, 2015

Sundays, Siestas, and Spanish Values It was only my second day in Salamanca, and it seemed as though every shop was closed. The program director had warned us that on Sundays almost all stores would not open, even the big chain department stores. Regardless, it was still surprising and surreal to walk through the Plaza Mayor and the popular shopping streets of Calle Zamora and Calle Toro and see shop windows shut and security bars in place. Despite now having spent almost three weeks here in Spain, it continually catches me off guard each Sunday morning that I can’t pick up groceries or check out the new sales at Zara.

My initial reaction to this weekly shutdown was that of frustration. Sunday, for me, is typically a day for relaxing, yes, but also for running errands and taking care of tasks that can’t be completed during the week; these tasks include grocery and clothes shopping. At Georgetown, my academic classes, club participation, and job tend to keep me busy for most of the day, so that any free time I do manage is either too short to make a trip to Safeway or M Street, or after stores have already closed for the day. Sunday shopping is a fairly common ritual for Americans; this is clear just by looking at the usually immense amount of cars parked outside of the supermarket and the mall.

In Spain, it is not allowed for big supermarkets or department stores, like Carrefour and El Corte Inglés, to be open on Sundays; in fact, these large scale stores are only permitted to open one Sunday a month. This prohibition exists to prevent mom-and-pop stores from running out of business or feeling compelled to work seven days a week in order to compete. This rule is widely accepted and followed, and Spaniards generally do not seem to mind the inability to make purchases once a week.

Similarly, in Salamanca during lunch hours (1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.), the entire city takes a break—the infamous siesta. The day I experienced my first siesta, I was ecstatic. Finally, I was in a country where taking an afternoon nap, or descanso, was not only socially acceptable but culturally expected of you. But I soon became disillusioned with the concept. While the afternoon rest is greatly appreciated, I found it inconvenient that, for a full three hours of each day, I could not get anything done. I came to understand an important difference between the American and Spanish cultures.

In the United States, time is a commodity. We Americans live fast-paced lives; the idea is that if we complete our tasks faster or arrive at our destinations sooner, we will have more time to do more things later. It is a very Georgetown (if not American) notion that doing nothing (literally, as in relaxing, meditating, taking naps, et cetera) is the equivalent of wasting time which is already a scarce good.

Here in Spain, there is great value placed on the siesta and meal times. These hours of rest are a break from the workday and represent a time for reflection and an opportunity to bring the family together. It is rare to see Spaniards taking food “to go,” or, as it is commonly translated here, ordering “take-away.” Instead you will find coworkers and friends getting together for a midmorning café or an afternoon tapa or pincho. The concept of a lunch meeting would probably be met with strange looks, as there seems to be a strict separation between home and work life.

While it is difficult for me to leave behind the “efficiency and productivity first” lifestyle I am used to in the United States, I see the benefits of taking time off each day for some well deserved rest and relaxation. It is clear that Spaniards strongly value family time and caring for their personal health. Although our workdays end earlier in the United States, one could argue that with the siesta, Spanish workers return well rested and reenergized, which increases productivity and employee morale. The Spanish seem perfectly content to put the world on pause each Sunday and each day during siesta.

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