It seems to me that you can divide international families in Barcelona into two camps – those who have adapted to the typical Spanish horario, or daily schedule, and those, like me, who despite living here for years, always feel a little out of step.
In Spain the day is long. La mañana (morning) stretches way past noon until lunch, which is rarely before 2pm and often later at weekends. La tarde (the afternoon) extends well beyond what would be children’s bedtime in many countries. “A las ocho por la tarde” sounds so strange when you say it in English – eight o’clock in the afternoon!
Why does Spain follow such a different schedule from other European countries? Well, you can start by blaming Franco, who changed Madrid’s clocks to match Berlin time shortly after meeting Hitler in 1940. Spain (apart from the Canary Islands) has been on Central European time ever since, despite being as far west as parts of Wales. This has the effect of pushing the whole day back, especially in the heat of the summer months.
Although few take an actual nap in the middle of the working day, Spain’s famous siesta tradition means lunch breaks are up to two hours long, at least in theory. This drags the working day out to around 7pm for office workers, with shops staying open until 8pm or later. It’s doubtful that much more work gets done but it means that everyone goes home later.
The school day is also long compared to many countries, with kids finishing around 5pm. Some after school activities don’t even start till 6pm or later, and it’s not unusual for local kids to go to bed around 10pm, even on a school night. I foolishly agreed to a sleepover for my daughter’s fifth birthday to find that the kids arrived at 6.30pm fresh from a three-hour siesta and ready to party.
I no longer share my mother’s open-mouthed horror at seeing young children out and about close to midnight, but despite the best part of a decade in this part of the world, I’ve never been able to get with the programme. It’s not that I disapprove of this system, it’s that I just can’t manage it. I want, no, I need some quiet wind-down time at the end of the day. That means on weekdays I don’t want to be getting home much later than 6pm, and that’s assuming I’ve got a plan for dinner.
But I certainly seem to be in a minority. Kids’ doctors’ appointments after 7pm? Of course! Door-to-door-salespeople calling at 8pm? Why not? This summer at a holiday camp kid’s party I had to carry my sleeping daughter home at 11.30pm while the other primary school-aged kids happily danced the night away. Everyone assumed she must have been ill – no, she’s just six!
How on earth do the locals manage it? As far as I can tell, it seems to be a combination of later rising times and catch-up siestas at the weekend. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but I just can’t live that way, even if it means always feeling like the odd one out.
There are a few upsides to being out of step with everyone else – always being the first to arrive at a restaurant means you get the best table, for example, or avoiding the queues by doing your shopping in an empty supermarket at 2.30pm, when everyone else is having lunch.
The flip side is that when I go back to my own country, everyone thinks I’m odd for letting my daughter stay up till 8pm. I guess I just can’t win!