The curious case of the missing Spanish afternoon

The curious case of the missing Spanish afternoon

When I first moved to Spain last summer, I felt strangely disoriented. I could hardly blame the culture shock – I had been visiting the country for years before moving to Madrid. I speak Spanish. I have a Spanish family. But I had never lived here and something wasn’t right. Then an accidental comment from a friend crystallized the problem. “The thing is, in Spain you don’t have a word before noon,” she said. And she was right.

I know the online dictionaries will tell you otherwise – that noon translates to “la tarde” in Spanish. But it’s more complicated than that. The tarde is not a neatly defined word that covers a separate part of the day before evening. Because what is the word for evening in Spain? It is also “la tarde”.

Yes, slippery but hegemonic, the tarde reigns supreme, an amorphous concept that spans a portion of the day so wide it takes two words for other languages. The tarde resists control, and there is no social consensus on what it means. Spaniards themselves cannot agree when it starts or ends. “In that sense, there is chaos in Spanish life,” says Fernando Vilches, a linguist at the University of Rey Juan Carlos. I think we can name my condition: scheduling shock.

Spaniards divide the day by several parameters. Those I will call clockists, often young people who have lived abroad, think in hours. But what hours? No one agrees with me that the tarde starts at noon. A minister told me that he greets people with “buenas tardes” when he starts a speech at 12:30. “But when it’s 12 a.m. and you say people are looking at you funny.” Many whistleblowers say the tarde starts at 2 p.m. But there is also a 4 p.m. faction.

Then there are the gourmets, who do not divide the day into hours but into meals, which in Spain are often long, late and wonderfully convivial. For those who say the tarde doesn’t start until you’ve started lunch, it could be 2:30, 3, or even later. But for many older people, it doesn’t start until you’ve finished eating, keeping you going past 4 or even 5 p.m.

A big lunch with clients can start with beer, wind through wine and end with a shot of pacharán, followed by a gin and tonic in the bar next door. “Then it goes back to work at 6 p.m.,” says Vilches. “If you do that to a poor American, he’s drunk, sleepy and wants to go home. So we need to change things up a bit.” And indeed, the change has begun: many companies have dropped the standard two-hour lunch break so that people can go home earlier.

The famous siesta after lunch in Spain is also not as common as you might think. The only people I know who take regular weekday naps are in daycare or retired. One is my relative Marcelino, 70, who says the tarde doesn’t start until he wakes up around 7 p.m. But more people take a nap in the summer, as the sweltering heat makes it hard to do anything without air conditioning. If much of the day is written off, you may not need words for afternoon and evening.

By 9 p.m., the early birds will start dinner. But nine to ten is a gray zone where greeting someone with “buenas noches” instead of “buenas tardes” can elicit one of those funny looks. At the weekend there are still children in the playgrounds at 10.30 pm. Restaurant reservations can be made from a quarter to midnight.

Daniel Gabaldón, a sociologist at the University of Valencia, says this is all related to another curiosity: mainland Spain is in the wrong time zone. If the clocks were set according to the position of the sun, it would be the same time as the UK and Portugal. But instead it’s forward an hour, because in the 1940s Francisco Franco’s dictatorship decided that Spain should be aligned with Nazi Germany. Half of the year, Spain sets its clocks to solar time at the German-Polish border. When it adjusts to daylight saving time, it corresponds to solar time in the center of Ukraine.

Having lunch at 2:30 pm in Spain means that, according to solar time, you really eat around 1:30 pm (in winter) or 12:30 pm (in summer). It is unhealthy that official time and natural time get so out of hand, says Nuria Chinchilla of Iese Business School. “We have constant jet lag.” It’s no wonder everything gets blurry.

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