Learning to eat in Spain

Travel allows experiencing alternate lives, even if for a short time. I was recently in Spain for a 10-day vacation. Much to write from this trip, but I will begin with some musings about the meal schedule in the country.

First, some basic information….

There are five main meals in Spain.

The day starts with desayuno (breakfast). It is a light meal, most often skipped, which may include a coffee and a toast upon waking up. The almuerzo takes place around 11am. It is a snack, such as a pincho or bocadillo, to keep you going until the main meal of the day: the comida! The comida is the heaviest meal, eaten between 2-4pm. During this time many restaurants offer the menú del dia – multicourse meals for a good price. It may include an appetizer, the main course and dessert. Some establishments offer a glass of wine or beer, and end with a coffee.

The comida may be followed by a snack or merienda, before the cena (dinner). The cena takes place traditionally after 8pm, as late as 10pm. That is, the time when most restaurants are winding down in the US are the peak hours in Spain. This is the time for tapas or raciones (learn more here).

I decided to research eating times after making the mistake of eating a fideua for dinner.

Fideua from La Tertulia (Barcelona). Photo from Google user, similar to the one we enjoyed.

It was delicious, but also quite heavy for 10pm. Even after a 20 minute walk back to the hotel, I could still feel the fideos digesting in my stomach as I tried to sleep.

The research led me to an unexpected finding explaining the late comidas and cenas in Spain. Spaniards have been living in the wrong time zone since 1940. As explained by this BBC article,

In 1940, General Francisco Franco changed Spain’s time zone, moving the clocks one hour forward in solidarity with Nazi Germany. For Spaniards, who at the time were utterly devastated by the Spanish Civil War, complaining about the change did not even cross their minds. They continued to eat at the same time, but because the clocks had changed, their 1pm lunches became 2pm lunches, and they were suddenly eating their 8pm dinners at 9pm. After World War II ended, the clocks were never changed back.

While tourists may enjoy late dinners and sunsets in Spain resulting from this change, there are consequences to perpetually living in the wrong time zone – sleep deprivation and loss of productivity.

There are ongoing discussions about changing the timezone. These include debates about the relevance of the siesta today. A 2017 study, cited in the above mentioned article, shows that more than half of those interviewed (57.9%) do not nap. Most of those who do nap reported not being bothered if unable to enjoy their midday sleep.

Spain is under pressure to change. Some argue that the siesta prevents earnings from midday commerce, as businesses close between 2-4pm, and the resulting odd restaurant hours may inconvenience tourists. Interestingly, tourism is, in fact, one of the arguments for the elimination of the siesta, but also, for keeping the existing time zone. I will continue to follow the debate over time zones and siestas in Spain. Such discussion provide many lessons learned on how sociocultural traditions survive (or not) amid a globalized and homogenizing world.

While it did require some planning (and research) to accommodate to Spain’s schedule, in the end, that is part of the beauty of travel. The eating experience in Spain led me to rethink my current eating patterns, particularly the heaviness of my usual dinners. On a typical weekday in the semester, I start with breakfast upon waking up. A lunch around noon. And dinner at some point between 6-8pm. Sometimes I skip lunch, especially on days when I teach. I try to have light lunches, to avoid the afternoon slump. These lunch habits result in overeating during dinner.

Being back in my normal schedule at home, I am still trying to figure out how to accommodate my eating pattern. No success yet. I realize how my eating pattern is not only constrained by work schedules, but also by the need to feel “productive” – a mindset that require rethinking naps not as acts of leisure, but as a quick midday recharge, resulting in more productive afternoons.