September 5, 2011

A typical Spanish day

Spaniards have a very distinctive schedule in terms of mealtimes and work schedules. The fastest way to get pegged as a foreigner here is to be found eating lunch "early," at noon or 1PM and dinner at 7PM. Spaniards eat _much_ later than in other countries, and to date I have yet to find any other country like it.

Americans who come here always complain that it is too hard to wait until the local lunch or dinner time, but this is because many of them haven't yet figured out that locals actually have _five_ mealtimes, rather than just three. (There is ongoing debate among dieticians over whether five meals a day is healthier than three.) Let me briefly describe the typical Spanish day for those who want to blend in with the locals. If you can learn to adjust to this schedule, you will find that it enormously improves your chances of mixing with locals and experiencing their day-to-day life.

The work schedule and mealtime is schematically as follows:

 ~8AM                                  "El desayuno" (Breakfast)
                   "El almuerzo" (mid-morning snack)
                     "La comida" (Lunch)
                        "La merienda" (optional mid-afternoon snack)
                   "La cena" (Dinner)

This routine varies from job to job, and company to company. Some jobs start at 8AM, and end the day earlier, and most retail shops don't open until 10AM and close around 8 to 9PM. If one ignores the half-hour break for almuerzo, you can see how this schedule adds up to an eight-hour workday, which just ends later than the typical 9-to-5 schedule in the U.S.

Contrary to popular imagination, the two-hour long lunch is not a result of the siesta. Working Spaniards who take a two-hour lunch usually do so because they eat it at home, and either therefore need the extra time to prepare a homemade lunch or have to commute to and from the office to their homes. However, it is becoming increasingly common for many workers to only take a one-hour lunch, and simply eat in or near the office.

Don't be fooled. At noon Spaniards aren't
eating lunch. They're having an almuerzo.
A breakfast is usually pretty light fare in Spain, so the "almuerzo" is a pretty important snack to carry people over until a 2-2:30PM lunchtime. (Note: in Madrid, and possibly other regions in Spain, lunch is called almuerzo, and the mid-morning snack is referred to as "picoteo" or snack.) The almuerzo is also really important office social time. It is quite common for co-workers ("compañeros") to leave the office together and go to a nearby bar to eat tapas or a "bocadillo" (sandwich). Needless to say, this is a time for building office comaraderie and networking.

The "merienda," on the other hand is really more for kids. If you walk by an "horno" (bakery) around 5–6PM, it is common to see parents or grandparents stopping by with their kids on the way home from school, to buy the kid a baked sweet (referred to as "bollería"). Though in the summer many adult Spaniards might also be spotted buying an ice cream snack. More commonly, around 6-7PM you will see many Spaniards out to "tomar una caña" (drink a beer) with some nuts or a small tapa with friends or colleagues after work.

Kids leaving school around 5PM, parents with snacks
in hand or grandparents ready to take them to the horno.

A quick drink, or caña, after work.
These snacktimes are why Spaniards have what seems to foreigners to be an amazing stamina for very late lunches and dinners. When I say that Spaniards have dinner at 9PM or later, I mean that 9PM is the earliest they would eat. Dinner at 10PM is pretty common, especially if one is dining out, and some eat even later. This is why primetime TV doesn't usually start until after the 9-10PM national news, and why Spaniards go to bed pretty late, around midnight on average, even on work nights.

And this schedule runs even later on weekends, with lunch usually at 3-3:30PM, and dinner no earlier than 10PM. Lunches are usually the heavier meal, and dinners, what with being so late, a lighter meal.


Aiketa said...

I just discovered your blog. I am Catalan and I've been reading some of your posts and I like how you explain our culture.

This post specially I found myself nodding many times. You explained everything so right! I've been to many countries and it's really hard for me to get used to the three meal thing instead of having the snacks.

Espero que l'estudi del valencià estigui siguen profitós.

Salutacions des de Barcelona.

An Expat in Spain said...

Moltes gràcies, Aiketa! M'agrada molt conéixer el seu blog, també. A veure si puc practicar el català llegint-lo.

The dirty little secret in most Anglophone countries is that most people do actually snack throughout the day, just not in a structured way like here in Spain.

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Anonymous said...

Iranians have very similar eating habits.

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