On my first day in Madrid, Spain, while easing into the practice of only speaking the local language, I had the opportunity of conversing with a native madrileño. Although my newfound friend and I began with simple introductions, the conversation quickly digressed into a rather argumentative discussion on the topic of the siesta — a break in the workday when the entire city manages to sleep. Despite my admiration for the art of napping (if napping were an Olympic sport, I’d surely be a gold medalist), I could hardly comprehend the existence of a society in which such a break was not only acceptable, it was a norm. I, the product of a culture whose workforce reveres long hours and professional devotion, questioned the practicality of such a convention. The local Spaniard simply replied, “The tradition of the siesta is all we know, and it makes us happy.” In that particular moment, I felt entirely unqualified to continue denouncing the well-established practice. With such a minimal knowledge of his culture, how could I have the audacity to form an opinion on his lifestyle?
Rather than judge, I took the opposite approach — I followed the syllogism he laid out for me. If happiness improves quality of life, and the motivation for most decisions in life is to improve said quality … where did his logic falter? Despite my years as a seasoned debater, I found myself momentarily speechless — it was a cold and unfamiliar territory. Could the peculiarities of the Spanish culture truly form a happier population than the competitive one I have been a part of for 20 years? With three months ahead of me and a strong sense of curiosity, I sought to find out the answer for myself.
The next day I arrived at my host mother’s apartment in the residential neighborhood of Parque de las Avenidas. I was promptly exposed to a number of cultural quirks, the first of which consisted of the following: In Spain there is no such thing as a quick meal — consumption is a social activity. Although the custom takes time away from important parts of one’s daily routine, this so-called system of “sociable consumption” is thoroughly enjoyable and typically well-worth the investment. Meals, particularly lunch (the day’s most substantial meal), require diners to break from the day’s chaos and partake in lively discussion. The most intimate conversations I have shared with my host mother, Pilar, have been during these lunches. She speaks to me daily of her childhood memories of the Spanish Civil War, of the years she spent in Morocco and of the moment her grandson Luigi (now 21 years old) found out that Santa Claus didn’t exist. These discussions form some of my most precious memories of the past semester. Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice that logical flaws exist within the cultural framework that perpetuates this gastronomical tradition.
Spain’s current state of fiscal distress is common knowledge. The number of homeless individuals sleeping on the street reflects the high unemployment rate; consistent metro delays reflect service cuts made as a result of nearly depleted budgets; the day that three major trade unions went on strike — and my school canceled classes as a safety precaution — reflects anger building amongst members of the country’s middle class. The suffering of Spain’s general population is evident in every corner of this city: a fact I recognize, even after calling Madrid home for only three months. Is it sensible to continue living the way the Spanish always have? Does it make sense to close convenience stores and tobacco stands at 7 p.m., when most working Spaniards have the time to shop on their journeys home? Does it make sense to eat one’s largest meal in the middle of the day, when such a level of consumption requires a period of rest? Does it make sense to put life on pause for a siesta when this country requires every minute of productivity it can muster? It is not as though the Spaniards can easily change these customs that form an integral part of their culture, but it is easy to question the practicality of such traditions during a time of financial strife.
Perhaps then the real question is as follows: Do these cultural idiosyncrasies lead to a truly happier population, and if so, is it worth the price?
Stephanie Mazursky is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .