Sunday, September 22, 2013

Turn Back Time: Spanish hours

With autumn having arrived, it feels as though we should be turning the clocks back. The days are already shorter, but it will of course still be a month or so before darkness will really be settling in at six in the evening. From the end of October, for anyone in the UK, at six in the evening it will have been well and truly dark for an hour. There have been moves to change UK "time" and to bring the clocks in line with Central European Time. Were it to be, then it would be the same time in Spain as it is in the UK.

While there was debate about an alteration under the Daylight Saving Bill (which failed to complete its passage through parliament) and while it might be possible that the UK might one day end up on Central European Time, in Spain there is a possibility that time would go in the opposite direction; Spain's Congress has called for a socioeconomic study to be undertaken into switching Spain's "time" to match that of the UK.   

If you turn the clock back over a hundred years - to 1901 - you will discover that Spain adopted Greenwich Mean Time in that year. Spain was on the same time system as the UK until 1940. When Germany, which had an hour's difference, i.e. "Berlin Time" (now Central European Time), invaded France, which at the start of the Second World War was also on GMT, the Nazis changed the French system to match that of Germany. The Spanish decided to follow the new French model, and so it has been ever since.

The Greenwich Meridian runs through Spain in a line that corresponds, for example, with the location of Castellón in Valencia. Consequently, and although Mallorca is therefore to the east, mostly all of Spain is to the west, just like Portugal, which is on GMT (as, by the way, are the Canaries). Spain's Central European Time is in fact an anomaly. Or just wrong, and it was the Nazis who, if not directly, were responsible for this anomaly.

The professor and director of the International Centre for Work and Family at the IESE Business School, Nuria Chinchilla , has been arguing the case for some years for Spain to revert to GMT. Congress wants to consider the socioeconomic impact of her proposal because the change would have a number of consequences for the very nature of life and especially for eating habits.

Professor Chinchilla has pointed out that in Spain lunch is determined by the importance placed on solar time (and mean solar time was the system before GMT was introduced), resulting, because of the current CET system, in lunch being taken at three in the afternoon in summer (or two in winter). Dinner follows this pattern, which is why Spaniards eat at ten in the evening in summer. Because of this, and although there certainly are businesses which don't bother opening until ten in the morning or later, no one should start work before ten. But they do of course and they habitually get an hour's less sleep than they should do because they have been going to bed too late.

Reverting to GMT is just one aspect of what has been a debate about "time" which has been going on for several years. Professor Chinchilla presented her proposal at something called the Congress for Rationalisation of Spanish Schedules in December last year. It was the seventh such congress. There is a national commission that bears the title of this congress and, as can be seen by the fact that parliament wants a study, a parliamentary commission as well. Another key point for debate, and it partly has to do with when people eat, is the working day in Spain. Essentially, there is a desire to see the tradition of the siesta scrapped, to ensure that the typical working day starts between 7.30am and 9am and ends by 6pm, to eradicate the mid-morning "breakfast", which can last anything up to an hour, and to limit lunch breaks to no more than 45 minutes.

The impact of introducing GMT and of a fundamental alteration to the daily pattern of life would be profound. Or it would be profound in theory. In practice one wonders. It would take a great deal to make the Spaniard change the habits of a lifetime or of a lunchtime, while passing any meaningful legislation which might impose all this could take ... . Well, who knows how long it might take? Time moves at its own very Spanish pace. And there is, after all, always mañana.

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