On a Fulbright to Spain, in pursuit of the meaning of sleep. In the 21st century, it’s not what it used to be.
The truth is, I didn’t even particularly like naps. All those daylight hours, wasted. Even as an infant I protested, lobbing baby bottles from my crib whenever my parents tried to put me down for the afternoon. So I was as surprised as anyone when I landed in Madrid in the fall of 2012 with a Fulbright fellowship to write a book about the Spanish siesta.
Orientation was held in a fancy hotel in the Chamberí district. When I told my fellow grantees about my research, the reaction was always the same: stunned silence for a beat, then a peal of laughter, then back to a straight-faced expression: “No, really, what are you studying?”
Despite sounding like a punch line, my project was meant to delve into serious questions about time, sleep, and leisure in a 21st-century globalized world. In my lifetime, technology has upped the tempo of life so much that time itself seems to have dissolved. Thanks to instantaneous communications, we inhabit what sociologist Manuel Castells calls “timeless time,” a perpetual now. With busyness a cherished value, sleep seems like a relic from another century, and those who prioritize it are deemed frivolous at best, morally defective at worst.
Where did these ideas about sleep originate? Have people always associated napping with sloth—or only recently? Which forces contributed to development of the siesta as an institution? Which are lobbying for its demise?
SIESTA AND STEREOTYPES
“You’re studying siesta?” asked María Bajo de la Fuente, an English teacher at a school in suburban Barcelona. I’d come to survey students about their sleep habits. She grimaced. “Well … it’s a topic.” Later I realized she was mistranslating the Spanish word tópico, meaning cliché.
She chided me that siesta was an outdated stereotype perpetuated by foreigners. To an extent, she’s right: For most people, commuting home to nap is no more possible in Barcelona or Madrid than in New York or London. There’s also been a generational shift as young workers shake off their parents’ customs. As a result, studies find only 7 to 16 percent of Spaniards take a daily siesta—far fewer than in Germany, the UK, and even the United States, where a 2009 Pew poll found that more than a third of us reported having napped in the last day.
At the end of my class visit, another teacher offered some advice.
“Siesta, it’s not so important in Catalunya,” she said, shaking a finger at me. (Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya.) “You need to go to the south.”
She meant the largely agricultural region of Andalusía, where, the logic goes, the hotter weather keeps people idle during the afternoon hours. That also plays into deep-seated regional stereotypes—for example, the hard-working Catalans toiling to pay for the welfare of those siesta-taking slackers in the south, where unemployment had recently hit 40 percent. Few Barcelona students I surveyed said they thought siesta was an important Spanish tradition. Yet a 2009 study by Spain’s Health Education Foundation found Catalans to be, in fact, slightly more somnolent than their southern brethren, with 17.1 percent admitting to taking a daily nap, compared to 16.6 percent in Andalusía. When it comes to the siesta, maybe stereotypes aren’t just for foreigners.
THE SLEEP DOCTOR
The idea that climate is the cause of daytime sleepiness “is a total lie,” says Dr. Eduard Estivill. “Americans need a nap as much as the Spanish.”
An avuncular man of about 65 with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye, Estivill is one of Spain’s foremost sleep doctors. I met him at his elegant home in Barcelona’s chic Sant Gervasi neighborhood (singer Shakira lives nearby) to learn how circadian rhythms influence the desire for an afternoon nap. Estivill showed me an M-shaped graph charting changes in body and brain temperature throughout the course of a day. When we wake up each morning, he explained, brain temperature rises by half a degree as heat shifts away from the skin; when we get sleepy, the brain cools down and the body heats up again.
“See here?” he asked, pointing to the dip in the middle of the M. “About six to eight hours after we wake up, that’s when the body warms up and asks to take a nap. It has nothing to do with food. People think it does, but it doesn’t.”
The ideal siesta lasts about 20 minutes, said Estivill, who tries to nap daily (manageable when you work in a sleep lab). But he is also part of a national campaign that advocates an overhaul of Spain’s two-part “siesta” schedule in favor of an American-style 9-to-5. Government offices officially ended the two-hour lunch back in 2006, but the workday at many private-sector companies still lasts until 7 or 8 p.m., which pushes dinner to 9 or 10. Primetime TV doesn’t end until after midnight. The result, Estivill said, is that the Spanish sleep nearly an hour less per day than other Europeans. It’s a paradox: Spain, famous for its siesta, is in a state of chronic sleep deprivation.
DALÍ AND DESIRE
Late one afternoon in Seville, with the Guadalquivir glittering in the setting sun, at a café on the banks of the river, Rubén García described his perfect nap.
“It’s when you’re lying on the couch after lunch, watching TV, and you doze off just long enough that the remote control slips out of your hand, falls to the floor, and wakes you up,” he explained between sips of café con leche. A 30-something photographer, Rubén had lived most of his life in Andalusía, the so-called cradle of the siesta, where everyone told similar anecdotes. Sometimes it was a fork that fell to the floor, other times a spoon. It puzzled me that so many people would cheer such a short, unsatisfying nap.
When I dug into it later, I decided that Rubén’s preference had evolved from a technique used by painter Salvador Dalí, who had in turn borrowed it from the Capuchin monks of Toledo. To achieve his optimal siesta, Dalí would sit upright in a chair, holding a leaden key between two fingers, with a silver platter placed on the floor at his feet. He’d drift off just long enough for the key to slip from his fingers and clatter to the plate, waking him up. Dalí believed these microsiestas helped him reach hypnagogia, the state between sleep and wakefulness, when dreamlike imagery could be accessed by the conscious mind.
“You know,” Rubén said, “the best siestas are taken en pareja.” With a partner.
I didn’t take him up on the invitation, but as I was crossing the Triana Bridge to my apartment alone, the first stars of the evening blinking into view, Rubén’s comment got me thinking about the link between siesta and sex. Dr. Estivill had said it’s medically advisable to get frisky at siesta time rather than late at night. As Spain transitioned to a siesta-less workday, would the country’s collective sex life suffer?
A few months later, I found my way to the apartment of Señora Rius, a 74-year-old Barcelona madam. Her place was like something out of a 1980s evening soap, all gold and mirrors and mood lighting. Rius herself reminded me of a blonde Gloria Swanson, her bright eyes defined by swaths of blue shadow, her hair carefully coiffed and Aquanetted.
Rius has logged more than a half century in the business of what she calls “making men.” I tracked her down to ask if over the decades she’d seen a change in how many male callers she received during the afternoon hours.
“I’ve never wanted to work at night, even when I was young,” she told me as she sat in a zebra-print upholstered armchair, stroking her shih tzu, Ninet. “At night, a man’s tired, he’s lived a little, he’s had a couple of drinks, but in the afternoon you’re more vital.”
The hours after lunch always brought a spike in visitors, she said—and that hadn’t changed much in recent years, though her overall business had declined as a result of the economic crisis. Rius herself never picked up the habit of napping, but said she could appreciate the midday pause that the siesta schedule allows.
“It’s a space from 2 to 4 or 5 that seems a bit your own,” she said. “Forget about work … walk in the park. In other places they might nap, but here, well … we do other things.”
Primal drives aren’t easily reined in by changing times, she noted. “It doesn’t matter if it’s morning, noon, or afternoon. The first opportunity men have for sex, they take it.”
“About six to eight hours after we wake up, that’s when the body warms up and asks to take a nap. It has nothing to do with food. People think it does, but it doesn’t.”
Most days in Barcelona, I followed the same routine. I started with a quick cortado at the corner bar, followed by a morning of work at the Biblioteca Nacional de Catalunya, a gorgeous 15th-century former hospital with Gothic arches and huge windows that let the thin morning light stream in. After lunch at a nearby café, I’d wade back through the crowds of tourists, street vendors, shoppers, and commuters that filled the Rambla and the narrow streets of the Barrio Gótico. At my hundred-year-old apartment building near the Picasso Museum, I’d climb eight flights of stairs to my little attic apartment, draw the blinds, and settle in for a 20-minute snooze.
At first I had to force myself to do it—for the sake of the research—but I soon grew to relish those quiet moments. Unexpectedly, I felt more productive on my siesta schedule than I ever did back in the States, waking up refreshed and energized for afternoon work. But that was just a side effect. As I left Spain and took my siesta habit on the road, to Latin America and eventually back to the United States, I came to see that its true value lay precisely in its disvalue. It gave me permission to unplug and experience the sweetness of doing nothing. After a lifetime of fighting it, I’ve finally made my peace with the afternoon nap.
Maya Kroth ’01 is working on a book about the history of the siesta, based on her Fulbright research. She is a freelance writer and napping evangelist.