Adapting to the Siesta in Bilbao

Nicholas Mathis is a student at Virginia Military Institute and an ISA Featured Blogger. Nicholas is currently studying abroad with ISA in Bilbao, Spain.

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I like to think of myself as a pretty easy-going guy.  I don’t get easily upset, and I like to go with the flow. But here I am, staring at the sign hanging in front of the sports office in my university that tells me the working hours. “Closed from 1:00 to 4:00,” I said slowly, not believing what I was seeing. “Who closes in the middle of the day!?”

I had just finished class, and it was one of my first few weeks in Bilbao. I had come down to the office fully intent on talking to someone about what teams I could join and what gyms were good to go to; I was fully loaded with questions. But there I was, stymied by such a simple object: a closed door. I didn’t have much of a choice; I was done with classes for the day, and I didn’t want to wait around for three hours. “I guess it can just wait for tomorrow,” I sighed as I walked away to catch the bus.

This was the first time the Spanish schedule really caught up to me, but there would be plenty more instances to come. As I went home I noticed for the first time just how many places were closed; people were locking the doors to their shops and heading home, or out to a local pintxo bar for a quick bite before coming back to work for a few more hours in the afternoon. It all just seemed so inconvenient to me. “Why bother closing down just to come back and work a few more hours in the evening?” I wondered, amazed at this perplexing system. At the time, I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. Keep in mind, I come from a military college. I’m used to living my life by getting up early and running straight through the day with no stops. Before my arrival in Bilbao, I thought I would be prepared for just about anything. The last thing I was worried about was handling a schedule; I thought I was ready for anything. The one thing I wasn’t prepared for was such a radically different way of life.

Now of course, not everyone follows this schedule, but enough people and businesses do that it’s very noticeable. Most large stores stay open, as do pharmacies and larger branches of banks. However, most small mom and pop stores close in the afternoon until the early evening, and even some smaller banks take an hour or two of the legendary siesta. This doesn’t seem to be a huge inconvenience, and in reality it’s not. It’s actually a very nice break in the middle of the day when families often come home to eat lunch together, or friends go out to a local restaurant for a drink and a bite to eat. However, when you’re still fresh to the culture and you’re used to sticking to a schedule, it might throw you for a loop when the office you were planning on going to is unexpectedly closed in the middle of the day.

I can comfortably say now though (after three months), that I love the Spanish system. It definitely takes some time to get used to, but that time in the middle of the afternoon is incredible. Some days I come home to eat with my family, while other days I’ll get lunch with some friends, or maybe take a mid-afternoon power nap. It’s a good time to run errands (provided the store you need to go to is open, check the hours!), and also to knock out some homework. Classes always take a break in the middle of the day as well, so even students have the time to themselves. What it boils down to is just a different way of life, and once I accepted that, it was actually a nice change of pace.

All in all, it’s been nothing less than a life changing experience to change my perspective on life. I don’t think there are many things better than to fully accept another country’s culture and really experience the style of life. The more time I spend here, the more I feel like I belong, and I think one of the biggest parts of that is accepting the schedule of life here. I truly enjoy the siesta now, and it’s good to take a minute in the middle of the day to relax and take stock of things. I think Spaniards might be on to something, and it’s going to be hard to let go of this way of life when I make that flight back to the east coast! I can see it now, “Wait…you’re open? But it’s 1:30 in the afternoon!”


2 thoughts

  1. “I think Spaniards might be on to something” I spent last semester in Toledo, Spain and felt the exact same! Great writing, I feel you’ll miss the relaxed and not very punctual nature of the Spaniards, I sure do.

  2. Thanks to Nicholas for a very nice, interesting and fun post! I was just concerned about one thing, the “door closed”. I am proud to be able to say that ISA stays open from 9:30 to 5:30 p.m. non stop. We are right next to Campus, so, when everything else is closed up, there is always a place to come to, even if is not the specific “Sports department” from the University, we always try to give an answer or at least try to help. You all are always welcome to come to ISA and share your thoughs and needs, this is the reason why we are here, just for you!

    Genoveva García-Gallardo | Resident Director Bilbao, Spain ISA (International Studies Abroad) Avd. Universidades 8, entreplanta dcha.| Bilbao,48007 Phone: 628 078 730 | Office: 944 452 195 | ISA on Facebook | ISA on Twitter | This Email is protected by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-2521.

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