You’re probably reading this while eating lunch or watching TV. I know I would be if I were back at Bowdoin. Soon, you’ll head off to class or to work in your biology lab for the afternoon before getting ready to go out for the night.
But in Granada, Spain, that’s not how life is. Life is structured here, but not in the I-have-to-be-doing-something-every-minute-or-else-I’m-missing-out way that we’ve been conditioned to accept in the U.S.
In Spain, there are times for work and times for play, but there is also a lot of scheduled unscheduled time. I know that every day after class, I’ll come home for three hours for my siesta and will have nothing pressing to do. If I feel like reading a book, I’ll go sit in the patio of my piso and do just that; if I want to take a nap, there’s nothing stopping me. Today I walked around the Albayzín barrio and took some photos of the majestic Alhambra that happens to be right outside my front door. No pasa nada.
Here, not taking the opportunity to take a step back and relax is like neglecting to check your Facebook at Bowdoin. It just doesn’t happen. They don’t like waste in Granada, and wasting the chance to slow things down is no exception to the rule.
In America, we’re focusing more and more on becoming a sustainable society, and being conscious of what we waste. Once, on a middle school trip my grade ate in a mess hall for a week and were notified after each meal how much foodscrap waste we had accumulated with the goal of lessening the amount. At Bowdoin, I’ve been on the losing side of two energy savings challenges and am still hoping to eventually win my pizza party prize.
Americans might be informed of a number of conservation tactics, but it sometimes takes extrinsic motivation to spur us to action. In Spain, the balance happens naturally. People take the food they’ll eat—and if they want seconds they get it—and nobody would think to leave the lights on in a room after everyone leaves it.
In Granada, sustainability doesn’t simply mean working to not waste our food, water and electricity, but also taking time to maintain our own energy: people work to fill their schedules not with quantity but with quality. American society encourages us to jam-pack our days with activity after activity and to do anything that we can squeeze into our schedules in the effort of getting ahead in some way. But here, with the siesta and mandatory unfilled time, we don’t relax because we have no more things to do, we relax because it is something to do. Just like going to class and brushing our teeth, a good siesta is part of a complete day.
At two in the afternoon, right when the sun is at its strongest, the city basically shuts down. I’ll walk back to my homestay from class on empty streets, and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen stores with their doors still open (although down the street, tourists seem to love crowding around Heladería Tiggiani around 2 p.m. to buy its ice cream).
It’s during the lunchtime siesta that Granadinos have their main family time. People rush in the morning to get to work or class and at night usually go out to tapas with their friends, but during siesta, everybody gets together. Eating paella or a potaje for lunch constitutes the biggest meal of the day, and it is more than enough to get you through the eight-plus hours until the late-night Spanish dinner.
In America we like to grab a sandwich and eat it during class, or brown-bag it by scarfing down an express lunch in our five-minute break between classes. Lunch is just a formality at times, and if we have to miss it here and there, we make up for it by snacking later in the afternoon. But here, neglecting a family comida is a cardinal sin: by my semi-professional calculations, Spaniards are actually about four times as likely to eat lunch with their family on a daily basis than they are to go to church on Sunday.
Try as I may, it would be hard to go back to Bowdoin and schedule a siesta every day. It would be great to eat a slow, leisurely lunch with my friends and follow it with a nap, but with everything else going on that’s not very practical. Like an Amish teenager on his Rumspringa coming-of-age journey into the outside world, I’m living in a totally new area, enabled to look back on my customary way of life from the lens of an outsider.
Our American way of life prescribes a certain way of doing things: we should schedule our days to the brim and do as many extra-curriculars as we can, and at times material goods overshadow our own personal wellness. There is definitely a place for high-octane activity, but like the Buddhist monks believe, you need some time to do nothing and take a step back from the normal routine in order to really appreciate all that you do.
Here in Granada, we schedule free time for siesta just as though it were a core university class, and I’ll surely miss it when I’m sitting in Kanbar next spring in the middle of back-to-back-to-back classes. Giving ourselves the opportunity to schedule some free time into our days, and not just have it be an unintended consequence of breaks in the action, constitutes a very important aspect of personal self-sustainability—albeit one that takes a ten-hour plane flight to an 1,100-year-old city to really appreciate.