Early Bird in a Night Owl City: The Intersection of Time and Culture in Madrid

Kyla Hunter
October 5, 2021

A few days into my study abroad in Madrid, we have our first IES Abroad field trip to Segovia. Waking up early to head to the meeting point, my friends and I gather in the lobby of our residence hall at 8am. Stepping outside, I’m immediately disoriented. The streets are quiet and the sky is dark—the sun just barely beginning to rise. I check the time on my phone to reassure myself and marvel at the dimness of the sky. 

Soon afterwards, I learned the reason why: Spain is technically in the wrong time zone. During World War II, Spain’s facist dictator Francisco Franco moved the clocks forward to align with Nazi Germany as a symbol of solidarity. Even decades later, and despite some controversy, they have never been changed back. Despite being geographically aligned with Britain, Spanish clocks are on the same time as countries as far east as Poland.

While in most of the world, the sun usually rises before 7 am, the sunrise in Spain occurs well after 8 am. The sun rising and setting an hour later definitely seems to contribute to the late-to-bed, late-to-rise culture here in Spain. In New York City, the city springs to life bright and early in the morning. In Madrid, I’ve noticed a stillness that lingers much later into the morning. Of course, Madrileños more than make up for this by staying up late into the early hours (or even late hours) of the morning. 

Having a later start to the day is quite an adjustment for anyone who considers themselves more of an early-bird. It can be difficult to get a coffee before 9am, and few places open for lunch a moment before noon. While visiting Granada, my friends and I roamed the streets at 11am, desperately looking for food before leaving for our bus back to Madrid. Nearly every single place we passed was closed. Finally we found a kebab vendor willing to open a few minutes early for us. 

Mornings aren’t the only times that remind me how far I am from home. The famous Spanish siesta is a very real part of daily life, although it’s not exactly what most foreigners think. While most working-age people don’t actually go home and nap in the afternoon, small shops and stores do close everyday for a few hours between 2-5pm. Restaurants stay open until the end of the lunch rush (lunch is mainly eaten between 2-3pm) and close until dinner (in Spain this is 9pm at the earliest). This break in the work day is more accurately described as a long lunch break that can be used to eat, run errands, etc. Reopening around 5pm, shops stay open much later than in the U.S, with the official workday ending around 8-9pm. 

For an American, it still feels quite unusual to walk around and see shops closed in the middle of a weekday afternoon. The first week of school, I arrived on campus early and wanted to grab a coffee and some school supplies before my 5pm class. To my dismay, I quickly realized that all the shops downtown were closed for the mid-day break. Luckily, I grabbed a pre-packaged coffee from a grocery store and found a school supply shop that reopened at 4:30pm. I remember waiting on a bench outside for them to open so that I could quickly grab a notebook before dashing to class.

Upon first receiving my class schedule, I recall being surprised to see that many of my classes are in the late afternoon and evening, between 5-9pm. In the U.S., it’s rare to have classes so late in the day, and especially during 6-7pm - traditionally “dinner time”. Here in Spain, I usually finish my last class around 9pm, and head home for dinner with friends around 10 pm. 

Although it takes some getting used to, the schedule in Spain is more than just tradition or routine. It’s truly a reflection of the values and lifestyle of the people that live here. Emphasis is placed on a “working to live” and not “living to work” mentality. The relaxed pace of daily life is evidence of the value placed on relaxing, and spending time with friends and family. The difference is quite stark compared to a country like the U.S., driven by capitalism and a work-first lifestyle. Spaniards make time for the parts of life that bring the most joy: going out, staying up, eating, dancing, celebrating. Perhaps it’s why the people here are some of the happiest in the world.

Kyla Hunter

<p>Hello! My name is Kyla Hunter and I am a rising junior at Duke University studying Mechanical Engineering, with a focus on Energy &amp; Environment. Although I was born in Princeton, New Jersey, bouncing around between different states as a child was the beginning of my interest in exploring new settings and meeting new people. I have long dreamed of studying abroad and am thrilled to be participating in the IES - Engineering, Math &amp; Science Program in Madrid this fall. On campus, I am a Residential Assistant for first-year students and a tour guide for the School of Engineering. In my free time, I can often be found drawing in my sketchbook or playing the piano in the common room. I look forward to sharing some of my experiences as I navigate new cultural, social, and academic endeavors in Spain!</p>

2021 Fall
Home University:
Duke University
Princeton, NJ
Engineering - General
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