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The curious case of the missing Spanish afternoon

When I first moved to Spain last summer, I felt strangely disorientated. I could hardly blame culture shock — I’d been visiting the country for years before I moved to Madrid. I speak Spanish. I have Spanish family. But I’d never lived here, and something was out of place. Then a chance comment from a friend crystallised the problem. “The thing is that in Spain you have no word for the afternoon,” she said. And she was right.

I know the online dictionaries will tell you otherwise — that the afternoon translates into “la tarde” in Spanish. But it’s more complicated than that. The tarde is not a neatly defined word that covers a discrete segment of the day before evening. Because what’s the word for evening in Spain? It’s “la tarde” too.

Yes, slippery but hegemonic, the tarde reigns over it all, an amorphous concept that spans a chunk of the day so large that other languages need two words for it. The tarde resists control, and there is no social consensus on what it means. Spanish people themselves cannot agree when it begins or ends. “In that sense there’s a chaos in Spanish life,” says Fernando Vilches, a linguist at Rey Juan Carlos university. I think we can give my affliction a name: scheduling shock.

Spaniards divide the day by different parameters. The ones I’ll call clockists, often youngsters who’ve lived abroad, think in terms of hours. But which hours? No one agrees with me that the tarde starts at midday. A government minister told me he greets people with “buenas tardes” if he starts a speech at 12.30pm. “But if it’s 12pm and you say that people give you a funny look.” A lot of clockists say the tarde starts at 2pm. But there’s a 4pm faction too.

Then there are the foodists, who carve up the day not by hours but by meals, which in Spain are often long, late and wonderfully convivial. For those who say the tarde doesn’t begin until you’ve started lunch, that can mean half-past two, three or even later. But for many older people it doesn’t begin until you’ve finished eating, which gets you beyond 4pm or even 5pm.

A big lunch with clients can start with beer, spiral through wine, and end with a shot of pacharán, followed by a gin and tonic in the bar next door. “Then it’s back to work at 6pm,” says Vilches. “You do that to a poor American and he’s drunk, sleepy and wants to go home. So we have to change things a bit.” And indeed change has begun: a lot of companies have dropped the standard two-hour lunch break so people can get home earlier to their families.

Spain’s famed post-lunch siesta is also not as common as you’d think. The only people I know who have regular weekday naps are in nursery or retirement. One is my relative Marcelino, 70, who says the tarde doesn’t begin until he wakes up at around 7pm. But more people nap in the summer, as the blistering heat makes it hard to do anything without aircon. When a big part of the day is a write-off, perhaps you don’t need words for afternoon and evening.

By 9pm the early birds are starting dinner. But nine to ten is a grey zone where greeting anyone with “buenas noches” rather than “buenas tardes” can elicit one of those funny looks. At weekends there are still kids in the playgrounds at 10.30pm. You can make restaurant reservations at a quarter to midnight.

Daniel Gabaldón, a sociologist at the University of Valencia, says this is all connected to another curiosity: mainland Spain is in the wrong timezone. If its clocks were set according to the position of the sun, it would be on the same time as the UK and Portugal. But instead it is one hour ahead, because in the 1940s the dictatorship of Francisco Franco decided Spain should be aligned with Nazi Germany. For half the year, Spain sets its clocks to solar time on the German-Polish border. When it adjusts for daylight saving, it matches solar time in the middle of Ukraine.

Having lunch at 2.30pm in Spain means that, according to solar time, you’re really eating at about 1.30pm (in the winter) or 12.30pm (in the summer). For official time and natural time to be so out of whack is unhealthy, says Nuria Chinchilla of Iese Business School. “We have constant jet lag.” It’s no wonder everything ends up fuzzy.

barney.jopson@ft.com

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