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Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Spanish Work Week

Everybody’s working for the weekend…and holidays.  Mondays are also a good day to take off, and forget about nights, hardly anyone works nights.

First of all, to say that this is about the Spanish work week is a bit misleading. A work week implies an agreed upon amount of days set aside for work for every calendar period consisting of seven, 24 hour time periods. This also assumes that the Spanish work week is something that can be measured, but can you quantify the pleasure of that first cup of coffee in the morning when you told the boss you needed to go out to buy a printer cartridge? Can you count the collective smiles of a city shut down because of a transit strike? How do you calculate the joy of ditching work after a two-bottles-of-wine lunch? If the best things in life are free then the next best things are time off and paid vacations.

No, “work week” is an inadequate way to describe the average Spaniard’s time card for any given seven day period. I’m not even sure that they have time cards in Spain. If they do I’m sure that they are some sort of wacky, surrealist things designed by Salvador Dali which serve more as an allegory about the futility of keeping track of hours worked. The time clock itself probably doubles as an espresso maker. All that I’m saying is that when you are talking about work in Spain you can take your preconceived, American notion about a Monday to Friday work week and toss it out like a losing lottery ticket. What a second, let me just check that number one more time before you toss it. That ticket could be my way out of this forced-labor camp.

The day of the big Christmas national lottery is practically a holiday, practically a religious holiday complete with chanting—no kidding. Assuming that you have yet to win the national lottery—and everyone here assumes that they will win it eventually—you probably do have to go to work at some point in the week.  I’ll try to walk you through “the daily grind” as best I can but much of it is still unclear to me.

On Sundays and holidays practically everything is closed. Quite a few things aren’t open on Saturdays. Many things that are open on Sundays are closed on Mondays. So this gives you Tuesday, but Tuesdays are like Mondays in America, so don’t expect anyone to be too excited about work, even if they did condescend to show up. Only a fool would buy a car made in Spain on a Tuesday. It's easy to tell which cars were made on Tuesday because the ashtrays are full and the radio will be tuned to the soccer talk station.

Wednesdays are solid, everything is open, but it’s Wednesday so what do you expect? Wednesdays are más o menos at best. Thursdays are definitely on. It’s balls to the wall. Take no prisoners. Always be closing. Coffee is for closers. Oh yeah, Thursdays are definitely huge in Spain. Either lead, follow, or take the day off to play soccer in the park because your league has a big game on Saturday. There is no stopping the Spanish economic juggernaut at this point in the week.

And then comes Friday. It’s a good, solid work day, but for many it’s the last day of the week, even if they started on Tuesday. No one is out to pull a muscle or anything. Just take it easy, pal. Are you trying to make the rest of us look bad? There are plans for the weekend to be discussed, calls to be made, and text messages to write. What do you want to do, work yourself to death? Whatever it is can wait until next week.

The average work day in Spain is equally as complicated. Lots of cafes open at 7 a.m.—at least they say they do, I’ve never been up that early to verify. During many months of the year it’s still dark out at 7 a.m. so why would I be awake? I’ll just take their word on it. So at least apocryphally speaking, someone is up early minding the store. Or at least a store because I’m sure that something in this country has to be open at 7 a.m. I have yet to see a cop but I’m sure a few of them are working the early day shift.

The majority of people don’t get moving until between ten and eleven in the morning. Things are really bustling by eleven. By bustling I mean workers are dressed and at least on their way to work. Before work they stop off at a café and have a coffee or maybe a beer if they had a rough night or don’t have a busy day ahead of them. They might opt for a caajillo, or a coffee with a little brandy. Just one, mind you, and never more than two. Then it is off to work, time to grease the wheels of Spanish commerce and industry. It’s time to scratch and claw your way to the top. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and get some serious work done.

At least until 1:30 or 2 p.m., then it’s time for siesta. It’s time to put everything on hold and hit the cafes for a beer or a glass of wine. Then you make your way back home for a big lunch. And why not have a little wine with your meal? You earned it. It’s not like you’re an airline pilot, and even if you are, you can fly a 747 with a couple of nice glasses of Rioja under your belt—it relaxes you. After lunch you kick your shoes off and have a nap. You may as well because there is nothing good on television, except Los Simpsons. After that you can sack out for a few.

At around 5 o’clock the hellish rat race begins all over again, although for some it doesn’t start until 6. A lot of people just say “Screw it” and blow off the rest of the day completely. Between 8 and 9 everything starts to shut down and the cafes fill up yet again.

No one works at night except bartenders in the clubs that stay open until 4 a.m.  Don’t feel too sorry for these guys; the discos are usually only open three days a week. There must be police and ambulance workers on call during the night. I’m sure that if you find yourself in an emergency you will get through to someone if you just let the phone ring about 30 times; I mentioned how the shades in people’s houses make them very dark and facilitate a really deep sleep.

Your rescue crew will be on the way right after they make a little pot of espresso and have a cigarette, perhaps two. And please give them a few minutes to turn on the television to check the football scores that they may have missed from last night. You need to keep up to date on Real Madrid and Barça football.  If one of their players made some sort of spectacular goal the rescue crew will have to wait until they get a chance to see the replay a couple of times. A round of high fives and the ambulance crew will be speeding to your location. Remember to apply direct pressure to your wound and try not to go into shock.

To say that Spanish business hours are not set in stone is putting it mildly. It is more accurate to say that business hours are written in the sand at the beach or in a secret code. There is a café in the courtyard near the front door of my building. I really like the place but I never know when the guy is open, and he is almost never open. His operating hours seem to be on a strictly need-to-know basis, and although we are on a first name basis, I evidently don’t need to know. Perhaps his place is invitation only?

It is common to see notes posted on locked doors apologizing for why they are closed. I saw a very solemn message on the window of a restaurant explaining that they would be closed on a Monday so the workers could rest. It was worded like an obituary. I guess that having the previous day off must have just worn the staff out. In lieu of flowers the bereaved request that you buy them a bottle of wine at the place next door where they will be recovering.

People goof off everywhere but the Spanish have taken it to new levels that slackers in other countries cannot even imagine. As if there aren’t enough holidays already, Spaniards have created something called puentes, or bridges. These are days that they will tack on to other, legitimate holidays which tie them to the weekend thus making a rather comfortable vacation out of a single day off. If the holiday falls on a Tuesday people will take off Monday and have a four day weekend.

Most Americans probably don’t have a problem with that. Taking a personal day on a Monday before a paid day off on Tuesday probably seems like staying on pretty firm ground to most Americans. That’s a pretty solid “bridge” and one that probably won’t get you canned. Unfortunately, our government cut us off at the pass by assigning all of our national holidays to Mondays.

Where the Spanish really get creative is when a holiday falls on a Wednesday and they have to take two days to bridge it to the weekend, or they may just take the whole week off. This is fairly common practice in Spain but to Americans this has crossed over from being a nice, solid bridge to some sort of rickety affair made with vines across a bottomless abyss of unemployment and no heath insurance that would scare the daylights out of Indiana Jones. This “bridge” concept has gone from a fairly harmless holiday supplement to more time off than most U.S. companies grant workers recovering from the loss of a limb.

I don’t know about you but just thinking about all of those tiny little paroxysms of work makes me exhausted. Just let me sit down and catch my breath. How long can this go on? How many vacation days do I have left this year? Five? It’s only December 10th, how am I supposed to make it? They love holidays so much that they have begun to cannibalize other national celebrations. Halloween has grown in importance in the past few years in Spain, not because they like the idea so much but because they seem to have run out of things to celebrate. The Spanish themselves sometimes forget why they are taking the day off. For some of the long-forgotten religious holidays people have dubbed these days off as “San Bricolaje” or Saint Home Improvement because they are good days to putter around the house doing upgrades.

Just like in America and many other parts of the Western world, immigrants do all of the heavy lifting in Spain so none of this applies to them. Immigrants here are like the Denny’s of Spain: They’re always open. A lot of immigrant business owners here don’t seem to have much of a grasp on the idea of siesta and many haven’t even learned the word for “closed.” One of the cafes I frequent is owned by a Chinese couple who work every day, seven days a week and 52 weeks a year. They work from seven in the morning until late at night, day after day. I walked by their place and they had a sign in the window announcing that they were closing early on Saturday night to celebrate Chinese New Year. They closed two hours early in observance of this very important Chinese holiday.  Most Spanish people took off at least two days to celebrate Chinese New Year.

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