Across the pond

Perceptions of time: similarities and differences between the U.S. and Spain

Grace Schutte

More stories from Grace Schutte

May 10, 2023

Photo by Grace Schutte

Drinking in Spain isn’t about getting drunk, but rather for spending time and chatting with friends

Note: “Across the Pond” is an on-going column in which freelance writer Grace Schutte will be writing about her study abroad experience in Valladolid, Spain.

The first week in Spain felt like five years — but in a good way. 

The reasons for these ripples in time aren’t hard to identify. Of course, two days of air travel will make the second hand of your internal clock clog and skip. By the fifth layover on my journey here, I felt as though my life was catching on the hour and skipping by fives to keep up. 

But even once I’d made it to Spain, I felt as though time moved differently here — like a glass of water had spilled on my planner, blurring the lines separating days and weeks. 

For starters, time is perceived differently here than in the United States. 

The phrase “time is money, money is time” is tattooed on the collective American subconscious — the ink runs deep and the expectations even deeper. 

This past semester, for instance, I had two jobs, two internships and a full course load. As a junior in college, I had entered what I like to call “Collegiate Crunch Time”: a strange limbo between guided adulthood and postgrad free fall. 

If I wasn’t actively working toward bettering my future or advancing up the professional ladder, I was wasting something precious.  

Or, that’s how it felt, at least. 

Every semester, I fall victim to burnout, stress-acne and baggy eyes. The solution? Work more. Work harder. This lifestyle is neither sustainable nor healthy — luckily, this isn’t the case in Spain. 

I noticed this shift early on and told my host dad, Chuchi, about my observation. Ever the philosopher, he said, here we work to live, not live to work. 

He’s right. Having been here three weeks now, it is clear the Spanish clock is community-oriented. This is most evident when looking at how Spaniards go about their meals. 

Breakfast, or “desayuno,” is a light meal, typically consisting of coffee and toast, eaten quickly before starting the day. There aren’t any pancake stacks drowned in maple syrup. Say goodbye to hashbrown heaps with ketchup drizzled on top. 

(If you’re planning on visiting Spain and you’re a breakfast person, I recommend you get your fill of IHop before making your voyage.)

By 9 a.m., the people are out the door and on their way to work or school where they stay until about 2 p.m. — or 14:00 in military time, the latter of which they use  — before returning home for the most important meal of the day, “la comida.”

This is where the community-based-perception-of-time thing comes in. For three hours every day, the shops close, and people journey home to eat with their families. 

La comida is the biggest meal here, usually consisting of at least two or three dishes. Because of the multiple courses, I had a hard time finishing my plate those first few days. The most important aspect, though, is that the families are together. 

After, it’s time for the famous siesta. 

Siesta” means “nap,” however — and I hate to burst any bubbles — many Spaniards don’t sleep during siesta. From what I’ve seen, most go through their emails, start preparing dinner or do their homework during the remaining hours before returning to the office or campus. 

With siesta bisecting the day in half, there is a clear divide between work and play, making every day feel like two. I attribute the majority of my disorientation to this mid-day break. 

La cena,” or dinner, is eaten very late — I mean, around 10 p.m. or 22:00 — and is also taken as a household. To skip out on la cena without telling anyone in advance is considered disrespectful. La cena, after all, is a time to talk about everyone’s day, to connect and bond over food. 

Beyond the traditional three daily meals, it is normal to go out for drinks and “tapas,” small appetizers served with alcohol, with friends both before and after la cena. 

Drinking in Spain isn’t about getting drunk, but rather for spending time and chatting with friends. I, myself, have partaken many times and enjoy it thoroughly. 

Coming from the Midwest, where Busch Light is king and shotgun competitions are the norm, I wasn’t sure what to make of “drinks with friends.” 

As it turns out, having a glass of wine or two on a crisp winter night with the company of your closest friends is the perfect way to top off the night. There’s laughter, that warm, fuzzy feeling and good conversation — it’s a dream. 

I said this before, and I will again: If you’re considering traveling, be it for study abroad or just for fun, do it. Coming to Spain is the best thing to happen to me. 

Schutte can be reached at [email protected].