The Culture of The Siesta: Learning To Slow Down in Europe

The Culture of The Siesta: Learning To Slow Down in Europe
September 27, 2013 Leslie Juvin-Acker

“In summer, after his midday meal, he would eat some fruit and take another drink; then he would remove his shoes and undress completely, just as he did at night, and rest for two or three hours.” – Einhard  Life of Charlemagne recounting the emperor’s summertime siesta.

One of my best friends, Ana, recently relocated to Bologna, Italy to work on her master’s degree in arts administration. Once she got settled in, I gave her a call to ask her about how her life in Europe was falling into place.

“When I went to administration to choose my classes, they told me to not rush my decision, to think about it and come back another time,” she explained, “but I already knew what classes I wanted. I know what I want, let’s go! Let’s move on!”

Almeida_Júnior_-_Repouso,_siesta riposo napShe marveled at the way the Italians take their time to do everything and take, what they call riposo, hours during the day to close up shop and go have lunch.

“I have to plan my day around the riposo. I have to make sure I know when things are open and what errands to run to make sure I do them during the right time,” she said, “Now I understand why you acted the way you did when I was visiting you in France!”

Ana was talking about an argument that we got into while she was visiting because I was running around the house manically trying to finish up all of my chores and get us out of the door and walk to the bus stop in time to go to the museums which would be closed between noon and two p.m. She couldn’t understand why I was acting like a crazy person, asking her to hurry up so we could get out of the house.

It never even occurred to me to explain this European phenomenon to Ana while she was visiting France. I just thought everyone knew that most businesses and government offices close between the hours of noon and two p.m. and that most places don’t have regular business hours, but rather strange hours that one must remember and reference before stepping out of the door.

“I remember thinking, we’ll get there when we get there! Why the rush!,” Ana laughed, ” But here, I get!”

All I could say was, “Welcome to my world!”

I had gotten so used to siesta hours that when I recently returned to the United States after a four year absence, I had to force myself to remember that businesses would be open between noon and two p.m.. How convenient! I thought.

I’m all for closing up a shop for an hour to each lunch or take a nap, but in Italy and in France, siesta can be anywhere from two hours to four hours and it can slow down a day. Closing down for a few hours in a day is just a small indication of the overall culture in Europe where there are several vacation periods for school children, government processing of papers can take months instead of days or even hours, and matters are settled over weeks and months instead of days. There is a culture of waiting for the indicated time instead of seizing the moment and doing whatever can be put off for tomorrow today. If you’re in a rush for anything catch yourself before you’re rudely reminded that you’ll have to wait in line like everybody else.

There is a plus side and down side to this cultural difference. On one hand, it’s good to not feel the pressure of having to do anything right away, but then there is the frustration and stress of waiting for judgement, responses, and action. When you say to someone, “I’m waiting for…” nobody seems to question you. They accept that you’re waiting and then they wait, too. However, for simple things like getting a new driver’s license, which can ideally take less than an hour in the States, it took a couple of months for me in France. Simple things are pushed off for weeks and it can lead to a frustrating feeling that nothing seems to get done.

Ultimately, the lesson when living in Europe is to slow down. These countries have been around for a millennium and they don’t feel like they’re going anywhere anytime soon. If you’re frustrated that things are going at a glacial pace, then learn to deal with the stress and put your attentions elsewhere by detaching from the waiting process…. or, just take a nap.