When Time Stood Still in Spain

How I learned to slow down and smell the oranges—on vacation and back home.

Good travel isn’t just fun and relaxing, though it’s hopefully both of those things too. Good travel, to me, causes you to reflect on your own life—both there and on your return. Sometimes it even inspires you to make small or big changes.

On a recent trip to Spain, my husband and I started in Barcelona and worked our way south, driving through fields upon fields of olive trees, and stopping at towns along the way until we reached our final destination in Sevilla. It was two weeks, but it felt longer—and not in a bad way but because time slowed down, or more appropriately we learned to sync our days and nights with the Spaniards.

People in Spain have very different schedules than Americans, certainly in the more rural areas. They get started later in the morning; they break in the afternoon for “siesta” which can take the form of a midday nap, a leisurely lunch of tapas, or a stop for coffee or a refreshing beer or “vino Ventana” (red wine topped off with lemon soda). Then they head back to work and when they finally call it a day, at 7 p.m. or so, they get ready for dinner, which starts as late as 9 p.m. and goes well past 11 p.m. Even then, many continue on to the local square with friends and family, where they might watch a performance, dance, or simply gather together to talk and laugh. Even the kids are up well past my bedtime.


Valencia, Spain


It’s not an easy schedule to adapt to—particularly as a tourist who wants to eat dinner at 6 or 7 p.m. and frequently finds no restaurants open at that hour. So, three days in, we decided to embrace the “When in Rome” mentality—beginning with a gorgeous, deep slumber at 4 p.m. After lots of walking and sightseeing in the 90-plus degree weather all morning and early afternoon, letting my body succumb to the crisp hotel sheets and air-conditioning felt heavenly. Why, I asked myself, do we Americans never stop going, never allow ourselves a chance to re-energize? Why must we cleave so rigorously to a schedule that doesn’t allow for more rest and more quality time with those we love?

Sure, we might stay out late on a weekend night, going to a bar or a concert, but that’s an occasional thing, not a way of life—and younger, single people are usually the ones doing it. In Spain, the children and the elderly are out and about in the evenings too. One night, in the beautiful town of Cadiz, an old crumbling fortress town surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean, we stopped at a local square around 10:30 p.m. (we’d just finished dinner!), and a kind of garage rock band was setting up. While there were certainly some hipsters hanging around, there were also grandmas and toddlers—one who, on her wobbly little feet, was swaying back and forth to the music. Her parents engaged in animated conversation as she got her dance on. I tried to picture my family in that scenario, and it seemed ludicrous. By that time, we’d have come from work, picked up my daughter from school, rushed home for dinner, homework and whatever extracurricular activity she had, and then prepared for bedtime. By 9:30, I’d be on the couch with my husband surfing Netflix and ready to conk out myself.


Mercat St. Josep De La Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain


Of course, I get that not every Spaniard has a flexible schedule, and some of the people we encountered were on vacation too but, still, there’s an overall sense that time isn’t of the essence, that living and being present are more important than being tied to an exacting schedule. Soon, I too wasn’t worrying about what time we made it to dinner; a late afternoon snack of Iberico ham, manchego cheese and maybe some grilled anchovies with tomato bread would get me through until later, and force me to stop and rest my legs. During that time, I’d simply watch the people strolling along the narrow alleyways, taking in the scent of orange blossom, while sipping my sangria or ice-cold beer. It was enough to have seen one beautiful cathedral or museum on a given day. The checklist of attractions I’d planned on visiting was suddenly less important than just being with my husband and observing—of acknowledging the ancient beauty that was surrounding me, the picturesque gardens with statues, the tiny shops tempting our taste buds with displays of chocolates, pastries or hanging cured meats. Some nights, simply sitting outside and listening to one lone man playing the cello at dusk, felt more meaningful than anything else I could have planned.

This slowing of our pace extended to our driving as well. Instead of racing to the next destination, we stopped for lunch in a random town that wasn’t on our itinerary, stopped at a beach that curved steeply down the base of a hill to have an impromptu swim, pulled the car over to simply gawk at acres and acres of full-faced sunflowers gazing at the sun with seeming reverence. Maybe we’d get where we were going an hour or two behind schedule. It didn’t matter because we didn’t really have a schedule anymore. When we arrived, we simply listened to our body clocks. Were we sleepy? Take a nap. Hungry? Find a tapas bar. Energized? Walk. If we didn’t think we’d be able to make it to a 9 p.m. dinner, we simply ate more tapas, skipped dinner, and went to bed early.


Cuenca, Spain


When I came home, it was hard. Our American lives simply don’t allow for the Spanish-style way of living—at least not in a broader sense. But that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t incorporate some aspects of the lifestyle into our own. In the evenings, instead of rushing us through our routines, I made dinner a little later, and we lingered a little longer after we finished our plates. Some nights, we took a drive or a walk around the neighborhood before we started homework or bath time, maybe stopping for an ice cream cone. I spent more minutes just lying on my daughter’s bed and talking to her about her day as she prepared for the next morning, instead of multi-tasking or, worse, checking my email. When she went to bed, my husband and I sat on our deck and watched the sunset (sometimes with a glass of vino Ventana!) instead of defaulting to the TV. I tried to remember that, though we had a schedule we needed to respect, there are always at least a few more minutes than you realize in a day, and that they need not be accounted for with tasks. In Spain, time was fluid; it molded itself to you instead of the other way around. It was an important lesson and one that I hope I can continue to live by.


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