It was as dark as midnight when our overnight plane began its descent into Madrid a few minutes before 8:00 a.m. City lights twinkled like the Milky Way below us. Dawn did not break until we were leaving the airport, luggage claimed and passports stamped, for Charmartín train station. I realized that in my recent travels, tied mostly to the school-year calendar, I had only arrived in Europe in the summer, when days are long— in some parts, it never even reaches full darkness. Clearly we had some adjusting to do.
From the airport, after a sleepless night, we immediately headed north to the coastal town of Gijon (pronounced hee-hone) in the province of Asturias, five hours from Madrid. In an effort to adjust to local time, six hours ahead of U.S. eastern time, we forced ourselves to stay awake through the day until what seemed like a reasonable bedtime (8:30 p.m. is reasonable, right?) before finally falling into bed exhausted. The sun had just set.
After 12 hours of sleep, daylight was beginning to peek through our windows. We set out to explore Gijon, which has a horseshoe-shaped malecon (a beach boardwalk) that turns into a dirt path leading uphill and then meanders eastward for miles along the scenic coast. The streets and beach were virtually devoid of human activity.
A few street cleaners were hosing down the stones in the plazas and some joggers were taking advantage of the vacant malecon, but otherwise the city seemed to still be asleep. It did not start to come alive until afternoon, and the real hum and buzz of activity began when the bars opened at about 7:00 p.m. By this point our internal clocks were sounding the dinner bell, but unless we wanted to make a meal of hard cider and olives, we were just going to have to wait for restaurant kitchens to open at 8:00 or 9:00. That’s when the wise words from our friends who had visited Spain became real.
When we told people we were going to spend this year in Spain, we got loads of suggestions, recommendations, and enthusiastic responses. But one of the most common comments was along the lines of, “Your world is about to be turned on its head. All your rhythms and routines are going to be upended.” We laughed, of course. It’s not like we were having a baby! (Though the advice sounded eerily similar.) But our good friends and family know us to be early-to-bed-early-to-rise people. They told us that in Spain people drink a coffee at mid-morning, eat lunch from 2:00 to 4:00, siesta until evening and start dinner at 9:00 or 10:00.
Al and I spent a fair bit of time discussing how we would manage what we believe works best for our bodies within the cultural framework of Spanish life. We had it all figured out. We would make our own breakfasts in whatever lodgings we were calling home for the moment, then enjoy a mid-morning snack while the Spaniards were just rubbing the sleep from their eyes and having their first coffee of the day. Later, as the locals were finishing up lunch and moving toward siesta time, we would find a place to serve us essentially an early-bird special (dinner for old folks who need time to digest before bed), and we could be in bed by our usual 9:30. Perfect!
Suffice to say it has not quite worked out that way.
When we were living in the Boston suburbs, raising school-age kids and working our jobs, we were habituated to the workday schedule. We were a well-oiled machine. We’d wake with enough time to exercise, shower, dress, wrangle the kids, eat breakfast, pack our bags and get out the door on time for work. It didn’t matter if it was still dark outside in the depths of a New England winter or if the June sun had already been shining for hours. The alarm clock always ruled. Lunch, for me, was eaten when my students were otherwise occupied in the school cafeteria. Dinner was most often a family affair and designed to accommodate our children’s busy evening obligations and social lives. Life was lived by the numbers on the clock. We knew what to expect and when it would happen. Nature played only a small role in the routines and rhythms of our days.
Then in July 2021, Al and I retired and moved to our little cabin in the woods of Maine. Suddenly our days were our own. We had essentially no pressing obligations. We did not wake to an alarm. We had no children to wrangle. We began to notice a shift in the rhythm of our day. In central Maine in the summer months—the only ones in which we can live in the cabin—the sun comes up between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. We never shade the large glass doors in our bedroom, which face the lake, so when the sun wakes up so do we. We exercise, sometimes swim, eat breakfast, and begin whatever tasks we have set for ourselves for the day. We eat lunch when we are hungry for lunch, dinner in the early evening and we go to bed with the sun (or perhaps, I am embarrassed to say, even a bit before it). Our days feel akin to what I imagine people who live in agrarian communities experience. We are in tune with nature’s rhythms rather than those of the American school or office.
We notice small changes throughout the summer. The fish that swim in the shadow of our dock grow larger, the resident mink has her babies and they follow her as she hunts along the water’s edge. We move from raspberries to blueberries to apples, from lettuce and chard to the much-anticipated corn and ubiquitous potatoes of central Maine. The slant of the sunlight becomes more acute in August, by September we are lucky to have an hour or two of sun on the dock, and the twilight no longer lingers for hours after sunset, but is over by 7:00.
In Spain, the residents have created a rhythm to their days that works for them. And despite our initial plan to stick to our waking-eating-sleeping schedule, we very quickly found ourselves adapting to the Spanish way. Doing everything later than we are accustomed to is in no small part a result of the sun not cresting the horizon before nearly 9:00 in the morning (thankfully, Spain’s Daylight Savings “fall back” adjustment means that’s now closer to 8:00). Nobody seems to consider stepping outside their homes until the sky is light, including school children and their parents. The school day is only 5 hours (with a 2- to 3-hour lunch-and-siesta break) for primary schools here, and pretty much everyone of any age in the smaller towns and villages respects the siesta hours, even the dogs and roosters.
Eating dinner when the restaurant kitchens are open (no earlier than 8:00 p.m.) makes more sense when everyone, including the youngest children, seems to go to bed at or after midnight. Our transition accelerated during our first week here, when we stayed at a remote, mountain inn where their restaurant was literally the only game in “town”—there was neither neighborhood bodega nor bar for competition—and meals were served on Spain time. We felt no urgency to get out of bed before breakfast was available (from 9:00-11:00) and stayed up late enough to comfortably digest the 9:00 p.m. dinner.
The shift in our daily routine is just one part of our adjustment to Spain. Ecuador was in the same time zone as the eastern U.S., so phone calls home were easy to schedule. Now, mornings here are the middle of the night back in the States, so it’s way more challenging to find a time to call friends and family when both parties are awake and available. And by the time our morning news feeds from the U.S. trickle in, it’s afternoon here. The headlines hardly feel fresh at that point. And Al can forget about knowing the results of the Patriots game until the next day!
In the past two years, we have gone from having the clock dictate our daily routines, to nature setting the tone, and now the culture around us determines our rhythm. It will be interesting to see what happens when we have a more permanent living arrangement in Spain with a kitchen of our own. Will we revert to our previous clock-based routine, rise with the sun and go to bed with the darkness, or live like Spaniards, coming most alive and active in the evening?
Only time will tell.