"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Siesta–A Most Civilized Tradition

I could never imagine working an entire day through without a siesta.  Soldiering through a long morning, a working lunch, and  long unremitting afternoons without respite has always been painful to consider.  While low-rung administrative assistants manage a few girls’ lunches out, and senior executives do white-tablecloth pukka grilled salmon outings a few days a week, most American office workers row in the slave ship from dawn to dusk with only a few scraps to eat at midday.

I first encountered the siesta in Dakar.  Offices opened at 8, closed for lunch at 12, reopened at 3 and closed again at 6.  Three hours for lunch! I was in heaven.  I walked across the Place de L’Independance to the Teranga, a four-star hotel on the ocean, took a long swim, settled in for a three course meal of coquilles Saint Jacques, grilled capitaine, tarte aux citron, chilled Sancerre, and coffee, and then retired to my room for a long sleep.  Not just a twitchy nap for a few minutes, but a full pajama, under-the-covers, slippers by the bed sleep.

Even better, no one was expected back to the office until four; and the few hours worked were not the buckle-down, tunnel vision kind that made up in productivity for lost time, but casual affairs with many coffees and camaraderie.  Who cared if any work got done?

This was the routine all over Africa in the 70s and 80s, and I became accustomed to what I now still call ‘civilized lunches’ – sit-down meals with cloth napkins, deux couverts, crystal glasses for red and white wine, and impeccable service. Whether in sand-blown Nouakchott, by the sea in Dakar, in the lee of the Burundi Highlands on Lake Tanganyika, or in the care of two old ex-colons from la France profonde in Bamako, I was happy.

My office hours in Port-au-Prince were even more agreeable.  My government counterpart never came in before 10, and by 11 her eyes started to glaze over with hunger and fatigue.  By 12 we were all out the door and slated to return – if at all – by 4.  I took a taxi to my hotel, the Splendide, an old Victorian, polished brass and mahogany relic not far from the Oloffson. It had white balconies overlooking the harbor and the long road up to Petionville, and standing on them at night I could hear voodoo drums coming from the hills around Kenskoff.  At lunch I swam, ate lambi creole on the open terrace by the bougainvillea, and slept for two hours.

I hit the wall when I started to work in Eastern Europe where the routine was a mammoth breakfast of smoked fish, tomatoes, caviar, tongue, and cold sausage; no lunch; and a normal dinner.  It was very hard to stoke up at 7am – gavage, a Rwandan friend called it, force-feeding geese to make foie gras – but stuff it in I did.  But no matter how many hardboiled eggs, slices of bologna, or wedges of country cheese I ate, I was still hungry long before quitting time.  The better restaurants in Warsaw, Bucharest, and Tbilisi never opened until 7, and I barely made it through the afternoon.  I hate Goldfish, but that’s all there was to eat in the emptiest part of the day.

Days without a long noontime break were interminable. It wasn’t the lack of food so much – the morning’s gavage usually did the trick – but the absence of a break, and especially the delicious full-stomach languor and long, reclined sleep of midday.

When I returned to Africa after many years working in Eastern and Central Europe, I spent a lot of time in post-civil war Angola. There were few hotels in Luanda, the capital, and always penitential traffic, brutal crime, and few restaurants.  The country was truly a shithole with oil.  No siestas there, only big-time gavage in the morning, and a long, traffic-jammed trip  for dinner out to the Isla, a long peninsula with Atlantic and Bay beaches, excellent seafood, great Brazilian cachaça, and soft sea breezes.  If only I could have had civilized lunches there!

After so many years living and travelling in siesta-land, I took a Washington job.  Personnel management, budgets, proposals, and client relations replaced my free-and-easy life, and the need for a noontime rest was never more urgent. So I walked to the Botanical Gardens near the Capitol, found a bench high up in the tropical canopy and slept.  Or in the more comfortable armchairs in the lobby of the Willard. Or on a park bench in Lafayette Park. I was too old to worry about what people thought and never tried to disguise my dozing with a book or newspaper.  I just put my head back and slept.

According to Paul Hamilos, writing in The Guardian (9.27.13) Spain, the mother of all siestas, plans to do away with them.  For too long have Spaniards lived crazy hours, say government officials, outside the normal routine of Europe, and it is time to get with the EU program, increase productivity, and become more German. Spaniards have always taken siestas, however, and it will be very hard for them to work a 9-5.

The new schedule makes business sense, however – no traffic jams four times a day, new restaurants in commercial zones, and a work schedule similar to that of the rest of Europe.  As a part of this ‘time reform’, the Spanish government wants to change the country’s time zone to what it was before Franco, in solidarity with his Nazi allies, put it on German time.  Now breakfast, lunch, and dinner will be held at the more civilized hours of 8, 1, and 7 instead of the absurd hours of the present, or so they say.

Most Spaniards say the time zone change is all hogwash.  It is not the sun but cultural traditions which govern daily routines.  No one will be hungry at 7, regardless of daylight, and scarfing un sandwich at noon will be downright impossible.

Most importantly, the siesta will disappear.  The last vestige of a civilized, unhurried, dolce vita tradition will bite the dust.  Spain, of course, needs all the help it can get.  After years of profligacy, inefficiency, low productivity, and self-indulgence, it is high time to be…well, more like the Germans.

A Spaniard naps in Valdeavellano, near Soria.

Photograph: Ignacio Pérez Díez/Flickr Vision in Hamilos article

For me the siestas and civilized lunches are now things of the past. Although I could recreate them – there are plenty of white tablecloth restaurants in Washington that serve formal meals at noon – I could never reproduce them.  In my mind they are associated with palm trees, warm breezes, beaches, and a lazy indolence.  There is no way that the dark interior of the Hay Adams, elegant as it is, can replace that.  So I have summer salads and a few twitchy Z’s after lunch; and that seems to do the trick. Everything in its own time and in its own place. 

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