Sunday, February 24, 2008

Spanish Time


The arrival of the new AVE in Barcelona 5 minutes early (or eight minutes, depending on which newspaper one believes) but following after a 2 month construction delay, started me thinking about differences between the sense of time in Spain and the USA. (Before I go on, let me say that to me a two month delay does not seem like much on a construction project of the magnitude of the AVE and I think such a thing could happen anywhere.)
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Maybe “sense of time” isn't the most accurate phrase. Some foreigners might say a “lack of a sense of time” would be a better way of putting it. I believe it would be more accurate to say that there is simply a difference between the importance attached to time in Anglo-Saxon and Latin cultures. Anyway, here are few personal anecdotes that touch on this difference.
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When I lived in Madrid, it always tickled me that the clocks on two public buildings across the street from each other had slightly different times. The clocks on the Banco de España (i.e., the Spanish treasury) and the main post office at Plaza de Cibeles displayed times that were two minutes apart. (By the way, the main post office has since moved.)
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Speaking of the post office, while living in Madrid I received a notification of a certified letter one afternoon, so I promptly went to collect it the next day. Opening it immediately, I found a letter that had been sent 13 days earlier from the immigration office in Madrid requesting additional documents from me. The letter said that I had 12 days from the date on the letter to do this. It was a Friday afternoon, after the immigration office's closing time of 1pm, which meant Monday would be the earliest I could bring the documents – 4 days late! I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I'll have to get proof from the post office that the letter took more than 12 days to reach me!” So, I asked the postal clerk for a receipt. I was told I had to go to another window for that. After waiting in line at the other window, I was told by another clerk that I had been sent to the wrong window. Thankfully, there was no line at the next window and the clerk there gave me a form to complete for my request. After giving her the completed form she told me I could return towards the end of the next week to collect the receipt! I explained the urgency of the situation to her. She pointed to stacks of forms piled up on a table behind her and said sarcastically, “Well, all of these requests are urgent, too, so you'll just have to wait your turn.” I left the form, but meanwhile took my chances with the immigration office on the following Monday morning. When I explained to the immigration office clerk why I had not come in sooner, he said it wasn't a problem at all and accepted the documents.
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When I first moved to Spain I worked as a coordinator of a program at a school where one of my duties was to buy supplies for the program on a monthly basis. The school had an account with a certain office supply store that I went to during the first week of each month to place our order. No one told me that the store's two locations closed for the month of August, so that first year I found that out when I showed up at the store and read the “closed until September” sign. I remembered it the next year so went to the store on July 31st, where I again found the store closed until September. It turned out that since the 30th and 31st fell on a Monday and Tuesday that year, a decision had been made to close those two days, too. OK, year three I decided to ask the store staff at the beginning of July what their last opening date would be before their August holiday. I was told the store would be open through the 31st. I showed up on the afternoon of July 31st only to find the store closed until September. You see, a decision had been made that year not to re-open after the lunch time siesta! The next year I finally got the hang of it and did the August shopping during the second to last week of July.
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There is an accounting service down the street from my apartment here in Barcelona that prepares my tax return every year. I discovered it a few years ago when the office taped up several little signs in its store-front window announcing this service – simple signs on white A4 paper obviously printed on an office printer. The signs are still up and read, “We will prepare tax returns until May 30, 2004.”
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There is a tiny, little office supply store in my neighborhood that, like many businesses, closes for siesta. Occasionally the store doesn't re-open in the afternoon. I asked the owner about this one day and was told that it depends on how busy he is in the morning. If it's a really slow day, he figures there is no reason to open again after lunch.
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There is a restaurant near my place that advertises lunch served until 4pm. If I show up at at 3:40 or 3:45, sometimes they serve me, but other times say it is too late because the kitchen is closed. I guess it depends on how business has been that day.
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I have lived here for almost 8 years now, so I think I have pretty much reached a stage of acceptance of things like this. Or maybe its just really good denial.
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Hasta luego amig@s,
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Carloz

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