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Timekeeping in Spain

I’ve just read Kay’s newsletter editorial about time (a week late, how did that happen?) which is always a good place to prompt a new article!

Time, my time, other people’s time… First, I don’t suppose I’m qualified to comment about timekeeping as I live in Spain, where the “mañana” syndrome (rather like the German beach towel) is not just a joke. It is a way of life and probably an inbred instinct.

Yesterday was a good(?) example… Julie had been to England for a week and was returning by air last night. My stepson, having just landed a big contract for work, needed my help (poor sod!) to measure up a very large site on the coast here in Spain.

So, my day began early. “Wake me up at seven,” said he. I did, with a cuppa. At eight he emerged, with said “cuppa” congealed into a cesspit lookalike. At nine he was ready, but: “Could we just post this on the way?” Of course, but our post office opening hours are just nine to ten-thirty a.m. “We’re just in time,” said he. (Youth has no experience of life, has it?)

At nine twenty-five the post office doors (well, window) opened and the smiling face of Juan (our temporary postperson) appeared. The ten assorted carrier bags which lay unattended on the floor in front of the window were immediately claimed by their owners as they had been left there as evidence they were all in the queue before me. (Remember the German beach towels? I’m used to this, so that didn’t upset me, but Danny was a little upset.)

All of them had received some kind of Government letter, which necessitated being signed for (they were all carrying the “collect a letter” form which had been left at their home – why the postman who delivered that couldn’t have taken the letter in the first place is beyond me!).

All of them, too, had to search through their pockets, handbags, etc. to find their social security card or their National Identity Card so that they could fill in a form using the long numbers which no-one ever seems to memorise, which would save a lot of time (that word again) and each person took around ten minutes to receive their personal copy of whatever it was the State had sent them. So…one hour later we were able to post our parcel (twenty seconds, as I’d weighed it and had the correct money ready – that must have upset the system a little).

So finally we were able to get off to the coast around 110 km away. My poor old van doesn’t really like hills (which is a little unfortunate as we have to cross two very long, very high and very tortuous mountain ranges to get to San Pedro) so we struggled along, the journey having to be punctuated by several stops to replenish the water. (It’s overheating badly, though only on hills. I’ll take the thermostat out today; that may make a difference.)

Oh dear… at the start of the longest and most tortuous hill emerged a great earthmover-style vehicle (about a dozen vehicles in front of me) which was going so slowly that NO speed was being registered on my speedometer. “No worries, he’ll turn off on to a site soon.”

Wrong! He continued for eight km. Then there was just enough room for the fastest of the cars to get past him on the short (and only) straight part of the road. The stone trucks could not get past him, nor could I. We had to wait until the road started downhill, but more than an hour after catching the earthmover we were on our way. We arrived at lunchtime. What happened to the seven o’clock start?

After eating and measuring and recording as quickly as we could we went (just in time for our appointment with the customer at half-past one) to find he hadn’t yet turned in for work and no-one knew when he would be there. (His mobile was “off” – I think he was playing golf!) We left a number and left.

Then it was along the coast road (NEVER an enjoyable trip!) to meet Julie from the ‘plane. The flight was (originally) due at 4.15pm. When I got there, about an hour early, I saw the flight was “on time”. At 4.30 the “expected” time of arrival was changed to 5.55. The message on time was retained (after all it wasn’t due for another hour and fifteen minutes, was it, so now it was on time to meet the revised time!)

At 6.00 the time of arrival was changed to 6.55, at 7.15 the flight arrived.
By 8.15 the luggage had arrived, too, which was a relief.

Time? If the post office had opened on time (which it NEVER does) we would have set off earlier, we would have missed the earth mover. Even if the post office hadn’t opened on time the earth mover could have easily rumbled along every few hundred metres or so onto the shingle that lay beside the highway, so all the held-up traffic could have got past. If the customer had remembered his appointment we would now be finished; instead Danny has to go and see him today. If the late flight had been on time, or if they had simply announced that it would be four hours late, I could have spent my time doing something more pleasant than sitting in an airport accompanied by Sammy, our little dog, who does not really like all those people around him.

Why is the post office person’s time more important than mine? Why is the customer’s time more important than mine? Why does the lateness of flights not seem to worry the airline?

I am ALWAYS on time… always! I think it rude to waste other people’s time. Why does this feeling go unreciprocated?

I suppose that as I feel like that, I shouldn’t really choose to live in Spain. Here, if someone says “It will be tomorrow when I deliver/appear (etc.)” you find the word tomorrow (mañana) is very flexible. It could mean “first thing in the morning” (but never does!). So one tries to narrow it down…

“What time in the morning?”
“Oh! Er! Tarde (afternoon).”
“What time in the afternoon?”
“Ocho (eight).”

At ten that night you’ll find he’s not going to appear. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next Thursday. Getting upset is not an option. This is normal! And who’s to say they’re not right? Why should we worry about time as we do? Does it really matter? I still think it’s rude, but I have grown to live with it. Can you?

Bob (just in time!)

Bob Fretwell
Sierra de Yeguas, Málaga

[Editor’s note: Bob’s story is also published on our discussion forum. You can join in here:
British Expat Forum
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