Suddenly it’s dark when I finish work and as I walk through El Cobre, the neighborhood reveals a little of its nocturnal self. The change in the time, abrupt and artificial, appears to have a very real effect – there are people around now as I go on my way that I’ve never seen before, stepping out of alleyways and hanging around in doorways. Of course, they were there all along; it’s my routine that’s been shifted forward, into the darkness – mine and anyone else who works, or who has any reason to be in a particular place at a particular time. Most of the new faces are lined; the older generation around here, having no such obligations, live the way their grandparents would have – by the sun.
The change of hours provides a glimpse of our own artifice – the gridwork of language and number that we graft onto the world. Twice a year, a little slip between clock time and real time, a tiny tremor along the fault line that runs between the two and we have an hour stolen from us, or we get this extra one that jars at first before settling in.
The gable wall of a crumbling old house glows green, bathed in the light of the pharmacy cross; I think it is green, and wonder why I’ve never noticed in the daytime, till it flickers. Further up toward the main road more flashes of light against a wall, this time emanating in horror movie fits and starts from a welder’s workshop, frankenstein sparks flying and filling the night outside with the visual rhythms of an electrical storm.
The journey home has also changed. For the last few weeks I’ve reached Tarifa in time to see the setting sun hit the water; now it’s gone by the time I get there, any clouds in the sky reflecting the last of its flamingo light, the sky still bright as human bulbs come on below and the town glows with them – white and yellow, blue and red.
Now it will feel as if we’re having dinner in the middle of the night, but then it always feels like that in Spain. We’ve just seen off another summer when, if anything, it’s worse – everybody waits for the air to cool just a little before they sit down to eat. It might be eleven by that time. It could be twelve.
The Spanish are renowned for it – lunch at dinnertime and dinner at bedtime. I remember trips to the old country house and vineyard of my padrastro’s family when I was a little boy: the warm nights, the nearest vines visible at the edge of the patio light, the rest of them shrouded in darkness and alive with cricket song, a vine trained through the trellis overhead, heavy with ripe grapes in the late summer, the table laden with chicken, rabbit and wine. The bustle of a meal prepared and served when I should have been in bed, the hum of chat amongst old and young that livened up the small hours.
For years afterwards I would invoke those nights as epitomising the mythical “Mediterranean lifestyle” – never mind that they took place in Galicia – or more specifically that much vaunted Spanish “difference” that so many have written about and attempted to explain. Of course in this day and age it’s bad form to mention it; we’re all supposed to aspire to homogenity under Brussels and Berlin now. Centuries ago though it seemed that any traveller who set foot in Spain came away convinced that it was “other”, more African than European in character – an exotic place, a truly foreign land.
Many Spanish people these days like to tell themselves they’re just “Europeans”, whatever that means. Indistinguishable from your average Belgian or Swede. But they keep the “difference” narrative alive inadvertently by excepting Andalucia almost every time. That lot down there are different. It’s like Africa or something. Many Andalucians will also tell you that they’re just Europeans, but nobody really believes them.
The same or different, the country has been attracting modern travellers for many decades now, drawn in by the latter, real or perceived, and the wacky mealtimes have been a big part of what has made the country feel so carefree and exotic for holiday makers. “Spain is different” has even been a nationally endorsed slogan, emerging under Franco, used and misused ever since. We imagine, I suppose, that the baffling but enchanting Spanish dining habits date back to some Roman foible or Moorish quirk.
They don’t. Before I put on my jacket and head through the neighbourhood to catch the bus home, I ask my group of sixteen and seventeen year olds, who are well aware that they eat much later than anyone else, if they know why. Blank expressions.
“Because Spain is special?” smirks R.
“I’m sure it is, but no,” I reply. “Do you think it’s an ancient custom?”
“It isn’t. What if I told you it dates from 1940?”
Eyebrows rising. Glances exchanged.
“Why would Spain change its clocks to fall in line with central Europe, in 1940?” I ask.
“Who was in charge in 1940?”
“Franco!” as a group, frowning.
“So why would Franco, do you think, want the time in Spain to be the same as the time in, say, Germany?”
“Because he sympathised…?” I begin.
“…with..?” I continue.
“Hitler?” says R.
“Yup.” I sit back to watch my handiwork unfold, immediately worried that I may have gone too far.
Their little faces. They look genuinely upset.
“You mean,” they seem to be saying, “that we have charmingly eccentric dining habits because Franco admired Hitler?”
I’m worried I may have broken them. Hopefully nobody will cry. It’s as if I’ve run into the room and grabbed them all by the lapels, screaming “Wake up, Spain! Wake up! It’s fascist o’clock!”
They’re teenagers though, so as profound as the effect on them appears to be, a couple of minutes later we’re talking about something else. Still, for a moment there it was another kind of salutary awakening. That an Irishman could sit there and burst a bubble the Spanish themselves continue to blow made it all the more jarring for them, I think.
Another revelation, another falling away of the fictions we impose on our world. Whether reality is exposed underneath, or just another layer of fiction, isn’t the point.
The point is, it’s revealing.Follow @RobinJGraham