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Workers take their siestas on a roof in Madrid in 2012: If Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gets his way, the traditional afternoon naps will be eliminated to allow for a shortening of the work day.Alberto Di Lolli/The Associated Press

Brian Subirana, a young Spanish academic who divides his time between Barcelona and Boston, loves his siesta – his little afternoon nap – partly because he thinks it's good for his mind and body and partly because it gives him the energy to stay up late and enjoy Barcelona's famous all-night-long buzz.

He'd better enjoy it while he can because the Spanish siesta may soon become an extinct tradition. Earlier this week, the centre-right government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy served notice that it wants to kill off the siesta in order to shorten the working day. "Spain is ready to end the nap and join the 21st century," Mr. Rajoy said.

Mr. Subirana is distraught about the siesta's apparent death sentence. "Normally, I take a 30-minute siesta after lunch, at home, otherwise 20 minutes at work and an hour on weekends," he said. "It does miracles for me. It's a total clock reset for me."

While most big and medium-sized Spanish companies ignore the siesta, in the sense that their employees work right through it, the body clocks of millions of Spaniards, many of them working at small businesses and shops, remain very much in sync with the ancient afternoon ritual. So do the corporate bosses, who often enjoy the long lunches and subsequent snoozes denied to their employees.

For Spanish siesta practitioners, the workday is split in half, as it is in many Mediterranean countries. They arrive at 8 or 9 a.m. and work until about 2, have lunch, followed by a snooze, then work again from 4 or 5 until 8 p.m. or so.

The snoozing bit can happen anywhere. Some Spaniards will drive home – creating four rush hours a day – while others will plop themselves on a battered sofa at the back of the shop. Still others, slumped in a chair after their lunch, grab a quick 15 minutes of shut-eye in a local café or restaurant.

In the southern half of Italy, where the siesta is alive and well, some shop owners can be seen head-down behind their cash registers in the middle of the afternoon. In Rome, one life-long practitioner of the art, which is known as the pennica in the local dialect, is Umberto Gismondi, 57, the owner of a small wine store near the Circus Maximus called Enoteca Aventino.

"I close the door and fall asleep at my desk almost every day for 20 or 30 minutes after lunch," he said. "I'm always sleepy after I eat. The secret is a short siesta. The Spanish one is way too long. If I took a two- or three-hour siesta, I wouldn't get home until late at night."

Shortening the lengthy Spanish working day, as opposed to killing the siesta itself, appears to be the motivation behind Mr. Rajoy's attack on the habit, allowing mothers and fathers to get back to their families by 5 or 6 o'clock, about when their children return from school. In other words, working harder for fewer hours.

Some office workers would be happy to see the siesta dead and buried, even if they don't take one themselves. One is Nick Greenwood, 31, a Briton who moved from England to Madrid five years ago and works as an economist at Afi, a Madrid financial and economics consultancy.

At Afi, his day begins at 8:45 a.m. and pushes through to 7:30 p.m., with maybe an hour for lunch. "That's a long day," he said. "I don't have a siesta. If I did, maybe I would feel differently about it getting killed off."

He quite fancies the idea of an Anglo-Saxon-style workday – 9 to 5 – since he and his work colleagues are denied their own siesta pleasures.

He also thinks it would improve worker productivity, broadly defined as gross domestic product (in effect, the output of wealth) per hour of work. "Spain has low productivity even though the Spanish people work pretty much longer than anyone in Europe," he said.

Still, Mr. Rajoy's anti-siesta campaign is bound to run into resistance among the millions of holdout siesta advocates.

The siesta has been around for centuries, maybe longer, in the hot Mediterranean countries, where farm and factory workers were given an early-afternoon break from the punishing heat (air conditioning is still fairly rare in homes and small offices in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece).

Lately, advocates of the siesta have cited its health benefits. Some doctors recommend a mini-siesta, which are called power naps in North America and Britain. Margaret Thatcher was among the advocates of the power nap and its alleged midday regenerative powers.

The term siesta comes from the Latin hora sexta – sixth hour – which, for the Romans, marked the midpoint in the day. The modern Roman term pennica comes from the Latin pendiculare; the term is appropriate because one of its meanings is "inclined," as in lying down.

Throughout the Mediterranean, the siesta is far less popular than it used to be, partly because there are many fewer farm workers and partly because it is not encouraged, or even tolerated, in the big corporations, where employees are expected to be on call even through lunch. Cultural shame has also played a factor.

In Europe's industrial north the siesta is virtually unknown, as it is in wealthy northern Italy. Andrea Barzini, the Italian film producer whose father, the author and politician Luigi Barzini, was one of the great chroniclers of Italian culture, says former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi tried to discourage the siesta. "He didn't like it at all," he said. "He thought it was one of the worst traditions of the south, associated with 'lazy' southerners."

Mr. Barzini says his mother, when living in Milan – Berlusconi country – considered her siesta a guilty pleasure. "She would take a nap on the sofa after lunch, sitting up, not lying down," he said. "That way she pretended she wasn't really sleeping."

In Spain, various governments have tried to get rid of the siesta, to no avail. The last attempt happened in 2005 and triggered a protest in the form of a national "siesta championship," in which contestants were judged on sleep duration, position and inventive sleep locations, among other absurdities.

Mr. Subirana says the Spanish siesta will never go gently into the night – make that afternoon. He says many Spaniards are used to afternoon naps, working late, eating late and staying up late. The tradition keeps the streets, shops and restaurants open and buzzing throughout the evening, making Madrid and Barcelona highly popular with tourists.

He also argues that the late-night culture actually is an essential component of Spanish democracy. "Democracy starts with discussions and people need space outside of the office for discussions," he said. "If the siesta is killed and people go home early, the culture of socializing will get killed with it."

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