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Spanish Entrepreneur Offers Siestas

March 16, 1999

MADRID, Spain (AP) _ It’s rush hour at Federico Busquets’ massage parlor and the clients are dozing.

Well-heeled refugees from stress, they’ve enjoyed a rubdown in lilac-colored ergonomic chairs, then settled in for a snooze. Attendants with blankets fuss over them and soft music lulls them, all for the price of a fast-food meal.

Welcome to one man’s quest to save the siesta, a tradition endangered by progress.

As Spain adapts to full membership in Europe’s economic elite after decades as a poorer cousin, work hours are changing. For many Spanish office workers, the relaxed two- or three-hour lunch breaks that meant prime time for a nap have been replaced by what they see as a cruel northern European dine-and-dash.

Enter Busquets, a 43-year-old Catalan businessman with a good eye for a market niche.

The former tanning-salon owner has opened a chain of 18 parlors that cater to victims of the daily grind and night owls playing catch-up. For 1,000 pesetas, or about $7, customers get a 10-minute massage in an ergonomic chair, then an hour in that same chair to sleep or rest. Those in a hurry can stay half as long for half the price.

To hear Busquets tell it, Spaniards are desperate to find a quiet, comfy place for an after-meal nap.

``I’ve seen people in their cars, with the seat reclined, or even slumped over the steering wheel, trying to get a bit of rest _ businessmen, sales representatives, people in suits. It’s just not human,″ he said in an interview at his parlor on fashionable Calle Serrano, his first in Madrid.

The rest of the snooze emporiums are in Catalonia, the wealthy northeastern region where Barcelona is the capital. Busquets says he plans to open 90 more this year around Spain, including 30 in Madrid.

Siesta statistics are hard to come by, but Busquets reckons that these days only one in 10 Spaniards takes a siesta.

Some doctors say a short nap _ no more than 30 minutes _ does wonders for the body. Research conducted in the 1980s in the United States, much of it at Stanford University in California, indicated the nervous system needs to shut off, or at least shift into neutral, twice a day _ once at night and once in the afternoon, sometime between 2 and 5 p.m.

Like other Mediterranean peoples, Spaniards traditionally took advantage of warm afternoons for naps, strolls or leisurely lunches at home with the folks. But all that is becoming rare.

Now that Spain belongs to the European Union and more foreign companies are setting up shop here, Spaniards have to be awake and on the ball when the rest of Europe calls.

``Many times these are companies that operate in, say, Denmark as well as Germany and Spain, so the schedules have to be similar. It becomes 8-to-5 with a very short pause at midday,″ said Dr. Diego Garcia-Borreguero, a specialist in sleep disorders at the Jimenez Diaz Foundation, a medical research center in Madrid.

The bottom line is that ``in Spain there is now a tendency to do away with the siesta,″ he said. ``The custom is slowly dying out.″

But if anybody in Europe needs a nap, he said, it’s Spaniards. That’s because they are inveterate creatures of the night.

In Madrid, many restaurants don’t start serving dinner until 9 p.m. On weekends, it’s nothing to see diners sit down to eat at midnight. Soccer games start as late as 10 p.m., and when an election falls during summertime, political rallies can get under way at 11 p.m. Still, people rise early to go to work.

``We tend to be a sleep-deprived people,″ said Dr. Eduard Estivill, a sleep disorder specialist at the Dexeus Institute in Barcelona.

For his part, Busquets says it would be a pity if the siesta were lost.

``We are in Spain!″ he exclaimed. ``This is the siesta we are talking about. Losing it would be like losing bullfights, or sangria, or paella.″

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