The Americanization of Iberia

Conveniently, we’re eating lunch in the food court at one of Castelo Branco’s largest shopping centers. With a dozen or so eateries in a semi-circle filled abundantly with tables and chairs, eateries abound: churrascarias (bbq), fish, soup and sandwich, Italian (pizza & pasta), kebabs and gyros, burgers, ice cream, pastries, and other desserts.

Our favorite is a Brazilian steak house where, for €4.90 – about $5.50 – you can get a grilled flank steak on a roll with a side salad, bowl of soup, French fries, and your choice of beverage—wine and beer included. Other meals are comparably priced. All are served on real plates and dishes, with flatware and drinking glasses.

But many of the Portuguese we see prefer to eat, instead, at the Pizza Hut, KFC, Burger King, or McDonalds next door … tapping digital buttons to order food and then waiting for their LED numbers to flash, summoning them to pick up bags with disposable contents.

Meals at these American franchises typically cost more than Portuguese food.

Hamburgers, chicken, pizza, and sandwiches, of course, are international foods, unlimited by American influence. It’s how the food is cooked and served that makes all the difference (along with the type and quality of products used).

Why would anyone want to eat such assembly line food with “paper” plates and plastic utensils, when so much better is available in the very same space?

It got me thinking about the influence America – the USA, in particular – is having on Portugal and Spain in Iberia. Is that still called “imperialism?” Good, bad, or indifferent, the USA has affected Portuguese and Spanish cultures in many ways:

• Language. As American English differs from the British, European Portuguese and Spanish differ from their Brazilian and Hispanic cousins. And American lingo is increasingly taking root in both languages. English – accented by American English, by and large – is mandatory learning in Portuguese schools, from elementary grades through secondary school. English speakers seek to practice their Portuguese; but as soon as we open our mouths with mispronounciation, the Portuguese reply in excellent English. Daily, more American expressions and words are imported, even though native words already exist: “take-away,” and “tênis” (sneakers) … along with many other words of common usage: “marketing,” “workshop,” “brownie,” “cupcake,” “low cost,” “cheap,” “check in,” “designer,” “email,” “blog” “clic(k),” “check up,” and “yummy” are just a few examples, along with the universal gadgets and widgets of technology.

Media. If you watch TV’s The Price Is Right or America’s Got Talent, you’d best take their Spanish and Portuguese equivalents with a large dose of salt! As for cinema, we get first-run American movies here upon release. Soundtracks are hilariously dubbed in Spanish, while shown in their original English with Portuguese subtitles.Heck, there’s even Netflix.es and Netflix.pt. American music – current and oldies – is quite popular on much Iberian radio … until interrupted periodically by Catholic masses and Hail Marys broadcast in their entirety.

• Money. Plastic seems preferred over cash—especially during the pandemic. Although Americans reach for their credit cards, the Portuguese and Spanish are more likely to use debit cards. The ATM was invented by a Brit (not the Yanks), but their use is everywhere today. In Spain, you can withdraw and deposit money, pay bills and even traffic fines at an ATM. Portugal’s “multibanco” machines do even more! They’re so smart, in fact, that they don’t deem cash withdraws – where we’re assessed fees from both the dispensing and our home banks – as such. (Not so with Spain’s ATMs.)

• Medicine. Although universal health care is the birthright of all Spanish and Portuguese citizens (legal residents in Portugal, as well), locals often opt to supplement their public health care with private coverage. There’s quite a difference (in price!) between the USA’s and Iberian medical plans. While the cheapest and least inclusive health insurance policies can cost thousands of dollars per month in America, comprehensive health care insurance in Portugal runs us about $160 per month (all-inclusive) for two people–one 70+, the other almost 60. Spain, too, offers the option for foreigners residing there to buy into the country’s national insurance or purchase comparable coverage through private market insurers.

• Urbanization. How are you going to keep them down on the farm? The Portuguese lament the loss of their younger, educated population who flee the small villages of their birth to elsewhere … other countries, as well as bigger cities in Portugal, where employment opportunities are more plentiful and the proverbial “rat race” appears to be exciting. Buy, sell, spend, borrow, bigger, better … more! After a while, however, keeping up with the Joãs takes its toll. Like the city mouse and the country mouse, there’s a pronounced distinction between city dwellers and their more provincial relatives, with natives dividing lifestyles as either city or country (campo).  Increasingly, however, the Spanish and Portuguese experience that yearning, “saudade,” to return to their roots … tilling the soil and enjoying a more peaceful, tranquil, less hurried and hectic lifestyle. Wherever the location, however, for those looking to buy or rent property, there’s a local office of the Re/Max, ERA, Century 21, and Keller Williams real estate networks.

• Technology. The globalization of technology certainly can’t be limited to the United States. But silicon valleys across the country are the forbearers and creators of our digital world. The most popular mobile phone in Portugal and Spain? Apple’s iPhone.The preferred computer? Apple’s iMac. The ubiquitous operating systems and tools of computers? Microsoft’s. The go-to search engine? Google. The most popular social media platforms? Facebook and its WhatsApp. The best known computer chips and graphic cards? Intel.

Unfortunately, ignorance and belligerence — byproducts of American polarization — appear to be finding friends in Spain and Portugal. Chanting “freedom,” hundreds of people rallied in Madrid and Lisbon in to protest the mandatory use of facemasks and other restrictions imposed by the governments to contain the coronavirus pandemic. And in Portugal, one of the countries intent on containing and crippling the virus, we are impressed with the fortitude and compassion displayed by the Portuguese people. “It is not perfect here,” states an American expat living in Lisbon. “The police need to enforce mask rules (occasionally meeting violent resistance) in some ethnic ghettos, but the city is trying to increase communications and messaging in those neighborhoods and incidents are rare.” In southern Portugal, “most are following the rules, but still get too close at the grocery, leaning in or reaching around. On the boardwalk, tourists don’t cover when they cough and sneeze.”

American outreach has cribbed many inroads to territories Spanish and Portuguese.

T-shirts glorify alleged American icons and phrases, while shopping carts are filled with brands such as Heinz, Tropicana, Listerine, Johnson & Johnson, Old Spice, Colgate, Oral-B, Coca Cola (and Pepsi), Kellogg’s, Finish, Raid, Vaseline, Woolite, Hellman’s, Vaseline, Dove, Bic, Purina, Pedigree, and Friskies (among others) … outpacing the national ones.

So be it.

But if and when Walmart arrives here, it will be time for us say enough is enough!

Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.

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2 thoughts on “The Americanization of Iberia

  1. As a teacher who’s taught in Portugal, i would only have to say that American English is not the norm in either state or private English provision. British English has always been the norm, and the fact that the key exams (Cambridge, IELTS, etc) are British-based probably reinforces this.

    Not to deny US influence in so many areas, of course!

    • Thanks, Mark! When we questioned our native Portuguese teachers about why their English accents are so pronounced American rather than British, they told us that “American English, not British” is what’s taught in the Portuguese schools. Of course, I can’t say for sure … but this blog recounts (only) our personal experiences. Appreciate hearing from you with a contrasting perspective.

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