Creature Comforts

With all due respect to our friends and acquaintances who live in Portugal’s bigger cities and Spain’s metropolises – or, at least, in more upscale dwellings than ours – we who make our homes in the small towns and villages of these two Iberian countries lack and may covet what you probably have that we don’t: Creature comforts.

I’m talking about petite pleasures and little luxuries like central heating, mold-free residences, bug barriers, food without flies, and gnats not whining in your ears. Wouldn’t it be nice not to wipe down our digs daily because a layer of grit always appears overnight, sprinkling silt and dust bunnies on our table tops, furniture and floors! Most of all, however, I’m referring to the pure delight of starting my days with long, luxurious, hot, über strong showers.

To prioritize these niceties:

Along with our “creatures” – three Miniature Schnauzers – we work, eat, sleep, shower, and attend to life’s necessities in two adjoining rooms measuring no more than 40-square-meters (combined). In other words, about two-thirds of our time is spent in a concrete and plaster crucible with windows but zero, zilch, insulation. Nada. Which is why we mop and dust daily. We indulged ourselves and invested in an 18,000 BTU inverter air conditioning unit that, according to our research, is the most cost-effective and efficient way to keep us warm during the cold times, yet cooler if it’s hot. We set it at 19º C (66º F) when the temperature falls … and 24º C (75º F) once the heat hits those shades of hades. Yes, I know that we pay a steep price for such succor, with monthly electric (EDP) bills averaging 150 Euros for a three-story, 135m2 house.

Which brings me to my current rant:

We needed to replace our (gas-fired) water heater.

It’s bad enough that the infernal contraption is located up in our attic and almost impossible to reach … that each canister of propane fueling it weighs over 75 pounds and costs €24.40 or so in Portugal, €11.50 in Spain … and getting the canister up those misplaced steps to the attic, where it takes the contortions of two Cirque du Soleil performers to lift it up the stairs … roll it across the attic’s cement floor … stand it up again … and connect it to the water heater on the far side.

All of which wouldn’t be quite so awful, except that:

• We never know when the hot water is going to give up and run out, but it usually happens while I’m in the middle of a shower and need to shout my partner out of a deep sleep and a warm bed to venture up to the attic and change the canister;

• To achieve maximum heat from the water it outputs, the pressure setting must be dialed down; and

• When all is said and done, the shower water is still but between a dribble and drizzle of tepid, lukewarm water at best—and certainly not forceful enough to rinse the shampoo out of hair, shaving lather from a face, or soap off one’s skin. We were going through three gas cylinders that serve only our bathroom’s sink and shower every month. Adding insult to injury, there’s always – always! – unproductive propane still left in the tank.

The lady who owns the corner mini-market where we exchange our depleted “garrafas” for refills shakes her head “não,” wagging her finger. She explains emphatically (in Portuguese too rapid for me) that gas should only be used in the kitchen for cooking. Water, she insists, should be heated electrically. “But the electric is so expensive here …” I counter. She shrugs. And asks, “E aquelas?” referring to the three propane tanks we’d been going through each month. “Quanto custam?” How much arewere we spending every month on those propane canisters?

Eighty euros!

Would our electric bills increase more than that if we were to replace the feeble gas water heater with an electric one?

She doesn’t know, but suggests I ask EDP (the electric company), an electrician, or the appliance store where we buy the new unit. Fortunately, we’ve got a great electrodomésticos (appliance) shop managed by a good-looking guy who knows his stuff – he’s actually “energy-certified” – and explains the problem to us: Because the weather is colder, it requires more gas to heat the water. And since it’s coldest in the attic where the water heater is located, we’re not getting our money’s worth out of the propane. Always, some will remain.

Handsome João concurs that an electric water heater will serve our purposes better … and operating it should cost less than the €80 we’d been spending monthly on gas. Even with the 120 liter capacity model recommended for three people taking back-to-back showers.

We bought the unit and made arrangements for it to be installed, which included having electricity brought up to the attic. All should be ready to use in another week or so (probably “or so,” this being Portugal). Until then, we dashed down a flight of steps every morning in our terrycloth robes to avail ourselves of the guest bedroom shower.

We also did battle with water on another front: the mold. The most common causes of mold growing on walls and ceilings here are high humidity, condensation, and water leaks (often hidden inside the walls or ceilings). Check. Check. Check. In houses like ours, it’s not uncommon to have all three. Condensation forms when water vapor in the air meets cold surfaces and cools to become liquid. Leaking pipes near or inside of walls are a common cause of mold.

Say “hello” to typical village home construction in Spain and Portugal!

A bottle with bleach in hand, we spray the ceilings and walls whenever we notice any “damp” (as our British friends call it) shadow appearing. During colder times, especially, we move furniture away from the walls and take our clothing off the wardrobe rods that come in contact with walls. Following a heavy douse of bleach solution, we follow up with special “anti-mofo” spray and let the areas dry for 24 hours.

After the rainy season, we’ll need to have a new €8,000 roof installed next spring: a special “sandwich” with insulation between the faux-tile metal top and its bottom surface, that should cut down on the leaks and the moisture—along with the mold. It would also keep us warmer, reducing the electricity consumed by our aircon and new water heater.

Despite spending a bundle on our new water heater, we counted on all the money we’d be saving on our EDP bills.

Yeah, right.

The flies and the gnats already are gathering in anticipation.

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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