Reality Check Observations

From the daily and mundane to more complex matters that we tend to take for granted, the ways people in one country do things often differ quite a bit from how they’re done in another.

Take banking, for instance.

Checks are virtually unheard of here in Portugal and Spain. Instead, one does almost everything through “Multibanco” machines that do much more than disperse cash from your account, or allow you to move money from one account to another within the same bank.

You can pay bills and/or transfer money to other people, businesses, and government agencies … regardless of their bank. And those recurring charges—like your electric, water, car payment, insurance, and telecommunication bills? They’re billed to and paid directly by the bank, without you needing to lift a finger. Forgotten your personal IBAN number? You can obtain it — as well as a history of your transactions, withdrawals and money deposited — electronically through your home computer or mobile device and, of course, the Multibanco!

Driving is another activity that’s quite different on this side of the pond than the other. No, I’m not referring to which side of the road we drive on or where your vehicle’s steering wheel and pedals are located. It’s much more complicated than that.

Consider speeding …People where we live in Portugal tend to be either speed demons or slow pokes. They’ll tailgate your butt before pulling away and leap-frogging several vehicles to get ahead of you (even if you’re driving over the posted speed limit) … or they’ll drive you bonkers because of their motorcycle-cum-cars with sewing machine engines that slow everyone down, since they just can’t get up to and maintain speed.

Keeping up with (if not ahead of) traffic is the name of the game here. And, whether or not you’re driving fast “enough,” there are always those who want to drive faster. So, move onto those special “laggard lanes” on the right, where available, and allow others to pass you!

Speed “bumps” are serious here, big and high, rather than the puny strips usually found in the USA. Then there are those “rumble strips,” urging you to slow down—especially when approaching a stop or yield sign. And, each time you enter a village on a paved, country road, heed the “Velocidad Controlada” signs. Exceed the designated speed limit and you’ll automatically trigger a red traffic light. Those striped lines where passengers have the right-of-way to cross the street? They do! And roundabouts (???!!!) Personally, I loathe them; but many swear by them—no matter how convoluted or complex. Give me a good, old-fashioned red, green, and yellow traffic light any day—blinking or not!

Without rhyme or reason, and in no logical order, here are some other curious or odd observations we’ve noticed while living in Portugal and Spain, which make living here quite different than back in the colonies:

• Coin-chained supermarket carts cut down the clutter and damage caused by shopping carts abandoned, helter-skelter, in parking lots.

• I’m not particularly a fan of “soft” drinks or soda “pop.” But, every so often I do crave a Coke or Pepsi. Sugar (not artificial sweeteners) is used here. Likewise, I’ve yet to pick up a bottle or can of almost any condiment and found the equivalent of “High Fructose Corn Syrup” listed as an ingredient. Someone told me that such preservatives are prohibited here. If so, good for us!

And forget about meals eaten at “American times.” Restaurants don’t even open here for dinner before 7:00 PM … and few tables are taken earlier than 20:00.

• Food and drink beg mentioning the sensitive topic of tipping. In the USA, where restaurant workers and other service providers frequently earn less than the minimum wage, tipping is appreciated and practiced – especially for superior service – typically to the tune of 15%-20% of the bill. (Some restaurants now automatically add a “courtesy charge” gratuity to your tab.) While certainly appreciated, tipping isn’t expected or necessarily proffered in the smaller towns of Spain and Portugal. Most people we know who do tip, will leave one euro or fifty cents for a €20-25 bill. Still, the workers are surprised … and genuinely grateful.

• Vehicle license plates (“tags”) stay with the car in Portugal and don’t change with each new owner. Look at the plate: you’ll know the month and year when a vehicle was first registered and put on the road.

• Used cars come with an obligatory full year warranty in Portugal, rather than 30-60 days of “power train” coverage. But, there’s more paperwork required before you drive a car off the dealer’s lot: among other things, you’d best bring acceptable documentation attesting that there’s adequate insurance coverage in effect on said vehicle.

• Pets need to wear seat belts when out in the car, driving with their families. It’s the law here. We’re not talking about those improbable imitations of baby car seats adapted to dogs (or cats), but a leash that attaches to your pet’s collar on one end and gets inserted to the seat belt buckle/clasp on the other. There’s plenty of leeway for the dogs to sit, stand, lie down, even roll over … but they can’t jump out the car window or bolt from a door that accidentally opens. Rather not tether them using these pet seat belts? Then, you’ll need to transport them in appropriate pet carriers.

• People, by and large, tend to treat their pets (especially dogs) differently in Portugal and Spain than do Americans. It’s not that they don’t love them or consider them part of their families, it’s just that the psychology – between both people and pets – differs from what we’ve been used to in the USA. We’re those “Americanos lo/u/cos” who treat their pets like surrogate children and walk their dogs on leashes, picking up after them and depositing their litter in refuse receptacle bins. Most small town Portuguese and Spaniards open the door and let their dogs (and cats) out to roam the streets and take care of their business. After all, it’s their business … not theirs.

• Expanding into more personal hygiene, at the risk of being offensive, it behooves me to mention bidets and toilets. Most Americans know what bidets are, even if we find them somewhat redundant. All I will say is, “Try it, you’ll like it.” As regards the even more sensitive subject of toilets, let’s just say that the paper here isn’t what Charmin has led us to expect. Few small towns and villages here have plumbing that can accommodate anything other than human waste, which means that tampons, tissues, paper towels, and even toilet paper must be disposed of alternatively (and appropriately).

• Houses shouldn’t be money pits—so, people, not houses, are heated and cooled. Outside the USA, fuel and petrol-based products cost more. Why heat or cool an entire house, when we’re occupying only certain rooms or areas? Unlike the USA, where whole houses often are “air conditioned” — heated or cooled — including rooms and spaces that aren’t in use or occupied, Europeans use “inverter” units in separate rooms. When sleeping, the bedroom aircon is turned on. Feeling cold while entertaining company? Only wood burners, pellet stoves, or space heaters in the kitchen, dining area, and/or gathering space need to be operating, while the rest of the house isn’t consuming energy. No need to keep a tank heated–just heat the water when/if you need it. Gas-powered water heaters provide an unending stream of hot water (until the gas tank runs dry, usually at the most awkward and uncomfortable moments).

• Mediterranean Europeans – those from Portugal, Spain, and Italy especially – enjoy their long lunch “hours.” They wouldn’t think of working on vacation days or many “ferias” and holidays celebrated throughout the year. Often, they don’t begin work before 10:00 AM and pace themselves according to their internal dictates and physical needs, rather than external schedules and time clocks.

• Is Portugal alone among the Romance languages in the way it counts and designates days? Spanish, French, and Italian all have similar words for Monday (Lunes, Lundi, Lunedi) through Saturday (Sábado, Samedi, Sabato) and Sunday (Domingo, Dimanche, Domenica) … but, when it comes to Portuguese, except for the weekend, the days of the week are determined by when they fall in terms of Sunday as the first day of the week and market days: Segunda-feria (Monday), Terça (Tuesday), Sexta-feria (Friday). It’s too confusing for me to keep count!

• I’d be doing us all a disservice if not mentioning the need to come to grips with international weights and measures. With my trusted tape measure, I can deal with centimeters vs. inches. But I always go online to convert kilos to pounds and kilometers to miles. Forget about converting temperatures between Celsius vs. Farenheit. Nobody will ever convince me that an infernal 118ºF isn’t hotter than 48ºC … or that 0ºC isn’t colder than its 32ºF equivalent!

Obviously, these are just my personal observations … and some may be skewed or faulty. Nonetheless, Russ and I believe ourselves better off now because of these differences that teach us to value the customs of one country – and its culture – even when compared to another.

Maybe you have observed other comparative distinctions between life as an expat here and your prior experiences elsewhere. Please, share them so that others can be better prepared to appreciate the value of our diverse ways and means.

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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