Why I Dislike Supermarket Shopping in Portugal

Today is our food shopping day.

It’s one of my least favorite activities in Portugal.

Not because of the quality or the prices.

But, because:

We have to go to three supermarkets to get everything we want. (Castelo Branco has neither an Aldi, Carrefour, or Corte Inglés.) The bulk of our shopping is done at Auchan, which carries most — but not everything — we need. Next, it’s off to Lidl for their freshly bottled orange juice, freshly baked cheese sticks, and best cuts of meat. Finally, homeward bound, one of us runs into Continente for freshly bottled grapefruit juice–it’s the only store locally that carries it.

Shopping in the supermarkets is like an obstacle course. The aisles are narrow to begin with. People abandon their carts in the aisles, while they go off elsewhere looking for whatever. In other aisles, are clutches of two, three, and four people just standing there gossiping and blocking the aisles. If not customers, it’s employees who ignore the fact that their trolleys for stocking shelves leaves little room for passersby to do their shopping. Meanwhile, the stockers are oblivious, chatting with co-workers.

Am I the only one who’s bothered by people — customers — picking up fruits, vegetables, breads, and other foodstuffs … squeezing them, sniffing them, then putting them back?

Too many items are without prices. I picked up a super double pack of Dolce Gusto coffee capsules (they’re recyclable now!) because the price listed on the header said €14.99 for 64. With smaller size boxes of 16 capsules costing €5.50 or more, €14.99 is a pretty, darned good price! Except that it rings up, instead, as €17.93. In what I think is my very best Portuguese, I tell the cashier, “Mas a placa indica que o preço é €14.99.” Rather than make a fuss, I say that I don’t want it, thank you, and tell the cashier that after I’m checked out, I’ll deal with a supervisor. The people queued up behind me to pay are getting fidgety. “But you can’t come back into the store with the cart after you’ve paid,” explains the cashier, who is now getting frustrated herself. “Não se preocupe”, I assure her, “eu não vou.”

There’s never enough cashier lanes open to serve all the customers. How many times have I wiggled my way to a line, only to see the green “Aberto” light turn red “Fechado” just as I’m ready to unload. And even if everything else has gone well, I still have to deal with those cantankerous credit/debit card machines. Sometimes, they work perfectly. Other times, whether I swipe, insert, or magically wave my card, the “reader” just won’t cooperate. The cashier asks my permission, “Com licença,” to try it herself. It’s still won’t work. So, she calls over a manager, explains the situation, and hands my card and the wad of receipt papers to her. “Amazing!” I say to myself, as she hands me another receipt to sign. Reminding myself never to use that cashier lane again, I wonder how many forests have been cut down to merit all that paper.

I wait for my shopping companion in front of the store. He’s the cook in our family and always takes much longer than me to make sure that he’s got everything detailed minutely on his telephone app. Asking him to watch my cart (please), I march back inside, heading to the end cap of the coffee and tea aisle where I had found my great bargain on Dolce Gusto Sical. Aha! Just as I thought: the only sign indicating the price is hanging from the top of the top shelf, clearing showing the cost as €14.99. I politely interrupt two employees discussing whatever, and ask one to accompany me to confirm the price. The scans my Sical and €17.93 digitally appears on the screen. Then she scans other varieties on different shelves, which come up as €14.99. She tells me that “these” boxes of coffee are €14.99, but those — including my Sical — are €17.93. “But how is anyone supposed to know that?” I respond anxiously and with a bit of consternation. She shrugs her shoulder and smiles at me. Remembering all the items I had wanted to purchase until I asked and found out the prices (no, they weren’t marked), I contemplate going to the management section and making a stink. But I’m too annoyed at the moment and know that I would trip all over my limited Portuguese if I did–especially if asked a question. Knowing other opportunities would arise where I could vent my frustration, I turn and walk towards the exit. Nodding to nobody, I realized how the patience of the Portuguese was beginning to take hold of me.

Unloading the cart outside in the parking lot, I curse silently and wish I had a camera with me. Cars are parked diagonally in vertical spaces–one is even taking up three spots by parking horizontally. And several others are sticking out because they haven’t been pulled all the way in to the spots. I take all this in as cars careen around the lot at near highway speeds.

Do you recognize the man in this picture? I bet I could learn a lot about supermarket shopping and patience from him!

May be an image of 3 people, food and indoor

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Living on a Portuguese Income

Yesterday — amid all the talking faces and social media gabbing about rising inflation, prices going up, the potential for recession, homeless shelters and food pantries being used more often by more people, the adjustments and do-withouts even the employed are forced to make, higher costs and the problems we’ll all soon be facing — I stopped to listen to my inner voice, that soul or conscience that asks me to consider not how we would be affected by all these dire predictions … but what impact they would actually have on others.

Specifically, the Portuguese.

You and I are privileged. We’ve retired on a comfortable enough income, public and/or private pensions, to not be that affected by economic downturns and political pressures. Sure, maybe we’ll put off that cruise and faraway vacation, or postpone the purchase of a new car. For many or most of us, we’re living on money earned remotely or Social Security payments from a lifetime of working abroad.

Come what may, our standard(s) of living won’t change that much.

But what about our Portuguese friends and neighbors?

The widow next door to us is somewhere between 90 and 100. She has only three teeth left, so understanding her speech is difficult beyond comprehending the language we’re learning. A couple of times, we’ve knocked on her door to bring her some homemade food–meals or desserts. She’s very stubborn, refusing our offerings by saying her “children” bring her food each week. Her door slightly ajar, I’ve followed my nose and peeked in. It’s obvious that mold and mildew live there with her. She has neither air conditioning in the summer nor heating in the winter–at least not according to our standards. Regardless of the temperature outside, her house is cold and barren. No kitchen cabinets, just a shelf or two. Old, worn-out furniture. mismatched and misplaced … wherever. Her husband died more than 20 years ago and she’s been living on a state pension (“social security”) of €250 per month. Even though her daughters bring her food, at least once a week she trundles to and from the mini-market several blocks away with her walker. We can shrug off that extra €15 euros we’re spending now on what’s in our grocery carts from our weekly excursions to Auchan, Continente, Aldi, Pingo Doce, or Intermarché. But she can’t. What does she do? She does without, putting on extra layers and several threadbare blankets over the sagging mattress of her cot-like bed set in the middle of her kitchen, opposite the rusty front door. She may be poor, but her pride is intact and her survival instincts are strong.

We live in the suburbs of a major city, a comfortable if not upscale vila of mixed housing–most are row houses of all shapes and sizes, although there’s plenty of upscale properties with huge houses and landscaped gardens behind magnificent gates (not fences) around the town. We moved here from a smaller village (aldea) of about 500 people, down from 1,200 or more during its glory days. Today, one corner market, two cafés, and a beautician who visits twice each week comprise its commercial corps. Except for three tremendous but decaying manor homes, still grand and stately, all of the other dwellings are attached. No, that’s not quite right: around the village’s outskirts are a number of quintas inhabited by daily commuters who work for the government (elsewhere) and dirt-poor people.

Friends of ours live on one of those quintas, shared with a zoo-full of beloved pets: dogs, cats, chickens, guinea pigs, and geese that bark and bite. He’s a construction manager (whatever that means) who’s held a number of positions over the years. I have no idea how much he makes, but I do know that she’s worked for the government more than 20 years and still earns little more than the average minimum wage. How are they getting by with the increased costs of … everything, including their wages?

It’s obvious there’s an increasing use of plastic — credit cards — with people borrowing now and paying later for many of their needs. I suppose those erstwhile professionals proficient in digital, artificial intelligence, and cloud-based solutions are Portugal’s middle-class. Others, who’ve inherited property from their families play the pyramid game by holding on and selling high.

Another Portuguese friend owns a business that sells electrodomésticos: refrigerators and ranges, washers and dryers, but mainly aircon and solar solutions to everyday customers and large installations. He’s got a great location right on the corner of one of the city’s primary streets, a loyal and growing clientele, and a handful of technicians working for him. Yet, in addition to not being able to escape “the busiess” 24/7, he’s got a huge nut to crack between rent, salaries, inventory, utilities, taxes, and an accountant responsible for assessing and reporting the complexities of his financial considerations.

How do these people earning less than my meager monthly Social Security payments afford to drive new cars, with minimum sticker prices of €25,000. Some of the same vehicles and models cost 150% or more here over their prices in other countries.

One thing the Portuguese have, especially those living in the campo, that we don’t are quintas that have been in their families for ages, where they work the land daily and reap its produce, sharing baskets full with others.

The Portuguese also patronize places different than we do because they know where to get the best buys. If only we’d ask them, they’d be likely to help … but it means that we must take our homework more seriously, practicing Portuguese.

Would you believe that we know “foreigners” (expats, immigrants, or whatever) who have lived here for ten to twenty years and still can’t understand the language? Why should they? They live in expat ghettos surrounded by others much like them, where Portuguese isn’t spoken except by those serving or selling to them.

Now that Portugal is firmly on the map as one of the best places to be if you’re looking to retire with a good quality of life at prices more affordable and politics more amenable than the places we’ve come from, (almost) everyone wants to live in Lisbon, Porto, Algarve, or the Silver Coast.

But it’s a small country with not enough properties to go around–especially in those areas.

So, locals are being forced out of their homes, unable to afford even their maintenance. Now, there’s a bidding war for the best located properties, no matter their condition, as many will be torn down and rebuilt. Is that what we refer to as “regentrification?” Such a fancy word for a shabby deal. Maybe replacing faulty with functional would be better …

Taxes are high here, starting with “sales” tax, which is 23%. The government takes a big bite of your pay, too, with some people paying as much as 50% of their income in payroll taxes. Then, there’s Social Security, which is next-to-impossible to figure out without the services of a knowledgeable and competent accountant.

Residents in Portugal for tax purposes — us! — are taxed on our worldwide income at progressive rates varying from 14.5% (€0-€7,112) to 48% (> €80,882) for 2021. That doesn’t include Social Security, for which we’re also responsible when working. In 2021, an additional “solidarity rate,” which varies between 2.5% and 5%, applies to taxpayers with a taxable income exceeding EUR 80,000. LOL!

Social security contributions are 23.75% of gross pay from employers and a further 11% from employees. Portugal does, however, have agreements with some other countries regarding social security ‘totalization,’ including with the United States. In the case of the US, employees of American companies sent to work in Portugal for less than five years only have to pay US social security. Those working “remotely,” however are deemed independent contractors and must pay both their income taxes and social security contributions.

That’s a lot of taxes! But the money is spent to provide free health care and education, and lower prescription drug costs (among other essential expenses) to residents.

The minimum wage in Portugal is regularly adjusted, and currently is €8400 per year. The monthly level varies because many employees in Portugal receive 14 paychecks each year (the 12 months of the year, a holiday payment in June, and a Christmas payment in December), in which case the minimum is €600 (approx. £540, $710) per payment. For employees paid 12 times a year, the minimum is €700 (approx. £630; $830) per payment. There is no mandatory custom for wage growth or bonuses. 

Portugal has the sixth lowest average gross yearly salary among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) states. That comes to about 28,410 dollars per year (24,557 euros). A far cry from the United States, which leads with 69,392 dollars per year (59,981 euros), or neighboring Spain, with its 39,922 dollars per year (34,508 euros).

Nonetheless, if you’re committed to living frugally, you can live for less in Portugal. Many locals and retirees get by on less than 750 Euros a month. A couple can live in one of Portugal’s smaller or interior cities for about $1,700 a month.

Of course, there are some who make much more than the “average,” as shown here:

The top 10 careers with the highest salaries in Portugal:

RankingJobGross Annual Salary in Portugal
1General Manager in the Health Sector120,000 – 150,000 euros
2Commercial Director100,000-150,000 euros
3Chief Information Officer (CIO)110,000-140,000 euros
4Shared Service Centre Director95,000 – 120,000 euros
5E-commerce Manager50,000 – 75,000 euros
6Cyber security Specialist45,000 – 60,000 euros
7Big Data Specialist35,000 – 50,000 euros
8Software Engineer+ 45,000 euros
9Digital Marketer35,000 – 45,000 euros
10Machine Learning Specialist+40,000 euros
Chart: Manpower

But let’s get real. Not many make that kind of money in Portugal.

Average wages in Lisbon are considerably higher than the official minimum salary. The average salary in Lisbon is around 1050 euros, the highest in Portugal.

The Construction Union of Portugal (SCP) has stated that “there is no shortage of manpower” in the construction sector, but rather a lack good salaries. “There is no shortage of manpower; people are not choosing to work in the sector because they can earn three or four times as much abroad,” said the organization’s president, Albano Ribeiro.

According to Ribeiro, in the last six years, 300,000 workers have left the sector, and 90,000 are currently needed to carry out public and private works in Portugal.

The Portuguese leaving Portugal for better opportunities are being “replaced” by people like us. We’re necessary to the country’s economic welfare and, by and large, are welcomed.

That’s one of the reasons we didn’t move to Spain — where we’ve had a vacation bolt for 15 years — instead of Portugal. All Schengen countries agree to use the same visa application for would-be immigrants and residents. But there are major differences in their interpretation.

For instance, the European Union and Schengen may agree that all visa applicants be self-sufficient, able to support themselves and their dependents.

In Spain, income requirements for a Non Lucrative Visa for people from the USA and UK are $30,453/€25,816 annually, plus $7,613/€6,454 for each additional family member. These minimum income requirements covert to roughly $2,550 per month for a single person or $3,150 for a couple. (An additional €537.84 per month is required for each and every dependent family member.) Most of the Spanish people we know outside the big cities don’t make anywhere near those amounts. In addition, Spain residency applicants cannot have loans or mortgages outstanding in the United States. We didn’t feel welcomed by Spain.

For residency in Portugal, however, you must show income or pensions amounting to 12 months at the minimum wage: €8,460 for the first adult; €4,320 for a second or more adults; €2,538 per child. Couples must document income of €12,780. A couple with two children require €17,856. You must provide 6-months of bank statements. There are no restrictions on whether you work — in Portugal or remotely — if you have or can find a job. Portugal, despite its bureaucracy, made us feel very welcomed by these numbers alone.

Quite a big difference between the two countries, huh?

Sometimes, less is more!

Partying with the Portuguese

Imagine it’s the 4th of July, Mardi Gras, or New Year’s Eve … only bigger. Because the festivities continue day after day–typically for four days or so.

There’s food and drink, people dancing in the streets. Musicians and merriment. DJ disco. Friends and family who now live elsewhere returning to their homeland and birthplaces to celebrate with drink, games of chance, special lottery tickets and prizes. Often, even a Mass (or two). Albeit in the village’s streets, backyards, taverns, cafés, and church yards, it’s loud, begins late (10:00 PM), and continues through the hours most people otherwise are sleeping soundly..

What are they celebrating?

Perhaps they’re paying homage to a particular saint. Remembering a day from their particular history. Or momentarily singing the praises of Portuguese life.

It’s that time of the year when we see — and hear — a different side of our Portuguese neighbors … as saudade takes a break in the back seat, giving way to saúde.

No matter how small the village — our little Lousa (not Lousã) has fewer than 500 residents — these summer festivals are big events. So big, that the population surges four-fold with people staying with relatives, at their family’s original dwellings despite their delipidated condition, at lodging facilities, even commuting between nearby villages not hosting their shindigs at the moment. It’s nearly impossible to find a parking spot, as vehicles of all vintages, shapes, and sizes double (and triple) park … or are simply left wherever.

Broken beer bottles, plastic cups, and cigarette butts awaken the mornings after to the garish light of another day too hot to deal with overflowing trash bins, as streets become sticky–drunk by grit, gristle, grease, and grime fried by the day’s scorching sun.

Yet these annual festivities are good for the soul and give evidence of a spirit eager to be freed. While it may seem as though we’ve wandered into the midst of a circus or carnival, other days and times are set aside for such events.

Pause …

Of course, people need time and space to recuperate and regain their wits about them; so late mornings and afternoons are set aside for life’s more mundane tasks. Including sleep. Half-hearted attempts are made to clean up the public areas littered beyond the local bins’ capacity. But much of the time is traditionally spent with family.

In some Portuguese towns and villages — including ours! — the highlight of the doings is saved for near the end: running of the bull(s), an event that involves people running in front of a bull (or small group of bulls) that have been set loose on sectioned-off streets.

Ours is that sectioned off street in Vila Boim, our home in the Alentejo, as the usually dormant bull ring is located at the end of our road.

I guess, like most everyone else on our street, we will need to move our cars.

And stay inside, watching the wild frenzy through our windows.

Portugal has a vibrant bullfighting tradition, but killing a bull is deemed tantamount to murder by some and was outlawed in 1928. The vast majority of Portugal’s population doesn’t watch, go to, or support bull fights. But bull runs are something else entirely. Especially in Sabugal and Terceira in the Azores Islands. I’m told that in Portugal, after the running, the bulls aren’t killed but get a few weeks off because of their bravery. Maybe that’s pure … errrr … bullsh*t, said to appease this American’s loathing of animal abuse.

“It’s not a show! It’s life, it’s partying, it’s adrenaline, it’s conviviality, they are roots that hold us tight to the land that saw us born and to which we return,” insists President Victor Proenca of the Municipality of Sabugal. “The gallantry of the riders, the courage of those who face the ‘proof bull,’ the public’s expectations with each new bull that comes out, the scoundrel who calls to the calf, the nostalgia of the party that ends in the unwinding… this is Capeia, land of passions, strong emotions and feelings that are repeated year after year.”

Bull runs are also the highlight of summer street festivals held in villages throughout Terceira, where the island is big on its bulls since they literally defended the Portuguese island from a Spanish invasion during the 16th century. When King Philip sent the Pedro Valdes to Terceira for a diplomatic takeover, its crew was met by 600 angry bulls and subsequently wiped out.

Here’s how writer Robin Esrock describes the bull running experience:

“For a moment, the huge Bull stops to weigh its options. There are people everywhere, taunting him, laughing, showing no respect whatsoever. There are rock walls, and wooden barricades, and more people on those walls and barricades, exuding a cacophony of celebration. Around the Bull’s neck is a thick rope, held many yards back to several men dressed in white. They’re supposed to condition his movement, but the Bull knows, and they know, it’s more of a nuisance than anything else. A nuisance like the young men who dare to step forward, threaten him with movement from jackets or blankets or hypnotically twirling red umbrellas. The impetuousness! To dare challenge such a beast, so strong and muscled that cows shudder their udders at the sight of him. A young man crosses the imaginary line and the Bull springs forward, horns primed, an unstoppable tank of nature. But the man sidesteps, deftly turning in a circle. Although the Bull is big and fast, it does not have power steering. They play this dangerous game, closely bonded, man and beast, until the man skips away safely to the applause of the crowd. The Bull pauses. He has choices. Should he charge into the crowd to send everyone scattering? Should he trample the man holding a notebook, with his baseball T-shirt and distinctly un-Portuguese appearance? Should he make an unexpected leap over a low wall where many others stand in mistaken safety? Should he turn back down the street toward the pen from which he came? The Bull turns its thick neck toward me, and I am frozen stiff. Reflected in the black orbs of its eyes, I see him weighing his options.”

Back in Vila Boim, as the annual festival wends its way to the end, one final event is scheduled. It’s the closing church service.

I contemplate the irony of bulls running down my street followed by a holy Mass–a communion commemorating the martyred body and blood of their Savior, Christ Jesus.

The next national holiday is the Assumption of Mary, marking the the Virgin Mary’s (supposed) bodily ascent to heaven at the end of her life. Assumption celebrations are accompanied by festivals, colorful street processions, fireworks, and pageantry. “Feasts” aren’t actually required, yet there is a longstanding tradition of blessing the summer harvest.

In 2022, Mary’s assumption is famously celebrated on 15 August.

Bruce Joffe is the publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine, the magazine for people everywhere with Portugal on their minds. Read our current issue and subscribe — FREE of charge — to future ones at: https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue

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