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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Days of Summer Past

It’s just about six o’clock Friday afternoon in our village, and it appears that everyone is out in the street.

After a relatively mild and overcast day, the sun suddenly is bright and burning off the sticky skies.That is rather unusual here in Portugal, whose weather tends to feel more like a sauna than a steam bath during the summer season … and cold, dreary, overcast skies with rain in the winter.

Little old ladies wearing their black widow’s weeds move slowly, some clutching canes and others with walkers, heading towards the church. There are services tonight, not to be missed, although the widows let me know that church services are held every day here.

Seated on the wall which encircles the church, elderly men, solitary yet together, form a ring. They won’t go inside. For them, it seems far safer to comment on their world, to cuss and complain about whatever, than to seek shelter or solace in the sanctuary.

Others, too, sit outside, in front of their houses, where it’s cooler in the shadows cast by houses so closely facing theirs. Men use handkerchiefs or rags to wipe sweat from their brows, while the women – some of them, at least – fan themselves, slowly but surely, with advertising circulars.

People are arriving home from work, with far too many vessels clogging and clotting the capillaries doing the work of major arteries on our tight little “main” street. They’re impatient.

Already, they’ve been held up by a tractor inching slowly, cobble by stone, down the road, as a shepherd and two dogs herd some sheep along the way. Then, there’s a truck, blocking traffic, as it stops to unload groceries at the corner market.

Once the sheep and the truck and the tractor are out of the way, some drivers speed down the little road as if it’s the Grand Prix, cell phones held up in one hand and cigarettes dangling from the other. Several mostly older men, with their wives as passengers, steadfastly refuse to press the accelerator and go any faster; why risk losing control, when they’ll get there soon enough?

The smell of diesel fumes is intoxicating, anyway.

Ironically, unlike other places filled with anxious people squeezing too many vehicles into hold-your-breath spaces, nobody honks a horn.

It’s just not the way things are done here.

Just about now, the bus pulls up to the periphery of town, discharging a stream of people who’d left early this morning to work in the big city. They, too, crowd the street, trekking tiredly towards their homes.

But, first, they must stop for coffee.

Vehicles – cars, trucks, vans, tractors, and trailers – jockey for position to park three deep by coffee shops on streets where founders and planners hardly envisioned vehicles when building such towns and villages. Maybe they didn’t consider the implications of getting around in a place with three coffee shops, but not a single place to eat here in Lousa. So, vehicles are unattended momentarily, motors still running, while their occupants dash off for their evening coffee fixes.

Meanwhile, the young folks – old enough to drive Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, souped-up Fiats, Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots … and roaring motos, especially – are eager to escape, to get out of town and go elsewhere. Somewhere. Anywhere but here.

Right about when things seem to be less hectic, disaster unexpectedly strikes: a truck too big for our street and driven too fast, lops off the balcony of a nearby house. Concrete and balustrades topple heavily onto the street. Everything halts, as the momentary shock and silence quickly yield to a collective gasp that grips and takes hold in the village.

Suddenly, everyone is drawn, like a dragnet to the magnet, flies to a spider’s net. People stand around, beers (not coffee) in hand, some puffing on cigarettes, opining on what happened.

No, it wasn’t a “hit-and-run” … the driver, head hung sheepishly, is there among the crowd, too, looking up to the missing terrace and around to the scrapes along the side of his truck and its missing mirror. He shakes his head in amazement.

Somebody hands him a beer.

Slowly, as the sun sets, people disperse and quiet returns to our village, except behind the closed doors and fly curtains. It’s cool now. People are inside, watching television with the volume turned up too loud. The church bells peal.

It’s Friday night in the village.

Tomorrow, the days of counting – segunda, terça, quarta, quinta, sexta-feira – will be over for now and days with real names, Saturday and Sunday, will have begun.

Welcome to the weekend.

Bom fin de semana!

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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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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Getting (Or Letting) Your Home

A Facebook friend coming from the USA to spend ten days here hoped to accomplish much: He planned to travel the country, scouting and finding a suitable property … negotiate an acceptable offer … engage an attorney to review all the legalities of the process … and open a bank account where he could put 30% of the property’s purchase price down in cash and arrange to finance the rest, if he decided to buy not rent.

All that in ten days?

I had to laugh. After all, he’s talking about accomplishing all of this in Portugal (or Spain) within a week—counting weekends and holidays, when banks are closed. Say you want to buy a home in Portugal or Spain but haven’t yet started your residency application. Will banks and the government allow you to purchase the home before actually being granted residency status? If so, can you put down about 30% in cash and finance the rest?

People ask questions like these because, when they come to Spain or Portugal on a house-hunting trip and find the “right” property, they want to ensure they can proceed with a rental or purchase with all the right permits and none of the penalties.

Buying (or renting) a property has nothing whatsoever to do with whether (or not) you’ve been granted residency. Anyone can purchase property. Whether you can get financing and a mortgage for it is between you and the bank, however.

If you DO find a property that you like, you can’t just snap your fingers and make the purchase happen. First, of course, you’ll need to find the right property. Then you’ll work with the property agent (or directly with a seller) to negotiate and agree on an offer. That, alone, can take some time in Portugal and Spain! Once an offer is accepted, you’ll then want to engage the services of an attorney to do all the legal work — correctly and cost-effectively — on your behalf (you don’t have to be here if you designate power of attorney to a lawyer … best done while you are here). You’ll need to have an NIE/NIF and a bank account. You’ll need to apply for a mortgage. All this takes time …

We made a few trips to Portugal before purchasing our property. The offer was accepted after we had returned to the USA. We’d designated power of attorney to our lawyer, who handled everything for us. Then, when we applied for our residency visa (and permit), we submitted a copy of the deed to our property along with all the other paperwork. The powers-that-be liked that.

So, come for a purposeful vacation. Determine where you want to live. Look at properties. And make an offer, if you’re so moved, knowing that all will be worked on and resolved in due time.Then, go back home and relax, with visions of Iberia dancing in your head!

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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A Capital Solution?

“Para trás fica o Portugal rural, com as suas cidades e aldeias envelhecidas, onde prolifera o desemprego e o abandon das infraestruturas.”

Some startling statistics from (the bank) Montepio’s *magazine:

> In 2018, more than 40% of Portugal’s population lived in the Lisbon and Porto metropolitan areas—a trend which will continue to rise.

> To maintain its population, Portugal will need 50,000 new inhabitants per year—all the way through 2040.

> Cities and towns in the country’s interior – especially those close to the border – need at least 10,000 people per year over the next two decades to put a stop/hold to their population decline.

> 60% of Portugal’s people live within 25 kilometers of the coast.

The author asks: Can technology – including broadband digital access and telecommuting or working from home – reverse the cycle of rural exodus by building new, sustainable societies from the north to the south of interior Portugal?

Portugal’s Parliament

Vacating age-old villages isn’t an occurrence isolated to Portugal. In Spain, France, Italy and other countries, too, the same fate occurs: small and remote locations are left to decline, decay, and loss when young people leave seeking jobs and opportunities elsewhere, leaving only the elderly to cope with the dwindling resources that remain.

While many immigrants and expats enjoy the expansive lifestyle afforded by beaches and life’s little luxuries found in major municipalities and metropolises like Lisbon, Porto, Algarve, and even Coimbra – mirrored by comparable cities in Spain – others (perhaps even more of us) are attracted to the charm of Iberia’s interior villages and life off-the-grid on organic quintas, fincas, and farm land.

Through its “Work in the Interior” program launched February 3, 2020, Portugal’s government is offering financial incentives of up to €4,800 to anyone – workers and students, especially – who will help to repopulate the region. To encourage hiring, financial support will also be given to business and companies.Due to its popular “Golden Visa” program which encouraged foreigners to invest in Portuguese real estate, Lisbon, Porto, Algarve and other coastal cities have become too expensive for the Portuguese people. With all of the positive publicity about Portugal, buying property in these areas above others continues to be popular (even though the government recently revised and removed many of the program’s potential benefits).

Some, like the article’s author, propose that broadband digital will figure prominently in the regentrification of Portugal’s interior–by creating telecommuting jobs and work-from-home opportunities. Perhaps that might be a bright side to the current Covid-19 pandemic: Historically and traditionally, Portuguese companies have been hesitant to embrace new ways of working. Maybe now, their reluctance might be minimized after having experienced their labor force working off-site remotely and successfully.

Financial inducements and greater penetration of speedy and accessible broad bandwidth are but two of the tools being considered and implemented to bring back a flourishing interior. But there’s another, more integral and resourceful option that shouldn’t be overlooked … one that real estate and property agents are well familiar with: location, location, location.

Look no farther than Portugal’s next-door neighbor, Spain, whose capital is quite centrally located. Sure, there are plenty of places from north to south and east to west with large, self-sustaining municipalities and resort areas — notably Málaga, Valencia, Alicante, Bilbao, and Barcelona — but the interior regions — Sevilla, Granada, Córdoba, Burgos, Badajoz, Toledo, Salamanca — do equally well, supporting their nearby towns and villages.

Brasilia

More to the point, consider Brazil. The largest Portuguese-speaking country in the world created a completely different solution: Founded on April 21, 1960 to serve as the country’s new national capital, Brasilia was planned to move the capital from Rio de Janeiro to a more central location atop the Brazilian highlands in Brazil’s central western region. With a unique status, Brasilia is an “administrative division,” rather than a legal municipality. The novel city’s accession as the new capital of the country prompted the development of an extensive interior region.

According to Brazil’s 1960 census, there were almost 140,000 residents in this new federal district. By 1970, this figure had grown to 537,000. By 2010, its population surpassed 2.5 million. Seeking public and private employment, Brazilians from all over the country migrated to Brasilia’s satellite cities, towns, and villages.

Why can’t Portugal consider doing something similar?

Leave Lisbon (and all its attractions) where it is, along with its problematic airport. People will still want to live there, as well as in its affluent outskirts like Cascais and Estoril. But reduce the congestion, pollution, and skyrocketing prices by moving the government and its operations elsewhere … to the country’s interior.

Many factors would need to be taken under consideration and the country’s core would compete for the privilege of hosting a new capital city in Portugal, boosting employment, infrastructure, and prosperity in the process.

Which of Portugal’s interior regions would best suit these purposes?

My own personal favorite, of course, would be Castelo Branco!

* “O digital pode salvar as cidades do interior?” Texto: Carlos Martinho. Inverno 2020 (#33)

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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For Whom the Bells Toll

The rhythm of life in the villages of Portugal and Spain’s small towns is measured more appropriately by “ding-dongs” than “tick-tocks.”


That’s because church bells – not timepieces sans striking mechanisms or apps on digital devices – effectively (and efficiently) call us to come and go, awake and sleep, to accommodate time … with chimes whose claims remain diligent reminders in the background of our lives.


After a lifetime living near the deafening roar of airport jets taking off and landing; the blaring alarms of late night and early morning trains approaching crossings closed by mechanical arms; and the deeply mournful bass horns of ships passing in the night harbor, we sought a simpler life with sounds that relax and reassure, rather than jolt or jar.

Our favored vision of an idyllic retirement was marked by two indelible images: meandering cobble stone streets for walks and wandering. And church bells nearby, easing our todays into tomorrows with yesterdays’ bygones … periodicity to their perennial peals.


Peals before swine?


The church bells at our village’s central plaza echo the pulse of the people, their ebb and flow, undertaking life’s daily tasks and rituals. They summon morning strollers and diesel drivers; elderly men that sit on the church walls to jawbone about this and that; women who rise and shine to stop and shop for necessities at the local market; and youngsters going to or coming from school.


The bells ring four times right before each hour to alert us that the full hour count(down) is forthcoming. They toll once at 15 minutes after the hour, twice on the half hour, and thrice every 45 minutes past the hour. At sunrise and sunset, they peal serially: three times three. To alert the village of urgent news and “special events” – the beginning and end of Sunday services, the baptism of a new life or a cadence for the dearly departed – the bells ring rapidly, continuously.


Minutes apart, earlier or later, bells of the other churches in our village momentarily repeat the offbeat chant.


Elsewhere, church bells play a major musical intermezzo at 7:30 and 18:30 each day, calling the faithful to prayer. Some swear that their own village bells play Clementine, an American folk tune, albeit with medieval disco vibes.


It’s said that, originally, the bells rang to let workers in the fields know they had a few minutes to begin work, break for lunch, and finish … ringing a couple of minutes before the hour to let them know it was nearly time. And that there were different timbres so, when out on the land, you recognized which of the bells to listen for—yours.


In some places now, the bells don’t ring between 22:00 and 5:00.But not here in Lousa. They’ve become biorhythms, conditioning us to sleep through their nocturnal and diurnal tirades.


Based on a sermon by John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls is the title of Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 novel about the 1930s Spanish Civil War. The phrase refers to church bells that are rung when a person dies.


Donne says that, because we are all part of mankind, any person’s death is a loss to all: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”


Hemingway suggests that we should not be curious as to for whom the bell is tolling—it’s tolling for us all!


Ding-dong. Ding-dong. Ding-dong.

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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Day Tripping

Among Portugal’s extraordinary pleasures are its amazing panoramas, extraordinary places, and breathtaking vistas that can be enjoyed in a day trip.

From Algarve to Nazaré, people along the coast head to the Atlantic for a change of pace and a respite on the beach.

On the other side of the country, closer to its Iberian border, others cross into Spain along spiraling roads, with little villages dotting the way. Suddenly, we’re in another country … with different foods, related culture, and a somewhat “sister” language.

We typically travel into Spain on Sundays through Idanha a Nova and Segura, crossing a Roman bridge and aqueduct to enter Spain several kilometers before Alcántara. Apart from a few restaurants, a tourist trap or two, mini-mercado, and pharmacy, there’s not much else at this border town. For that, you’ll need to drive another 40 kms or so.

The food, however, is quite good at the area’s three restaurants: Kantara (the most expensive), Kantara Al Saif, and Gundin (our favorite). Gundin’s €11.00 Menu del Día provides the best gazpacho I’ve ever enjoyed. Except for the bread (Spain doesn’t come close to Portugal’s bread), the other two dishes are also quite tasty.

This time, though, we headed farther north – through Penamacor – to visit Valverde del Fresno for its Thursday market. The town is 16 kms from the Portugal border which, in turn, is 16 kms from Penamacor.

While we looked forward to a Spanish meal, we were on a special mission this trip: shopping for stuff at prices cheaper than in Portugal.

Textiles!

The irony is that thick, plush, absorbent, 100% cotton towels tagged with “Made in Portugal” labels cost half the price in Spain. Same for linens—from sheet sets to table cloths and coverlets.

That’s the good news. The bad?

Regardless of mattress size – including “king” and “queen” – Spanish sheet sets contain only three pieces: a top sheet, bottom sheet, and pillow case—each almost the same size. For some reason unbeknown to us (or any salespeople), the Spaniards have humongous pillows—measuring almost 200 cms across! We, however, have two pillows … each about 75 cms wide.

So, despite the higher cost, we buy our sheets and pillow cases in Portugal, where the larger size sets come standard with two matching pillow cases. (And, no, the label doesn’t say “Made in Spain.”)

Our favorite place to shop for such textile goods is the Monday market in Fundão. It’s massive! In fact, our next expat get-together will be a trip to Fundão’s Monday market, followed by a fixed-price (€9.95) buffet lunch at the city’s Principe da Beira hotel.

Anyway, I’ve digressed …

Fait accompli: We purchased our towels and took time to poke about the town, which is bigger and much more typically Spanish than Alcántara. We’d forgotten that it’s an hour later in Spain than Portugal, so most of the shops were closing … and restaurants were filling.

Tapas. We wanted tapas!

In Olvera, our Spanish hometown, as in most of Andalucía – southern Spain – menus offer meals in three sizes: tapas, media (half) ración, and a full dish (ración). Not here in Extremadura! Patrons and wait staff at restaurant after restaurant explained to us that tapas weren’t available … but complimentary “pinchos” were served with the drinks.

In southern Spain, pinchos are a type of tapa—they’re anything served on a skewer. Here to the north, in Extremadura, pinchos refer to a small, tasty dish provided gratis that accompanies your beverage.

We ate at Restaurante Casa Laura. With 120 “excellent” TripAdvisor reviews – four times more than the closest competition – we soon understood why: the food is to die for there. We began with some beer accompanied by a small dish of pinchos, potatoes mixed with egg and pieces of chorizo in a carmel sauce. Yum-mo! The cool gazpacho soup was good (enough), followed by meatballs in a thick and rich tomato sauce for me and cod (bacalao) with nary a single bone for Russ. The pièce de résistance, however, was dessert: dreamy-creamy cheesecake.

Total tab for our lunch, including tip, was twenty-seven euros (€27), somewhat pricier than what we’ve paid in Alcántara. But well worth it! Everyone working at the restaurant was super friendly and all made a point of stopping by our table to be sure we were satisfied.

Heading back across the windy roads surrounded by a lush, distinctly parceled landscape, it occurred to us how different the topography of Spain is in some ways from Portugal’s.

The two countries are close enough to be kissing cousins, but remnants of historical bitterness and jealousies remain between them. That’s truly a shame, since they’re so convenient and complementary.

It’s good to see Portuguese people visiting Spain … and vice-versa.

Throughout the Castelo Branco district’s tantalizing come-hithers, we’ve come across many Spanish tourists taking day trips into Portugal.

Turnabout is surely fair play for us to sightsee and go shopping in Spain!

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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A Bellísima

Whether expat or immigrant – however you see yourself as an English-speaking “foreigner” in a new country and culture – you’re fortunate if you have a local, native friend (or more). Not necessarily a neighbor. Nor a merchant, contractor, or service provider.

I’m referring to someone who truly cares for and about you, looking out for your welfare and “sponsoring” you, without ulterior motives or a hidden agenda. A person who enjoys spending time with you and is helpful when it comes to navigating the ins and outs of the country’s ways and means. He or she is happy to assist in your assimilation, as well as to help with the intricacies of a new language and its usage. Such a friend shares meals, coffee, wine or beer when you’re out together … and may actually feel comfortable passing the threshold of your house to join you in the kitchen, dining room, and the sala.

Sounds simple and convenient, easy enough to arrange?

Think again.

Despite their inherent goodness and welcoming nature, the Portuguese and the Spanish tend to be rather private people. A “bom dia” and “buenas tardes” shared while walking in the street or a passing wave from the car are appropriate as neighbors; but associations more intimate than acquaintances need time to cultivate, which isn’t easy when coming from a different culture and speaking another language. As anywhere, they often are the province of longtime companions.

We have been truly fortunate – blessed, if you will – to have developed and cultivated a friendship with two very special Portuguese people: Olga and Alex: our advisers, advocates and personal ambassadors.

Outgoing and personable, Olga “friended” us on Facebook while we lived in the USA, before moving to her village in Portugal. She’d heard we had planned to open a snack bar, “Tapas Americanas,” in Lousa and shared that information liberally with her village.

Our Facebook page soon had plenty of attention.

It was on this Facebook page that Olga contacted us to inform us that contractors working on our house had inadvertently left the outside doors of our living room unlatched. With heavy winds and rains, there was danger of more than water damage.“But we are here in the USA now, thousands of miles away,” I groaned. “What can we possibly do?”

Olga went into action, sending an “SOS” to everyone in our new town. More than a few people offered to help, but it was Alex (according to Facebook, she’s “in a relationship” with him), who did the dirty work … driving over with a large ladder, climbing onto the balcony buttressing the living room doors, entering the room and securing the doors. Olga messaged us his every step, letting us know in the end that our front door was locked from the inside and Alex couldn’t get out. He had to leave as he came in, off the balcony and down the ladder, shutting the doors tightly behind him.

An artist in every sense of the word, Olga was born in the small village next to ours, but spent part of her childhood in Paris, where she learned French. Returning to Portugal, her family settled in the village where we now live. As with many of her contemporaries who live close to the Spanish border, Olga learned Spanish by watching the TV.

“We had two stations, channels, here in Portugal,” she explains. “With antennas, we could watch more than 40 from Spain: cooking shows, telenovelas (soaps), game shows, and movies made in other countries but then dubbed in Spanish. That’s how we learned to speak and understand Spanish!”

Realizing the shortcomings and awkwardness of Google Translate’s (Brazilian) Portuguese, I communicated with Olga in Spanish and body language, augmented by my expanding Portuguese vocabulary … grateful for her positivism and patience with my pronunciation.

“Veeeeeeeeeee … nyo,” she’d say, holding up a glass of tinto and biting gently on her lower lip, correcting my Spanish tendency to pronounce it “Bean-o” (of course she’ll insist that she said “viiiiiiiii … nyo”).

“Peace and love,” she maintains. “Live and let live,” best summarize her religious views. No longer a practicing Catholic, she still enjoys the intrinsic beauty of some of its rituals, pageants and processions.

Olga loves the heat and dislikes air conditioning … rain, in its season, is just fine with her. As are all creatures great and small—from bees to bulls and everything in between. She embraces life whole-heartedly and loves all living things—even insects and rodents.

“Sou como sou …”I am what I am, she admits. Dozens of previously homeless dogs and cats call her quinta home, along with a gang of geese.

“Salt of the earth,” we say in English about unpretentious people to whom goodness is natural. Olga and Alex personify these qualities.

As Alex does the cooking and Olga the dishes, I wouldn’t be surprised, though, to learn that someone’s goose had been cooked for dinner.

“I hate those geese,” says Alex, complaining about their honking noise and nasty attitude towards him. “They bite!”

He’s the one who first dubbed her “A Bellísima,” a tongue-in-cheek term of endearment used much the way we Americans affectionately call someone a “princess.” Loosely translated, it means “The Truly Beautiful One.”

And that she is!

Olga works for the government, in another cámara (not ours) where she makes the hour-long drive each way daily. She earns 730 euros per month, slightly more than the minimum wage, even though she’s earned a promotion and worked there since nineteen-years-old.

“O governo congelou as nossas carreiras desde que entrámos em crise,” she explains, noting that the government had frozen salaries since the financial “crisis” (in 2008)… until recently.

“After all the accounting, I was left with another five euros—a fortune,” she laughs. “I don’t even know where to spend all that money!”

Knowing her, it will probably be donated to an animal welfare group.

Or, to another cause about which she is devoted.

I hope each of you has a special “bellísima” in your life!

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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The Rain in Spain (& Portugal)

“The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”

Don’t you believe it, regardless of what Eliza Doolittle may have drilled into your head in My Fair Lady.

Lots of rain in Spain – as in Portugal – falls all over the place.

Especially, wherever we happen to be.

For those new to Iberia, the rain takes some getting used to (as does the sun). Because of their grit and wherewithal, they’re quite different from what we’d experienced in the USA.

We’ve lived in places from Northeast Wisconsin (Sturgeon Bay-Door County) to the First Coast of Southeast Florida (Jacksonville), and have dealt with nasty weather—both bitterly cold and infernally hot.

But, it’s different here in Spain and Portugal.

On the west side of the pond, we were accustomed to rainy days throughout the year, regardless of the season. Spring, summer, fall, and winter … each had periods of rain awash with sunny skies. Here, however, on the pond’s eastern front, there’s a rainy “season” and a blazingly hot one.

Both are extreme and extensive.

Day after day, for weeks on end, we’ll see little or no sign of rain during the sunny season in Spain and Portugal. Contrarily, during their time, we have dismal gray skies and lingering rain that never seems to end.

I respect the rain, especially in places where we live off the land’s produce. And who doesn’t? So, I’m not really complaining. But, hey, if we can’t groan about the weather, what else can’t we gripe about?

The rain, itself, is of a different sort; it has its own shelf life here. Rain cycles incessantly from cold, bone-chilling downpours to storms, showers, and/or drizzles … then, rinse and repeat: again and again and again. Even without extended exposure to it, you feel as if pneumonia is more than presumed. Duvet-diving weather, it requires an air conditioner inverter turned on to its “heat” settings, a wood burner or pellet stove, and an electric blanket (upper or lower) plugged into service.

Lower?

Yep: in Portugal, our favorite electrodomésticos stores sell electric blankets that wrap around the mattress beneath us, instead of heating the top blanket which we pull over ourselves.

The weather is fickle and you never know when it will spike ten degrees or drop twenty during a 24-hour period. So, be sure to pack accordingly. Plan to layer. One day I wear a T-shirt; the next a long-sleeve shirt; the day after that, a T-shirt underneath a long-sleeve shirt; and, following that, a sweater over a long sleeve shirt and T-shirt.

Summers are hot, scorchingly so. We’re talking about temperatures rising to and then hovering in the high 90s (F)/40s (C) range … in the shade (if you can find any) … for weeks, even months, on end.

That’s why we have siestas|sestas here–although the Portuguese will tell you that they really don’t have sestas … just long lunches.

Not (just) to relax, but to escape the ravages of the weather.

We don’t have central heating or air conditioning in our village homes and town houses. Fireplaces and wood burners, gas or electric heaters, keep us warm, room by room. Venture away from climate-controlled spaces, however, and put your hand on the walls.They’re wet … dripping cold-hearted sweat!

And, woe is me if the flame on our gas-fired water heater should go out because of the rain or wind that often accompanies this intoxicated weather. Especially during winter’s drafts.

We just replaced old, single pane glass, wood-framed windows and bedroom balcony doors with new ones of textured duplex glass, framed by vinyl and aluminum. Next on our bucket list, we bought and installedl a new water heater which, currently, is strategically located on the terrace right outside our bathroom. Thankfully, we’ve replaced our old water heater in Portugal with a new electric one.

“O gás é para cozinhar, mas apenas elétrico para aquecer a água,” the lady who owns our corner mini-marked insisted. (Gas is for cooking; to heat water, only electric will do.)

She’s right! Not only don’t we run out of hot water at the most inopportune moments anymore, but our energy bills have been reduced substantially. Between cooking and heating water, we’d been going through about three propane canisters per month in Portugal, where they cost at least ten euros more per canister than the same ones in Spain. Plus, our added electric charges for heating water electrically are less than we’d been paying for three monthly propane canisters–especially since we put them on timers!

Another tip: Don’t forget to put one or more “draft dodgers” on the list for those exterior doors under which creep currents of air (hot and cold). Houses in Portuguese villages and Spanish towns usually have been built out of concrete and cement, with no insulation, and at odd angles. Rare is the door that meets the ground squarely.

Mother Nature has issues here, even as she we does in the USA. Hurricanes. Wildfires. Floods. Earthquakes. They’re all increasing in frequency and intensity, looming larger and lasting longer. During October last year, Portugal was smacked by a rare Atlantic hurricane – the most powerful to hit the country since 1842 – which made landfall near Lisbon and then took a beeline directly to our home in Castelo Branco, close to the Spanish border.

Spain has been deluged by flooding that turns creeks into mighty rivers, carrying away heavy vehicles and causing landslides along the way. Areas of seismic activity have produced jolts of earthquakes too close for comfort to our little place in the sun.

In Portugal, we hadn’t yet recovered from the encroaching forest fires, when 800 people — Portuguese activists, surfers, fishers, youths and supporters from around the world — came together at Cova do Vapor beach outside Lisbon, where the Tagus River meets the Atlantic, to protest the country’s plans for offshore oil drilling and inland fracking.

Still, there’s something quaint and comforting about dealing with the weather in old-fashioned ways: locals providing for neighbors in any ways possible, fanning themselves with papers, and moving to the lower levels of their homes (where it’s cooler) in the heat. Lighting fires and bundling up to keep warm in the winter. Shrugging off the weather by remembering that, after all, tomorrow is another day.

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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Date Night Duos

I vividly remember our first date night since moving to Portugal.

Of course, this was before Covid-19 intruded on our lives–creating lockdowns and curfews, masks and social distancing. We’ve yet to see if the virus has killed the cinema.

Still, oh, the delicious irony of it all that night:

Together with a (Portuguese) couple watching a top-rated, first-run, American-produced movie based on a Swedish pop group, comfortably seated in a climate-controlled cinema in Portugal … listening to dialogue and music in English, while watching subtitles roll by in Portuguese … and understanding enough of the two languages to consider the accuracy and quality of the translation. Without missing a beat!

But, first, enjoying food from a variety of vendors.

It’s called “Cinema + Jantar” here at the Allegro shopping mall in Castelo Branco. Between Sunday and Thursday, it costs only nine euros per person for the movie and the meal. That’s just about US $10.

Throughout Portugal, restaurants and cinemas in shopping centers are teaming up to offer special deals like this.

It’s a win-win for all!

Where and when can one “normally” see a newly released movie in the USA for less than ten dollars (except for specific senior citizen show times and/or intervals when the theater is otherwise vacant)?

Whoever wrote the advertising copy for this film-and-fest could have worked at my public relations and marketing firm:

“Onde alguns ouvem Cinema e Jantar, outros ouvem encontro romántico, saída com os amigos, ou tempo a sós. A verdade é que ninguém quer ser a pessoa com a barriga a dar horas no momento mais tenso do filme.”

Rough translation: “Where some like the idea of a Movie and a Meal, others are enticed by a romantic encounter, going out with friends, or spending quality time by oneself. The truth is, no one wants to be the one with the grumbling tummy at the most inopportune moments of the film.”

(What’s isn’t mentioned is theseven-minute intermission during the film when you can get something to eat or take care of business, whatever it is …)

Regarding the sponsors:

Four different restaurants – each with great food – have had prime roles in the dining experience: a pizza parlor, barbecue den, hamburger haven, and “piglet border” (leitão beirão)—which is why we never should fully trust Google to handle our translations correctly. At each eating place, choose a main course, side dish, and a beverage.

Between us, we enjoyed some of the best burgers in town, pork bbq sandwiches, and a pretty darned good pizza loaded with lots of fixings. The sides – hand-cup potato chips – weren’t the greatest, but none of us were disappointed with our beer or wine … until our female friend gave me that evening’s Portuguese lesson, correcting my pronunciation of the word for wine (vinho):

“It’s VEE-N-YO,” she demonstrated, upper teeth deliberately touching her lower lip, to correct my hitherto Spanish pronunciation of the word (vino): “BEE-NO,” lips vibrating, but teeth never touching the lip.

Back to the show:

We saw Mama Mia II (Here We Go Again), which was wonderful … despite my frustration that nobody (except me) stood up to sway and swing and clap along with the music. The Portuguese, at least those attending that performance of the show, were much more constrained and sedate—although an elderly couple sitting opposite us sort of-kind of waved their arms in the air.

Showcasing a vintage Cher and Meryl Streep, the prequel-sequel movie ended with us in joyful tears, a moment blissful grace.

Words from the sponsors?

“Let yourself be swept away by the flavors and the plot.”

Climax and conclusion:

“There are happy endings that cost only € 9.”

Exit, stage left. And roll the credits …

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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