Tag Archives: expat blog

Just Like Riding A Bike, A Little Procrastination And Leaving Lagos

The Algarve Region, Portugal

The phrase keeps going over and over in my mind, “It’s just like riding a bike” as I look at this blank screen before me and think of the months that have gone by since we last posted. Once we get out of the habit of writing and posting every two or so weeks, it gets easier and easier to come up with excuses to put off typing out even a short blog post. Without updates, our friends, family and those of you who follow our blog are left wondering if we fell off the edge of the earth and we receive notes asking, “Is everything okay?”

In January, it was the ‘Portuguese Plague’ that lasted two weeks and wiped out thoughts of welcoming in 2018 with anything but waving a tissue clutched in our damp hands and a chorus of raspy hacks. Having house guests (one of whom stayed healthy enough to send out for groceries and more tissue) meant that our days seemed to go by in a blur. We also made several trips up and down the Algarve coast from Lagos to Albufeira where (more on that in a bit) we were planning to shift our base and trade in an apartment for a house.

 

 

The end of January saw me (Anita) packing a suitcase, gulping down last-minute, free-floating anxieties and clutching hugging Richard while I said goodbye as he’d decided the heat, humidity, dust and smoke from crop-burning in Southeast Asia would compete with the essential act of breathing. And then I set off on my first solo adventure to Vietnam and Cambodia which took care of …

All of February and …

Much of March.  Arriving back in Lagos mid-month, we sorted through two years worth of accumulated crap possessions, all the time thinking wistfully about our three years of full-time travel when we schlepped all our belongings in a suitcase and backpack. With the help of a Volkswagen-size van and two movers, we hauled our inelegantly improvised packing containers of garbage bags, baskets and salvaged boxes up and down the stairs of our apartment building and made the move to a lovely villa we’d found on the outskirts of our new town, Albufeira.

 

 

April and May were taken up with settling in and accumulating more stuff (time to relisten to George Carlin’s epic rant about “Stuff”) to increase our comfort level. Dare we mention we discovered the joys of IKEA? We also had several guests pass in and out of our new home (two extra guest rooms) during that time meaning there were lots more reasons to procrastinate rather than attend to our blog.

 

Seashore near Albufeira

And now … here we are in mid-June, half of 2018 gone by already, feeling like we’ve gotten a handle on our new home, a new lifestyle (co-housing) and getting to know and pick out our favorite places to grocery shop, wine-and-dine and enjoy the beaches. High season seems to start early in Central Portugal and avoiding crowds has taken priority. This year, we’d planned to stick close to home since that worked so well last summer. After all, if everyone else wants to be in Southern Portugal, maybe we should just hang out here too! Plans however have a way of changing as I’ll make a transatlantic flight at the end of June and again at the end of July to see our son in Denver and ferry our grandson back and forth so that we can introduce him to Portugal and break in his brand-spanking-new passport.

 

The countryside near our house

A little more about our new base which we’ll write about in our next post.  We’d known for months that our owners in Lagos wanted to reclaim their swanky apartment and put it up for sale, renting it out for short-term holiday lets until they got an offer. We’ve mentioned in previous posts that the Algarve rental market is tight; it can be difficult to find a year-around, one-to-two-bedroom apartment rental in the region now that Portugal has been discovered and is Europe’s new darling. Property managers and landlords make the most money out of the high season – June, July, August – and the shoulder seasons of May and September are becoming ever more popular. Blocks of holiday apartments sit empty for the rest of the year because the rent during the high season can exceed what a year around rental will bring in. Competition is fierce for an affordable rental in the Algarve between all the foreign residents who want to live here as well as the local Portuguese themselves. Like a lot of things that happen in life, sometimes you just need to wait for things to unfold, hope for some serendipity and, in our case anyway, do a little thinking outside the box.

Next Post: “Lagos We Love You but …” or “How the heck did we end up in Albufeira?”

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Goodbye Lagos!

Living La Vida Lagos: How Much Does It REALLY Cost To Live In Lagos, Portugal?

Unless you’re reading our blog for the very first time, you’ll know that we’re delighted with our adopted country of Portugal and especially, the Algarve Region where we’ve been for the last two years, busily putting down some shallow roots. For us, it’s turned out to be an excellent place to live and we love exploring the area as well as playing impromptu tour guides, sharing favorite places with friends passing through. And maybe that’s why it really bothered us when we read an article about the cost of living in the Algarve that specifically mentioned outrageously low prices in Lagos (hamburgers costing €3) and promised that a couple could live on a budget of €1300 a month, more (that would be us) or even less.

But let’s back up a moment to confess that just a few short years ago, back in 2011 and right at the beginning of the germ of an idea that would lead to where we’re living now, I loved to check out the online stories about expats living out their retirement dreams in exotic locations overseas. We’d pass by the pics of palm trees and charming colonial cities and zero right in on our big question: What would it cost to live there? What would paying a rent of $700, $800 or even $1000 per month get us and what could we expect our groceries to cost each month? What was the price of a typical restaurant meal? A taxi? And, could we afford to pay the monthly air conditioning bill?

 

 

This is where traveling slow and living like locals as we made our way around and through several countries came in useful. From the beginning of our travels, we’ve kept detailed expense records of our daily costs and could tell you in a few minutes what we spent in each country. Having an idea what a realistic cost of living would be for us as well as what we could and couldn’t live without was extremely useful so that we could make some well-informed decisions based upon our practical knowledge. We visited many places where expats had written glowingly of their experiences and found, kind of like the nursery tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, that many places were too hot or too humid, some of the ‘springtime temps’ were too cold, some too rural and yes, some too expensive. Many places had little to offer in the way of things to do, some were too grimy, downright ugly or the air was polluted with diesel fumes, burning garbage and dust. In some places we had to be especially vigilant about protecting our possessions (we learned our lesson the hard way when a computer and camera were stolen in Ecuador) and there were places we didn’t feel safe. Lastly, some lacked medical services that we want in place as we age. Perhaps one of our most unanticipated lessons that we learned, on a memorable month-long visit to Big Corn Island off the coast of Nicaragua, was that our vision of paradise on a tropical island fell far short of the nirvana we’d imagined.

While we know that cost of living is an important consideration when you’re thinking of moving overseas, there are a lot of other things to think through, too. We’re mindful of our spending but bare bones living isn’t how we want to live. We want to download the new best seller onto our Kindles, watch Netflix, buy a pair of shoes or something for our apartment and go out to eat with friends without counting the pennies. And, contrary to what an online article we read said, €1300 ($1530 USD) a month probably won’t be enough to live in most places in the Algarve. (But, for those on a budget, don’t let us discourage you because there are some great places to check out north of us and along the Silver Coast which are less expensive.)

We compiled our expenses from July through November this year and then averaged our monthly costs to give you a better idea of what we spend each month living in Lagos.

 

 

RENT – €800/$939 USD

Rentals are difficult to find in Lagos so we were beyond happy when we found a fully furnished, modern, two-bedroom, two-bath apartment on the outskirts of Lagos. The apartment is a 5-minute walk to the beach and a 30-minute walk to the heart of historic Lagos. It has a large kitchen with granite countertops, a dishwasher and washing machine, a balcony with a sea view and access to a rooftop terrace. There’s a communal pool, a storage room and an underground parking space as well as plenty of secure parking behind a gate. (Note: Our lease ends in April and we’re hoping to find a house somewhere near Lagos so this figure will probably change.)

 

 

GROCERIES – €365/$430

We both like to cook and we eat the majority of our meals at home. We buy very little processed or ready-to-heat foods and eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, fish, chicken and lean hamburger. We usually slow cook pork and beef cuts as we’ve found them to be tough.

HOUSEHOLD – €160/$189

This includes all the miscellaneous non-grocery items that usually get lumped in with the grocery bill like cleaning products and laundry soap, toiletries (shampoo, toothpaste), paper towels and toilet paper. It also covers household items such as a printer stand, pens and pencils, garbage bags, plastic storage bins and kitchen towels.

UTILITIES –  €215/$253

We’ve lumped in three separate costs under utilities. Our PHONE/CABLE TELEVISION/INTERNET is bundled at €60/$69 for a landline, one mobile phone and basic cable. Our WATER bill recently increased and runs about €25/$29 and our ANNUAL ELECTRICITY averages out to €130/$153 per month. We changed our average cost from monthly to annual for our electricity bill to give you a better idea of what we’re paying for an average. From December through March, we heat the living room of our apartment and from May through October, we cool the apartment using fans and the old-fashioned method of opening our windows during the night rather than using the included A/C in the living and bedrooms. Sewer and garbage is included in our rent.

TRANSPORTATION – €170/$200

We bought a 2012, 4-door Skoda our first winter here for €7500/$8830 which has a manual transmission. Following a tip from a friend, we found a mechanic who charges us local prices rather than the higher prices we’d been paying at a far more conveniently placed auto shop. Gas in Portugal is outrageous no matter how you look at it. We pay roughly €1.50/$1.77 per liter or a heart-stopping €6/$7.06 per gallon. A set of four new tires and an alignment cost us €279/$329 which is included in our monthly average. Also included in this average is our monthly car insurance at €28/$33 and the road tax (similar to license place fees) which is €13/$15.

 

 

MEALS OUT – €138/$162

Meeting friends for a late lunch is one of our favorite things to do here in Lagos and there are plenty of restaurants and cafes in the area to while away an afternoon. An average meal for the two of us costs €25-40/$30-47 including a drink and small tip. For wine drinkers it can be a real bargain because sometimes a bottle of water costs more than a glass of wine!

 

 

CLOTHING – €99/$117

HEALTH INSURANCE – €92/$108 for both of us

We carry a Portuguese private insurance for which we pay an additional copay per doctor or dentist visit. As residents, we also qualify for the public healthcare, the Portuguese Serviço Nacional de Saúde (SNS) which charges a very small copay. We did not include our medical costs or prescriptions as figures can vary greatly from person to person.

LANGUAGE LESSONS/GYM – €107/$126

ONLINE PURCHASES – €113/$133

This includes Netflix, movie rentals and book purchases from Amazon for our E-readers

MISCELLANEOUS – €102/$121

This includes all sorts of incidentals like haircuts and random purchases that don’t fit into any other category.

THE GRAND TOTAL – €2361/$2780

For us, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” in Lagos, Portugal doesn’t get much better.  We have everything we need at our fingertips but, more importantly, we have (just about!) everything we want. And …WE’RE LIVING IN  FREAKING EUROPE!  Obviously, our priorities and expenses are going to be different from another couple’s spending but there’s no reason to exaggerate about how affordable the Algarve Region of Portugal is. (And articles saying that a couple can live here comfortably for €1300/month only set people up for failure.) There are always going to be less expensive places to live around the world but, for a country brimming over with history, culture, stunning landscapes, beautiful beaches, a mild climate, great food, good medical care and friendly people – we figure we probably don’t need to find a better place for us than right where we are!

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Note:  We’re going to take some time away from writing for the next few weeks, so this will be our last post for 2017. Wishing you all a very happy holiday season and we’ll catch up with you sometime in January.

 

Fall Traditions: Aljezur’s Sweet Potato Festival and Giving Thanks

It came as a bit of a shock to us, back in 2012 and traveling in Mexico, that there were no outward signs that our favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, was taking place back in the US. Nope. We moved right from the Day-of-the-Dead to Christmas songs in the markets and grocery stores, simple and elaborate Nativity tableaus, and lighted decorations on the streets. That may have been our first clue that we were carrying some ethnocentric baggage with us as we moved from country to country. Over the years, we like to think that we’ve managed to shed some of the weight of those preconceptions as we’ve learned about other traditions and holidays. Interestingly, while mentioning Thanksgiving here in Portugal might get us a blank look, everyone knows exactly what the signs for Black Friday sales mean. It appears some cultural mores cross borders easily.

The weather changes so gradually that there isn’t much to mark the passage of summer to fall to winter in the Algarve. Portugal observes Daylight Saving Time so darkness comes earlier and mornings and evenings require a sweater or light jacket. And, instead of Thanksgiving heralding the holiday season, the Algarve Region has its own time-honored tradition: the annual Festival da Batata-Doce or Sweet Potato Festival. Taking place in nearby Aljezur (population 6,000) over the three-day weekend at the end of each November, the festival features the handicrafts and products of the Algarve and pays tribute to the sweet potato as part of its cultural and culinary history. In fact, the Aljezur Sweet Potato Producers Association goes out of its way to demonstrate that not all sweet potatoes are equal  by guaranteeing Aljezur’s tubers with a Protected Geographical Identification (PGI) stamp on each bag.

 

looking up at the Castle of Aljezur

 

The humble sweet potato is one of the earliest vegetables known to man with depictions of the root vegetable that date to prehistoric times discovered in Peruvian caves. They were among the various new foods that Christopher Columbus brought back to Spain during his voyage of 1492 and the Portuguese explorers are credited with carrying the sweet potato to Africa, India, Indonesia & southern Asia. During our time in the Algarve, I’ve developed quite a liking for the Aljezur sweet potatoes. However, it took a little persuading to convince Richard that we should go to the Sweet Potato Festival as he stubbornly maintains an aversion to the tuber being honored. In the end though, curiosity won out.

 

sweet potato beer and baked goodies

Canned tuna & sardines, cork products, spices and dried fruit

 

As expats, we love discovering festivals and learning about the cultural history of our adopted country. But, we also carry our Thanksgiving traditions in our hearts and each November we practice our own version of gratitude no matter where we are. This is the time of year we miss our son and grandson most and we’re thankful that they’re both happy and healthy. We take stock of our own health and, surprisingly take note of the fact that neither of us have had so much as a cold during the two years we’ve lived in Portugal. As Americans, we’re particularly grateful that we have health care when, for millions back in our country, this basic human right is either absent or under assault. We’re thankful that we have a comfortable home here in Lagos because many of the residents of our former home state of Texas and elsewhere, are still living in hurricane devastated communities, storm-damaged homes and makeshift shelters waiting for help from a government that’s reluctant to throw out more than a few rolls of paper towels. We’re thankful, too that we can safely walk the streets of our adopted country in daylight and after dark, and go into a theater, shopping center, concert hall and church without apprehension. And lastly, lest our love of our home country be questioned because we live as expats and speak freely of our deep concerns for the future of the US, we’re grateful to have come from a country with a rich tradition of welcoming all religions, ethnicities and races. We’re proud to have come from a country that’s provided sanctuary for those fleeing violence and oppressive regimes, offered a helping hand and safety net to our poorest, disabled and elderly and worked together with other nations for a better world for all. Our major contention with those who advocate for the ‘make America great again’ movement is – we happen to think, despite all its shortcomings, it’s always been great.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

tile mural of Aljezur and its Castle on the hill

 

The Hoopla About Hoopoes, A Birdwalk, and A Three-Hour Tour

In our former lives on Padre Island off the coast of Texas, one of the things we enjoyed most were the sea birds we could see in the wetlands near our house on a canal.  We never failed to be thrilled by the V formations of twenty to thirty brown pelicans skimming close to the waves at the Padre Island National Seashore or the sight of a brown pelican streaking by outside our living room window and plunging into the water to catch a fish. From our deck, we could see the birds feeding in the nearby wetlands: regal snowy egrets, white ibis, and gangly, great blue herons along with the roseate spoonbills that arrived each winter. Among our favorites were the huge, American white pelicans that circled around our green-light that rested on the canal bottom near our dock, dipping their heads under the water and hunting for easy pickings in the fish the light attracted.  The miles of beaches nearby always had an abundant variety of birds for us to watch and be entertained by: black skimmers, long-billed curlews, sanderlings, various plovers and terns, cormorants and the beach cleaners, turkey vultures who floating lazily overhead on the lookout for dead and tasty morsels.  And hundreds of laughing gulls, squabbling, arguing noisily amongst themselves and hovering overhead when we opened our lunch cooler; fearless enough to snatch a sandwich from your hand if you weren’t careful.

 

Brown Pelicans at Padre Island National Seashore
August, 2012

However, we were never serious birdwatchers and, when we were selling all we owned to set off on our full-time travels in 2012, we never gave a thought to shedding ourselves of the heavy, bulky binoculars and the bird guide books we’d accumulated over the years.  Through Mexico, Central and South America, we occasionally missed our binoculars when we spotted exotic and colorful tropical jewels like toucans, motmots, macaws, parrots, tiny hummingbirds and, another favorite of ours, the Montezuma oropendola with its pendulous, hanging woven nests dangling from a tree limb looking like something from a Dr. Seuss book. And, on our visit to the Galapagos Islands, we really wished we could get an up-close-and-personal chance to study the blue-footed boobies, the (two) Galapagos penguins that graced us with a sighting and the magnificent frigates with their brilliant puffed out red throat pouches.  We would try to remember things to help us identify the mystery birds when we thought to look them up later while on our computers but rarely had much luck.

 

Magnificent Frigate, Galagagos Islands, Ecuador, November 2014

And now, here in Portugal, coming up on our two-year anniversary since we arrived to take up full-time residence, we’ve found our bird watching interest awakened once again.  Maybe it’s the multitude of enormous storks’ nests on rooftops and chimneys in Lagos and around the Algarve and the exhilaration we still feel when we see these huge, fabled creatures from old-time storybooks gliding by overhead.  It could be the flocks of azure-winged magpies alighting briefly in the tree outside our bedroom window, the yellow-legged gulls which are much larger than the laughing gulls we’d been used to in Texas or the sporadic sightings of a hawk.  We long to put a name to the multitude of small and medium-sized birds with varying beak and tail shapes, a mix of differing markings and an array of colors that we see on the outskirts of towns, beside rural roads and walking in the countryside.

It was the hoopoe sightings though, that finally convinced me it was time to up our game and outfit ourselves with binoculars (a starter-priced pair bought in a local sports shop) and a used bird guide, Birds of Britain and Europe, that I found at an English bookseller’s shop here in Lagos.  This spring and summer, I’d occasionally catch sight of a peculiar bird darting across a path, seeking cover under the low-hanging branches of a tree or flying not-so-gracefully between the low scrub bushes.  I’d catch a fleeting impression of a long beak, the stark contrast of black and white stripes and (maybe?) a crest.  However, when I’d describe these briefly snatched glimpses of the bird to Richard, he’d laugh at my attempted verbal sketch of a slightly ridiculous, mythical creature:  a ‘zebra-striped bird with a mohawk and a sneaky scuttle.’  A bird book would definitely have saved my credibility because I could have theatrically pointed out the hoopoe with a ‘there!’

 

This fall, we met full-time travelers and passionate birding enthusiasts, Beth and Joe Volk, who write a blog at Simple Travel Our Way and made Lagos their home base for the month of September. It was impossible not to get bitten by the birding bug when listening to them animatedly talking about birds they’d seen during their travels and one early morning we caught the bus to the nearby Alvor Estuary. Here we spent several hours strolling the boardwalk that runs between the Atlantic and the area’s marshes, mudflats, saltpans and dunes. A perfect, stand-out day with the sky a deep blue and the sun shining brilliantly overhead, the temperature exactly right, glimpses of a deep blue sea in the background, white sand drifting and forming continuous patterns and the golden grasses ruffled by the wind.  Beth kindly shared her binoculars with me while she and Joe paged occasionally through the bird guide they’d brought and wrote down the species we saw in a small notebook: great blue herons, kingfishers, crested larks, stonechats, spotted redshanks and on and on. Serious birdwatchers indeed, but how fun to have someone put a name to the birds we saw and share a lesson on spotting the distinctive as well as the subtle features important in identifying each species. My personal favorite of the day was the group of Eurasian spoonbills we watched for a while, sweeping their characteristic spoon-shaped bills from side to side for the day’s catch.

 

Can’t see the birds? If we become serious birdwatchers we’ll need a serious camera!

From August to November, the Sagres peninsula is a major migratory route for many species of birds leaving their European breeding grounds for the warmer climates of Gibraltar and Africa. Here is where Europe’s southwestern-most point, the west and south shorelines of Portugal, meet at Cabo de Sao Vicente (Cape Saint Vincent).  Lucky for us, Lagos is a mere half-an-hour drive away and we made a couple of visits to the town of Sagres (with a permanent population of 2000 wind-blown souls) during the annual 4-day October Birdwatching Festival.  With us were our good friends, Kiki and newly minted residents of Portugal, Anne and Tim Hall (check out their blog, A New Latitude) who also love to share their bird questing knowledge with us. (Incidentally, it was Tim who knew exactly what bird I was talking about when I rambled on about my mystery bird sightings.)  One of the activities during the festival was a discounted off-shore excursion with a marine biologist with the pamphlet saying we’d look for “wild and free dolphins, seabirds, sharks, turtles” and maybe even whales. We were stoked!

 

 

Arriving at our meeting point early in the morning, we set off on a three-hour tour with seven passengers – and the theme song from the old TV show, Gilligan’s Island, ear-worming through my mind.  As we left the harbor heading out to sea, we saw a few birds perched along the rocky outcroppings and the red lighthouse marking Fortaleza de Sagres high above on the cliffs like a good omen.  The sun shone, the water sparkled and a not-too-freezing wind blew by as the boat increased its speed with us continuously scanning and searching for sea creatures.  Before long, however, I was forced to lower my binoculars as they seemed to up my nausea quotient about 100-fold despite the magical sea-bands I was wearing on each wrist and a hefty dose of Mexican meclizine.  And then, a single dolphin broke the water on our side.  Soon enough, we were seeing one, two and three at a time keeping pace with us and then disappearing.  The boat stopped occasionally as the marine biologist pointed out a storm petrel here, a shearwater there and (those in-the-know with a book in hand) debated the differences between a European and wilson’s storm petrel and if the shearwaters were corey’s, greats, sootys or manxes.  Eventually we saw them all along with the ubiquitous gulls, great skuas, northern gannets and European shags. The sea rocked the boat in the ocean swells and, as we picked up speed with the occasional hard thump where we met the water, the first passenger leaned over the rail to get rid of her breakfast, followed a short while later by the French couple (whose names we never learned) on either side of the boat.  And then, we were shadowed by an enormous cloud of birds circling overhead and suddenly we were in the midst of them: diving into the water, floating the waves and taking off to circle overhead again. Hundreds and thousands of birds it seemed, in a feeding frenzy accompanied by scores of dolphins (the biologist later estimated we’d seen at least two-hundred) in twos, threes and fours: swimming in choreographed rows around and under the boat, leaping in synchronized arcs, their curved fins breaking the water then disappearing.  Below, the deep blue, seemingly opaque water showed its clarity as we watched bubbles appear, floating lazily to the water’s top and dolphins several feet underneath the surface gliding by silently.  Minutes ticked by slowly until time mattered no more.

 

 

Perhaps the attraction of bird watching is capturing those perfect moments in time where you are truly present and delighting in the gifts of nature’s winged beings, the great outdoors, a dazzling blue sky overhead and the sun shining.  Some days cost little but the time that comprises them and the appreciation for those moments they’re made of – perfect gems that make us absolutely certain that we are right where we want to be.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Playing Twenty Questions: Life as Expats, Life as Travelers, Life in Lagos, Portugal – Part Three

 

Back in 2011, when we were in the midst of preparing for full-time travel and radically downsizing, our announcements of our plans to various friends and family got a lot of different responses.

From dumbfounded gapes and guffaws to “You’ll never be able to do it.”

What a great idea. I wish I could but …”

But what about______? ”  Here you can fill in the blank with: leaving a steady paycheck and our eventual financial ruin to robbers, rapists, natural disasters, not understanding a multitude of foreign languages, getting lost, people who hate Americans, etc.

And right along with the ‘What abouts’  were the ‘What ifs …?’  One of our favorite ‘What If’ questions was, “But what if you die?”  We both cracked up with that question and gave a shrug but looking back, that question and the puzzlement it conveyed perfectly summed up why we were deconstructing and reconstructing our lives and taking a leap into the unknown.  Because the alternative question was, What if we died living our perfectly safe lives?  That of course excluded: floods, fires and hurricanes, traffic accidents, robbers, mass-murderers, and various diseases lurking and waiting to ambush us. Or what if we died while we were reputably employed: watching the clock, feeling the stress and pressure build, buried under the day-after-day grind, waiting for something new to break up the routine, waiting for the weekend, waiting for retirement? For us then, What if we die? became a huge incentive rather than an obstacle and a multitude of “What Ifs?” became possibilities.

And so, in our conclusion to our “Playing Twenty Questions” series and counting down the last seven questions, we’ll answer this What if question.

7) But what if I die?

We can give the flippant answer of We’re all going to die, which is far from helpful or give you our Hereafter philosophy.  (Trust us, you don’t want to hear it, you probably won’t agree with it, and it’s way more shallow than deep.)  That said, we drafted our first US will in the eighties, after our one-and-only was born, and we’ve updated it periodically since then.  Copies of our newest will are kept at my sister’s home along with our dwindling stack of important papers which include our Durable Power-of-Attorney and Advance Healthcare Directive.  A few months ago, we met with our Portuguese attorney and had him write a will for what few assets (car, bank account) we own here in Portugal.  This will is written in Portuguese with an English translation.  It’s pretty basic but among other things, our Portuguese will mentions that we also have a will back in the US. It specifically states that we do not want our remains to be repatriated to the US which is a huge expense and a why bother? (No one in either of our families seems to care that much about our decision to remain wherever we drop either.)  And, continuing with the mortal remains theme, last week we pre-paid for our imminent demise with a bare-bones (no pun intended) international funeral plan that includes everything we can anticipate.  We’re also in the process of letting trusted friends here in Portugal know where our papers can be found.  And, in keeping with Benjamin Franklin’s famous saying, “ … the only things in life that are certain are death and taxes,” our next question tackles the second part.

 

Reasons to love Portugal

6) How do you deal with your taxes?  Google the question, “Do I have to pay US taxes if I live overseas?” and the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The sad reality is that leaving the country does not mean you can leave this obligation behind, no matter how much you’d like to.  If you are a US citizen, you are required to pay income taxes no matter where you reside.  (For our readers who aren’t from the US, it’s worth checking out what your tax laws are if you’re considering long-term travel or expating.) Since we’re somewhat lazy and generally hazy on anything tax related, we have a Texas accountant who keeps current with the laws and has helped us file our taxes for several years.  Because we’ve done our damnedest to simplify our lives (no paycheck, no property, few deductions) our taxes are simpler to file too.

TIP – Paper tends to add weight when you’re traveling full-time and clutter when you’re not, so we scan copies of all our medical expenses and receipts to our computer and upload them to Dropbox in case we’re ever audited.

TIP – For those of you considering an expat life living and working in another country as a U.S. citizen (instead of a totally idyllic retirement like us) you are also required to file.  And yes, the IRS wants to know all about any money you make overseas.

And that leads naturally to the next question.

5)  If I get a resident visa to live in Portugal, do I have to pay taxes in Portugal?

This question gets you the wishy-washy answer of Yes and No and, since we’re not lawyers, accountants, nor remotely interested in trying to grasp any legal intricacies, we’ll try to skim-answer this question as best we understand it.  (In other words, if you want a better answer, ask someone else.)  Foreign residents who live in Portugal are called (probably one of the nicer names anyway) Non-Habitual Residents (NHR) and Portugal has a tax treaty in place with the US and several other countries that exempts these residents from double taxation on their foreign income.  Since we’re retirees, this exemption means that we don’t have to pay taxes in Portugal on our US social security and money from our retirement plans. Of course, nothing is that easy and you have to:

1) register as a non-resident taxpayer

2) obtain your residency visa

3) register as a tax resident in Portugal and

4) then apply for the NHR exemption which is applicable for ten years.

A link that explains this requirement better can be found Here and there are more answers online.  To be compliant, you need to file annual tax returns in Portugal, stating your worldwide income and provide adequate documentation as well as proof that you’ve paid your income tax back in the US.  We copied and submitted our income tax returns which worked just fine.

 

More reasons to love Portugal

4)  How difficult is it to set up a bank account?

In recent years, many foreign banks are refusing to work with American citizens because the US imposes burdensome filing requirements upon them but we found it remarkably easy to set up a bank account in Portugal and we made a good friend, Teresa, in the bargain.  (We refer all our friends to her.)  We picked Millennium BCP bank because it seems to be located in almost every city and village in Portugal, and our new BFF, Teresa, patiently walked us through all the forms. The bank account required passports, our rental lease, our fiscal numbers (trust us, this essential number, also known as an NIF, will be the most important part of your official new identity as a resident of Portugal) and a copy of our US social security cards.  We left with a stack of papers that included online instructions and passwords welcoming us and our money to the new Millennium family and received debit cards in the mail a couple of weeks later.

Note – We set up our account in November of 2015.  We’ve talked to friends who have set up accounts recently and our info still appears to be current.

TIP – If you plan to set up a bank account in Portugal (or any foreign country for that matter) this link is a terrific quick and dirty into to what you need to know about foreign bank account reporting as a US expat. And you can sound like an expat pro to your friends and family when you casually drop the acronyms FATCA and FBAR into your conversations.

3) Can you give me the lowdown on all things medical in Portugal?

This won’t be a surprise to anyone from the US, but we receive a lot of questions related to Portugal’s healthcare system from US citizens and retirees. As residents of Portugal, we are entitled to access the National Health Service (the Portuguese Serviço Nacional de Saúde or SNS) for almost free public healthcare.  Almost immediately after we received our residency cards, we signed up at our local health service center in Lagos bringing our passports along with us as required.  We were each issued a paper with our individual numbers to use in the event that we find it necessary to use the public healthcare system. That said, we understand that, although the care is good at the public hospitals, the waiting lists for routine visits can be longer than what we’d like and that many of Portugal’s public hospital and clinics may be crowded and understaffed. Instead, we’ve elected to access the private hospitals using our private health insurance company Medis, which was offered through our bank for a cost of €46 per person each month.  With private insurance, we have no problems getting in to see English-speaking doctors at the private hospitals in a timely manner and the care we’ve received has exceeded our expectations.  After coming from the US where many of the doctors are stressed out, overworked and all-too-often forget the human side of health care, it’s been awesome to find doctors who are warm and caring and our visits to them unhurried. The copays vary from €15 -25 and, if a prescription is necessary, we can get a discount at the pharmacy when the doctor writes down our national health service number.

The pharmacies are also quite different in Portugal compared to the US.  Some medications like inhalers are available without a prescription and when your prescription is presented, the medication is located, a notation is written on your prescription indicating that the medication has been dispensed and the prescription is handed back to you. Quick, efficient and quite a bit simpler than filling a prescription in the US but, my critique as a former pharmacist would be that there seems to be little advice given nor screening for drug interactions. There are upsides however, and almost all of the drug prices are much lower than in the US.

TIP – Make sure to ask for the generic as it won’t automatically be offered.

TIP – A good reference that will help answer your questions regarding Healthcare in Portugal can be found Here.

 

We love the pedestrian friendly streets too!

2) How’s that learning Portuguese going?

In the Algarve area of Portugal, as well as the larger cities of Lisbon and Porto, it’s not hard to get by with English as your primary language.  And, because laziness is always our convenient fallback, the fact that English is spoken widely has proven to be our greatest stumbling block.  We really have to put forth an effort to find locals to practice our Portuguese with as they, in turn, like practicing their English on us expats. That said, Richard (as always more diligent when it comes to language learning) has been attending classes twice a week for several months and is actually making some progress.  I, on the other hand, have found all sorts of excuses to avoid this exercise and fervently believe that (some) spouses should never attend the same classes if they want to remain happily married.  Eventually though, I realize that I need to ‘get with the program’ so to speak, and make a real effort to learn some Portuguese since this is our adopted country.  We love exploring other parts of the country where finding English speakers is more difficult and having some familiarity with the language really enhances our experience.

TIPHere’s a great online resource for learning European Portuguese (which differs from Brazilian Portuguese) that we’ve found useful.

And, our final question (for those of you still with us) is:

1) This lifestyle reset to become a fulltime traveler and/or expat sounds like a lot of work. Is it worth it? 

Yes and Yes!  We’ve heard variations of this question several times and rather than painting a rosy picture and telling a happily-ever after fairytale, we have to admit that shaking up our lives has been, in some respects, the hardest we’ve ever worked. The flip side to that is, it’s also been the hardest we’ve ever played and the past years have been some of the best in our lives. Trading the routine and the known is a great and trusting leap into the unknown cosmos of foreign plane, train and bus terminals, unique and exotic cultures and different languages, customs and rules.  And sure, there have been downsides: bureaucratic tape and finding work-arounds to get things done, patience-testing situations (that we generally fail first time around) and things that make us exercise our ‘colorful’ vocabularies. But, we can truthfully say that we have never contemplated going back to our old lives.  For us, going forward is infinitely more rewarding and making the decision to shake up our lives six years ago has wildly exceeded our expectations.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

Playing Twenty Questions: Life as Expats, Life as Travelers, Life in Lagos, Portugal – Part Two

 

There’s no getting around it: writing a blog is work. It takes time.  It takes discipline. It takes waiting around for a brilliant insight to hit you or an inspiring thought (a very rare event) and slogging ahead anyway when your muse is silent. However, the effort is well worth it when we hit the ‘publish’ button and add another page to our personal time capsule.  Because, by far, our favorite thing about blogging is the comments part where we get to interact with old friends and new readers, trade ideas, exchange experiences and share some of the things we’ve learned as full-time travelers, expats and now, residents in our adopted country of Portugal.

Occasionally, we have an outline that we follow for a post but often, we just kind of watch and see how our post evolves in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way as this post did.  In fact, it got away from us, growing into an unwieldy tome, which is why we broke it up into parts.  In case you missed reading Part One, you can find the link HERE.  And now, on with the countdown and our version of Twenty Questions.

 

 

LIFE AS TRAVELERS

13)  What are some of the upsides and the downsides of full-time travel?

The Ups.  For most of the three-plus years we were nomadic, we were slow travelers and spent an average of one to three months in each country.  This allowed us to immerse ourselves into a destination, get familiar with how to navigate our way around a village or city and find out where the ATMs, markets and restaurants were located.  Traveling slow also allowed us to settle into the not-so-exciting business of living our lives with the familiar routines of cooking, cleaning, laundry, paying bills, correspondence and researching future places to visit.  Actually living in a place, however short the time, also gave us a chance to explore and discover the landmarks and landscape at our leisure: sightseeing at its best.  We chatted up the locals as best we could in our fractured Spanglish and exchanged a lot of smiles, nods and the occasional shrug. Whenever possible, we tapped into the local expat community to ask questions and meet people, many of whom we keep in touch with still. Our favorite thing about traveling full-time was the feeling of being more in the here and now, and slowing down to appreciate the unique quality of each countries’ similarities and differences.  And always, there was the anticipation of our next destination.

Tip – We traveled like the locals too, using the low-cost and well-developed bus systems of Mexico and Central America to slow travel from destination to destination.  In countries where we were more concerned about possible violence or danger like El Salvador and Honduras, we checked with local travel agencies about shuttles and would hire recommended taxi drivers to act as our personal guides.  Many times we used public boats and ferries to take us to more remote places like Placencia in Belize, Utila, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, and Bocas del Toro in Panama. Once we reached South America where the distances are much greater, we used local airlines which are less expensive than their international counterparts.

 

 

The Downs.  To be truthful, there were very few things that got us down for the first two-plus years.  Maybe we were in the ‘honeymoon phase’ but the sheer freedom of structuring our days (or not) as we wanted to, was exhilarating.  We loved unfolding our big wall maps of Mexico, Central and South America (something we were always glad to make room for in our limited suitcase space) and figuring out how to zig or zag our way to our next destination. Gradually though, the idea of packing and repacking, living out of a suitcase, schlepping it from bus to taxi and back, just got plain old. Deciding what clothing to pack was easy in the one-season tropical climates of Mexico, Central and South America and some of the island countries. However, once we decided to shift our travels to Europe, the clothing needs doubled for a two-season climate and our suitcases got a lot heavier.  Visa restrictions, especially the Schengen Visa (click HERE for more info) made traveling more complicated. Living in too-small rooms and making-do with just the basics in an AirBnB apartment (every traveler has experienced a dull knife or two) gradually became less enchanting. We felt a growing isolation in places where we met few people and patching together our health care needs also seemed to get incrementally harder. The glow of nomadic life gradually dimmed in year three and we knew it was time to set up a base and use it as a place to launch future travels.

LIFE AS EXPATRIATES AND LIVING IN PORTUGAL

12)  Why Portugal?

Honestly, we’d always pictured ourselves living somewhere in a beach community in Mexico or somewhere in Central America.  As we traveled, we’d say, “Sure this is a nice place to visit but … could we picture ourselves living here? ” We kept a list of places that might work (interestingly, none of these were on a beach) but gradually we realized that the draw of many of the towns and cities we’d visited was more about the people we’d met than the actual places.  And, the more we traveled, the more we recognized our preference for places with historical landmarks and histories that went back centuries.  We wanted to be close to old world culture and museums as well as country landscapes including beaches and seas that we could look at for hours. We wanted to be close also, to markets and grocery stores carrying a selection of good foods and inexpensive restaurants that offered a variety of choices.  In a nutshell, we wanted our version of paradise:  a place where the cost of living was affordable, a mild climate and close proximity to many destinations for future travels.  We knew within a week of our first visit to Portugal that it had everything we were looking for – plus that indefinable feeling of coming ‘home’.  In fact, Portugal is rated Number 1 on Forbes’s 2017 Best Places To Retire Abroad and Number 3 on the 2017 Global Peace Index (right behind Iceland and New Zealand), ahead of Canada at Number 8 and a light year away from the US standing at a dismal Number 114.

 

 

11)  How do you get a Resident Visa in Portugal?

We wrote about how to get a 4-month resident visa HERE for US citizens with some explanations and links.  To give you a recap:  you need to apply in person or by mail to a Portuguese Consulate (information can be found HERE) or the Embassy in Washington, D.C.  Information listing the various types of visas and how to apply, including a list of supporting documents needed is available HERE.  Once your initial 4-month visa is approved and you arrive in Portugal, you’ll have time to settle in before you’ll need to renew it at the SEF (Service de Estrangeiros e Frontiers or, in plain English, the Immigration Office) and submit a few more documents.  Our post detailing our first experience at the SEF can be found HERE.  This visa renewal is good for one year. The next renewal will result in a two-year resident visa which is what we have now.

Tip 1–  If it sounds complicated, we’re not going to argue.  However, think about the bureaucracy in the US for a moment (or any ‘First’ world country for that matter) and you’ll realize how many years it took to assemble your paper life.  The ‘Great Document Roundup’ as we called it may seem daunting but only because you’re amassing all the required documents at once.  Just take a deep breath, muster your patience and break things down into steps.

Tip 2 – In our various posts, we talk about hiring a lawyer to help us through the visa process.  In hindsight, this expensive assistance really isn’t necessary although a little handholding is always nice. (However, we’d rather hold our own hands at this point and save some money.)  You can do everything yourself for the first step of the visa process when you’re gathering your documents to submit to the Portuguese consulate. Once in Portugal, there are a few times when you might need a lawyer but this is a pricey way to go.  A much less costly alternative can be found in the form of a Portuguese resident who can act as your fiscal representative in obtaining a couple of documents. Check with a local expat group when you arrive for recommendations.

 

 

10)   What is your Cost of Living?

This is the question that always interested us when we’d read about the lifestyle of other expats in various countries because, while it wasn’t our main reason for expatriating, it still played a major part in why Portugal appealed to us. We’ve kept track of our monthly expenses since September 2012, at first because we were curious as to how the countries we were traveling in would compare in terms of expenses, and as a way to monitor our own spending. We have an up-and-coming post where we’ll itemize our expenses but we have a quick and dirty estimate of our monthly costs for the last three months which includes rent, utilities, food, car maintenance and gas, health insurance, household goods and miscellaneous costs.  Excluded are travel and medical expenses.  Our monthly average is about USD $2500 – $2800 per month.  We probably eat out two to four times a month and our rent is about $900.  We’re mindful about how we spend our money but we like our comforts and splurge occasionally too.

Tip – Keep in mind that we live in the Algarve Region of Portugal which, along with the city of Lisbon, is the most expensive area of Portugal.  Your money will go farther if you opt to live in other areas.

9)   How do you find a rental apartment in Portugal?

There’s no such thing as multiple listing here in Portugal and finding a rental can be a slog, especially in the popular Algarve where you’ll find yourself working with multiple property managers.  Rents are all over the board with the area around Lagos one of the spendiest for a long-term rental.  Anywhere between €600 – €1200 is reasonable for a 1-2 bedroom/1-2 bath apartment.  To start your own research, check out the Facebook page called Long Term Rentals Algarve for listings or type Rentals in the Algarve region of Portugal into your browser for listings and property managers.

Tip – We tell people who are thinking about visiting the Algarve area and Lagos in particular to avoid the high season months June through August and maybe even the shoulder season months, May and September, when rents are at their highest and tourists crowd the streets.  AirBnB has listings for short-term rentals anywhere you want to visit and nothing beats the boots-on-the ground approach to finding a year-round rental you like.

8)  What about buying a house or condo?

We don’t know about the rest of the Algarve, but a common sight in Lagos are the cranes silhouetted against the sky and apartments and condos in various stages of building.  Signs saying ‘For Sale’ or ‘A venda’ can be seen wherever you look. It’s a hot market and the asking prices are still climbing way past anything we’d want to spend.  Having divested ourselves of our property back in the US, we much prefer the freedom of renting versus tying ourselves down anywhere. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be upside.  At the very least, wait until you’ve been here awhile and have had a chance to explore the variety of regions and the country to find what suits you best.  We happen to like the more rural, laid-back feel and climate of the Algarve but friends of ours prefer the central and northern coasts around Lisbon and Porto where there’s more of a cosmopolitan vibe.

Once again, this is a l-o-n-g post and many of you may be saying, ‘Enough already!’  Our fervent wish is to leave you hanging on the edge of your seats and wanting more (dare we hope?) rather than tuning out.  Part Three of Twenty Questions will conclude with our last seven frequently asked questions and start out with the lowdown on all things medical.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Playing Twenty Questions: Life as Expats, Life as Travelers, Life in Lagos, Portugal – Part One

 

Life is full of milestones and dates that mark important events and this month, we celebrated a significant anniversary.  On September 11th, 2012, we locked the door to our house on Padre Island for the last time, turned over the keys to a property manager and set off in an entirely new direction.  With the exception of our house (which we sold a couple of years later) and a safe deposit box, everything we owned was crammed neatly packed in our suitcases.  We each had a carry-on and a 24-inch suitcase plus a mid-size backpack when we set off for our first destination in Mexico.  Not more than two months later, we ditched the carry-ons and left a pile of clothes and extra shoes behind.  For the three-plus years that we traveled full-time, we carried everything we owned in the remaining two suitcases and backpacks.

 

 

A few months into our travels, while we were house-sitting for a friend in Antigua, Guatemala, we started our blog and, just as our travel style has evolved over the years, so has our blog.  And, while the main focus of our blog is still on our travels, we’ve also begun to write about life as expats in Portugal: the conundrums, the inexplicable differences between life as we knew it in the US and life as it really is in Portugal and some lessons we’ve learned – sometimes the hard way, sometimes the expensive way.

 

 

Which brings us to a major update and tweaking of our FAQ page – the questions that we get in our comments section, Facebook and emails and our answers: hopefully helpful, accurate and probably neither pithy nor profound!  Here’s our version of Twenty (pertinent) Questions.

THE BIG WHY?

20)  Why quit your jobs, leave a home you love along with friends and family and start all over in a completely new direction?

Clichés become clichés for a reason and the phrase “Life is short” seemed to be beating a drum in the year 2011.  We’d reached the age where gradually, a few of our friends and close family were battling chronic illnesses and life-threatening diseases.  Living the “American Dream” had increasingly lost its allure as the things we owned gave us less pleasure and we started thinking about how to restructure our priorities.  In short, although our lives were okay, we were mired in routines that no longer mattered and we missed the anticipation of the ‘What’s next?’ part of living.  Having more time to do the things we’d put off for ‘someday’ assumed a greater importance.  Instead of waiting for a someday (which might never come) we decided we were ready for a lifestyle reset now.

LIFE AS TRAVELERS AND EXPATRIATES

19)  But what did you do with all your stuff?

Imagine the unthinkable – getting rid of everything you own.  Selling it, donating it, or gifting it to friends, family and charities.  It took us a year to do it but that’s exactly what we did.  We passed on family heirlooms to other family members, digitized treasured photos onto DVD’s and uploaded them to our computers and the cloud, figured out what to do with our art collection, became Craig’s List experts and held two garage sales.  We leased our house and eventually sold it the third year of our travels.

Tip – Read a book or two on minimizing/simplifying and start slow.  It takes time and a major mind reset to let go of your stuff.  Two books that we read and recommend are Simplify by Joshua Becker and The Joy of Less  by Francine Joy.

18)  How do you support your travels?

The question everyone is thinking and no one wants to be rude enough to ask, right?  Richard receives a social security check each month (Anita is not too far away from the time she can double that income) and we withdraw savings as needed to allow for a comfortable lifestyle.  We’re not about to go bare-bones but we don’t live extravagantly either.

Tip – Either set up a budget or track your daily expenses to be more mindful of where your money goes.  It helps us to keep in mind the ‘want versus need’ conundrum.

17)  How do you access/transfer your money?

After some research on how to avoid the high foreign transaction fee costs, we decided that the Capital One credit card and Charles Schwab debit cards would work best for us.  Capital One has no foreign transaction fees and Charles Schwab reimburses all transaction fees, both foreign and domestic, at the end of each month.  Bank of America has a traveler’s plan with no foreign transaction charges also and we use their credit and debit cards as our backup plan in the event of a damaged, lost or stolen card.  Richard’s social security is directly deposited into the Charles Schwab account and ready to access by ATM.  Also, it’s easy to transfer funds online between Bank of America and Charles Schwab as needed.

Tip – We use our credit card sparingly and for large purchases only to avoid possible credit card fraud. (This might be an example of being too cautious since that leads to the loss of credit card points we could use for future travels.)  We withdraw the local currency from the ATM and use that for day-to-day expenses.

16)  But how do you get your mail and make/receive calls?

We use a family member’s address (a big shout-out to my sister, Kari, who acts as our fairy godmother) as our official address which allows us to keep a near normal presence in the US.  Whenever possible, we opt for the ‘paperless’ route and pay our bills online.  Since we’ve been gone for 5 years, the mail is dwindling although apparently, junk mail never dies.  We can review our bank transactions, pay credit card bills online, file our taxes and conduct other business as needed. We have a US Skype number that allows us to receive and place phone calls.  In short, unless we tell them, no one really needs to know we’re out of the country.

15)  How did you deal with your medical needs and emergencies while traveling full-time?

For years we recommended buying an annual policy from Global Medical Insurance (IMG) with a very high deductible to cover us in case of a catastrophic accident or illness.  We both had to submit medical records and ended up with different plans with one of us receiving coverage worldwide including the US (as long as we spent at least 6 months outside the US per year) and the other obtaining coverage for any country with the exclusion of the US. We never filed a claim and the costs increased each year at exorbitant rates until we finally dropped the plan.  BUPA and CIGNA are also in the same cost bracket.  We found that going naked (or without insurance) might be an option to consider as we paid out-of-pocket throughout our travels for all our medical, dental and prescription needs. Healthcare (doctors, dentists, labs) is very reasonable once you leave the US and we’ve been pleased with the professional and knowledgeable people we’ve encountered so far. Of note, our costs for doctor’s visits and prescriptions were ridiculously (but not in a funny way) less than what we were paying in the US for insurance premiums and copays.

Tip – We’ve had several friends recommend World Nomads which is much more affordable.

14) What do you do about your prescription medications?

We each have a list we update regularly of our medications with both the brand and generic names, strength and the condition the medication is treating.  This includes vitamins, over-the-counter meds for nausea, cold symptoms, pain and fever, etc. In Mexico, Central and South America as well as many of the Caribbean islands, we didn’t need a written prescription to refill our meds. European countries, too, will allow you to buy a variety of medications without a prescription.  Our advice is to stock up on those prescriptions that you can and check at a pharmacy when you arrive to see how to refill what you need.  If you need a written prescription, you can get recommendations for a doctor from expat groups, hotels and the local pharmacy.

Tip – Brand and generic names may vary from country to country. Some of the names may be similar to their US counterpart or you may find that a medication you take is not available in another country.  Almost all of the pharmacies that we’ve been to have internet access and will look up the medication name and availability if you ask. Sometimes they can order a medication for you, obtain it from another pharmacy or substitute it with a similar medication.

 

 

As we guessed, we’re way too wordy so we’ll continue our ‘Twenty Questions’ countdown in Part Two starting with some of the upsides and the downsides of full-time travel and then getting into life as Expats and Residents of Portugal.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Boot Sales, Hippie Markets and Chinese Stores

cliffs by Porto de Mos, Lagos

It’s been a ‘staycation’ kind of summer for us here in Lagos, Portugal, with lots of friends stopping by and making use of our guest room (if you want your friends and family to visit, just move to Portugal!) and day trips here and there.  We’ve met several new friends who have contacted us through the blog and are checking out both Portugal and the Algarve to see what all the buzz is about. We’ve also enjoyed some great conversations as well as mentally filing away travel tips and fascinating stories about future places to visit.  And, over and over, while lounging by the pool, enjoying the beautiful beach near us called Praia Porto de Mos or scarfing down a meal dining with friends, we’ve congratulated ourselves, several times in fact, about our decision to skip visiting the US this year and taking a time-out to enjoy our piece of paradise.

This summer we’ve also indulged in what seems to be one of the Algarve’s favorite past-times: the hunt for a good bargain that you didn’t even know you needed.

 

 

Boot Sales:  Flea markets are held in the villages and towns up and down the coast on designated days with traveling vendors.  The Brits call them “Boot Sales” as the items on sale are (theoretically anyway) sold from the “boot” or trunk of the car. Usually the goods are displayed on a blanket spread on the ground although a lot of the vendors set them up on tables, too.

 

Need your own copper still to make moonshine whiskey?

A boot sale we went to in the Central Algarve Region near Paderne had an herbalist displaying baskets of dried herbs and dispensing advice while a nearby couple deep-fat fried doughy rounds and dusted them with powdered sugar.  It might have seemed that the heat would have dampened our appetites but – no.  In fact, we were just a little tempted to split a third one between us!

 

 

Lagos’s Boot Sale is held on the first Sunday of every month and is as much a treasure hunt as a people meeting and greeting venue.  We always make it an event to visit and drag a friend or two along for the fun.

This may sound strange but by far our biggest score has been a circa 1970’s, pumpkin-orange slow-cooker that weighs about 25 pounds with a Euro-plug that’s been modified from the original UK three-prong.  When the seller saw my face light up at the find (slow-cookers aren’t sold in Portugal) he wouldn’t even bargain with us and we forked over the full €20 for an appliance at least 40 years old.

 

 

Chinese Shops: Every town and village we’ve visited so far in Portugal has at least one emporium (Lagos has several hiding in plain sight) literally stuffed to the gills with all sorts of paraphernalia and staffed by someone of Chinese descent, hence the name.

 

 

From floor to ceiling and usually piled in no particular order, you can find beach toys and bikini panties, thread and thermometers, shower curtains and slippers, paper goods and plasticware and Christmas décor year-round.  We tried to ferret out the origins of these Portuguese versions of the old five-and-dime stores or the newer Dollar Stores and all we’ve learned (unverified so who knows?) is that there are old trade agreements between Portugal and China that allow the owners to import goods duty-free.  If you have a little time, there’s no telling what bargain you’ll find poking around!

 

 

Hippie Market:  Going to this flea market held the 4th Sunday of every month, near the quirky village of Barão de São João, about a twenty-minute drive from Lagos, is kind of a blast from the past for us.  It’s as much fun to watch the retro European hippies, check out the “Pimp-my Ride’ caravans and make a lunch of the vegan/gluten-free pakora with mango chutney, as it is to look at the offerings for sale.

 

 

 

Sounds of live music and the smell of incense float in the scant summer breeze (our friends Roy and Ann hint that other smoky smells can be fired up too) and the whole scene reminds of us outdoor concerts in the 70’s when hair was long, clothing was billowy and we were weekend hippies ourselves.  Wandering about the area, you watch unleashed, happy dogs nosing around the dusty field for anything edible, scruffy kids playing or holding on to young mothers who look almost as disheveled in an appealing, exotic way and men looking laid-back and chill.  Like the other flea-markets we’ve been to, there’s a lot of junk and some interesting antiques and you never know what you might find as you wander round.  We’ve been tempted to buy some colorful paintings and jewelry by local artists, checked out the clothes straight from Thailand, bought some fresh herbs and sipped some fruit-infused water. The vibe is infectious and we always look forward to going – even if we do stand out in our uncool, buttoned-down way!

 

 

 

Of course, there’s always the Saturday farmer’s market down by the bus station in Lagos but we tend to avoid it in the summer as the crowds make the tented area inside a jam-packed, chaotic and sweaty event.  We prefer to wait until the cooler weather of fall and winter to visit the market and check out the fresh produce, baked goods, live chickens and rabbits in cages, and flowers, all offered at reasonable prices by friendly sellers.

It’s always a little sad to say goodbye to summer. But we’re looking forward to getting on the road again and traveling as well as taking advantage of the off-season prices for restaurants and accommodations now that the vacation crowds are returning from whence they came.  Our staycation was an all-around success this year and has us thinking that this might be the way we spend our future summers.  After all, why travel somewhere else during the high-season when you’re right where you want to be?

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

The Antebellum Houses of Natchez, Mississippi and Monuments of The Lost Cause

Natchez- Vidalia Bridge, Mississippi River

Like a lot of bloggers, we keep an idea list for future posts as well as rough outlines of posts we’ve decided to scrap or for some reason or other just couldn’t figure out how we wanted to write the story about our travels there.  But the events several days ago on August 11th and 12th in Charlottesville, Virginia, had us thinking about a road-trip we took last year in September on a loop through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.  We were intent on learning more about the history and culture of some of the southern States of the USA, visiting a few of the Civil War battlefields and following along the path of the Civil Rights Movement landmarks from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In September of 2016, in the waning months of our former president, we thought we were firmly on the path to social justice. Those members belonging to the radical fringe of civil society, the White Nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis and others, slithered underground until given a green light during the presidential campaign to come out in the open.  And, after the inauguration of # 45 and despite months of warnings with the “Muslim Ban,” the dismantling brick by brick of years and decades-old statesmanship programs and policies, the threat of our social safety net being ripped out from under us and the deportation of some of the most vulnerable among us, we were still taken aback.  We watched with horror and sick hearts, as raw bigotry and hateful, anti-Semitic and racial epithets spewed from the mouths of white men (and a few women) carrying guns, knives, clubs and shields as blatant acts of intimidation.  Parading along Charlottesville, Virginia’s streets, the marchers waved their Tiki torches and carried Nazi banners with swastikas along with Confederate flags.  It wasn’t hard to compare them to old documentaries we’d watched featuring long ago Klan processions, cross burnings and the news clips from Hitler’s Third Reich rallies. And the impetus? A call to “Unite the Right” and the threatened removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee, the military commander of the Confederate States of America and a potent symbol of the Lost Cause.

Which brings us to the pretty little town of Natchez, Mississippi, population somewhere less than 25,000, where we spent a couple of nights in September of 2016, en route to Vicksburg.  And our decision not to write about this town until now.  Because, just as Confederate monuments symbolize white supremacy and a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery, the stunning collection of beautifully maintained antebellum homes pay tribute to the Lost Cause and romanticize a genteel south memorialized forever in the tradition of “Gone with the Wind.”  Vast fortunes were made growing and trading cotton and sugarcane and shipping goods upriver on the Mississippi to Northern cities and downriver to New Orleans.  Staggering wealth made on the backs of black slave labor.

 

 

We’d first learned of this town through the Penn Cage novels of Greg Iles and wanted to see some of the heritage architecture he’d written of.  Unlike so many of the South’s grand cities of the era, Natchez came through the Civil War almost unscathed with many of the mansions built before 1860 still surviving.  In the historic downtown, block after block of antebellum homes can be admired from curbside with eighty-two of the Natchez homes in the historic downtown and along the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi river, earning a distinguished entry into the National Register of Historic Places.  Natchez brags, discreetly and ever-so-politely, that half the millionaires in the US resided there before the Civil War and it’s estimated that almost one-hundred of the grand neoclassical and Greek Revival-style structures could rightfully be called Antebellum mansions.

We stopped by the Natchez Visitor Reception Area and picked up tickets to see a few of the Antebellum Mansions which have been turned into living museums with tours offered hourly.  Depending on the time of year, as many as twenty of the mansions may be open for tours.  The tours we picked lasted about an hour each and we split them up, doing two the first afternoon of our visit and a couple of tours along with a stroll about the Natchez City Cemetery (also on the National Register of Historic Places) the following day.

Stanton Hall –   Occupying an entire two-acre city block and surrounded by a wrought iron fence, this Greek Revival residence perfectly met our expectations as to how an antebellum mansion should look. Built in 1857 by Irish immigrant and cotton merchant, Frederick Stanton, the mansion was occupied by Union troops during the war. The Stanton family lived there until 1894 when the building became the Stanton College for Young Ladies.  The Pilgrimage Garden Club purchased the home in 1938 and restored it to its former splendor using many of the original furnishings belonging to the Stanton family.  If opulence ever needed a picture to define it, the inside of this mansion would do it. (No pictures of the inside were allowed, so you’ll have to take our word for it!)

 

Stanton Hall

Auburn – Completed in 1812, the Auburn home was “designed to be the most magnificent building in the territory” and was built for Lyman Harding, the first Attorney General of Mississippi.  After his death in 1820, the home was purchased by Stephen Duncan, a physician and wealthy planter, and his wife, Catherine and remained in the Duncan family until 1911 when the heirs donated the home and 210 acres adjacent to it, now a park, to the city of Natchez.  Unfortunately, the original contents of the house were sold at public auction with few being returned and the home is furnished with donated period pieces.  If we haven’t conveyed it yet, we were duly impressed by the house but by far, the most striking thing about the mansion is the free-standing spiral stairway that rises between the ground and second floor completely unsupported.

 

Auburn Mansion

 

Rosalie –  With sweeping views and located on the Mississippi River Bluff near French build Fort Rosalie (1716), the mansion was built between 1820 and 1823 for the original owners, Peter and Eliza Little.  The home was purchased in 1857 by Andrew Wilson and his wife, also named Eliza, and was occupied by the family and their descendants until the home and the original furnishings were sold to the Mississippi State Society, Daughters of the American Revolution who maintain the home and give the tours.  Occupied by the Union Army in 1863, General Walter Gresham protected the house and its contents and returned it to the family after the Civil War. (Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the home.)

 

 

Longwood – If we had to vote for our favorite mansion, Longwood would win hands-down and it wasn’t even completed.  Still the largest octagonal house in the US and known as “Nutt’s Folly,” its original owners were Dr. Haller Nutt and his wife Julia, members of Natchez’s planter elite. The couple hired a Philadelphia architect to design an “Oriental villa,” complete with a bright red, Byzantine onion-shaped dome. Construction of the eight-sided, six-story, 10,000 square-foot mansion which had original plans for a total of thirty-two rooms and twenty-six fireplaces, began in 1860 but was halted in 1861. The exterior is mostly finished but only nine rooms on the ground floor were completed when construction workers literally dropped their tools, collected their pay and abandoned their work at the onset of the Civil War.  The Nutt family moved their fine furniture inside the finished rooms, living there throughout the war and into the 20th Century with a total of three generations of the family living in the never finished home.  The upper five stories remain just as they were when the construction ceased, making the home a great analogy of the South’s rise and fall.  The Nutt’s grandchildren owned Longwood until 1968 and the property was deeded to the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez in 1970 who maintain the property and open its doors for tours of the historic house museum. (This time we were allowed to take photos of the unfinished part.)

 

Longwood Mansion

 

And here was our conundrum.  Should we write about how beautiful we found this pretty town filled with antebellum homes and selling a romantic story of Old South nostalgia?  These fine and stately homes are indeed works of art: designed by gifted architects, built of the finest materials, containing the work of talented craftsmen and filled with the finest furnishings. The homes of slave owners, many passed down to their descendants, offer a glimpse into the lives of the wealthy southern aristocrats and are treasures for sure but their beauty is tainted by their history and only tell one side of the story.  And the other side? Generations of enslaved blacks who did the work that made the fortunes that built the houses.  Generations of people bought and sold throughout the South, who did their owners bidding, cared for other peoples’ needs and wants, raised children belonging to someone else, cooked and cleaned and planted the crops for their owners.

Somewhere over the decades following the tragedy of the Civil War that left 620,000 dead, “The Lost Cause” has evolved for some into a State’s Rights issue where slavery has been romanticized as a benevolent institution and the patriarchal society of the Confederacy as a grand, genteel civilization.  And unlike the Antebellum homes that offer a glimpse into the lives of the townspeople of Natchez and the wealthy Southern aristocrats who owned slaves before the war, most of the approximately 700 Confederate monuments standing in public spaces today were erected well after the Civil War.  They’re monuments celebrating slavery, secession and white supremacy and were erected as a direct corollary to the rise of Jim Crow laws and the violence and oppression of African-Americans.  And, despite what # 45 says, there’s nothing in those monuments that represents the USA’s rich heritage of diverse cultures, races and religions.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Bohemian Rhapsody: Cesky Krumlov

 

We set off from our temporary home in Prague one sunny morning and drove south through the countryside of the Czech Republic, heading for the small town of Český Krumlov close to the Czech-Austrian border. The landscapes of the Bohemian region were the kind that artists dream of: blue skies with wisps of clouds, rural farmhouses and fields freshly tilled or planted with various crops in checkered hues alternating with huge swaths of bright yellow canola well over two feet high. Time passed by almost dreamily, as we gazed out the car windows at mile after mile of flat land and gentle hills and places where timber logging and sawmills seemed to be the main industry. In some areas, we tunneled through thick woods growing almost to the shoulderless, two-lane road. Here and there the highway wound through picture-postcard towns of small businesses and houses, many at least a century old, set close together, with steeply pitched roofs to discourage the accumulation of winter snow.  White lace curtains hung in the windows, like a throwback to some gentler time.

 

 

The GPS took us right to the little pension we’d reserved for two nights, Hotel Krásné Údolí, dating from 1568.  The smiling owner opened heavy wooden doors that had us guessing how old they might be and we entered into a cobblestoned enclosure.  Straight ahead was the owner’s apartment, to the right was the dining room for guests and at our left was a steep set of stairs leading to the hotel’s six rooms.  Walking down the short hallway we had a chance to peek in the rooms and were totally charmed as each room had its own beautifully painted mural featuring a fair maiden from long ago and a country landscape embellished with flowers. The en-suite bathroom had an ultra-modern, glassed in shower with multiple jets, the Wi-Fi was acceptable and there was even a little dorm style fridge and a comfortable sitting area.  Throw in an ample breakfast that was included in the price of 53 US dollars a night and an innkeeper who did his best to answer our questions and we were doing a happy dance!

 

 

And then there was the town of Český Krumlov itself which topped the quaintness scale and then some.  Called “one of the most picturesque towns in Europe,” this jaw-droppingly, beautiful medieval town situated on both banks of the Vltava River is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due largely to its intact architectural heritage spanning more than five centuries.

 

 

With more than 300 Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque houses, most of which date back to the 14th through 17th centuries, the passage of time has not done much to alter Český Krumlov’s appearance.  Careful renovations have preserved details that had us swiveling our heads: an assortment of gabled roof profiles, frescoes painted across many facades, ornate sundials, shutters, and decorative iron grills over windows and the pleasing harmony of red-tiled roofs.

 

 

Inside many of the former grand houses are restaurants serving delicious Czech dishes, boutique hotels, souvenir shops, museums, jewelry stores offering the semi-precious Moldavite stones found only in the Czech Republic, and shops selling traditional Czech crafts such as wooden toys, Czech puppets and sparkling crystal.  The street layout follows the horseshoe bends of the Vltava River which flows through the medieval town and the feeling is like stepping back a few centuries.  We strolled about the narrow and winding streets, admiring various houses, window shopping, stopping for a drink here and a meal there, in no rush to be anywhere but exactly where we were.

 

Plague Column

Eventually, all the streets we wandered would lead us back to the central town square, flanked by colorfully painted buildings with a fountain and tall Baroque sculpture anchoring one of the corners. Known as the Marian Column or the Plague Column, the statue dates from 1714 and commemorates the victims of the 1680-1682 plague epidemic. At its top and wearing a golden halo, is the Virgin Mary accompanied by the eight patron saints of the town.

 

But then, we’re getting ahead of ourselves because, before and during the evolution of the town, came the State Castle and Chateau Český Krumlov.  Built on a rocky outcrop alongside the river Vltava, the castle overlooks and dominates the old town which was built around it.  Second in size only to the Prague castle, the original buildings date all the way back to 1240 while additional palatial buildings were added between the 14th and 19th centuries.  The massive complex of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque structures totals an impressive forty structures with a covered bridge, gardens and five courtyards.

 

 

Of all these eye-popping gems, however, the stupendous mid-13th century Renaissance tower which stands out at its 178-feet height and magnificent, beautifully restored frescoes in all their pastel beauty.  A cheap admission of about $2.50 will pay the entrance fee to the tower for the privilege of climbing the 162-steps of the spiral staircase to the very top for a heart-stopping panoramic view of the city.  Two of the four bells hanging in the tower date back to 1406 and other small bells known as clock bells are estimated to be four-hundred-plus years old.

 

 

Perhaps because of its awe-inspiring size, the castle enjoyed centuries of quiet and prosperity and the Vltava River served as an important trade route in Bohemia. The castle and its lands passed peacefully between families from the original Lords of Krumlov in the 13th century to the Lords of Rosenberg who reigned over the region’s Celtic, German and Slavic descendants for three centuries until about 1600 and played host to artists, scientists and merchants from all over Europe. The Castle was sold to the House of Eggenburg and the town became the seat of the Duchy of Krumlov for about a century until it passed in 1719 to the House of Schwarzenberg who governed for over two centuries. Seized by the Nazis from its last private owner, Adolph Schwarzenberg, in 1940 and then confiscated by the Czechoslovak government in 1945 during the Communist era, the castle was neglected and ill-maintained as was the town until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Today, careful restoration and its inclusion into the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 has guaranteed that this fairy-tale city and castle can be enjoyed by the citizens of the Czech Republic and people from all over the world.

 

 

As far as we’re concerned, Český Krumlov is a town that zaps you back in time and can only be described in superlatives.  We spent much of our time there gawping, head-swiveling, jaw-dropping, finger-pointing and stretching our lips into wide grins while we rhapsodized over this Bohemian treasure.  Be sure to include it on your “Must See” list and don’t forget to wear your comfortable walking shoes!

 

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

A Rant-A-Thon From a US and a Canadian Expat: Bureaucratic Contortions

Sagres, Portugal

A few weeks ago my Canadian blogger friend, Frank, at The Travels of BbqBoy and Spanky  reached out to me with an idea he had for a collaborative post called, “The Absolute Worst Thing About Being a Fulltime Traveler,” comparing our different perspectives.  What made his idea intriguing was that our worst experiences actually have nothing to do with traveling full time or with being an expat, he in Croatia and myself in Portugal.  This turned into a rather fun and enlightening rant-a-thon by both of us, so I thought I’d reprint parts of Frank’s post here with his permission. 

 

The US Perspective  By Anita @ noparticularplacetogo.net

Six years ago I decided that I wanted the life my husband had: early retirement. We’d worked hard over the years and, lucky for us, weren’t hit too hard by the great recession. We had savings, our home was well on the way to being paid for and we’d had a recent epiphany that life was short. The lifestyle that I was working for (house, cars, stuff) was no longer important to us.

Rant 1 Exorbitant Healthcare Costs. We quickly found out that the US isn’t set up for middle-class people who want to retire early. The biggest problem that we ran into right away was how to pay for our health insurance. My employer picked up half the cost of an excellent health care plan but I was still paying $800/month for the two of us. We solved that problem by deciding to leave the country and “going naked” (that’s what people from the US say when you don’t have health insurance) except for traveler’s insurance policies. We took a year to sell everything, leased out the house and became nomadic expats in 2012, slow-traveling through countries where healthcare was affordable.

Rant 2 Capital Gains Taxes. About three months into our new life we knew that we’d never live in Texas again and probably not in the US either. Deciding to sell our home wasn’t difficult but the whole *when to sell* decision was taken out of our hands. Rather than waiting for the best time to sell our house, we were forced to sell between years two and three of our travels in order to avoid paying hefty capital gains taxes on a place that was no longer our primary residence. (Not that we had any residence at that point!)

Rant 3 Transparency. We consider ourselves to be fairly honest. However, having a US street address is important for so many reasons we’d never considered. In fact, it seems that you need an address to prove your very existence. And so, we use my sister’s address. Simple things like keeping our money in a US bank, having domestic and international credit and debit cards, keeping our US driver’s licenses current, paying income taxes, remaining active voters, etc., all need a US street address. We’re not quite comfortable with the deceit but …

Rant 4 And speaking of honesty and transparency: Be careful to whom you mention that you reside outside the US. Banking and investing places seem to equate opting to live abroad with offshore wealth, tax havens and money laundering. If you want to avoid needless hassles and make your life a little easier, you might opt for, “We’re living out of the country for a while …” not, “Hell no, I’m never coming back!”

Rant 5 Taxes. Aren’t taxes always worth a good rant? And yes, we’re still paying them, on time and every year. We have an accountant who keeps us up to date on changes. All to stay law-abiding US citizens with piss-poor representation and absolutely no benefits.

Rant 6 Banking. It was fairly straightforward to open a bank account in Portugal where we live now unlike a lot of other countries that are refusing to open accounts for US citizens because of onerous reporting requirements and paperwork. However, we had to present our social security cards to open our accounts (who carries those when traveling? Or anytime?) and we’re careful to maintain our account balance under $10,000 to avoid complicated paperwork. (Try paying for a car using your debit card!)

Rant 7 Healthcare. And we’re back at where we started. Richard now qualifies for Medicare and we pay $110 each month for that luxury. However, Medicare is only good in the US and the insurance is not something you can cancel and pickup at a whim when you’re in between countries. So, he has “cheap” insurance (by US standards anyway) and I have none for the occasional visit back in the US. Our solution, should I ever get sick during a visit, will be to hurry up and get the hell on a plane and anywhere else before we’re bankrupted.

Our expat life has been all about minimizing what we have and simplifying where we can. Seems that our country of birth could be a little easier on us too and make the hoops to jump through just a little closer to the ground!

 

The Canadian Perspective By Frank @ bbqboy.net

Three years ago, after 20+ years of working in Quebec (Canada), paying a shitload of taxes every year (Quebec has the highest tax rates in North America) we decided we wanted to leave our 9-5 lives to travel.

It’s not that we didn’t enjoy our lives or didn’t love Montreal, Quebec or Canada. We were getting older and we just wanted to see more of the world before we died.

When we left to travel, we continued paying Canadian taxes. No issues with that, we’re Canadian, we’ll pay our taxes just like we suffer through 6 months of winter. But paying a shitload of taxes doesn’t mean we get any of the benefits that come with been Canadian.

Rant 1 Health Care. Two years into our travels we were no longer eligible for Canadian Health care. We’ve used up our “exception year” (I wrote about Canadian health care/insurance in detail here). Ask any Canadian why we lose our health care after 6 months out of the country and they’ll just shrug. Nobody seems to know. So we ended up getting expat insurance which, at 50 years of age, costs us about $3,000/year Canadian between the 2 of us. Basically we’re double paying because as Canadians our taxes are supposed to cover our health care coverage. That sucks.

Rant 2 Capital Gains Taxes. So we’re into our 3rd year of travelling, loving it, we don’t want to come back to Canada.

After renting out our Montreal condo for the last 3 years, our tenants decide they want to move, they want to start a family in the suburbs.  After weighing our options (rent? sell?) we decide that we would face reality – we love our lives travelling and have no plans to return to live in Canada.

So we put our condo on the market. It takes 2 months to sell but we’re happy when we find a buyer. Great!

Until the government bureaucrats get involved. “You’re a non-resident. This complicates your file. You will need to obtain an accountant in order to obtain for the provincial and federal governments a certificate of disposition. Furthermore, we must put a hold on the sale price in our in trust account until we have received confirmation of these certificates and the payment of the required taxes”.

Exact words with bolds and underlines cut and pasted.

Lucky for us, we have an excellent tax accountant who took care of this. It helped that a few years ago he made us fill out a form stipulating that our condo was never intended as an investment property and that it is still our primary residence and exempt from capital taxes.

Note: Just because you have an overseas address, that does not mean you are not a resident of Canada. As long as you stay a fiscal resident (ie. pay your taxes) you are still deemed a resident (although, as I say, without some of the most important benefits).

What would we do without an army of tax accountants and lawyers dealing with this bureaucratic shit?

Rant 3 Home Insurance on the rented property. When renting out our Montreal condo we had to get “renter’s insurance”. I specified to the company that we needed the insurance because we wanted to travel and rent out the property while doing so. Easy enough. But when year 2 came TD Insurance kept calling me, asking me when we would be coming back to Canada. Our renter’s insurance depended on it they said. By year 3 they said they could no longer cover us because we were out of the country too long. WTF? It ended up being another factor in the decision to sell.

Why would I get renter’s insurance if I came back to Canada? I’m renting out the condo because I don’t live there…

Rant 4 Needing a fixed address. We found out that you need a fixed address for everything: banking, investments, anything to do with government… Everything. In the first 3 years I used my condo address. Now I’m using my son’s address. You’d think in this day and age, with more and more people working remotely, that businesses and governments would keep up with the times. They haven’t. In fact, if you don’t have a fixed address or telephone number you realize pretty quickly that you are a rare species (I’ve had people look at me, wondering if maybe I was a vagrant…). It took full-time travel to bring home to us how totally non-existent you are as a person if you don’t have a permanent address and fixed telephone number.

Note: I should have used my son’s address as my address when selling the condo (Rant 2). Would have saved me and my accountant a lot of hassle.

We don’t mind paying Canadian taxes, Canada is still ‘our’ country. We have Canadian passports, Canadian driver’s licenses, Canadian bank accounts and investments, Canadian credit cards. I have Canadian family living in Canada. And I pay Canadian taxes. But why is the government taking away our benefits (notably Healthcare) or trying to screw us over with Capital Taxes? And it’s not just us, I know older Canadian friends who are not entitled to the GIS (Guaranteed Income Supplement) because they chose to live overseas (where they can get by with less money. Some can’t afford to come back to Canada). It just doesn’t make sense.

I wish the Canadian and Provincial governments would have a more modern and open approach to how people live today. With more and more people working remotely from overseas it would be nice to see a little more flexibility in the system.

One last thought.  For those of you thinking about making the jump to becoming either full-time travelers or expatriates, maybe this post will address some questions you haven’t thought about yet.  As for me, and I think I can speak for Frank too, I feel just a bit better now that I’ve done some ranting and raving about the bureaucratic contortions we go through to live outside our respective countries.  And despite all the hassles, it is, without a doubt, worth it.  It’s a whole ‘nuther world out here!

 

Lagos, Portugal

 

Konopiste Castle, The Heir to the Austro-Hungarian Throne and The Great War

 

Just 50 kilometers southeast of Prague in the Czech Republic, Konopiště Castle sits high atop a hill, surrounded by a thick forest.  Built as a Gothic fortification towards the end of the 13th century, it was a huge and sprawling rectangular edifice with plenty of towers, seven in all, for the most effective defense.  Over the centuries, the castle passed through the hands of numerous owners and was the site of sieges, revolts, occupations and plundering.  It’s appearance also changed through the centuries with a stone bridge replacing the drawbridge, the demolition of some of the towers and after 1725, the transformation of the castle into a Baroque style château. Frescoes were painted on the ceilings, marble fireplaces with carvings installed, gardens planted and statues scattered about the grounds.  At the time of its purchase in 1887 by its most famous resident, the estate was vast, its densely wooded forests filled with abundant wildlife stretching almost as far as Prague.

 

And here’s where our story starts, with the purchase of Konopiště Castle by the Duke Frantisek Ferdinand d’Este.  Better known as Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he was a man with an immense fortune inherited from the last reigning Duke of Modena (now part of Italy) and an eye for only the best.  Employing the services of architect Josef Mocker between 1889 and 1894, he refurbished Konopiště Castle into a luxurious residence fit for a king or, in his case, fit for an emperor and the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.  Among some of his innovations were the installation of electricity and modern plumbing, including a new-fangled flush toilet, along with one of the first electric elevators. The extensive grounds became an English-style park; more statues were brought in and placed about the terraces and rose gardens (a passion of the Duke’s) were planted and lovingly tended.  And then he filled the castle with furnishings of museum quality: collections of the finest antique furniture, paintings, tapestries, crystal chandeliers, Meissen porcelain, and ivory carvings in addition to his hunting trophies and an armory – one of the best in the world – filled with antiquated weapons and medieval suits of armor.

 

 

Not that we weren’t blown away by the immense luxury and the fantastical display of the best that money could buy a century ago, but it was the hunting trophies that caught our attention. Because, competing with the priceless furnishings and countless artifacts, are an estimated 4,000 hunting trophies.  And all those headless antlers arranged like patterned wallpaper, stuffed animals whose glass eyes followed our movements, birds of prey with wings outstretched and animal skins stretched out across walls and floors moved our tour into our favorite category of “This is plain weird and just a little creepy.”  Now here was a side to the Archduke that piqued our interest!

 

 

History hasn’t been kind to Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Described as “not a very likable man,” he had a reputation for a hair-trigger temper.  In fact, his rants and raves were so terrible that many questioned his very sanity.  He was an obsessive collector and his passion for trophy hunting around the world or in his own well-stocked forests was extreme, even by the trophy-hunting elites’ standards of the time.  Wikipedia says that, “In his diaries he kept track of an estimated 300,000 game kills, 5,000 of which were deer.”  According to our guide, the Archduke kept twelve taxidermists in his employ full-time, ready to stuff at a moment’s notice so-to-speak, and his hunting collection of trophies ranks as one of Europe’s largest collections.  And when he wasn’t hunting live animals, he amused himself by doing a little plinking on his indoor shooting range, a unique and elegant toy with moving targets.

 

 

However unpleasant and arrogant the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s reputation may have been, there is no denying that he loved his wife, the former Countess Sophie Chotek, who he met in 1894. Franz Ferdinand’s wish to marry his beloved Sophie was unfulfilled for several years because he was a member of the Imperial House of Hapsburg and she was neither a member of a reigning or formerly reigning European dynasty.  Franz stubbornly refused to even consider marrying anyone else and the Archduke’s uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph, finally gave his permission for the couple’s marriage in 1899 but not without some stipulations.  Any descendants from the marriage would not have succession rights to the throne nor would Sophie share her husband’s rank, title or other privileges.  In fact, whenever the couple was required to spend time with other members of the imperial family, Sophie’s inferior royal status forced her to stand apart from her husband, with the lesser mortals. The couple agreed to the humiliating conditions and were married in July of 1900.

 

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Duchess Sophie (source)

No doubt, the Imperial family’s disapproval of their marriage and the snobbish treatment of Sophie led the couple to spend as much of their time away from the royal court as possible.  Konopiště Castle, far away from Vienna and private, became their favorite residence. It was there that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, by all accounts, lived happily devoted to each other and their three children.

 

Archduke Franz Ferdinand , Duchess Sophie and their children (source)

And so, Konopiště Castle is most famous, not for its own magnificent history and beautiful setting, but because it was the last residence of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, Duchess Sophie.  Their visit to Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and their subsequent assassination on June 28th, 1914, led to a chain of events that eventually triggered the Great War, World War I.  By the end of the war in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more. Maps were redrawn enlarging Italy and Romania and creating the new countries of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, the Republic of Austria and the newly reestablished State of Poland.  However, the peace was tentative and resentments and violence flared again only a couple of decades later into an even more devastating war, World War II.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Note:  We were not allowed to take photos inside the castle but wanted to share an awesome video that we found online of a tour that Rick Steves made.  Click here.  It’s just a little over 2 minutes and will give you a glimpse of what makes this castle such a must-see if you find yourself in Prague.

 

 

 

Terezin: If A Picture Paints A Thousand Words

It’s the children’s drawings that linger in our minds, haunting us long after our tour of the town of Terezin that once served as a concentration camp. We’d seen some of the drawings years before at an exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and then at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. Pictures showing happier times with houses and gardens, holiday celebrations with family, children playing, flowers and trees.  Pictures showing darker times too: the day-to-day life in an impoverished ghetto, the faces of sickness and starvation, acts of savage cruelty and the endless transports by train of people arriving from elsewhere or departing for the camps.

 

Field of canola with the Small Fortress in the background

Terezin, better known by its German name Theresienstadt, is a little over an hour’s drive north of Prague.  It was originally built as a fortress in the late 18th century by the Habsburg emperor, Joseph II, who named it after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. (Incidentally, the Empress was also the mother of Marie Antoinette of the “Off with her head” fame.)  The fortress, divided into two parts, never served its military purpose as protection against Prussian attacks but instead proved useful as a prison for dangerous criminals, eventually evolving into a political prison for anyone (which numbered thousands) who the Austro-Hungarian authorities deemed a threat before and during the first World War. (Another interesting factoid is that this is the prison where the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, whose murder set off WWI, was incarcerated.)

 

Small Fortress, administrative offices and barracks

Small Fortress

Following Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, the garrison town of Terezin would also prove to be the perfect place for the Nazis who, in 1940, modified the political prison known as the “Small Fortress” into a police prison for the Gestapo to interrogate, torture and imprison its enemies. The town of Terezin itself, called the “Big Fortress,” met the Nazi requirements for a Jewish ghetto since it was surrounded by thick ramparts which would facilitate guarding of the prisoners. It was located about a mile-and-a-half from the Bohušovice nad Ohří railway station and had several barracks buildings.  Additional barracks were built by Jewish prisoners with triple-tiers of bunks constructed to make the most of available floor space in anticipation of the large populations (ranging from 35,000 to 60,000) who would be “concentrated” and crammed into the small town. The townsfolk of Terezin, numbering about 7,000, were evacuated and the ghetto opened for business. Between 1941 and 1945, Theresienstadt served as both a concentration camp for many prominent Czech Jews (musicians, writers, artists, poets and prominent intellectuals) and as an intermediate stopping place for other populations including communists, the Gypsies or Roma people, the educated and elite, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and religious leaders.  Tens of thousands of Jews deported from Germany and Austria, as well as hundreds from the Netherlands and Denmark were in the transports into Theresienstadt.  All too soon, many of these prisoners would be outbound, selected for transport to Auschwitz and other death camps in the east.

 

“To the Train Station” by Petr Ginz February 2, 1928 to October 24, 1944

Artist Unknown – Transport – Jewish Ghetto

And yet, despite the abysmal conditions – severe overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, insufficient supplies of potable and even non-potable water, vermin (rats, fleas, flies and lice) starvation rations, illness, disease and death –  a semblance of life went on. In between the work details and selections for transport going to the death camps, noted musicians gathered themselves into orchestras and played concerts, poetry recitals were given, writers wrote, operas were performed, artists sketched and painted with whatever supplies they could find and clandestine classes were held to educate the children.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944)

In December of 1942, Freidl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944), an Austrian Jew who lived in Czechoslovakia, arrived in the Theresienstadt Ghetto with her husband.  A talented artist, she had chosen to fill much of her limited luggage allowance of 50 kilos (about 110 pounds) with art supplies which she used to give surreptitious art lessons to over 600 children in Theresienstadt between 1943 and 1944.  Serving as a reminder of a world outside the camp, the lessons also provided a sort of therapy to help the children deal with the harsh reality of life in the ghetto and the constant fear and uncertainty that surrounded them.  Freidl Dicker-Brandeis encouraged her students sign each of their works with their names and ages and collected the pictures from her pupils after each class. Over the two years that she worked with the children, she assembled a collection of almost 4500 drawings, watercolors and collages. Before she and 60 of her students were deported in the autumn of 1944 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, two suitcases filled with these pictures were carefully hidden in one of the children’s dormitories. The drawings were recovered after the war and have served as a reminder of the names and lives lost that might have otherwise been forgotten.  An important part of Prague’s Jewish museum collection since the war’s end, the pictures have been exhibited around the world.

 

 

Almost from the beginning of Theresienstadt’s existence, the Nazi’s had maintained the fiction that the ghetto was a place for resettlement, a haven of safety for the Jews of Czechoslovakia (and later, other countries) and a model city of great culture with its high proportion of musicians, writers, artists and prominent leaders.  No one really cared to follow up on their story until a group of 466 Danish Jews (we wrote about them here) were transported to Theresienstadt on October 5, 1943.  Soon after their arrival, both the Danish and the Swedish Red Cross Organizations began asking questions about their whereabouts as well as their treatment and living conditions.  In a move of astounding audacity, the Nazis decided that they would invite the Red Cross to the camp and prove to the world that the Jews were being treated humanely by their benefactors. A huge cover-up ensued to hide all outward signs of the ghetto’s true circumstances: deplorable sanitary conditions teeming with vermin and pests, widespread disease and rampant starvation. Seven thousand, five hundred of the ghetto’s sickest population along with all of the orphans were deported east to the death camps to reduce the severe overcrowding. A predetermined route for the June 1944, visit was decided upon and buildings were spruced up with paint, flower boxes and curtains while the grounds along the way received more flowers, grass and benches.  Shop windows were filled with foods and goods and an elaborate play unfolded with bakers baking bread, a load of fresh vegetables being delivered and people singing. Prisoners were nicely dressed, cued with pre-rehearsed praise for the camp and carefully placed along the route to present a picture of a charming village filled with happy people.  Musicians played music in the background and the Red Cross fell for the ruse, never deviating from the route nor probing too deeply.  In an ironic twist, the Nazi’s liked their elaborately staged hoax so much that they produced a propaganda film called, “The Führer Gives a City to the Jews.”  After the film was completed, the director and most of the cast of prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz.

 

 

Terezin was a way station for almost 150,000 people from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Hungary to the extermination camps of Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz-Birkenau, to name a few. And, while it wasn’t a death camp by the usual definition, approximately 35,000 people died there between 1942 and 1945 from exposure, starvation, disease, torture and executions.  Fifteen thousand children under the age of fifteen passed through the Terezin Concentration Camp.  Only 132 of those children were known to have survived.

 

 

It’s not easy to visit a place like Terezin, nor is it fun.  And yet, we believe that visits to places like Terezin are necessary and that we owe it to ourselves to learn what hatred based on religion, race, political beliefs and sexual orientation can become.  We need to take those lessons and draw parallels to what we see around us today.  We owe it to the victims to honor their memories and never forget.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Kutna Hora: Medieval Beauty and Bones, Flying Buttresses and Frescoes, Gothic Splendor and Gargoyles

 

Kutná Hora, Czech Republic

Have car – will travel!  And travel we did during our time in the Czech Republic, putting many kilometers on our can’t-lose-me-in-a-crowded-parking-lot, neon-green, rented Skoda during the week we had it.  As luck would have it, the little city of Kutná Hora, population around 20,000, was only an hour east of Prague and almost dead center in the heart of Bohemia, making it easy to heed the advice of several friends to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

 

cistern

The original silver mining settlement of Cuthna Antiqua, Old Kutna, was settled as early as the 10th century but its economic fortunes were tied to the establishment of the first Cistercian monastery in Bohemia, Sedlec Abbey, in the nearby village of Sedlec in 1142.  The combined riches of the silver mine on the monastery’s property and Old Kutna’s mines led to economic boom times.  In 1308, King Wenceslas II (aka King Václav II) established the Royal Mint in the city which produced the silver Prague groschen coins that were then the hard currency of Central Europe.  Considered the treasure-house of the medieval Kingdom of Bohemia and favored as a residence by several kings and the ultra-wealthy, boom town Kutná Hora rivalled only Prague in importance of enormous wealth, political influence and culture for several centuries.

 

 

According to one of the brochures we snagged at the tourist information center, there are more than 300 Gothic, Baroque and Classical buildings in the city and a walk around the historic center’s narrow and winding streets was a must-do introduction.  Much of the building took place in the 14th century and included a rich residential architecture of places fit for the royals, homes for the very wealthy and their lessors, churches, monuments and a couple of cathedrals reflecting the enormous wealth of city.  Over the years, many of Kutná Hora’s buildings were damaged or destroyed by fires and war but the continued income from the silver mines allowed for these to be reconstructed or replaced as needed.

 

Cathedral of Saint Barbara

 

The spires of the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Barbara, named after the patron saint of miners, dominate the skyline of Kutná Hora from a hill overlooking the city.  There’s really no way to describe this cathedral, whose construction began in 1388, as anything but magnificent.

 

 

Even those tourists who are “churched and cathedralled out” should find many things to appreciate in this over-the-top cathedral with its arches and vaults, flying buttresses and frescoes, multiple stained-glass windows, murals, sculptures, gargoyles and, not to be forgotten, a completely rebuilt and restored Baroque pipe organ from the 17th century.

 

17th century Baroque Pipe Organ

Financed by generations of local blue-blooded families whose fortunes depended both on the politics of the day and riches from the silver mines, the construction of the cathedral was an on-again-off again holy project that spanned several centuries until it was finally declared finished and consecrated in 1905.

 

 

Without a doubt, Kutná Hora is a jewel in the Czech Republic’s crown of historic cities. But, among all its charms, we highly suspect that its most popular tourist site might be the small Cemetery Church of All Saints.  Also called the Ossuary at Sedlec, it’s more simply known as the Bone Church of Kutná Hora. The Sedlec cemetery dates from the 12th century and because of a legend claiming it contained soil from the city of Jerusalem – and was thus a part of the Holy Land – became very popular in Central Europe as a last and eternal resting place.

 

 

Over the centuries, thousands were buried in the cemetery – upwards of 30,000 victims from the recurring plagues or “Black Death” and thousands more slain in the religious Hussite wars. The cemetery became extremely crowded and was closed in the 15th century. The remains of an estimated 40,000 people were exhumed from their not-so-final resting place and unceremoniously heaped inside and outside the underground chapel of the Church of All Saints. A century later, a half-blind monk stacked these bones up neatly into huge pyramids that lined the interior walls of the chapel and gave the faithful some room in the middle for worship. Over the next few hundred years, relics constructed of bone were arranged decoratively in the spirit of “memento mori” – the medieval practice of reflecting upon mortality.

 

 

However, the really bizarre (and endlessly, ghoulishly fascinating) attraction of the Bone Church was the interior decorating performed with a macabre panache by master builder, František Rint, in 1870.  After cleaning and bleaching the bones of the not-so newly departed, he created all sorts of fanciful decorations including an enormous chandelier that includes every bone in the body, a crucifix arrangement and a coat of arms in tribute to his employer … His work is even signed with a flourish in – what else?  bones!

 

 

As the centuries passed, Kutná Hora experienced its share of hard times. Repeated appearances of the plague, the religious Hussite Wars in the 15th Century, the flooding of its richest mine in 1546 and the destructive Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) all contributed to its decline.  By the 16th century the silver mines were producing less and less and were finally abandoned at the end of the 18th century.  Fortunately, time seems have treated the city kindly and its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 ensures that it will be a destination to explore and enjoy by people like us for (hopefully) many generations to come.

 

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Wenceslas Square in Prague, Saints and Statues

The city of Prague in the Czech Republic shot to the top of our travel list when friends casually mentioned that an old coworker of theirs had offered them his family’s apartment in the city and said we were welcome to join them for the month of May.  The words, “free accommodations” had us checking flights from Lisbon to Prague and the welcome mat was barely unrolled before we arrived with our suitcases and a long list of things to see and do.

 

 

Wenceslas Square was our starting point, a long boulevard which connects the Old Town of Prague (history first mentions Prague in 1091) with the New Town.  We guess in Europe “new” might be a bit of a misnomer as this area was founded in 1348, ancient by anyone’s standards. During the Middle Ages the rectangular area was called “Horse Market” since that was the business conducted there but, during the 19th century Czech national revival movement, citizens decided the name needed to be upgraded to something a bit more dignified.

 

 

Enter the patron saint of Bohemia, Saint Wenceslas, whose mouthful of a name was bestowed upon the square and in whose honor a noble statue was erected. On the south end of the boulevard is the Czech National Museum (a neo-Renaissance structure undergoing renovation and closed until 2020) and the statue of Saint Wenceslas astride his mighty steed and flanked by four Czech patron saints.  The Mustek metro station is on the north end with a cable car intersection nearby which has cars hurtling by every few minutes (look both ways!) and the streets become narrower and kind of funnel you past a street market right into Old Town Square.

 

 

And in between?  Doubtless there’s shopping elsewhere in Prague but it looked to us like this might be a good place to load up on everything from souvenir magnets to cashmere scarves to Czech crystal, fine jewelry and designer fashions. There are banks, hotels, bookstores, casinos and apartments as well as plenty of restaurants with outdoor tables to people watch and enjoy traditional Czech food or find other favorite international dishes from Thai to Lebanese to McDonalds.  There’s lots to catch your eye as you look around but bend your neck back a little bit because the best views are overhead.  Here is the realm of architectural eye candy!

 

 

 

 

We had a hazy recollection of the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas, but the history of the Saint himself, Duke Vaclav I of Bohemia (Wenceslas is a Latinized version) is but a few sketchy details and a whole lotta legend and myth.  Born around 907, he was the son of a Christian father and a pagan mother.  When his father was killed during a pagan backlash against Christianity in 921, the young ruler became the pawn in a power struggle between his Christian grandmother, Ludmilla, and his pagan mother, Drahomira.  Ludmilla won initially and raised the boy for a few years but was eventually strangled by supporters of his mother.  Once Duke Vaclav, by all accounts a devout and pious Christian, assumed full power he had his heathen mother exiled.  He fostered the spread of the Christian faith, was generous to widows, orphans and the poor, founded several Christian churches and kept the Bohemian people independent.  However, in 935, while on his way to Mass one day and, as the story has it, right at the church door, he was brutally hacked to death by minions of his younger brother Boleslaus.  The pagan brother assumed power and was thereafter known as Boleslaus the Cruel. (His biography is undoubtedly a lot more interesting than that of pious brother.) Soon after Vaclav’s death, he was being hailed as a saint and martyr for the faith and miracles were reported at the site of his murder and at his tomb. The cult of Wenceslas spread throughout Bohemia all the way to England.  Several years after the murder his remains were dug up and reinterred at the St. Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle complex.

 

 

Taking a break from piety and patron saints, we explored the area just a block off Wenceslas Square and saw a very different statue of Vaclav/St. Wenceslas in the art-nouveau shopping arcade, Lucerna Palace.  Created in 1999 by Czech sculptor David Černý, “The dead horse” hangs upside down from the ceiling of the marble atrium with its tongue lolling out and Saint Wenceslas astride.

Wenceslas Square was a great introduction to Prague and the site for many dramatic events throughout the centuries.  Recent history includes the October 28, 1918, proclamation of Czechoslovakian independence. Following by only a few decades, the square was the scene for Nazi rallies and parades of Nazi tanks in 1939 and during the German occupation. The Prague Uprising by the Czech Resistance in May of 1945 at the end of WWII, marked the end of one era and the beginning of the Soviet Union’s imposition of a puppet regime upon the Czech people.  The brief Spring Uprising was suppressed by Soviet tanks massed in Wenceslas Square in 1968.  Finally, during the Velvet Revolution (November-December of 1989) massive demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people in Wenceslas Square led to the peaceful end of the Communist Era in the country.

Today, the square keeps drawing us back, to wander and gawk at the architecture, enjoy a meal and take endless pictures while we join the other sightseers and locals and enjoy the sights and sounds of this beautiful city.  Prague, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is rapidly becoming one of our favorite cities.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

The Tram Cafe

Portugal’s Love Affair With Tiles and the Museu Nacional do Azulejo

Landmark Green Tile Building, Lagos

You don’t have to be in Portugal long before you notice the colorful, hand-painted tiled plaques on building walls, tiled murals randomly placed here and there as you enter a village and tiles covering the facades of whole buildings. You’ll find tiles inside and out decorating humble homes, large homes, churches, cathedrals, grand palaces and train stations.

 

Peacock Building, Lisbon

 

Old Train Station, Lagos

Named azulejos (our mangled pronunciation sounds something like “a zu lay zhosh”) the tiles are a unique part of Portugal’s artistic heritage. Originating in Persia and adopted by the Moors, the azulejos spread to southern Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese adopted painting on ceramic tile as their national art with many artists preferring tile over canvas, painting religious images and historical scenes as well as vivid, decorative patterns. Inspired by many cultures including Asian, Arabic, Italian, Flemish, Spanish and Dutch, the styles also vary from Baroque to Art Nouveau to contemporary and range from simple, repeating patterns to massively complex and sophisticated murals of fine art.

 

Museo de Azulejo, Lisbon

For those of us honing our appreciation for all things tiled, there’s no better place to learn more about Portugal’s love affair with the azulejos than the National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo) located in Lisbon.  It’s worth the trip alone to see the 16th century building, the Convent of Madre de Deus, which is deceptively modest from the outside and a jaw-dropping example of Baroque architecture and decoration inside.  Important paintings, lavishly gilded alters – and any other surfaces that might have once made the mistake of being plain – relics from the virgin martyrs and of course, the azulejos – all compete for your attention.

 

Church of Madre de Deus (left) and Chapel of St. Anthony

The museum is spread out among the convent’s three floors (there’s a lift too) and set around a courtyard.  Since it was way past lunchtime for us, our first stop on the ground floor was in the café where we had a very inexpensive (less than €5 each) sandwich and coffee in the convent’s former kitchens.  While we scarfed down savored our tasty lunches, we admired the walls around the café which still retain their original 19th century tiles.

 

 

From there, we spent a few fascinating hours learning about the origins of Portugal’s unique artistic heritage and admiring the enormously impressive collection which dates from the 15th century to the present day.

 

 

 

It would be hard for us to pick favorites out of the many tiled murals we saw but, after all the solemn religious art and oohing and ahhing about the sheer magnificence of the tiles, we were ready for a couple of laughs and to speculate about the backstory behind these two tile murals.

 

Social satire? – 1720

 

The Marriage of the Hen – by Singerie, 1660-1667 (A political lampoon?)

And we couldn’t help but wonder if this old saint was flashing us the peace sign.

 

 

Despite its somewhat out-of-the-way location, a visit to the National Tile Museum should be on your list of must-sees whenever you find yourself in Lisbon.  It’s probably safe to say it’s one of the most important museums in the country and a visit will give you some insight into the historical and cultural significance of Portugal’s love affair with the azulejos.  The Portuguese are justifiably proud of their unique artistic heritage and we love being reminded of it whenever we happen upon it in this amazing country.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The King Tut Exhibit: A Little Bit of Egypt in Portugal

It’s always fun when you figure out that those half-forgotten memories of long ago grade-school lessons weren’t entirely wasted.  We remember (vaguely) learning about ancient Egypt, the pyramids and the hieroglyphs, our imaginations taken immediately with the idea of cloth-wrapped mummies, tombs and the stylized drawings of a proud people shown in profile.  Recently, we’ve been researching a future trip to Egypt (just a pipe dream for now but…) so we didn’t have to think twice when we found out that the Tutankhamun – Treasures of Egypt exhibit was at the Pavilion in Lisbon, January – May, 2017.  A recent trip to the city combined a visit to our lawyer with spending time with friends and sightseeing.  And, once again, we found our curiosity piqued and interest captured by the story of King Tut, the boy king in a civilization from over 3,000 years ago.

 

Funerary mask of Tutankhamun

The story really begins with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter.  By the time of Carter’s arrival at the end of the 19th century, most of the ancient Egyptian tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been discovered, typically empty and looted of their treasures.  Carter had started out his career in his teens, sketching artifacts for other archeologists and eventually becoming a well-respected archeologist himself.  Following an interruption of his explorations by WWI, Carter began to focus his efforts on looking for the tomb of the little-known Pharaoh, Tutankhamun.  Akin to an urban legend, knowledge of the tomb’s location had long been forgotten over the intervening centuries, buried by debris from the building of subsequent tombs or deposits by flooding from the Nile.  Financial support for his expedition was received from George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, a very wealthy, amateur Egyptologist (and incidentally, the owner of Highclere Castle, the future home of one of our favorite TV shows, Downton Abbey). After years of intense and systematic, albeit fruitless searching, and just as Lord Carnarvon was threatening to pull his support, the steps to the burial site were discovered in November of 1922, near the entrance of the tomb of King Ramses VI.

 

Tutankhamun’s Tomb (source)

The short film we watched before entering the exhibition built up the suspense for what followed but it’s not hard to imagine their excitement as Carter and Lord Carnarvon descended the steps for the first time and discovered a door with its original seal still intact.  After entering, they found a secret chamber and Carter describes the next few moments:

“…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.”

 

 

 

King Tutankhamun’s tomb was the most intact of all the tombs that had been excavated in the Valley of the Kings, with more than five-thousand priceless, well-preserved artifacts meant to accompany the king on his journey to the afterworld.  Consisting of four rooms, one of which had murals painted on the walls portraying the king’s funeral and journey to the next world, the innermost chamber was behind a sealed door and guarded by two sentinels.

 

 

 

When the sealed chamber was opened in February of 1923, perhaps the most fascinating find of all was the stone sarcophagus containing three coffins, one inside the other and each more fabulous than the last.  The third coffin was made of solid gold and inside was the mummy of King Tutankhamun.

 

 

Much of what is known about the Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, who’s multi-syllabled name was quickly shortened to a more manageable nickname of “King Tut,” derives from the discovery of his tomb as he was a relatively minor figure in ancient Egypt.   The son of King Akhenaten and his sister, Queen Tiye, he ascended the throne following the death of his father at the age of nine or ten and ruled from approximately 1332 – 1323 BCE.  Upon becoming King, and following the custom of keeping the royal bloodlines all in the family, he married his half-sister, Ankhesenamun.  The mummies of the couple’s two daughters, both stillborn, were found in his tomb, and with King Tut’s death, the family line came to an abrupt end.

 

There’s much speculation about what led to King Tut’s untimely death at the age of nineteen and modern forensics specialists have tried to solve part of mystery.  A reconstruction of what he might have looked like shows he was slight of build, taller than we would have guessed at approximately 5 feet, 11 inches, and that his left foot was severely deformed (a congenital birth defect)  with evidence of ongoing bone necrosis.  He would have needed a cane to walk and several walking sticks were found scattered about the tomb.  It’s possible that he suffered from other physical disabilities arising from his parents’ sibling relationship. (The death of his own daughters may have also been caused by unknown genetic defects due to the restricted gene pool.)   More than one strain of the malaria parasite was found upon DNA examination and researchers concluded that King Tutankhamun probably contracted multiple malarial infections, including an especially virulent strain which would have weakened his immune system. Towards the end of his life, there’s conjecture that an infection resulting from a severe leg fracture may have been the ultimate cause of his demise.

Doubtless, the early death of King Tutankhamun would have taken the Egyptians by surprise and they would have scrambled to complete all the rituals necessary to observe the customary seventy days between death and burial.  Considering his status, many researchers have observed that his tomb was smaller than expected, leading to the conclusion that the tomb occupied by the King was originally intended for someone else.  Much of King Tut’s burial equipment was made for the female pharaoh Neferneferuaten (aka Queen Nefertiti) including his middle coffin, the royal jewelry and the iconic gold mask.  That of course leads to the question of where she was buried and with what, but we digress.  Seventy days after his death, King Tutankhamun’s mummified body was laid to rest inside its eternal home and the tomb was sealed to lay undisturbed for three-thousand years.

 

 

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the most complete ancient Egyptian royal tomb ever found in modern times, received world-wide press coverage and generated an enormous interest in ancient Egypt and Egyptology.  Howard Carter remained in Egypt for another ten years, working on the excavation and cataloging the 5,398 objects found in the tomb (everything an Egyptian Pharaoh might need for a comfortable afterlife) until the excavation was completed in 1932.  King Tutankhamun’s linen-wrapped mummy rests, as it has for over 3,000 years, in his underground tomb in the Valley of the Kings, now encased in a climate controlled-glass box to prevent the “heightened rate of decomposition caused by the humidity and warmth from tourists visiting the tomb.”  Artifacts found in his tomb are kept at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo but popular exhibitions of the archeological finds began touring in the 1960’s, make them the most travelled relics in the world.

 

King Tutankhamun’s throne

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb has inspired several songs and dances as well motivated untold numbers of kids to learn more about Egypt.  His image has graced the cover of National Geographic’s magazine five times which, considering he’s been dead for 3,000 years, sounds like stiff competition for #45 with his eleven Time covers. Visiting the exhibit was a fun trip back in time on the “Wayback Machine” and when we exited the building we couldn’t help but hum a few bars of Walk Like An Egyptian!

Note:  The exhibit, Tutankhamun – Treasures of Egypt consisted of 100 full scale reproductions made in Egypt using traditional methods.  We found that little factoid out after we went but it only makes us more enthusiastic to see the real deal one of these days!

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Egyptian Boat Model

 

New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina: When the Levees Failed

During the ten years we lived on Padre Island off the coast of Texas, we talked several times of making the nine-hour drive to New Orleans and taking in the famous sights: the jazz and zydeco music, the shotgun, antebellum and Victorian homes, the guesthouses and outdoor cafes, the live oaks draped in Spanish moss and Jackson Square.  The talk abruptly ended at the end of August in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina, the largest and third strongest hurricane ever recorded in the US made landfall, wreaking devastation along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Along with the rest of the world, we glued ourselves to our televisions and watched with horrified fascination as the events in New Orleans unfolded in the following days.

On our last visit to the US, near the eleventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we finally made our way over the twenty-three mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain to the city known as “The Big Easy.”  Wanting to experience all the city had to offer, we stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton on Bourbon Street – a choice that resulted in us wearing the ear plugs thoughtfully provided on the bed tables each night – and indulged in many of the typical tourist activities.  We wandered the streets around the French Quarter, devoured the beignets at the Café du Monde and visited Jackson Square, The Cabildo and the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the US.  An afternoon ride on the Steamboat Natchez down the Mississippi gave us a view on the city’s riverfront and levee system while the city bus tour introduced us to the wards of New Orleans.  We watched the revelers after dark, listened to the famed sounds of the city, ate some memorable meals and awoke in the mornings to watch the street cleaners washing away the sins of the previous night.

Fun memories for sure and yet, our standout recollections of our time in New Orleans weren’t any of the above. The biggest impressions were made by the “Hurricane Katrina Tour” on the New Orleans Gray Line, a simple exhibit called, “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” at the Presbytère, and a taxi ride around the lower ninth ward on a dreary, rainy morning with a drawling, middle-aged driver named Junior.  We learned about New Orleans, more about Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath and were forced to question how our middle-class assumptions had shaped our views of the victims as well as our expectations of our government.

Neighborhoods (source)

As with any story, a little context and history are necessary.  An important trade route along the Mississippi River and a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French, ruled for forty years by the Spanish, returned to France again and sold to the United States in 1803 as a part of the Louisiana Purchase.  A polyglot of different cultures, including American, French, Spanish, Celtic, English, German and African (free and enslaved), the city also received an influx of Creoles fleeing the revolution in Haiti.  Originally built on the slightly higher ground along the Mississippi River, the city built levees to control the flood-prone river which paradoxically increased the risk of flooding from the Gulf of Mexico.  As the city grew, it began to drain (about 1890 to the 1910’s) the area between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, known as the “back swamp” or “back woods” because of its cypress groves, using large pumps.  It took several decades before it became apparent that this reclaimed land was slowly sinking; many neighborhoods developed after the 1900’s are now below sea level, an area equivalent to about half of the city’s 200 square miles.  As our bus tour guide explained, it’s easier to understand how the flooding occurred if you think of New Orleans as a shallow bowl.  Earthen levees, as well as concrete and steel flood walls, are tasked with the job of protecting the homes.  (A spoiler: Investigations after Hurricane Katrina into the failure of the flood wall system that existed in 2005 called them the “largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States.”)

Elevation map (source)

Before the storm:  On Friday, August 26th, 2005, the city of New Orleans was alerted that a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico was heading for the Gulf Coast.  Saturday, the 27th, when the predicted track of the Category 3 hurricane shifted to the Mississippi-Louisiana state line, New Orleans issued a voluntary evacuation order for its citizens. All major roads (Interstates 10, 55 and 59) leading out of the city were converted to outbound traffic only.  On Sunday, August 28th, Hurricane Katrina gained strength as a Category 4 storm, then was upgraded a few hours later to a Category 5 with winds estimated at 160 miles per hour.  A mandatory evacuation order for the city was issued, the first in its history.  The Superdome was opened as a “shelter of last resort.”  Approximately 1 million people left the city with an estimated 100,000 remaining.  The National Weather Service issued the following statement:

“Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks … perhaps longer. At least one-half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure… Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”

The day of the storm:  Hurricane Katrina, stretching across 400 miles, made landfall on the morning of August 29th as a Category 3 hurricane, preceded by hours of heavy rains and with winds ranging up to 140 miles per hour. Flooding began even before the hurricane reached the city and, once the storm surge arrived, the towering waves overtopped some of the levees while water below the canal walls seeped through the soil and breached areas along levees on four of the city’s canals. Flood waters rushed through the ruptures and the water rose so swiftly in low-lying places like St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward, that many people had little time to reach the safety of a second floor or attic.

After the storm:  Picture if you will, Louisiana in late August after a heavy rain.  The heat would have been sweltering, in the high 90’s coupled with an ungodly level of humidity.  The sun would have been a blinding reflection off a toxic soup of sea water and mud, gas and oil from ruptured pipes, sewage from shattered lines, and all manner of household and yard debris as well as hundreds of drowned animals and floating human corpses. Survivors sitting in attics or on roofs had to have been completely overwhelmed and stunned as they surveyed the aftermath.  And perhaps the worst was yet to come in the days following the hurricane as thousands made their way to the Superdome seeking water, shelter, food and medicine.  According to one of the information signs at the “…Katrina and Beyond” exhibition at the Presbytère, the majority of the deaths were due to drowning (many residents did not know how to swim) or physical trauma caused by debris.  However,

“… A substantial number died in attics or unflooded homes due to dehydration, heat stroke, heart attack, stroke or lack of medicine. The elderly were most at risk with almost half of Louisiana’s fatalities over the age of 75.”

Initially, parts of New Orleans seemed to come through the hurricane with little damage but as more levees were breached, they too experienced flooding the day following the hurricane. It’s estimated that as much as 80% of the city experienced some flooding and in places the water may have been as deep as 25 feet.

 

explanation for “Katrina Crosses”

What we remember most in the days following Katrina, while we watched the horrific devastation unfold on our TV’s along with millions of others, was the appalling disconnect between what was being reported and our government’s botched response. Thousands of people desperately awaited water, food, shelter and medicine. FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) eventual response, assistance and evacuation plans were miserably inadequate.  In the first days following the storm, New Orleans relied almost completely on the heroic efforts of hundreds of first responders, the US Coast Guard, medical personnel, neighbors and ordinary citizens. We watched civilization break down inside the Superdome where hasty preparations had been made to shelter no more than 10,000 citizens as a last resort; up to 35,000 people sought assistance in a reeking space where the heat was stifling, the plumbing systems had failed, the dead were unceremoniously discarded and violence and mayhem reigned. Outside was no better. Our thoughts were similar to Clarence Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, who asked, “Is this America?”

Perhaps our most sobering lesson came, during our time at the museum exhibit when we found ourselves examining our own biases and assumptions about the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina. Our biggest question over the years had been, “Why did so many stay?” The eye-opener was realizing how, for many, poverty can truly cut off avenues of escape as more than a quarter of New Orleans residents at the time of Hurricane Katrina lived below the poverty line.  Almost 30% of the city’s residents did not own a car nor did they have a place to escape to or a social support network outside the city.  Many lived on government assistance and, since it was the end of the month, had no available cash nor a credit card to pay for any expenses away from home.  Many were disabled, elderly or caring for someone else with chronic disabilities, the aged or young.  Many, who relied on their TV’s for information, learned of the impending hurricane far too late to take advantage of any public transportation that would have helped them flee the city.  One of the saddest and most ironic stories we heard from our tour bus driver was that many of the drivers authorized to provide emergency transportation out of the city had left New Orleans during the voluntary evacuation.

Sculpture of house in a tree – Katrina Bus Tour

Hurricane Katrina was the worst urban disaster in modern US history and the emergency response to the people of New Orleans following the storm was a national disgrace.  No one knows for sure how many people died during and after Hurricane Katrina although the estimate most quoted is 1,836 with 1,577 from Louisiana. It was over a month before the city was dry and many of those who evacuated the city following the hurricane never returned.

We were happy to have a chance to visit New Orleans after all the years we’d dreamed of going and found it to be a charming city that well deserves to be on anyone’s bucket list.  In fact, if you didn’t know about its recent history, you might not question how many neighborhoods seem to be refurbished or new, the numerous boarded-up buildings, the ongoing construction or the many vacant lots that still remain in the Ninth Ward.   In the French Quarter, there are few troubling reminders from the storm that ravished “The Big Easy.” Life goes on and it’s an awesome place to celebrate a special occasion or just the sheer joy of living.  But, like other cities that span a few centuries, there’s a tragic side to the city as well and it’s well worth the time to learn those stories as well.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Vacant lots and empty houses, Ninth Ward – September, 2016

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba: An Architectural Allegory

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoEver since we’d seen pictures of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, aka the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba, we’d known that it would be at the top of our “must see” list when we returned to Spain.  Quite simply, there’s no other building like it in the world and if we had to describe it in less than ten words we’d say, “a sixteenth-century cathedral inside an eighth-century mosque.”  But that doesn’t even begin to convey the ten-plus wow factor of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, without a doubt the most stunning religious place we’ve ever seen.  Nor does it suggest the promising symbolism of two major religions, Islam and Christianity, coexisting in one shared space.

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoCórdoba’s history stretches back for more than two thousand years to its founding in the second-century, BCE and the land upon which the Mosque-Cathedral was built has long been sacred to many religions.  Originally there was a Roman temple dedicated to Janus, the two-faced god looking at both past and future.  When the Visigoths invaded Córdoba in the sixth century, they converted the temple to a cathedral dedicated to the gruesomely tortured martyr, St. Vincent of Saragossa.  Next came the Moor’s invasion at the beginning of the eighth-century and, for a time, the worship space was divided between Muslims and Christians before the cathedral was demolished to build the Great Mosque of Córdoba at the end of the century.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

The construction of the Great Mosque of Córdoba began in 784 CE and lasted for over two centuries resulting in what UNESCO refers to as “the most emblematic monument of Islamic religious architecture.”  Thousands of artisans and laborers were employed. Only the finest materials were used: stone and marble quarried from the mountains of nearby Sierra Morena and columns of granite, jasper, marble and onyx recycled from the original temple and other Roman ruins around the Iberian peninsula.   Upon the columns were the double arches which allowed for support of the higher vaulted ceiling.  The lower horseshoe-shaped arches were made of red brick alternating with white stone that continually draws your eye.  The décor was fashioned from ivory, gold, silver, copper, brass and mahogany and intricate mosaics from azulejos (glazed, colored tiles) were designed. Interestingly, the mihrab or prayer niche, a piece of ornate artwork in dazzling colors that stands out among all the other splendidness, faces south rather than the traditional placement towards Mecca.  A remarkable and unique creation, the Great Mosque of Córdoba held a central place of importance among the Islamic community and was a major Muslim pilgrimage site.

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoFollowing the Christian invasion of Córdoba in 1236, the mosque was preserved as a very visible trophy of Castillian Spain’s victory over a former Islamic land.  Besides the symbolism, the Reconquista and kingdom building was a spendy proposition and Spain, not wanting to divert its money from conquest to building places of worship, spent some of its energies converting mosques into churches.  The former Great Mosque of Córdoba was renamed the Church of the Virgin of the Assumption, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and consecrated with the sprinkling of holy water which allowed the transformation of religion from Islam to Christianity.  Over the years a couple of chapels were constructed to the side of the vast space and the four-story minaret, from which calls to prayer were previously heard, became a tower for tolling bells summoning faithful.  For nearly three centuries, no major alterations were made because the church was a little occupied with imposing the one, true religion upon the land. In between converting Muslims and Jews to the correct religion or expelling the lucky ones altogether from the realm, they occupied themselves with the horror called the Spanish Inquisition.Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the reigning monarch, King Charles V (also confusingly known as King Carlos I) turned his attention to the former mosque in response to a proposal by the church to build a cathedral within the center.  Overruling the objections of the people, the King, completely ignorant of the building’s unique beauty because he’d never visited Cordoba, backed the church’s request.  The heart of the Great Mosque of Córdoba was demolished and over the next couple of hundred years (1523–1766) the cathedral was built in a variety of styles ranging from late Renaissance, Gothic, and Spanish Baroque.  Like many cathedrals, it’s breathtaking with its ornately carved mahogany altar and the plunder from the New World gilding surfaces in silver and gold.  A variety of semi-precious stones are used throughout the area and oil paintings of notable events and personages are abundant.  It is however, bizarrely at odds with the original architecture of what was once Islam’s crown jewel.Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoThere is one more strange and short chapter in the story of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba.  In 2006, the diocese of Córdoba dropped the Mezquita (Mosque) part of the building’s name and began to simply call it the “Catedral de Córdoba” in what was seen by many as an attempt to hide its Islamic origins.  In 2013, an online petition garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures protesting the omission.  Finally, in April of 2016, a resolution of the dispute between the local authorities, the regional government of Andalusia and the Catholic Church was reached and the building is now referred to as the Mosque-Cathedral Monument Complex or Conjunto Monumental Mezquita-Catedral.

We started out this post by writing about the hopeful allegory of two major religions, Islam and Christianity, coexisting in one shared space.  In medieval times Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side-by-side and perhaps the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba might be seen again as a symbol of religious tolerance, diversity and multi-culturalism.  We can only be optimistic …

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

 

 

 

Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba and The Andalusian Horses of Spain

We took the “slow” train from Seville to Córdoba for under €14 and a less than ninety-minute journey through flat, mostly rural countryside, lushly green from the recent rains. We’re not sure why Córdoba hadn’t popped up on our radar well before our last trip to Spain but once we started reading about the city and its history, it rapidly rose to the top of our places-to-go list.  Not to say that we don’t usually do a little preparation before traveling to a new place but this time we were unusually prepared with a two-page list of things to see, including a place we’d run across only in passing; described as a “hidden treasure.”  Located next to the Alcázar of Córdoba, we could see the Royal Stables (aka the Caballerizas Reales de Córdoba ) from vantage points atop the Alcázar’s walkways along the old walls as well as a lone horse and rider practicing a series of moves in a small arena.

view from the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba, SpainThe Caballerizas Reales date from 1570 when King Felipe II, described in many accounts as “a great lover of horses,” commissioned Diego López de Haro y Sotomayor to build the royal stables where he hoped to breed thoroughbred Spanish horses.  Not that we’ve visited many stables but we can safely say that these will be among the grandest we’ll ever see and why these stables deserve a place as one of Córdoba’s historic monuments.  The stable area is massive, almost cathedral-like in atmosphere, with a long center hallway and horse stalls on either side.  Sandstone columns support a cross-vaulted ceiling and numerous, small windows light the space in addition to suspended lanterns.  A new stable houses the royal horses while the old stable contains many elegant coaches and conveyances once used by the royals and other elites.Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba, Spain
Old royal stables, Cordoba, Spain

 

Old royal stables, Cordoba, SpainAnd here in the royal stables, according to a decree by King Felipe II which laid out formalized standards, the pure Spanish thoroughbred, known as the Andalusian horse, was officially documented as a breed.  From the very beginning, the horse was incredibly popular among European royalty and became a symbol of the Spanish empire.  The horse carried the conquistadores to the New World and its reputation as a prized war horses almost led to the demise of the breed in the Iberian Peninsula when Napoleon invaded Spain in the 1800’s and seized them for his own invasion.  Luckily a small herd was sequestered at a monastery in Cartuja near Granada and the breed recovered.  Today the Andalusian horses number over 185,000.

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, SpainQuite by serendipity and even before we visited the stables, the Hostal La Fuente where we stayed told us about the equestrian show, “The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse.” Purchasing the tickets (a great value at €15 for an hour’s performance) also allowed us to visit the arena during a rehearsal.

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian HorseThe program was a terrific chance to see these magnificent creatures display their intelligence and beauty. Far from knowledgeable about horses in general, we didn’t have to be die-hard horse lovers to be completely captivated by the graceful and magical performance.

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian HorseFor those who wanted to get more show for their money, there were several dances featuring a flamenco dancer and some wonderful Spanish guitar in the background which added to the ambience.  For us, the flamenco dancer was extraneous and rather a distraction from the real stars of the show.

For those who wanted to get more show for their money, there were several dances featuring a flamenco dancer and some wonderful Spanish guitar in the background which added to the ambience. For us, the flamenco dancer was extraneous and rather a distraction from the real stars of the show.

 

For those who wanted to get more show for their money, there were several dances featuring a flamenco dancer and some wonderful Spanish guitar in the background which added to the ambience. For us, the flamenco dancer was extraneous and rather a distraction from the real stars of the show.

We were captivated with the intricate footwork, stylized gaits and beauty of the whole performance.  At times, it was almost as though as invisible string could be seen between the rider and horse as they seemed to communicate intuitively.  Obviously, the training involves hundreds of hours with a very skilled trainer and/or rider and an incredibly intelligent horse.

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, SpainInformation:  The show is every Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays at 20:00 and Sundays beginning at 12:00. Entrance to The Caballerizas Reales is free for visiting, from Tuesday to Saturday during the morning hours from 11:00 to 13:30 and afternoon hours from 16:00 to 20:00.

Special thanks to our friend, Kiki Bridges, who generously shared her photos for our post.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

Part Two – Figuring It Out Along The Way – Life In Portugal

Lagos, Portugal

Lagos, Portugal

At the end of our last post, Part One (read it here) we promised that we would continue our “Not the Same As” list comparing the differences between life in the States, no longer United, and our newly adopted country of Portugal.  Sure, we could paint word pictures about the picturesque cobbled streets, the single lane country roads that curve and beckon one to explore, the giant storks’ nests upon the chimneys and roofs and on and on. Storks, Lagos, Portugal. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Those were the things that piqued our interest about this part of Europe and made us fall in love with the country but they don’t answer the questions we had when we first moved here.  Our questions were a lot more prosaic, dealing with life on a day-to-day basis but, seriously, we didn’t even know enough to ask them.  So, here’s another list to answer the question of, “What’s it really like to live in Portugal?”

Shopping.  Not to make light of the homeless situation in the US, but we’re from the land where grocery carts serve as portable storage trailers.  It’s not unusual to see someone walking along the edge of the road with a cart piled high with their belongings and what these runaway carts cost the store is another matter altogether. However, Portugal is the first country where we ran into “tethered grocery carts.”  (Evidently Canada has them but, as our Canadian friends remind us, they’re ahead of the US on a lot of things.)  Upon seeing these for the first time, we hung out for a bit (trying to figure this new wrinkle out) before watching someone insert a coin which released the chain holding the carts together.  In a “Duh” moment it took us a few trips before we found out we could get our money back at the end of our shopping by inserting the key at the end of the chain again whereupon our coin would pop out.  The store even gives away plastic coins so you can spend all your money right there!   Anyway, we think these are clever and we like to dazzle our American friends with our new parlor trick when they come to visit.Tethered grocery carts. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Fruits, vegetables and bread.  We love them all and they seem to have so much more flavor than what we’re used to in the US. The upside (or downside depending what side of the argument you’re on) is that they spoil much faster because the fruits and vegetables are ripe when they’re picked and, as the commercials used to promise, at “the peak of their freshness.”  A loaf of still-warm bread is best the day of purchase because there are no preservatives.

We buy our eggs in a half carton, six at a time, off an aisle shelf; they have yolks so yellow they’re almost orange.  Likewise, our milk, which comes in a waxed cardboard carton, is found on a shelf on another aisle. Neither is refrigerated.  Since we were properly indoctrinated on the need to refrigerate dairy products, it took us a while to accept that it really was okay to ingest them.

And then there are the bright red ticket machines. Rather than lining up in front of the butcher or baker’s counter, people pull off a numbered piece of paper which marks their place and mill about.  The number comes up on a display or the baker/butcher yells it out.  The whole system seems to work fine.  A quirk however (and we’ve been ignored a few times) seems to be that you need to pull your number even if you’re the only one standing there.  Ticket machines are ubiquitous: at the post office, the doctor’s clinic, pharmacies, phone or cable stores and any government service where people might line up.

Obviously, the subject of shopping could take a whole post but we’ll stop after one, two, three more observations.  1) Bring your own tote bags or you’ll need to buy some. 2)  Remember to sign up for the store’s loyalty plan and have your card scanned at the beginning of your purchase.  It can save you a lot of money.  3) And, like most countries, it’s usually not a matter of one-stop shopping.  Pingo Doce is our favorite store and we buy our hamburger, plump chicken breasts and most of our produce from there.  Continente gets our business because it’s closer, we can buy plain Doritos corn chips, Knox spice mixes and (no kidding) sometimes hard-to-find celery as well as some household goods.  We shop at Aldi for the best priced walnuts, feta cheese, hard German salami and the adventure of seeing what goods (socks, plastic ware, toys, umbrellas, jackets, and once even sewing machines at €90) are in their center aisle bins each week.  This week we scored with an electric heating pad! In Lagos, we have our favorite, butcher, bakery and fruit and veggie stands.

Driving. Stop signs and traffic lights are the exception in Europe.  Here, roundabouts rule. We first ran into roundabouts in the island country of Curacao and were confounded, not in small part because the signs were in Dutch.  Our GPS directs us to, “Go around the rotary” and “Take the second exit” in a proper British accent but it took us a while to get the hang of roundabout etiquette.  We thanked the gods above more than once last winter that we could practice during the low-season while the streets and roads were mostly empty. (Here’s a big tip: We take turns driving so that we can change-up who’s yelling at who.)  Here’s a handy diagram that might help.

Source

Roundabout Etiquette  (Source)

And, speaking of tips, after one exits a roundabout in urban settings, there’s usually a white-striped crosswalk.  Pedestrians have the right-of-way of course, but it’s easy to tell who’s local because the Portuguese assume we’ll stop while tourists look both ways first before setting a foot on the road.  Once we’d “mastered” some of these driving proficiencies, we were still puzzled about the occasional honk we’d get when we signaled to make a left-hand turn.  Finally, we realized that we hadn’t seen many people making them … Another “Duh” moment because the roundabouts also serve as a way to change directions and avoid most situations requiring a left-hand turn.

(Not-so) Common Courtesies. There are of course the usually handicapped parking spaces but there are also signs for preferred parking spaces for pregnant women and parents with children.  And, after some internal fuming about the old women who sashay their way ahead of us in line at the grocery, we learned there’s a common practice of allowing the elderly to go ahead in line. Kind of nice, right?

Preferred seating and priority service

Preferred parking for pregnant women and parents with childrenAt the doctor’s and dentist’s offices, the appointments are on time or only a little late.  And, we kid-you-not, the staff apologizes if they’re running late. We usual get a text message reminder a few days before scheduled appointments and we’ve received calls saying that the staff is running behind and asking us if we could come in later.

At the Movies.  One of our small pleasures, now that we belong to the leisure class, is going to the movies.  Lagos has a small movie theater, right above one of the Chinese stores (that’s a post for another time) with two “salas” or rooms with screens.  A new movie comes to town each week on Thursday and usually there’s one or two for adults, including first-run movies in English with Portuguese subtitles and something good for the kiddies.  The tickets cost about €4 each and a large bag of popcorn is under €2.  We’ve heard they make American-style popcorn occasionally but so far, we’ve just had the typical Portuguese popcorn, a caramelized, slightly sweet treat that’s grown on us.  At this price, we check the offerings weekly and usually go to the matinees where, most times, the “crowd” is less than ten people so we get preferred seating too. This week the offerings are Office Christmas Party, Sing! and the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Because Christmas is right around the corner and the holidays have begun, we may have to give up our preferred seating and rub elbows with the crowd to see Rogue One.

We’ll close this two-part rambling post on basic life skills for expats in Portugal with a note on Time.  Continental Portugal is in the Western European Time (WET) Zone, usually abbreviated as UTC + 00:00.  (Note for you trivia fans like us: UTC stands for Universal Time Coordinated and is the same as GMT or Greenwich Mean Time.)  A reminder to our son in Denver, Colorado: This means we’re seven hours ahead.   Portugal observes daylight saving time and uses the 24-hour clock so appointment times are written as 09:00 or 14:30 rather than 9 AM or 2:30 PM.  The date is written in a DAY-MONTH-YEAR format so today’s date is written 17/12/16 rather than 12/17/16.

So, on this day, a gorgeous, mostly sunny, Saturday afternoon with the temperature high of 17 °C on 17 December 2016 in Lagos, Portugal, we say “tchau!”

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Pedestrian only entrance to historical city of Lagos, Portugal

Pedestrian only entrance to historical city of Lagos, Portugal

 

 

 

Part 1- Figuring It Out Along the way – Life in Portugal

lighthouse at Ponta de Piedade in Lagos

Lighthouse at Ponta da Piedade in Lagos

Traveling and expating means that we have to/get to learn new ways to do things. We, however, like to think of it as a fun exercise in “mental stimulation” that AARP recommends to stem the onslaught of dementia.  Each country we visit has a unique twist on how certain things are done and, despite how Urban Dictionary defines different as a “pseudo-polite way of saying something is unpleasantly weird or unacceptable,” we like to think that differences just are.  And in Portugal, our list of “Not the Same As” keeps growing.  Here are some basics.

Language  In Portugal, the official language is Portuguese.  As we’ve looked through various books and online teaching classes we’ve learned that there are two variants:  Brazilian Portuguese and the correct choice, European Portuguese.  Here in our part of the country, the Algarve, most people speak English, a fact that has made us very lazy but here’s hoping that (someday) we’ll magically acquire the ability to twist our mouths and tongues into the acceptable shapes and pronounce suitable sentences in the correct tense.  So far we’ve evolved from English to Spanglish to Portuglish.

Money  In the US the dollar ($) is king but in Portugal the euro (€) reigns.  What we like are the bills which are different sizes and colors depending on the denomination and, rather than one euro notes, there are one and two euro coins.  The downside is that your wallet can get very heavy, very fast.  Right now, since the dollar is strong, the conversion rate is almost at parity with a euro approximately equal to $1.06 dollar.  This means, with nineteen countries in Europe using the euro, travel is a pretty good deal right now.Euros. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Plugs, sockets and adapters Like all of continental Europe, Portugal uses the Europlug, a two round pin plug for 220 – 240 voltage that fits into a recessed socket.  Since most of our electronics are from the US, we have a variety of adapters that we’ve picked up here and there and, because our wall sockets are never quite enough or conveniently placed, we use extension cords.  With our adapters, and especially with the surge protector on top, it makes for an inelegant and precarious tower.    Inelegant extension cord, adapter and surge protector. Photo by No Particular Place To GoMeasurements  Growing up, we both remember hearing our teachers say that the United States was going to change over to the Metric System “any year now.”  Decades later, that still hasn’t happened but we’re getting pretty darn familiar with the concept.  Our weather forecast and oven setting are in Celsius versus Fahrenheit, our mileage is in kilometers versus miles, our drinks are in liters and our weight is in kilograms (so getting on that scale isn’t quite the shock it could be).

Our home  Forgive us for a sweeping generalization, but it seems that in Portugal and the parts of Europe that we’ve seen, everything is smaller, including the houses and apartments. The refrigerators are narrow and it’s common to have the refrigerated section on top and the freezer below.  Washing machines are half the size of their American counterparts. There are no garbage disposals – or none that we’ve encountered.  Dishwashers are rarely installed in older homes but are more common in newer, higher-end apartments or refurbished homes.  And clothes dryers are even rarer – maybe because they’re expensive or because utility costs are high.  We have a fold-up rack for drying our clothes, a few lines on our rooftop terrace and a good supply of clothes pins . And speaking of clothing care, ironing boards and irons appear to be in every hotel room and rental.  In the stores, there’s a whole offering to the mighty iron. Instead of central heating, homes have heaters of many varieties and various efficiencies in selected rooms and doors to close off the warm areas from the cold. On-demand hot water heaters are the norm as opposed to up-right tank water heaters.  Upright vacuums are rare and much more expensive than the canister types and we have yet to see a wall-to-wall carpet.  It’s more common than not to see bidets in the bathrooms and let us tell you, we’re getting spoiled with our heated towel racks too. (Okay, heated towel racks probably aren’t common but it hasn’t taken long for us to get used to them.)  And the beds … all we can say is, “Where are the box springs and pillow-top mattresses?”  Beds are low, usually a mattress on a platform, which might be good for the back but less-so for the soul.

Cars  Cars are smaller too.  Perhaps so they can wend their way through cobblestone roads designed for a donkey and cart without knocking off the side mirrors? (Of course, there’s no need to ask how we know that those side mirrors pop right back on when you do that, right?)  And another thing. There’s a whole generation or two in the US who have no idea how to drive a car with a manual transmission but here’s a heads-up – get some practice. We’re not quite sure why but it costs more to rent or buy a vehicle with an automatic transmission – or it would if you could find one.  Lucky for us, we hail from the generation that needed those shifting skills occasionally.  But, speaking of skills, we’ve discovered that parallel parking is something we could both use a good refresher course on.

Which bring us to – Gasoline.  Portugal has both the self-serve stations and attendants who’ll help you feed the hungry beast or pick you up after you faint at the price.  Because, in Portugal, gas prices are a whopping €5.60/4 liters which is roughly a gallon. And with OPEC back in the gas boycott business, prices may escalate soon. community garbage cans. Photo by no Particular Place To Go

Garbage  Yes, we have recycling!  Instead of a trash and recycling bin for every home however, the garbage cans are grouped together every few blocks for common use.  It’s a sort-as-you-go system and the bins are clearly marked with the refuse that goes in them.  They sit on a concrete pad that is cleverly lifted so that the containers below can be emptied.  Our bins are three blocks away which gives us a good reason to take a stroll every day

Garbage seems like a good place to end the first part of our “Not the Same As” list.  Next post we’ll continue and talk more about our daily life in Lagos, Portugal, including driving, shopping and entertainment (some say they’re the same thing 🙂 ) and small courtesies.  To quote a couple of lines from singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, “It’s those changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same…”  Here’s to the differences!Tiled house, Ferragudo, Portugal. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Emigrating, Immigrating and Celebrating Our First Year in Portugal

Countryside in Central Algarve, Portugal

Countryside in Central Algarve, Portugal

We don’t usually think of ourselves as trend-setters.  We left the US in 2012 with the plan to travel slowly and see where the road took us.  We’d concluded the year before, in 2011, that the only way early retirement would be possible for us was to look at moving to another country where the cost of living was cheaper and the health care more affordable.  We weren’t making any political statements as we traveled slowly from Mexico to Central and then South America with a couple of island nations thrown in for good measure.  And how we ended up in Portugal wasn’t because we were disaffected with the US.   However, judging from the dramatic increase in Americans inquiring as to how to move to other countries like Canada, (so many that the immigration website repeatedly crashed the night of the election of Donald Trump as the future President) we may well be ahead of a rising number of US expatriates seeking new lives elsewhere.

Along the cliffs between Lagos and Luz.

Along the cliffs between Lagos and Luz.

Coincidentally, the increased interest in moving abroad has occurred on our first anniversary as Portuguese residents, living quite happily in the Algarve area of Portugal.  It’s been awhile since we’ve talked about our lives in the small city of Lagos, what we’ve learned as we’ve coped with the cultural differences and figured out how, where and when to get things done.

One of the most important things we did, after consulting our lawyer and giving our landlord the required 60-days’ notice, was to move.  Turns out there’s a H-U-U-U-G-E difference in living out of a suitcase for three years and viewing each home as temporary versus renting a place with the plan to stay for a year or longer.  Our small apartment at the Lagos Marina was iffy from the start and, over the five months we lived there, doable slowly changed to irritation, changed to the old movie line from Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Heaters were replaced and light fixtures repaired but we were still left with broken down, uncomfortable and stained furniture, the sound of late-night partygoers holding loud conversations outside our windows and the fact that we had about a foot of counterspace to prepare meals in our “efficiency” kitchen.  And once we rented and later bought a car, the walkable location and proximity to the grocery store, city center, bus and train stations became much less important.

View from our balcony

View from our balcony

Finding a rental in Portugal.  Unlike the US where rental companies and realtors share multi-listing services, it takes a little more effort and diligence to find a rental here.  It’s not that there aren’t property managers, rentals or sellers out there – it’s just that their listings are exclusive.  A renter or buyer goes from one representative to another and views different properties with different agents until they find what they want.  Another wrinkle in the Algarve and especially in Lagos, is finding a long-term rental versus a short-term rental (called a “holiday let” here) because this is a popular tourist area.  The rents double and triple in June, July and August and many owners have a good income as well as the option of using their property as a vacation home.  We’d made friends with one realtor during our time in Lagos and a new friend recommended another property manager so, in a classic case of the right time-right place circumstances and in the space of a week, we had two great places to choose between.  One was a 2-story, 3-bedroom, 2-bath townhouse/condo for €900 in the nearby town of Luz and the second choice was a very modern second floor apartment, 2-beds, 2-baths with a sea view on the outskirts of Lagos for €800.  Both were furnished nicely right down to pans, plates, sheets and towels, had gated access with parking for our car and lovely pools.  We opted for the second apartment with its granite countertops and dishwasher (only €50 more per month than our original rental) and, giddy with the feeling that we had a most excellent abode, forked over without any hesitation our first and last months’ rent.  We’d moved to Portugal with three medium-sized suitcases, two carry-ons and two small backpacks.  This time it took two car trips to schlepp our stuff, mostly kitchen items, a bulky printer-scanner, pillows and off-season clothing, Beverly Hillbillies style.

What we learned.  We should have rented a place month-to-month (Air BnB has some great choices) for the first one to three months while we looked for a good rental that better suited our taste and budget.  It takes a bit of work to wriggle out of a long term lease.

Other things to consider:

*If you’re thinking about the Algarve, start your search during the shoulder or off-seasons, September through May.  You’ll save money and there will be more choices available.  Keep in mind that living along the coast will be more expensive as is living in a popular tourist town like Lagos.

*Rent a car by the day, week or month (the rates go down during low season) even if your plan is to be auto-free and pedestrian once you settle in.  This will give you a chance, in your quest to find the right place, to explore the small villages scattered along the coast and inland which all have unique personalities and characteristics.

*Don’t buy a property right away if that’s what your long term plan is. There’s a lot to choose from and no reason to rush. And, if we haven’t made it clear by now, our plan is to keep renting for the foreseeable future. We’ve been there – done that as far as owning property and we much prefer to keep our options open.  In fact, we really can’t see too many reasons to buy property in a foreign country since the rents are so reasonable.

Coastline near our apartment

Coastline near our apartment

Changing your address.  Since we’d traveled for several years we’d gotten out of the habit of a having either a phone (when you’re new in town who are you going to call?) and mailbox.  The ease of doing everything online and staying in touch by email is a no-brainer.

*However, now we had a phone and internet/cable contract so we walked over to our service provider, MEO, to advise them that we were changing addresses and needed to have the cable moved to our new apartment. The new installation cost a whopping €100.

Consider: In a foreign country, we always try to do things face-to-face to make sure we understand and are understood!

Consider: If you’re going to rent short term, find a place that has wi-fi and cable TV (almost every apartment but the one we rented!) to avoid a package contract.  Our new apartment had public Wi-Fi and cable so now our services are duplicated. On the upside, our total bill is only €54/month and our internet is private.  Still, if you only have a phone contract, it’s much easier to update the address and pay the bill as an auto deduction from your bank.

*We took photos of the water, electricity and gas meters of our old apartment on the day we moved out to give to our former landlord to change the utilities back to his name.  The whole process of changing the utilities took a lot of patience and ended up with us feeling frustrated as well as feeling like we’d (most probably) been ripped off.

Lesson Learned.  Our new property managers gave us the option to keep the utilities in the owner’s name and we pay the bills online as we receive them which is much easier and more straightforward.

ruins near Porto de Mos, Lagos

ruins near Porto de Mos, Lagos

As foreign residents, the most important people to tell about an address change is the SEF, Service de Estrangeiros e Frontiers aka the Foreigners and Borders Service –  in short, the immigration authorities.   We stopped by the nearest SEF office in the city of Portimao where we showed them our new lease and address, forked over €40 each and had new photos (hurray, the new photos make us look less like fugitives but one of us is lacking a chin!) and fingerprints taken since SEF would issue a new resident card with our updated information.

Another lesson learned.  Make sure your address is complete.  While our address was correct the original information we’d been given lacked our apartment number which meant the postman couldn’t deliver it.  We waited and waited for our new resident cards to come, checked at the post office where they shrugged their shoulders in a polite but unhelpful way and finally went back to the SEF office to find out the cards had been returned.  We picked them up and, next time, will make sure our new cards have the apartment number on them when we renew our resident visas.

Car Taxes and Road Inspections.  We’d bought our spiffy little car, a used, low-mileage, 2012 Skoda, from a reputable dealer for €7500.  In Portugal, the license plates come with the car and a road tax is paid annually at the Finanças office.  Our cost was about €120.  Once a car reaches the grand old age of four, it also needs to be inspected either annually or biannually depending on its age. Using a hand-drawn map, we headed out of Lagos toward the town of Sagres for a few kilometers, past the campground, around a few roundabouts until we saw a furniture store and, next to it, our target, the Inspecção Automóvel.  We paid the inspection fee of €33 and watched as our baby was poked and prodded, the brakes stomped on repeatedly until we thought we’d have to buy new tires and then shaken, over and over which had us thinking, “This can’t be good.” And it wasn’t … We were given a temporary pass, told to have our shocks replaced and headlights adjusted (€300) and instructed by the unsmiling technician to return within the 30-day grace period. A final re-inspection fee of €8 (and a smile at last) confirmed our car’s continued road worthiness for another two years.car inspection

Portuguese Driver’s License. We haven’t quite figured out what to do here. As residents, we’re supposed to have a Portuguese driver’s license but we understand that we have to exchange our US licenses.  In the US, a license is necessary for many day-to-day transactions. Since we travel to the US and also drive, we don’t want to surrender our licenses.  We’ve talked to several Brits who have lived here for years and have yet to find anyone who has exchanged their licenses.  So, for now, this issue is unresolved.

Lastly, and thanks to our lawyer, we recently received our registration as Non-Habitual Residents (NHR) which exempts our foreign income (like social security) from being taxed twice, once by the US and again by Portugal, for ten years.  We’ve included a link here which will explain this difficult concept much better than us since our understanding is, “WTH?” at best!  Taxes for Non-Habitual Residents

Looking back at this lengthy tome we’ve written has us thinking “We should have done this months ago” in more manageable posts!  For those of you with questions about becoming a resident in Portugal, hopefully this provides more information and didn’t induce too many yawns.  For those of you happy where you are, we hope we’ve impressed you with our dogged determination to master our lives in a foreign country.  Every day we’re reminded in many small ways that, “We ain’t in Kansas anymore.” Things are done differently here in Portugal but the extra effort is definitely worth it.

A cairn along the cliff path near Lagos

A cairn along the cliff path near Lagos

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Next Post:  Continuing with the “We ain’t in Kansas anymore” theme, we’ll talk about some of the things, for better or not, that are different here in Portugal.

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Know Much About Art But We Know What We Like: The Grounds For Sculpture

Until some family members moved to “The Garden State” a few years ago, we’d never had a reason to visit New Jersey, a state we knew best as the setting for a couple of our favorite series, “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire.”  Tough and gritty shows that were entertaining but a long way from the peaceful, idyllic image that “Garden State” should evoke.  Wasn’t it the place where: New York City dumped its garbage, a skyline of industrial towers and chimneys belched fumes into the atmosphere, and the trashy reality show “Real Housewives of New Jersey” was filmed?  But we’ve had to change our uninformed opinion of the state as each time we visit, we get a chance to drive through some of New Jersey’s cities. We’ve seen scenery that lives up to its license plate motto with beautiful gardens and parks, rivers, forests, hills and mountains. Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, New Jersey. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

One of our favorite places during our visit to the state this time can be found at #80 Sculptors Way, Hamilton Township, New Jersey.  In fact, right at the beginning of the lane leading into the Grounds for Sculpture, we were welcomed warmly by an enthusiastic, sign-waving group that gave us an inkling that we might not be visiting any old, staid and contemplative indoor/outdoor museum.  We might actually have fun!

An enormous "au naturel" beauty (and her hissing cat) overlooks the parking lot.

An enormous “au naturel” beauty (and her hissing cat) overlooks the parking lot.

The 42-acre park sits on the site of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds and opened to the public in 1992.  It’s the brainchild of J. Seward Johnson, Jr., one of the heirs of the immense Johnson & Johnson medical products fortune.  Johnson is a philanthropist and a painter-turned-sculptor whose bronze figures can be found in many American cities as well as throughout the world.  The Grounds for Sculpture brings together many of his works as well as showcases compositions by other renowned American and international artists in an evolving collection of over 270 contemporary large-scale and life-size statues.Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Twonship, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go


Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go.A walk through the grounds is an interactive experience with Mr. Johnson’s sculptures showing “ordinary people doing ordinary things.”  We strolled around and through outdoor rooms separated by tall hedges and treed tunnels, enjoying the lush landscaping and variety of plants, flowers and trees as well as approaching each new area with a sense of anticipation for the next surprise – the next tableau.  At one point during our walk we heard a woman singing and the sound of water running.  Rounding the corner of the outdoor room and much to our amusement, we spied commonplace pieces of clothing hanging from pegs and a woman showering.

"Employee Shower" by Carole Feuerman

“Employee Shower” by Carole Feuerman

Interspersed throughout the park were familiar scenes straight out of well-known paintings from the Impressionist period.

Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, NJ No Particular Place To Go

 

Grounds for Sculpture- Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Grounds for Sculpture - Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

But, we don’t want to forget the additional six indoor galleries with exhibitions like the painted figure inspired by Vermeer’s “Girl with the pearl earring.”

Grounds for Sculpture-Hamilton Township, NJ - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

And an unexpected iconic scene that made us smile!

A life-size Marilyn in an iconic scene from the movie , "The Seven Year Itch."

A life-size Marilyn from the movie, “The Seven Year Itch.”

Perhaps the only sobering moment was at the beginning of our visit when we came upon Seward Johnson’s “Double Check,” a life-size bronze figure of a businessman, seated on a bench, reviewing a contract.   Located near the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, it was the only piece of art that survived intact.Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, NJ photo by No Particular Place To Go

A sign nearby explains the exhibit.

“Rescue workers in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 tragedy got their only smile of the day when a “victim” lifted from the rubble turned out to be a bronze sculpture by artist Seward Johnson. “Double Check” was set up among the wreckage, becoming a makeshift memorial, as flowers and heartbreaking remembrances soon covered the piece.

Deeply moved, Johnson reverently collected all the messages of love and pain, cast them in bronze, and welded them to the piece exactly as he had found them one month after the tragedy.  Johnson’s reinvented work, “Makeshift Memorial” was ceremoniously installed on New Jersey’s Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, which overlooks lower Manhattan and the former site of the World Trade Center.”

Grounds for Sculpture-Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Art can make you appreciate the world around you, make you think and hopefully, make you look at the world a little differently. (We also like art that makes us laugh occasionally but that’s just us.) We don’t know much about art but we know what we like.  And our visit to J. Seward Johnson’s Grounds for Sculptures definitely got our thumbs up!

Inspired by Grant Woods "American Gothic."

Inspired by Grant Woods “American Gothic.”

Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, all works are by J. Seward Johnson

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash  Grounds for Sculpture

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles or What We Did On Our Vacation

We didn’t plan to neglect writing our blog posts while we traveled from Portugal to the US but, as master procrastinators who can find that one excuse is as good as another, that’s exactly what we did.  Any blogger will tell you that writing a post takes time and a fair amount of discipline and we found both of those to be in short supply once we landed in the US.  In fact, rather than the slow travel we both have found we enjoy so much, we behaved exactly like tourists.  We tried to cram as much sightseeing and visits with friends and family as we could into the roughly six weeks we were back in our home country.  The map below will show you the ocean crossed and the ground we covered.August-September 2016

We kept a calendar and a folder to organize our bus tickets to and from Lagos to Lisbon, our airline and Amtrak reservations, the AirBnB house that we rented to share with family members during a family reunion and an upscale hotel on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  We collected numerous maps and brochures from tours of the Gettysburg and Vicksburg Battlefields, a walk around the monuments of the National Mall in DC, a sculpture Garden in New Jersey, an aquarium in Atlanta, a ride on a steamboat up the Mississippi River, multiple museums in several cities and tours of antebellum houses in Natchez, Mississippi.  We even took a day trip south of the border to feast on some authentic Mexican cooking.  17 nights were spent in guest bedrooms, 16 nights in hotels, 7 nights at an AirBnB rental and 2 nights on Amtrak trains.  We packed and unpacked our suitcases 15 times.  An estimate of the miles we traveled by air was a whopping 6,372 and we logged in somewhere around 4,943 miles by land.  But who’s counting? 🙂 Just adding it all up made us exhale a big “Whew!”

Most importantly we renewed ties with friends and family.  And we kept learning.  It’s never too late to learn more about the War of 1812 or the US Civil War, how and why Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and what a beignet and the “Best fried chicken in the South” tastes like.  We also delved into the Civil Rights Movement and reminded ourselves why it still matters today.

We returned home a week ago to Lagos, Portugal with heavier suitcases, a great sigh of relief and a promise to ourselves that next year family and friends will have to cross the Atlantic to see us. We’ve unpacked the suitcases for awhile (can we help it that we’re already thinking of future journeys?), washed the mountain of laundry that tumbled from our bags and are in the process of making the rounds to say hello to our new friends.  We have several hundred photos to edit and lots of stories to tell about life here and there.  And it’s way past time to resume a healthier diet and engage in some much-needed exercise!

Sure writing takes time but we’ve missed the fun of rehashing and thinking back on where we’ve been, what we’ve seen and learned as well as the chance to share our experiences.  We’ve missed the give and take of online friends, comments and replies, the support of the blogging community and the chance to “meet” more of the traveling community – those who travel near and far as well as those who travel by armchair or in their dreams.  We’re looking forward to telling some tales, sharing some places and stringing our words together in a way that’s, hopefully, both entertaining as well as interesting. Thanks for hanging in there with us.

And in case we haven’t emphasized this point enough: It’s good to be home!

Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

cobblestone walkway along marina, Lagos, Portugal

Cobblestone walkway along marina, Lagos, Portugal

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