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.
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.
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.
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?
At 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