First world problems in a first world country
I am amazed by the people who move to another country (or even another state in the US) and then spend their time complaining that “That’s not the way we do it back home!” No kidding. You ain’t in Kansas anymore, Scooter.
I fully expected things to be different when I moved to Portugal so, while I sometimes miss the following conveniences, I have adjusted. It’s not hard. But if you need everything the way it was “back home” you’re not going to be happy. So here are a few things you should expect not to have or at least have a hard time finding.
Very few people in Portugal have clothes dryers. It’s one of the top questions asked in the expat groups: “Why can’t I find an apartment with a dryer?” Just about every apartment comes with a front loading washer and it’s almost always in the kitchen. But dryers are rare. Electricity is relatively expensive here. (I mean, not Texas in an ice storm expensive, but the rates are a little high compared to some places.) Every house has a clothes rack and, if you’re lucky, there may even be a clothes line.
It takes about five minutes to hang up a load of laundry. It probably takes less than a minute to switch a load from the washer to the dryer and turn on the machine. So laundry for me takes an extra fifteen minutes a week. If that.
There are two inconveniences as a result of that. The first is if I am drying my sheets or something heavy the drying time is obviously longer. I try to wait for a sunny and/or windy day. If it is cold and I have my space heater on, I move the clothes rack closer to it. The second is that I have three laundry days a week instead of one or two so I need to plan ahead just a bit. I suppose I could get a second rack and do two loads in a day, but it’s really not necessary. However, I don’t just start a load of laundry at 7:00 pm. Laundry gets done in the mornings so I get maximum drying time. If you have a family of four or more, you will miss having a dryer. You can buy one.
I am not a big ice person—for the most part I don’t use it. In fact, in the US I would occasionally dump out the big bucket of ice that was sitting in the freezer or I’d lift the little arm because I didn’t need to make any more cubes. I’d occasionally use a few in a mixed drink, but I could go for weeks without using an ice cube. Except…
Smoothies. I am getting back into the habit of making a smoothie a day and they require ice. I have a silicone ice cube tray that makes about 50 of the little buggers but popping them out of their silicone prisons requires some finger strength. Now, I can open jars all day long—I have hand strength. And with the amount of typing I do, you’d think I have finger strength. Pushing those cubes out is a pain in the neck. Or fingers.
Refrigerators are smaller here. American refrigerators are huge in comparison. There’s really no room in the freezer to put an ice maker. I am sure there are people in Portugal with over-sized refrigerators and automated icemakers, but that is definitely not the norm. Most are slightly larger than what the US refers to as apartment size, but not “full size,” never mind oversized.
The freezer section is that much smaller. The tray itself just barely fits into one of the freezer drawers. Getting it in without tilting and spilling water takes a bit of concentration. So, I’m making ice cubes a couple of times a week. Fortunately, I have the recipe memorized so it takes less than two minutes. But I miss the convenience of pushing a button on the freezer door.
Central Heat and Air
Gotta tell you, I miss central heat. I am a Florida girl and when the temps dropped below 65, I was bundled up in sweats. My first week in Portugal there was a cold snap and the Airbnb I was in had one little, tiny, weak space heater. I quickly discovered that it was warmer outside than in. This works great in the summer, not so great in the winter.
When I started looking for a permanent place to live, I knew I needed a place that would get a lot of natural sunlight. My apartment faces south with three sliding glass doors that let in sun all day. There are roll down shutters that I use at night to keep the cold out and the heat in. (They also have the benefits of blocking out light and noise.) The nights get chilly. I bought two space heaters knowing I’d need them. I keep one in the living room and I turn that on at night. It throws off enough heat to keep me comfortable and I have taken to turning it off because I get too warm. The second space heater was going to be for the bedroom, but my duvet is so warm that I don’t need it.
Here’s the weird thing: I can go walking in 55 degree temperatures in a t-shirt and shorts here. I don’t know if humidity is a factor or the sun is doing a better job here or what, but in Florida I wouldn’t even go out if I didn’t have to if the temperature was below 60. I worried that I would be cold and miserable here (especially during that first week). For some reason, I’m not. I don’t think “my blood has thickened” or I’ve adapted. It’s just a different kind of cold.
As for central air conditioning, it’s really not necessary. I live in the warmest area of the country. I’m in The Algarve, directly on the water. Most days I open the sliding doors and get a lovely cross-breeze going. While the days are hot, unlike Florida, the nights usually cool things off. There was a five day stretch last August where the nights stayed warm and then that particular weather pattern broke. It was uncomfortable, but not unbearable. I am planning to go to Scotland for the first two weeks in August this year, more to avoid the big tourist weeks here than to avoid the heat.
Couches here are low. I don’t know if all the couches are low or just the ones they put into Airbnbs and furnished apartments. As a teenager, I often preferred to sit on the floor. While I can still sit on the floor, getting back up again is a dicey proposition. My senior citizen ass doesn’t have the lift it used to, in more ways than one.
The sofa in my furnished apartment is attractive, modern, and low to the ground. It is fairly comfortable, so no complaints there. But an extra six inches of height would make getting off the couch that much easier.
Many of the AirBnbs I have stayed in have leather couches with no arms and of course, are low slung. I am not a fan of leather furniture—you stick to it in the summer and it’s cold in the winter. It is easy to clean and I’m sure that’s half the reason landlords choose it.
If you are good with low slung furniture or young and springy, this isn’t a problem. For me, it’s not a huge deal but I’m still fairly mobile. People with mobility issues will need to take it into consideration. If you’re furnishing your own place, you get to choose the couch of your dreams. But you might need to visit a number of stores before you find it.
I am not a cook. A successful meal to me is one that does not end in food poisoning. Okay, I’m not quite that bad, but cooking holds no interest for me. (Baking is a different matter.) So, I miss being able to pick up a rotisserie chicken or prepped mac salad or fresh quiche. I miss grabbing a sub sandwich.
Can you get prepped foods here? Yes, some. Most of the stores carry precooked chicken pieces that taste great. I know the bakeries sometimes have little meat or fish pies or croquettes. I have seen prepped potatoes, soups, and bagged salad products at the bigger grocery stores in town.
The problem is I’m not just a picky eater, I’m a suspicious eater. If I’m not sure what’s in something, I won’t touch it. I’d rather go hungry than run the risk of biting into a food that tastes icky. (Yes, I know I sound like a three year old. I know what I like and don’t like. And if that doesn’t illustrate the pleasure/pain principle of marketing, I don’t know what does.) For a while I was trying out something new every time I went to the store. Now that I know my way around, I go in and grab what I need. I will try to do better. Don’t expect miracles.
Just like in the States, some of the grocery stores do more than others. I lived in Florida for years. Frankly, going to a grocery store in the suburbs of Boston was like visiting Disney World. I couldn’t believe the variety of prepped foods. Real meals, not just random wings and potato wedges. You would never have to cook if you lived there. Or, I wouldn’t at least.
I live in a small village outside a small city. I know in the bigger cities such as Lisbon, Porto, even Faro, there are bigger grocery stores with a larger selection. There are specialty stores if you are missing a favorite food from your original country. Last week I was in another town with an Auchon market. This particular one is kind of like a Target store. (Some stores come in small, medium, and large.) I had a grand time wandering the aisles looking for things I couldn’t get at my local stores. I found my favorite cookies and boxed mac n cheese. (Not Kraft, but hey, I’ll take it.)
Convenience foods save me time with a chore I don’t enjoy. Since I live alone, I can easily cook up a batch of whatever and freeze some. I am just as likely to eat chicken and rice four nights in a row so I don’t have to cook. Normal people prefer more variety. I get that. You’re going to miss those prepped foods.
However, if you are a foodie, you are going to love, love, love the quality of the food here and the abundance of fresh ingredients. Even with my limited cooking abilities I can tell the food tastes better here. There are farmers’ markets in just about every town at least once a week. The produce still has some dirt on it. Even in the big grocery stores, the produce hasn’t been sprayed with sanitizing chemicals, frozen, and then defrosted when it goes on the shelf. Even the M&Ms taste better.
You’ll Adjust–Or Not
Your needs may well be different. Or you just may enjoy a certain lifestyle and have the money to recreate that in a new place. That’s cool. I live a pretty simple life. As long as I have chocolate in the house, I know I can be relatively happy.
The lack of these things won’t break me. I mean really, how tough is it to fill up an ice cube tray a couple of times a week? It’s just that it was so much easier and faster to go to the freezer and press a button for what I needed.
The same goes for the clothes dryer or lifting my butt off the couch. It’s no longer weird to hang out my clothes. In fact, clothes feel and smell better when you hang them out, not to mention they last longer because they’re not subjected to the high heat of a dryer. Having fewer prepared foods available means that even I am forced to eat healthier (something my mother never managed).
Are there conveniences I miss? Sure. I am learning that they are definitely not necessities. A few things take a little longer. That’s okay because the pace of life is slower here. You don’t have to be frantically rushing from thing to thing or claiming that you’re so busy you don’t have time to think. The US is all about doing more things faster. You would think that people would then have time to relax. But no, because there’s always more things to do even faster.
Life is short. It doesn’t have to be fast. More than that, you don’t have to buy into the craziness that comes with keeping up an impossible pace. Here, there are little things that force you to slow down. Some might call them inconveniences. I’m thinking they’re little highway signs to encourage me to enjoy the scenic vistas.