It’s late November, and the grass is carpeted in red, yellow and orange. The taste of wood smoke fills the air, and American’s everywhere are salivating in anticipation of their favorite foods. Thanksgiving is, of course supposed to be more than just an excuse for gluttony. It is meant to be a time of reflection on that which we are most grateful. And while we share the typical gratitude for family, friends and health, our recent relocation to Braga, Portugal provided a new twist on things for which we wish to give thanks.
In the States, if you need power, you just plug into the closest outlet and go about your business. Use a particularly large amount in a month, and you’ll see it in your bill, you aren’t going to add up your amps, watts and volts as you go. That’s not exactly the case in Portugal. Here, you must choose a plan.
I have a hard enough time deciding on my cell phone plan. Does anyone really know how many minutes or gigabytes they require in a given month? So when I sat across from the local power company representative to establish service at our apartment and she asked me how much power I would need, I smirked, “I will use only what I require.” This would have been an expensive option. Fortunately I had a Portuguese friend with me to explain.
In Portugal you not only pay for the power that you use, you also pay for availability to that much power. If you want unlimited power you will pay a fee just to have access to much power. This means that before you draw a single amp, you will pay more than a person who requires only minimal power. Your usage costs will be similar, but because you want the ability to use more, you will pay a monthly premium.
Naturally I only wanted to pay for that which I would use, but how could I possible know such a number? And wouldn’t it fluctuate? And what would happen if I exceeded this amount? They wouldn’t turn off the power…would they? Luckily a British expat was seated beside me.
“Don’t worry,” she assured me. “Just sign up for the minimum. If you use more, they just bill you more. No worries. They won’t turn off the power.”
This made me feel better until she added, “And if it does go out, it’s only for a few seconds.”
OK, I thought. This coming from a fellow expat. I’ll go with it. I opted for the minimum. That was fine for a while. Keep in mind that we really didn’t have much yet. We had no furniture, a barely functioning kitchen, and no heat. Our electrical usage consisted of LED light bulbs dangling from the ceiling by the wires, the infamous water heater (see previous post) and the dorm room refrigerator. But after three weeks of cold breakfasts and dining out, we wanted a hot dinner in our own apartment.
With our household goods still in transit we had no cooking utensils. Even if we had, the cook-top only worked on bottled gas (like an outdoor grill). That left us with an oven. It was pretty nasty, but it worked. From an electrical usage perspective, I figured it was “safe” to use. It took a while to figure out how the thing worked, but before long, it was heating. Of course, I wasn’t actually cooking anything. I only wanted to keep some roasted chicken warm until Thene got home, and it did a fine job. Unfortunately, this only emboldened me.
A few days later, I returned from the grocery store with frozen dinners. While waiting for the oven to heat up, I retired to the living room. Suddenly, the lights went out leaving me in total darkness except for the glow from my laptop. Grabbing a flashlight, I headed for the front door and stepped into the common hallway just outside of my apartment. The hallway lights came on. Looking back at my apartment, the lights were still off. Not knowing what else to do, I knocked on my neighbor’s door. A sweet lady in her late 60’s answered. We’d exchanged “Bom dia’s,” but had never had an actual conversation. As soon as she opened her door, my reason for knocking was answered. Her lights were on. In sheepish sign language, I pointed and gestured to explain my intrusion. She understood and asked what I assumed were polite inquires like, “Have you called the electric company?” but I couldn’t understand her. My Portuguese just isn’t that good yet. I thanked her and returned to my darkness.
I checked my electrical panel. All of the breakers were in the “on” position, so the reason for the outage was something of a mystery until I recalled the conversation at the power company.
“But I’ve barely used anything!” I thought. “Didn’t the Brit tell me they’d come right back on?”
A call to the power company stranded me in a Portuguese call menu which was beyond me. It took another 45 minutes and a call for help from our Brazilian friend before the lights miraculously returned. That’s when Thene returned home after work. With candles. Which now felt unnecessary.
Unfortunately, not knowing the cause of the outage, I repeated the scenario the next night, again heating up a purchased package of frozen meatballs. This time, when the power went out, I knew it would be back on, all by itself, in about half an hour. This time, my angel, Rogerio, called the power company the following day and found out that the oven was too big a draw, and we’d need to increase our power contract to avoid daily outages. Or stop using the oven. We chose the increased power plan.
OK, fine. So we figured out our proper usage. Good to know. Now we don’t need to worry about losing power again, right? Nope! A few days later (and only days before the start of our kitchen renovation) the power dropped again. This time, the problem was the electrical panel itself! It turns out that all of the breakers needed to be replaced! We now have a stockpile of candles.
I used to live in Kansas City, the heart of corn-fed beef. For me, nothing beats a thick, juicy strip steak cooked over an open flame. But even the best piece of meat needs a veggie to make the meal. Grilled mushrooms, red peppers, and squash with extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sea salt. Or perhaps you’re more of purist. Steamed green beans with a dab of butter. Or heck! How about a pile of greens? But for some reason, vegetables (aside from a small salad) are conspicuously absent from most restaurant meals. Unless of course you count potatoes, and I don’t. I’ve always seen them as more of a starch. Where are the vegetables? They do exist. One need only take a trip to the local mercado to find a cornucopia of veggie goodness. Fortunately, we have discovered two vegetarian restaurants in town. Oases in a legume desert.
Perhaps there is an expectation that people get their veggies at home. Perhaps they make a daily pilgrimage to the mercado and create at-home, culinary wonders bursting with an entire alphabet of vitamins. Perhaps everyone relies on a daily dose of the caldo verde soup, where all of the vegetables have been pureed. Of course, until we have a functional kitchen, we can only chew on cold slices of carrot, pepper and celery. But when we do…
I don’t mean spicy. We have that. We found a Mexican restaurant with a habanero sauce that will send you running for a bucket of sour cream. And the sushi places have wasabi. And the Chinese place has chili paste. I mean hot. Blow on it before you can eat it HOT. Like soup. Scald the roof of your mouth HOT. It’s November and the average daily temperature is in the 50’s. Now is the time for hot soup, and yet this, too, seems to be a mystery. Without a microwave oven, I can’t even heat up cold coffee, tea or leftover pizza. I just think that hot food is supposed to be, well, hot! As soon as possible, I’m making a piping hot crockpot of chili with a side of corn bread!
In the last 22 years we have moved 10 times. Oy! In that time, we have down-sized from homes with around 3000 square feet to an apartment with 1/3 of that. This was done for a variety of reasons, but in the end it was preparation for a move to Europe where life just seemed a lot simpler, not to mention…smaller.
In truth, the reduction was quite painless. Even liberating. Like most couples, we had accumulated a fair amount of “stuff” over the years. And we didn’t even have kids! We were forced to weed out the plates we’d not used in years, the left over parts from the vacuum cleaner I threw away four moves ago, and three of the four versions of the same bottle opener. By the time we moved to Portugal, we had concentrated our belongings to only 6 square meters. That’s 35 moving boxes!
Our Braga apartment was actually slightly larger than the one we’d just left in Phoenix at roughly 1,100 square feet. But during our kitchen renovation, we were forced to further consolidate ourselves. We concentrated into only 1/3 of the space for living, including one room that doubled as our living room and make shift kitchen. We’d gone from 3000 square feet, to 1000, to 300!
As much as Thene and I enjoy being in close proximity to each other, we look forward to a bit more elbow room.
Neither of us are “clothes horses”. We even reduced what we had prior to the move. Never-the-less, we couldn’t bring it all on flight and yet we needed to pack enough for many weeks before the bulk of our household arrived. A duffle bag of clothes sounds like a lot. And I suppose it would be if all of those clothes were for the same season. But when you go from Phoenix in August to Braga in November, your functional wardrobe suddenly gets a lot smaller, especially when you need to layer your clothes. Our boxes are expected to arrive around Christmas. It will be a happy time of rediscovery and re-appreciation of the things we already own.
To live a simpler life is the goal of many an expat. Perhaps like Winnie the Pooh, we are all closet Taoists. If a transatlantic move is the crucible that separates us from the slag of our lives, then the process of renovating an apartment and navigating the immigration process in a strange land where you do not speak the language is the tempering furnace. In the end, we will be like the samurai: at peace in a world of simple solitude, and yet tough enough to face any challenge that may come along.