Saturday, August 24, 2019

What I’m Bringing Home From Portugal

We made it home after a long day of travel. Our flight didn’t leave until 1:30 pm so we had a nice, relaxing morning at the apartment, before taking the five minute drive to the airport, returning the rental car, and proceeding to the terminal. We flew from Faro to Lisbon, had a four-hour layover, and then continued to Toronto. We landed at 9:30 pm and made it through Pearson airport in record time, but then got stuck in a massive highway traffic jam, which made the trip twice as long as normal, and it was sometime after midnight when we finally pulled into the driveway. During the trip, we drove about 2300 kilometres (175 km/day) and if the iPhone is to be believed, walked about 100 kilometers (6.5 km/day), so we spent a lot of time on the go. As far as financials, our daily costs of exploring Portugal, including absolutely everything, were about $500/day, which works out to $125/person (excluding flights it was $300/day). For purposes of comparison, our first trip to Asia worked out to $50/person per day. So yes, Europe in the summer is definitely not cheap.

I always like to bring things home from vacation. But I like to bring home ideas instead of stuff, although I did make two purchases this trip - a sardine bookmark and a new hat, both of which I’m extremely pleased with. Whenever we travel, I look for things that are done differently than what we are used to, in the hopes of finding something we can do to improve things at home, or maybe just give me something to bitch about until our next trip. Here’s a few ideas I’m bringing home.

1. Canada is so fixed that it’s broken

The New World gave Europeans a chance to fix a lot of things they didn’t like at home. This spans everything from political systems, to architecture, to city planning, to health systems, to pretty much everything you see around you. Canada’s system (and other Commonwealth countries) is based on the notion of Peace, Order, and Good Government, which inevitably led to the result of “Make Things As Boring As Possible”. We overregulate. We overbuild. We put ridiculous safety measures in place for the tiniest of risks. And yet, is Canada any safer than Portugal? The answer is no, and the statistics back that up. In Portugal, electrical plugs are not grounded and many of the electrical connections to buildings remind me of the third world, yet fewer people are electrocuted. There are very few safety barriers anywhere, even on top of hundred-foot castle walls or ocean breakwaters. Are people falling off and dying? I don’t think so. In 2001 Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs, deciding that it makes more sense to treat drug addiction as a medical problem and not a criminal one. The entire time we were there I did not smell marijuana or see anybody doing drugs or signs of it. Lastly, the traffic system is overwhelmingly handled by roundabouts, while in Canada we use “safer” traffic lights. Portugal has tiny, narrow streets, while Canada are massively wide. All the cars in Portugal are tiny, while we love driving huge vehicles, loaded with safety features. The entire time we were in Portugal, we saw one traffic accident, where somebody drove up onto a roundabout, and the person looked suspiciously like a tourist. During the drive home from the airport back in Canada, we saw three traffic accidents on the highway, and I consistently see car accidents in Brantford or on the highway several times per week. Portugal has extremely loose rules on alcohol – you can buy it anywhere at any time of the day, and drink it anywhere you want, even in the middle of the street if you like. And it’s very cheap – in fact, a bottle of beer ordered in a restaurant is often cheaper than a bottle of water. Does that result in drunk people staggering around everywhere surrounded by shattered beer bottles? Hardly.

What the hell is going on here? I think that when we try to regulate everything, and prevent stupidity, it simply erodes peoples’ sense of personal responsibility, and results in people doing exactly what you don’t want them to do. If you allow people to think for themselves, and not allow them to shirk their personal responsibility, then they will usually do the right thing.

2. Tipping does not result in better service

Nobody tips in Portugal. Except tourists. We saw tourists leaving tips in cafes or restaurants and being chased out by the server because they thought they just forgot some money on the table. Does the lack of tipping result in poor service? No. The service in Portugal was incredible – restaurant staff hustle, are friendly, never seem to get an order wrong, and look happy in their jobs. And many servers are older folks, who have clearly made a career out of restaurant work and are clearly good at what they do and proud of it. In Canada, we leave tips for any sort of service we receive, good or bad. Why do we do that? Is it because service staff are paid a pittance, like they are in the US? No – far from it, in fact the minimum wage in Ontario was recently raised by over 30%. It’s a cultural thing, and irrational tipping results in servers making a great deal of money (much of it untaxed), while kitchen staff do not share equally in the windfall, and service generally suffers for everybody and creates strange incentives. In Portugal, wherever we went, I consistently got the impression that service workers did a great job because they were proud of their work and enjoyed it. Isn’t that nice?

3. The gasoline in Canada is far, far too cheap

The cost of gas in Portugal is approximately twice what we pay in Ontario. It has been this way for many, many years, and the consequences are far ranging. In Portugal, everybody drives small cars, and you usually see more than one person in a car. Small cars mean that you need less space for parking, and it was simply amazing how many cars could be “parallel-packed” into the narrow streets, resulting in less need for parking lots and less land area devoted to streets. Because gas is expensive, public transportation becomes the preferred option, and their transport systems are excellent, allowing you to get from city to city on busses and trains. Renewal energy sources provide around 60% of the country’s power needs, compared to 17% in Canada, and during four days in May of 2016 100% of Portugal’s electricity needs was generated by renewable sources. The “job killing carbon tax” that we hear about in Canada these days is a pile of crap, and high energy prices have benefits far beyond combatting climate change.

4. The Portuguese have a wonderful relationship with food

To be honest, we did not find the food in continental Portugal to be particularly inspiring. They do not really season their food (there is never salt and pepper on the table), resulting in rather bland dishes. They also do not make much use of fresh vegetables, despite being able to grow practically anything there. Typical accompaniments to a meal were French fries, boiled potatoes, or a salad, which was practically identical no matter where we went, and was delivered on a steel tray with a short swath of lettuce, tomatoes, and onions, all unseasoned and dry. The meat dishes were always good, as was the fish, but again, rarely seasoned. But the food is all healthy, hearty, and simple.

Despite my palate and preferences, the Portuguese have an amazing relationship with their food. I read that they spend twice the percentage of disposable income on food compared to the European average. They love their food and are eating practically all the time. A pastry in the morning with coffee. Snacks throughout the day. A long, proper full lunch and dinner, always accompanied by wine. And then another pastry with coffee in the evening. Nobody counts calories, avoids fat, or seems to partake in faddish diets and food trends. Not once did we see mention on a restaurant menu of gluten, low carb options, or allergens. Good luck if you are a vegetarian or, God help you, a vegan trying to eat your way around Portugal.

In Canada, I don’t think anybody can deny that our relationship with food is broken. We don’t allow ourselves to enjoy our food, instead feeling the need to restrict certain nutrients (depending on what the current villain is – sugar at the moment?), supplement with other nutrients (protein powder), completely avoid some (gluten, dairy, meat), and otherwise make life miserable for ourselves. We won’t eat a potato unless we know it was grown organically, within five miles of our house. Our schools don’t allow our kids to take homemade cookies to school and insist that any snacks must come from a package. We refuse to feed seafood, eggs, or nuts to toddlers, ensuring they develop crippling allergies later in life. We eat bagged crap like chips, crackers, candy, and energy drinks throughout the day, then grab a sack of fast food on the way home because we don’t take the time to cook. And drink glasses of green sludge for breakfast. Yuck.

5. More money does not mean more happiness

Portugal has many, many problems, few of which you’re able to notice during a short vacation. Bad government, corruption, unemployment, and low wages are just a few. But one thing they do seem to have is a great sense of community, and a culture of living life outside - in coffee shops, at the beach, in the town square, in parks. Like so many countries we’ve visited, a lower income level does not mean less happiness; usually it’s the opposite. We’ve spent a lot of time in the Portuguese islands of the Azores, where much of Ana’s family lives. Their economic situation there is generally terrible – few jobs, low paying jobs, and few opportunities, which makes day to day survival tough. But this does not get them down, and they seem to have more fun than anybody, and always do it together as a family.

Is it possible to have money, and still be happy? Of course it is. But the relentless pursuit of wealth certainly does not guarantee this, and I think can sometimes make it more difficult.

So for now, goodbye Portugal, and thanks for an incredible adventure!

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