Big Ideas and Little Differences
One of the things I love about exploring another country is observing and experiencing the little differences. In Portugal, it might be how you weigh and tag your produce in the grocery store before putting it in your cart. Or how you have to take a numbered ticket for almost every queue you’ll stand in. Or how everyone is basically polite, unless there’s no number for a queue, then they can get a little pushy. No wonder they instituted the ticket system!
We also like how the home construction is so cleverly simple: most homes are made of concrete covered by the famous orange tile roofs. They’ll be standing 200 years from now. Inside, at least in our house, the rooms are designed so all the water pipes are grouped in one small area. The kitchen backs up to the bathrooms and the washer is in the kitchen (which is very common here) and the septic tank is right outside on the other side of the wall, so all the pipes are positioned within just a few square meters. There is really no need for a home inspection industry here because most of them are only a concrete shell with electricity and water added, and those lines are simple, easy to find and deal with. Keepin’ it simple. We like it!
Perhaps due to this sturdy construction style, it’s not hard to find abandoned houses in both the city and country. Unless someone tears them down, they’ll just sit there forever. Many of those derelict buildings have For Sale signs on them; I suppose someone can just come in and rebuild the walls on a foundation built during the time of Christ, and be good to go in short order.
We also like the way they accommodate special parking needs. The US of course has handicapped parking spots near most entrances. But the Portuguese take it a step further. You can find signs that essentially say, “hey, if you’re old, or pregnant, or have a bunch of little kids you’d prefer not to see splatted on someone’s bumper, you can park closer too.” I have nothing against handicapped-only spaces, but the vast majority of the time in the US they sit empty. Adding these spots for people who are also stressed out in a parking lot is not only a great idea, it’s compassionate. I also love the Portuguese for not needing additional messaging detailing the fines in order to discourage lazy scofflaws from using those spots. As far as I can tell, the Portuguese generally respect these kinds of signs. Of course, they’ll otherwise park just about anywhere they can squeeze a car into, but that’s only because space is at such a premium.
I’ve also taken a liking to a queuing system some large grocery stores have adopted. Instead of walking up to columns of checkout counters frantically trying to figure out which one is going fastest, and then fuming when it turns out the one next to you went twice as fast, everyone gets into one longer line and then an electronic board announces the number of the next available check-out counter. I’m not sure it saves a ton of time (unless you have a knack for always picking the wrong line), but it certainly reduces the aggravation.
The country has also adopted a very clever and simple way to pay bills. Since computers aren’t as ubiquitous as the US, the expectation that everyone can just pay the bill online isn’t reasonable. Instead, when you receive a bill, they come with an “entity” number plus a nine-digit reference number. You can then go to any ATM (aka “multibanco”), which are everywhere, and plug those two numbers into the appropriate areas, along with the amount, and voila! the bill is paid. You can do the same with your online bank account as well of course. I know there are just-as-simple ways to pay bills online in the states, but every bank there does it a little different and every merchant extracts payments differently as well, and you pretty much have to own a computer to use them. Here, everyone plays by the same rules, and even if you don’t have a computer or smart phone, you can pay your bills quickly and easily.
Now, I know any conversation about guns is always controversial, but at least consider the examples provided when a country <gasp!> restricts gun ownership. I know owning guns is a big thing for some people in the US, and indeed, I certainly understand once you go down that road, you start feeling like you need a gun just because maybe everyone else –especially the bad guys– probably has one already. But if virtually no one has them, it really takes a lot of the angst out of walking alone anywhere, safe in the knowledge that you’re probably never going to get shot. Portugal is one of the safest countries in the world: the lack of guns surely deserves a lot of the credit. Sure, maybe the military can take over the country a lot easier here than in the US, but there are a lot of people, including myself and probably almost every Portuguese, who gladly accept that trade-off. Besides, the chances of the military trying to take over the US only to be beaten back by a bunch of folks with handguns and shotguns is about the same as someone capturing Trump kissing Obama on video. Sure, it could happen, but do you really want to invest money into a filter that would prevent your seeing that?
I’m sure at least partly due to the lack of guns, Portugal was recently ranked as the third most peaceful country in the world, while the US came in at 114th. So you gotta ask yourself, is America’s gun culture really working?
I also like the metric system. Back in the seventies, all the talk was about how the US was moving to the metric system. I don’t know who or what stood in the way of that, but if it was a who, he should be shackled and have the number 12 tattooed on his forehead. I’m just saying ten is a lot easier to divide and multiply than twelve, and by the way, tell me how many ounces are in a cup and how many cups are in a pint and how many pints are in a quart and quarts are in a gallon, and even if you know all of that, it makes sense how?
That said, Carolyn is slower to embrace said metric system. She still looks lovingly at her old American tape measure (and I think secretly measures with it behind my back). I’ll admit, when you’re new to the system, it takes time to mentally and automatically comprehend what 40cm looks like. She can immediately picture what 36 inches, which is three feet, which is one yard, looks like (although what’s the word for three yards? Ha! Tell me that you metric haters!*). And there’s comfort in that. But I’m confident that once the adjustment is complete, the better system will be appreciated. Just like when you switch from Windows to Mac. Ha!
I’ve already commented aplenty about universal health care being da bomb here, so suffice it to say that it’s a big idea that trumps the American system by multitudinous kilometers, both from the standpoint of international comparative statistics and our own personal experience.
Not everything is perfect here by any means. As long as human beings are involved, paradise will only be present in our fantasies. But we appreciate the big ideas and little differences that make living here the next best thing.
* Three yards.