Why I won’t go back to Beijing

April 22, 2013

The first time I explored China’s exciting capital city, I emailed a friend in Portugal, ” If I were younger I would try to live here.” ” You can still do that ” he replied . That was in 2008 , and I have returned three times since. On my most recent trip last month, I landed in the capital on March 28. This time Beijing took my breath away for all the wrong reasons. The air was so heavily polluted that my Japanese friend insisted that we wear white face masks as we walked through the city. It was her first time in China, and she went with definite misgivings. Culturally and historically the two countries have deep historical divisions. All I talked to on both sides seem to carry hard feelings into the present. But Sakiko did agree to tour Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven as well as visit my favorite market, Ya Show. However, on our third day there, she balked. ” I can’t breathe here” she said. And I had to concede that I couldn’t either. Every morning, our hotel posted weather information before guests walked into the dining room. Surprisingly, they also included pollution levels. And every day they escalated. On our final day in Beijing I asked the young , Chinese restaurant hostess how she felt about the air quality. ” It’s normal, ” she said and smiled. But for us it wasn’t normal at all. Sadly, that might be my last journey to Beijing unless they clean up the air , which many call highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.


Where’s the Crise? ( Crisis?

March 19, 2013


Last Saturday I went to FNAC in CascaiShopping to look at their iPad Mini selection. I know the item’s a splurge and also that they cost considerably less in the USA. However, I am enchanted with Apple products and as I’m about to travel to Asia, I convinced my self that the Mini would be practical, handy and encourage me to write while I’m on the road. I’ve purchased products at FNAC before and always with satisfaction, minus the one Apple representative who works on an erratic schedule and is less than energetic when he is preset. Nevertheless, the other salespeople are helpful and also well informed about Apple items.

“ Are there any downsides to the iPad Mini ,” I asked?

“ Only one,” the salesman said.

I waited for some technical explanation, but then he added, “ We can’t keep them in stock.”

“I thought Portugal was in a  crise , “ I said.

“ I don’t think so,” he answered.




Fora da Servico? I don’t think so!

March 19, 2013

From the signs around town ( see photo), you would think that Portugal’s electronics were faulty, or non-existent. But in fact that’s not at all the case. Last week I renewed my Residence Permit and saw the latest in technology, fingerprinting, scanning and data transfer. Then why do we see signs all around town that say, “ Multibanco Fora de Serviço”? Is it true that the nation’s premier system of payment is really broken down? I don’t think so. Upon further investigation, it’s clear that service providers, mainly restaurants and shops are trying to evade the government imposed 23% IVA tax on all purchases. Cash transactions reveal no trace of the purchases UNLESS the customer request a factura, or receipt. Then the transaction is recorded. Otherwise the merchant escapes the tax, which seems to be the case all over town. I agree that the tax is heavy, the highest in all of Europe for a population that receives some of the lowest wages in all of Europe. However, if the country is ever to recover, then aren’t we all responsible for doing our share to help it return to the glorious days of the Portugal we all knew and still love?


A Sport for the Rich?

February 17, 2013

Last month I decided that watching professional golf might improve my horrid putts and anemic drives. So I called ZON (16990) and asked how to active the Golf Channel.

After sifting though the options on Zon’s lengthy, recorded message, I finally hit on “technical information” and a semi-fluent English speaker came on the line. In my generally enthusiastic way I told him I wanted to try out the Channel for at least 30 days (their minimum period for subscriptions). He then led me through the on-screen menu, and I was relived to find that the Golf Channel only cost €10.47 per month. I hit “ Subscribe” and thought I had made a hole in one! But not yet. He then told me that I had to subscribe the Sports Channel as well. “ But why? “ I said. “ I don’t like footfall or any other export except golf.” “ Sorry, “ he said, “ In order to get golf you have to subscribe to Sports TV as well. “And how much? “€26.79 a month.” Reluctantly, I said “ok” and thought I was finished. But again, not yet. “ Scroll across the Zon Menu on your TV and you will see Sports in HD” he said. “ But I don’t even like HD and don’t care about it” “ That’s the package,” he said, “ add another €2.50.” So in the end, I subscribed for €40.03 a month The next day I went to Nevada Bob’s Golf shop in Estoril. I told Andre, the affable salesperson, about my purchase. He then told me the shop had considered subscribing as well but found the cost exorbitant, as did I. “Why’s it so expensive?” I asked. “ They think that golf is a sport for the rich, so anyone who can take up the game, can also pay high subscription costs,” he explained.

I confess that the Golf Channel is delightful, and even my putting is better. So maybe the channel saves me from the fees for lessons, and in the end it will be a worthy investment after all. patwestheimer@gmail.com

Pitbulls in Portugal

February 3, 2013

I’ve always been a dog lover, grew up with them and have raised five in Portugal. But my love for “ man’s best friend” stops when it comes to pitbulls. That’s why I was shocked when I read the sad story of the fatal attack of a toddler by a pitbull in the Algarve. Maybe the use of the word “ destroyed” was extreme when the article discussed the proposed fate of the dog, but what about the child? Wasn’t the baby “destroyed” as well? Or, as my neighbor Barbara says, “ What kind of parents with a toddler would have a pitbull for a pet? Here are some pitbull statistics: Bite Force: Roughly 250 pounds per square inch. * Fighting Style: Pit Bulls are tenacious fighters and use their locking jaws to drag down prey. * Unusual Characteristics: The Pit Bull is the warrior of the dog breed.

Then there’s the cute , brown puppy on my street that had the misfortune to wander near the neighborhood Panisol. There he met a neighborhood pitbull, and there the puppy met his end. The bystanders were horrified, but no one called the authorities that may or may not have responded at all. It’s the same Panisol where patrons park in the middle of the street blocking oncoming cars’ visibility. No one bothers about this obstruction either. A European friend told me that in her country the cars would be towed instantaneously. The same would happen in my country as well.

Meet the young couple who camp out on the Praia da Conçeiçao with their pet pitbull. The dog runs back and forth as they tease him with sticks and balls. Several of us have tried to walk on the beach with our dogs but one look at this ferocious pitbull was enough to send us running. Last week I spoke to the owner about the dog, but me maintained it wasn’t a pitbull at all. Then the second time he admitted it was a “ gentle pitbull puppy that wouldn’t hurt anyone. “ The last time I saw the guy and his gal (smoking something that smelled other than regular tobacco), the dog was wearing a muzzle. I smiled and walked my puppies onto the beach.

My most recent encounter with a pitbull was when I went to my local vet a few days ago to buy some food. A man was ahead of me in line to pay with a large dog that had bandages on his eye. I reached out to pet the dog but then thought twice when I saw his bared teeth. I asked the breed, and the man said “ Pitbull mixture”. “ Aren’t they dangerous dogs?” I asked. The vet’s secretary intervened: “ No, they are great dogs.” When I told her about the article in the NEWS about the toddle’s death, she responded, “ Don’t believe everything you read.”

Your comments: patwestheimer@gmail.com

Cash Is King

January 27, 2013

My friend and I eat at the same neighborhood restaurant every Thursday evening. One week he pays, and the next I pay. He pays with his Multibanco card and I use my Visa card to earn TAP miles. But two weeks ago, something different happened. When the waiter came with the bill, I pulled out my card (it was my turn that week), the waiter said, “ I would really appreciate it if you pay with cash.” Then he explained that he had “ a family to feed “. He went on: “ I don’t want our money going to Finanças.” I was surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. The week before my neighbor told me that the huge Chinese store beneath the Avenida Valbom has ditched their Multibanco machine and is only accepting cash. I’m not sure about their angle as people say the Chinese have been given a five-year exemption on paying all taxes. And if they get the pass, why not others?

Back to the Cascais restaurant. Before I could pull out my cash my friend put a €20 note on the table and hastened me out. Actually the bill was €23 but I figured he was disgusted and just wanted to leave. I wasn’t surprised when he suggested that we change the restaurant the following week. So this Thursday we ate at La Ponte a charming place in Alcabideche that looks like a converted house and feels homey as well. We ate grilled fish that tasted as fresh as if it had been caught that day. The dessert: my friend ordered baked pumpkin and white cheese, an unusual and delicious combination. I was curious as to what would happen with the bill. But the waiter never balked when we paid with our cards.

Then there’s Pingo Doce, which apparently changed their payment policy for the New Year. Grocery purchases under €20 must be paid in cash. I went there last week not knowing about the change. The bill came to €18.20 and I gave the woman my Visa card. She shook her head “ No”. Then I switched to Multibanco and again “ No”. Finally she explained the policy change. She showed me the Multibanco machine just outside of the store, but I decided to buy more items, which seemed to cause her some consternation, but she agreed and off I went into the store. Is this their way to get us to buy more?

Young people tell me they carry very little cash and have small amounts on their cards. They resent this change and as Luis told me, “ Sometimes I just want a sandwich and a drink.” I’m used to using my card, but now I can’t. “ I’ve switched to MiniPreço,” he told me. And I have switched to LIDL where the checkout gentleman told me this week, “ You can charge as little as you want on your Multibanco card. We’re happy for your business. “ Well done, LIDL. Your experiences? patwestheimer@gmail.com

Buy Portuguese

January 3, 2013

Last week I received an email encouraging us to buy Portuguese products and to use Portuguese service providers. The idea seemed wise, so as I set about to buy some holiday gifts I decided to
“ Buy Portuguese.” In town I stopped at the local handicrafts affair and spoke to vendors selling their artistic wares. I saw stunning handcrafted jewelry, purchased several silver and gem studded book marks, a charming children’s charm bracelet and artistically designed chocolates from Coimbra. All of the sales people were Portuguese and all exuded pride in their work. The fair was full, and I noticed many euros changing hands, all to the good. Then I headed for one of my favorite clothes shops where I had decided to purchase a gift for my able banker, Maria Tomé. Last year I bought her a sweater from Zara, probably made in India, but this year I was determined to buy Portuguese and in a Portuguese shop. Teresa Paiva has been running her store in the center of Cascais for as long as I can remember. Her items are unusual and moderately priced. Why buy from Zara or Mango, I thought, when I can give my cash to Portugal?

Once inside the shop, which is managed by affable saleswomen ( unlike the Zara personnel who spend their hours stocking shelves and ignoring customers), I found a stunning brown leather purse to give as my gift. I couldn’t find a “ Made in Portugal” label but hoped the bag came from here. When I went to pay and asked the origin I was told, “ Sorry, but it’s made in Spain.” The woman then explained that her Portuguese suppliers had closed their factories in the north (unfortunately) and therefore the shop had to buy elsewhere. “What a pity”, I said, and she agreed.

Next, I had a gathering on New Year’s Eve and encountered a few Portuguese issues. First, two guests called to say they couldn’t come as no taxis were working that evening. “No problem,” I said. “I’ll call my trusted Vasco.” But “ Desculpe”, he explained, he wasn’t working either. I guess the economy for taxi drivers can’t be all that bad if no one or few wanted to work that night. I had also contacted several restaurants in the center of Cascais to find a bartender for my gathering. All promised to find someone, but no one ever got back to me.

I’m still determined to buy Portuguese products and find Portuguese helpers when I can. But in the end, on December 31, my friend’s son who is more American than Portuguese (father American and mother Portuguese) did a great job at the bar and his brother, also from a mixed-parent lineage, arranged the music. My intentions were pure, even if the results were only mixed. Happy New Year to all. patwestheimer@gmail.com

This Holiday is Different

December 17, 2012

My mother got depressed at holiday time, and my stepmother suffered from holiday sadness as well. The combination of early darkness and broken families depressed them both. They tried to overcome their sadness and surrounded themselves with the family that they had, but their blues at this time of year was apparent. Like a devoted daughter I tried to cheer them up, but I know that I never succeeded very well.

Through the years I’ve learned to build my own family with my foster children, friends, community and neighbors. I also know from deep inside that the finest way to celebrate, family or not, is to give to others who have less than I do. Janice (name changed), who is an American and married to a Portuguese, told me, “ Every year we adopt a family who has less than we do.” Through her Cascais church she and her husband were given the name of an impoverished Portuguese family with both parents unemployed and several physically ill children. They have purchased gifts for the children and will cook a Christmas meal for them as well. “ Every day is Christmas for us, ”Janice said. “We would rather spend on others than on ourselves.”

All of my holiday feelings, the ups and the downs, have changed since the senseless shootings in Connecticut. Mothers all over the world hold their children closer as my mother would have done to us. Now that I am raising Joana, and since the incident, I hold her closer too, kiss her good night no matter the hour, and praise her endless efforts to finish 12 th grade. The parents of those 20 children will never have this luxury. It makes me realize how many small incidents I will now overlook, like a few unwashed dishes in the sink, a few minutes late on her curfew and a few more calls during dinner. If I let up on her, and we all let up on those we love for small injustices, then maybe we can all have a kinder and gentler world. patwestheimer@gmail.com


December 2, 2012

Saco, the upscale supermarket in Cascais, was never known for its friendliness. Now, with fewer customers, presumably due to the economic crisis, the store has transformed. Last week I stood in a checkout line that grew longer by the minute. Suddenly the store manager appeared smiling, offering to check people out in another lane. When I got to the front he looked at my mushrooms and said, “Patricia (how did he know my name?), these came in yesterday. Let me get you fresher ones. “ Once I had paid he insisted that the delivery man would be at my home in 30 minutes. Usually I’d bring my groceries myself, but with heavy bottles and cleaning supplies, the offer sounded wonderful, and free.

Next, my gym: with unsmiling employees and inflexible prices in the past, all that has changed. Multiple employees greet clients personally as they enter. Pasted on the door is a large poster boasting, “ We’ve lowered our prices.” Probably that’s because a new gym has opened near the motorway with exceedingly low fees. I’ve been told it’s a Ryan Air type system with a low base price and numerous add-ons from everything from towels to lockers. I hope they won’t charge for bathrooms, as Ryan Air has threatened to do with huge protests from their passengers.

Last week my doorbell rang. I looked through the video camera and saw two young men in MEO uniforms. When I opened the door a friendly salesman asked me if I had MEO in my home. “ No, I have ZON,” I said. Instead of giving up he said, “ Tell me how much you pay a month and we’ll try to beat the price.” In the end their monthly fee was almost equal, but I admired their persistence.

What hasn’t changed? Real estate prices, both for sales and rentals, seem to be holding on the high side. A friend of mine, however, rented a property recently and made a deal that if she paid three months in advance (in addition to the deposit) the owner would lower the monthly rental price by €200 a month. He accepted the deal and then told her, “ We’re happy to have you and your family. We won’t raise the rent for at least a year.”

Luxury goods shops seem emptier than usual, but low cost restaurants are thriving. The Indian restaurant near our home is packed on weekends. Surely that’s because the food is good and the prices are low, There is another Indian restaurant that friends prefer, but when I looked in last Saturday night, Massala was half empty with prices considerably higher.

“ A quiet revolution is coming here, “ a Portuguese executive told me during our weekly English conversation class. When I asked for details he said he preferred not to talk now. However, with scenes of protests in Lisbon it’s clear that locals are getting fed up with pay and pension cuts while at the same time politicos flaunt big cars, big staffs and big budgets.

Maybe it’s not so quiet after all. Have you seen the franchise experience for kids called KidZania? It’s for children 4-12 years old and lets them experience professions for their futures from pilot to teacher to engineer. In Lisbon, there’s even an “ Emigration Office” as one of their choices. My friend who saw the room said, “ And the Emigration Office is right up front.” I doubt that they have the same offer in Germany or the USA.


Stay and Play

December 2, 2012

“Where are you travelling to this year for the holidays?” several friends asked me as December arrived.

“ Nowhere, “ I answered. “ I’m staying home.”

My answer shocked me even more than my friends. I’ve never stayed home at this time of year, but this year is different. I have a family now. Through lessons ,both easy and hard to digest, I’ve learned that sometimes the best sights and experiences happen not in Paris or Beijing, but in my own living room.

Take last weekend for example. I invited my Godson Luis, Joana’s brother, to stay with us for the weekend. He lives in Lisbon now so I don’t get to see him as often as when he lived in Cascais. I also wanted Joana, who lives with me all the time, to spend time with her brother. During the week I asked when he’d arrive secretly hoping he’d say “ Friday”, and he did. On Friday afternoon I made his bed and went shopping for extra food for the weekend. What would a 19-year old like to eat? I piled my cart full of hamburger meat and buns, rice and Portuguese cold cuts. I topped the shopping off with Luis’ favorite Magnum ice cream bars and some sweets for him and his sister.

My mind shot back to other weekends in the past when I’d pack for London or Paris. There was excitement for those trips, too, but the feeling was not the same. Instead of musing about eating onion soup in a Paris café or shopping in London’s Chelsea, this time I was thinking about Joana and her brother. I’m far from a saint and far from Giver of the Year, but I do confess that less self-indulgence is good for my soul.

On Saturday morning Luis spied the Monopoly game I’d bought in Toys R Us last week. “ Let’s play, “ he said. So for more than five hours, split into two days, we rolled the dice, bought properties, paid off our debts and pulled lucky cards. Luis wants to be a businessman some day, so we all watched his strategies which seemed to work as he built his empire. Joana and I were more cautious in our buying, but laughed when Luis had to pay us as he landed on our holdings.

It was more than a Monopoly weekend. It signaled December and the start of the holiday feeling. As he left us for Lisbon, we decided he’d spend the Christmas weekend with us. That means a holiday at home with no suitcases, no airports, no Champs Elysees. Instead, I’ll go to Joana’s dance concert, cook chicken for the kids and nest instead of fly away. After all my travelling, Cascais looks really great to me. patwestheimer@gmail.com

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