Bom dia: Lisbon, Portugal – day 1.

04.06.2012

This was the day. I’d been excited about it for a while. I don’t know about any of you, but when a trip is coming up, I don’t get excited about it until the last minute. I might have fleeting moments of excitement in the days or weeks beforehand, but the excitement always grows at the last minute. It’s surreal – I know that I’m going somewhere but it doesn’t feel real until I land in my destination.

I made sure to get enough sleep to manage the trip on public transportation the next morning. I didn’t feel like paying for a cab this time around, at least for the trip to the airport. It went well overall; it took 90 minutes to get there, which isn’t too bad for a major world airport like Heathrow and on a holiday weekend. The only thing that annoyed the hell out of me was the price for the Heathrow Express – £19.00 one way.

I got to the airport before the rest of the group. Oh, I forgot to mention the group…

I joined Meetup about 3 months ago as a way to get out a bit more, as a challenge to myself for 2012 and beyond. (I may write a post or two about how that’s going in the future.) Among other things, I looked for traveler groups and sure enough, I found one that caught my eye: Solo Travelers. As someone who likes traveling solo, this group and its description sounded perfect. This group already planned its 2012 trips, and while I’d love to go on each one of their trips, I’m not rich. But there were a few that appealed to me, and Lisbon caught my eye first – affordable, 2 hour plane ride, long weekend (I hate very short trips). A few days after joining the group, I paid a deposit and secured my spot. While I prefer traveling solo, traveling with other solo travelers made sense to me for a couple of reasons:

1. While we arrived & departed together from each airport, staying together was optional. If we didn’t vibe together, or wanted to do our own things, we could always split up.

2. This was another way to challenge myself to more & make new potential connections.

So there you have it – I traveled with other solo travelers. How did that go, you ask? Stay tuned.

The group went to the wrong gate because of a mix-up, so the group leader sent a text message on my way to the airport and I met the group at the correct gate instead. They arrived 10 minutes later, and the group leader introduced himself & the other group members. We checked in, got our boarding passes & went through security together, but split up until we got on the plane. While we were split up, I tried getting some cash out of my account, but the ATM declined my card . No sweat, though… I’d try when we arrived, and at least I had enough elsewhere.

I should have sat next to a group member, with whom my intuition sensed good vibes, but she was gracious enough to allow a couple to sit together. That was very nice of her… but not for me because the woman in the couple was so annoying that I wanted to punch her in her jackass face & throat. :-| Lucky for me that I usually fall asleep on flights because I slept for at least half of the flight… which meant that she annoyed me only half as much as she would have if I was awake for the full flight.

When we landed, it was a nice surprise to disembark to nice weather since the weather authority predicted rain in Lisbon for most of the weekend.

Not too bad.

Not too bad.

Before we took our taxis to the hotel, I told the group leader about my ATM issue and he said “No problem, I’ll cover you until you get access to your account. These things happen.” Quite embarrassed – it’s my issue and I take ownership of it – but relieved that it wouldn’t be a huge issue. Our hotel was a short distance from the airport, and the taxi fare was pretty cheap for European standards – well less than €10.00 for each taxi.

We arrived at the hotel, and I was quite impressed. I should have shared a room with an older British woman, but she must have made a good connection with another group member because upon hotel check-in, she said that I was sharing with someone else instead. (That turned out to be a good thing. Stay tuned.) New roommate & I went to our hotel room; were we impressed again. I forgot to take a photo of the outside & our room, but check out the view from our window:

Taken as soon as we got into the room.

Taken as soon as we got into the room.

We settled in, chose our beds, got some help with our TV & internet settings from hotel staff, and relaxed (except for contacting my U.S. bank) until it was time for dinner. For the first night, we all dined together. We weren’t sure where to eat, but at least there were options within walking distance of the hotel. We walked a bit and I spotted an ATM – perfect time to give the group leader his money back. I inserted my card, figuring that there was something wrong with the ATM at Heathrow since the bank didn’t see anything wrong with my card during our phone call.

Of course it was my card. Cash machines in Portugal are pretty damn good because unlike at Heathrow, the ATM flashed the following words on the screen:

Your ATM card has expired.

FUUUUUUCK. :-|

Sure enough, I checked the card and it’d expired 6 days before the trip. I was even more embarrassed. I told the group leader and he was fine with it. He asked if I was alright for dinner and I assured him that I was. Unlike a few years ago, I didn’t throw a temper tantrum or cry or hide away in my room for the night. I just kept calm and thought about what to do next.

We decided on a restaurant across the street from the hotel; unlike a few of the other restaurants in the vicinity, this one was more affordable and there were locals eating there, which signaled to us that the food was probably decent.

Sete Mares.

Sete Mares.

Since my money was funny, I ate within my budget.

Cheese omelet with chips (French fries) & salad.

Cheese omelet with chips (French fries) & salad.

It was very good – no need for condiments or seasonings, it tasted good as shown in the photo. The restaurant specializes in seafood, though.

Yes, they're live.

Yes, they're live.

Some of the group members liked their food, while others could have taken or left it. The main complaint for those who could have taken or left it – the food was too oily. Thank goodness that mine was good.

We stayed for 2-3 hours, and some of us were tired so we went back to the hotel afterwards to get some rest for the next day. I called my family to tell them about the money situation, and my aunt said that she’d wire money the next afternoon. That was fine with me, as I wouldn’t be spending much money anyway, even after getting her money. It was quite annoying to know that I had money that was inaccessible, but it wasn’t worth turning the trip into doom & gloom. Thank goodness for age, wisdom, growth, and back-up plans. New roommate & I chatted a bit, then watched some TV and settled in for the night.

Stay tuned, everyone.

Boa noite.

Boa noite.

Day 2 ahead…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Indulge.

For more about how the Weekly Photo Challenge started, take a look at this link. For more about this week’s Weekly Photo Challenge, click here.

Chocolate.

Chocolate.

Italian.

Italian.

Public risk.

Public risk.

Chinese.

Chinese.

Thai.

Thai.

Venison.

Venison.

Shrove Tuesday.

Shrove Tuesday.

Bacon & cheese omelette with chips.

Bacon & cheese omelette with chips.

Aside

If you check(ed) out my last 2 posts (here & here), you’ll see that I reached 1 year since my move here. Looking back at the past year is amazing because it went by so fast. I’m taking a little time to think about my overall experience here, then put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Please bear with me, as it may take at least 2 posts for me to get through this. Since I shared my hate list (by no means exhaustive), next up is my list of 10 things that I like about this country.

Taxes
In my “10 Things I Hate About You” post, I complained about the heavy taxation imposed on everyone, including myself as a foreign citizen legally working here. It annoys the hell out of me for a few reasons, but like many things in life, it’s a double-edged sword. With heavy taxes come universal health care, extremely low prescription medication costs, and things as miniscule as almost commercial-free TV programming. Speaking of which…..

Television

I don’t watch much television but when I do, I appreciate the fact that there are very few commercials (if any) during TV programs. See, since people here have to pay for a television license once per year (TV licenses in the United Kingdom), the funds from the licenses go towards TV programming. Therefore, we don’t have to sit through tons of commercials because of corporate sponsorship like back home. As a matter-of-fact, the only shows here on which I’ve seen heavy commercial presence are on American shows. Any other shows – very few commercials, if any at all. It’s nice to watch a TV show straight through to the end, all because we the people fund it and, therefore, don’t have much need for corporate sponsorship (which can control what people see on television, instead of people controlling what’s on television).

Universal health care

What more is there to explain? Universal health care over here in the United Kingdom is alright by me. So far, I’ve not had to pay for anything except prescriptions, and all prescriptions come with one flat (and cheap) fee. My colleague’s husband had surgery and didn’t have to pay a dime. The NHS is far from perfect (the same goes for universal health care in general), but I think that the positives outweigh the negatives.

Diversity

Living here reminds me of home in terms of cultural diversity. My downstairs neighbors are Scottish; my acquaintance/friend J (featured in this link & that link) has Indian roots but was born/raised in Mauritius as a Muslim (and still practices Islam); there are Indian & Nepalese & Nigerian & Italian & French (and other) restaurants within a 5-mile radius; there’s a Islamic center across the street from a Seventh-day Adventist church; and the list goes on & on. I always appreciated the diversity back home & appreciate it here also.

Class (ism)

This looks strange but hear me out.

Coming from one of the most racist/race-conscious countries in the world, it was nice to get here & meet people who don’t care what a person is in terms of race/ethnicity/skin color. That does not mean that racism doesn’t exist here, nor does it mean that I’m naive about it. (My parents, especially my father, made sure that I learned this early on.) But to make acquaintances with people no matter their race/ethnicity/skin color was like an extra burden lifted from me. I’ve not had to worry much about ulterior motives with people who I’ve dealt with so far….. well, with the non-Americans. The Americans (save for a very small handful) are a different story but I digress.

Anyway, it’s been nice to be free from some of that. But another issue comes into effect here: class(ism). Anywhere one goes in the United Kingdom, it’s a matter of haves vs. have-nots. Does it lessen the possible effects of race/ethnicity/skin color? Probably not. Does it bring different people together to fight against the many austerity measures coming down on us? Probably. And while all or most isms are negative, I prefer this particular ism over racism/prejudice. That’s very sad yet true (for me).

Proximity

The United Kingdom is just a quick plane/car/train ride away – hop skip jump – from the mainland. As an example, I got to Italy in about 2 hours via plane. Belgium & France are 2-5 hours away via train (depending on where one goes within those countries), probably shorter by plane. There are also ferries that go to a few nearby countries. The Isle of Wight, Isle of Man, Channel Islands, and the English Riviera are just a hop, skip & jump away. It’s also a decent distance away from a few African countries, the Middle East, etc. While I can’t afford to travel as much as I’d like, at least the options are there….. and many of them are pretty damn cheap. I hope to take advantage of at least 1 more before 2011 is over.

Fresh food

No longer do I have to worry about turning into a mutant radioactive half-woman half-dugong….. well, not as much as I used to since I grew up in the States with its chemical & preservative-filled foods. Genetically modified (GM) foods, 22 pesticides, bovine growth hormone (rBGH), chlorinated chicken(s), Stevia natural sweetener, and synthetic food colors are banned in the European Union (EU) (see this link). Food contact chemicals, such as phthalates & bisphenols (chemistry & definition[s]), are under stringent regulations in the EU, and any chemical suppliers must prove their additives safe or they’re banned. (Source: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/04/7-foods-banned-europe-available-us.php#ch05) Much, if not all, of the reason this happened in the United Kingdom (and the rest of the EU) is because people protested like hell about these things. And speaking of which…..

Fighting spirit

Since moving here, I appreciate the protests & riots that happen. Folks will mobilize for all kinds of things. A recent example is the march against public service cuts, where about 500,000 people marched in central London (pictures). That night, some troublemakers (probably anarchists) rioted, causing damage to some businesses (and to a small extent, ruining what was a peaceful protest). Luckily, 98% of the day was peaceful & successful, with no incidents aside from what happened later that night.

I wish that my fellow countrymen (and countrywomen) had the fighting spirit that the citizens of the United Kingdom have. With so many inexcusable things happening back home, including the impending budget default, I’d love to see the country stand up for what they believe in like the state of Wisconsin (and New York to a smaller extent).

Religious tolerance

It’s great living somewhere that doesn’t insist on people being part of a religion (especially in my “community”).  While England is a Christian nation via its constitution, most people practice whatever (if any) religion with no communal or societal pressure.  While I’m not atheist, this link from the Friendly Atheist is pretty spot on about religion (or lack thereof) in the United Kingdom.  Having been here for over a year now, I can confirm that the person who wrote the Friendly Atheist post is spot on.

Things to do

The list of things to do here seems endless.  Pubs, movies, restaurants, clubs, lounges, architecture, museums, travel within & outside of the country, country dwelling, city hopping, theatre, arts, concerts, nature preserves, civic action, volunteering, shopping, history… Too much to list here.  I hope to see all or most of it in my lifetime.

Bonus like: vacation time (known as annual leave in the United Kingdom).  Europeans take their vacation time very seriously.  France has the highest amount of vacation time with an average of 35 days per year.  The average minimum in the United Kingdom is 20 days, including part-time workers.  The 20 days don’t include the average 8-9 bank holidays per year.  Believe it or not (viewing this with an American lens), the United Kingdom’s allotment is (considered) the worst in the European Union!  Oh dear adopted country of mine, if only you knew how bad it is back home.  Depending on a few factors, the most in the United Kingdom can go as high as France’s average.  Here’s a BBC account from an American expatriate living in the United Kingdom, and here’s a 2007 link for EU countries that’s still pretty accurate.

This list isn’t by any means exhaustive.  Are there any expatriates that can relate & have a top 10 likes for your current location?

10 Things I Like About You.