Monday, April 8, 2013

Why Portugal?

When news got about our plan to open a bar in Portugal, there were quite a few friends and family who reacted with surprise.  Portugal?  Isn't there a major economic crisis there?  The surprise was particularly sharp with our Portuguese friends.  For a variety of (not always valid) reasons, the Portuguese have come to see their country with a sense of disappointment.  Even before the crisis, there was a feeling in Portugal that the country provided limited economic opportunity.  Now with the crisis, and future uncertainty many people here would jump at an opportunity to leave.  Why are we swimming against this tide?

The economic situation in Europe is complex.  So far, 5 economies (Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and now Cyprus) have become crisis hotspots, and have had to receive financial help from the EU/ECB/IMF in a variety of forms.  To the casual observer, this crisis is simply a case of (mostly southern) European governments effectively living beyond their means for many years, and now having to wake up to a hard economic reality.   There is some truth to this, but that is not the whole story.  First of all, the problems go far beyond 5 relatively small economies in Europe.  Nearly every country in Europe is in big trouble, and in fact, an honest look at the United States situation is not much better off.

Portugal is swallowing some very tough (and often miss proscribed) medicine, but the chances are that even Germany will facing many of the same realities in the next few years.  If things are going to be rough, there's a certain comfort in getting it out of the way.  It is a shame that the hardship is falling so disproportionately on the people who least deserve it, and have the least capacity to weather the storm.  Things are rough, getting rougher, and you can see the pain that people are going through.  However, unlike Greece, there IS a light at the end of the tunnel, and unlike Spain (France, Germany etc), the worst is probably over.

Then there are the things that Portugal has going for it.  First off, it is an incredibly BEAUTIFUL country.  The geography of Portugal is a bit like California on a slightly smaller scale.  The beaches are amazing and since the country does not allow private ownership of coastal property (something the rest of the world should consider) they are generally unspoiled and accessible.  Portugal and Spain share the Iberian peninsula, but Portugal came out far better in the deal.  Portugal has the Atlantic coast with it's beautiful dramatic waves (great for surfing).  The Spain has the Mediterranean, which is warmer, but on hot summer days, that's actually a problem.  The climate in Portugal is outstanding, the summers can sometimes get hot, but a cool sea breeze is never far away, winters are comical for anyone used to the northern climes.

Portugese food is awesome, and different from other parts of Europe.  Coastal regions specialize in fresh fish, and the sea here is particularly bountiful.  Inland you find amazing meats.  Portugal is a big wine making country which comes as a huge surprise to foreigners because the wines are not exported much.  The hot dry climate in Alentejo (the south-central region of Portugal) is perfect for red wines.  The soil around the Douro river valley is totally unique and possibly the best place for growing grapes in the world.  The Portuguese are typically Latin in their love of eat and drink, and whenever possible, meals are long, enjoyable, and filling!

 Compared to other European countries, Portugal is also very cheap.  A good bottle of wine can be had for a few euro's (less then 5 dollars) even in a restaurant... great wines start at about 8 euros.  If you know where to go, it's possible to have an outstanding lunch with fresh fish and a bottle of wine and spend less the 15 euros (for two).

The Portuguese love to complain about the inefficient bureaucracy of the country, but comparatively speaking, it's actually not that bad.  I've lived in 5 countries in the past 10 years (six if you count New York City as separate from the United States... and in some ways, it is separate from planet earth).  Portugal has some nifty innovations in government service that the rest of the world could learn a lot from.  For example, all cities have a 'Loja Citadade'  (City Shop);  as single location where every government service, and most utilities are represented.  You can deal with everything from your passport to your phone bill in one place.  All citizens are being issued standard electronic ID cards.  Banks have a standardized/unified, ATM system called Multibanko which also serves for general bill payment, so (for example) if you get a parking ticket, you can pay it in a few seconds at any ATM.  Nearly all of the processes of TerraPlana have been done through an electronic internet interface.  This is particularly impressive when you consider that just 40 years ago, Portugal was just waking from 50 years of fascism!  Nothing is perfect, but the country has come a long way, and they are getting a lot of things right.