Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cheapness abroad

It can be cheaper to spend the summer in Europe than to stay put, if staying put means a Brooklyn apartment that, if renewed, would have been well above post-recession market rate. So, for that and other reasons, here I am, ready to offer tips on not spending any money, ever, in the land of hideous exchange rates and beautiful housewares, pastries, books, shoes...

I will now judge the Cheapness Studies merit of entire countries on the basis of brief experiences in tiny parts of each. Those with deeper knowledge, you're encouraged to correct as necessary.

Switzerland: We flew to Zurich because the flight was the cheapest one that got us vaguely near Germany, our ultimate destination; however, the price of the bottle of water we shared at the Zurich train station about canceled out this benefit. Had there only been water fountains somewhere obvious, or water for less than the price of a glass of wine in NY, I'd have much more fond feelings towards Switzerland, which I am indeed judging on the basis of this one incident, along with similar ones flying through there in the past. Is everything in Switzerland that expensive, or just things in transport hubs, as a way of exacting revenge on those who are only in Switzerland because for whatever reason flights there seem to be cheaper than to elsewhere?

Italy: Like Italian food? Your best bet, if you can't afford a villa in the countryside, is to stay put, or to travel somewhere that isn't Italy, assuming wherever you are has decent Italian groceries, restaurants, or both. We chose Italy for our vacation because of its proximity to Switzerland, and because the guide books we read through at the bookstore made it look most appealing. And while obviously a week in Italy is not to be sneezed at, the anxiety it provoked, budget-wise, was significant and unexpected, a definitive Cheapness Studies fail.

Let me explain. Hotels (well, hostels and hotel-ish things near train stations) were OK, sightseeing was as always mostly free, but eating was tough going. Dining out in Italian cities was if anything worse than reported, rip-off wise. Our first attempt - a place not far from our hostel in Milan - took advantage of being among very few places open in the area (at the time of our entering, the only we'd seen) to charge 5 euros a person as a cover charge. Our total meal, one not-terribly-glamorous dish a person, water only to drink, came to 51 euros. That scare had the positive effect of making us remarkably stingy from then on, but I still shudder to think of it, and wish the meal had at least been unusually good.

Tourists come to Italy to eat well, but judging by a week's worth of encounters in Milan, Bologna, Florence, and Rome, many working in the Italian food-service industry seem interested in making this as difficult as possible. It is expected (hoped?) that tourists will be too flummoxed by the Italian language to order off a non-translated menu (although Italian restaurants outside of Italy regularly have menus in Italian), and so will stick to officially-designated tourist establishments. Tourists sophisticated enough to have figured out what spaghetti bolognese is are still asked, by unwritten law, not to seek this out in a place frequented by actual Italians. I didn't much care who the fellow diners were, nationality-wise, and was not seeking an 'authentic' experience, but I didn't want to be ripped off time and time again, and the more languages the menu comes in, the worse value your pasta.

It is, in theory, possible to eat well for cheap in Italy, even near sites, on main streets, etc. The cafeterias (more like lunchtime cafes) where locals - often quite chic, particularly in Milan - dine well for barely any euros at all, are hardly hidden off-the-beaten-path establishments, and are in just about every city. We ate in some, but generally speaking the servers' and cashiers' hostility even to polite foreign intruders with some high-school Italian and without Pub Crawl t-shirts is such that the affordable and delicious dishes ostensibly available - visible, at any rate, behind a counter - require so much strained interaction to obtain that your best bet will ultimately be supermarkets.

As the week came to an end, I found myself nostalgic for linguine at home, at 33 cents (US) a portion, slightly but hardly much more if made bolognese. While I did have fun generally in Italy, and ultimately didn't spend that much, everything having to do with food was stressful, and for a country where food's allegedly a selling point, this is not ideal.

Belgium: We were not in Belgium as tourists, so I can't really report on that angle. All I can help with is to say, beware the Belgian HEMA - the amazing, affordable housewares are in fact cheaper still in the Netherlands, perhaps because the chain is Dutch, so if you're going to be in both countries, restrain yourself. What you should do is get a 1.30 euro scoop of creme brulee ice cream, a 30 euro-cent French novel at a Flemish thrift store, and things of this nature. And supermarket chocolate. Oh yes. In fact, just about anything from the supermarket will be a delight.

The Netherlands: I have just about no idea what things cost in the Netherlands, because I don't speak Dutch, and so entering most stores was too intimidating. There's a cheapness tip - failure to communicate is a quick way to set frivolous purchases at zero. Yes, people speak English, but I didn't feel like bringing it out, which was OK for getting coffee, going to supermarkets, and that's about it. With limited human interaction, it's still possible to get rolls and cheese enough for a week for a couple Euros, although that cheese will be Gouda or something very much like Gouda, Dutch cheeses not varying quite as much as French, Italian, Belgian, even American these days... But overall, Leiden was a Cheapness Studies success. While Jo was at a conference, I read orals-list readings down by the canals, in disbelief that work could feel so much like vacation, and, yeah, ate a lot of those rolls. However, fast food in both Leiden and Amsterdam - chosen both times because we'd imagined it would be both quick and affordable - is only the former, and is - going by that sample of one hamburger place and one falafel stop - all but inedible. So, either investigate Dutch specialties or stick with the rolls.

Germany: The best thing here in Heidelberg in terms of not spending any money, ever, is that in this city clothing- and shoe-store windows are not the wanty-inspiring religious experiences they are in, say, Paris, or even Cologne. Yes, it's still Europe, and things are still just a tiny bit different in that way that makes them seem fun to own and prance around in in the US, but for the most part, they look to be both more expensive and less chic than back home. Whenever I've passed a store here and thought something along these lines looked nice, I realized the store was either H&M or (I'm embarrassed to say, given their current windows) American Apparel. I will have no problem holding out until my current clothes start to fall apart and just doing another round at Uniqlo as needed. (If there is some avant-garde-boutique neighborhood in Heidelberg, I don't want to know about it!)

Meanwhile, the most enjoyable aspects of being here are cheap or free. Jogging down by the river and across various bridges, and ending up with an 80-cent cone of tiramisu ice cream, can't much argue with that. Frying up a plate of spaetzles with some onion, salt, and pepper, is the quickest route to a cheap and delicious meal. Beer and wine are also on the shockingly inexpensive side. Falafel, too, is about half the price as in Leiden and was, at this one place right off the main tourist drag, the most meticulously-made falafel sandwich I've ever seen prepared, as well as quite tasty. Aside from the 4.90 Eiskaffee (basically a very cold iced cappuccino where instead of ice, there's a scoop of ice cream) I find that here I can be most responsible. I still justify the Eiskaffee as being both a coffee and a dessert, because otherwise I will never be able to get one again, but other than that, I may well still be coming out ahead as versus staying home and handing over all those potential Eiskaffees to a NY landlord, as I will promptly be doing in the fall.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The thought of the money I'm saving cools me off

Since this article captures a practice I have been implementing for two years already without the impetus of recession, I enjoyed it as a means of self-vindication against my (many) detractors. Surprisingly, very few people are able to see the virtues of life without air-conditioning. I'd think it would be obvious.

First, you can save fully hundreds of dollars a summer. The people in this article claim to have saved thousands, but either their house is massive or their local energy costs tremendous, because my poorly-insulated five-BR house never costs anywhere near that much to cool. So let's put the savings at hundreds. HUNDREDS of dollars. That is a lot of money. Think of how many cups of work-escape coffee that will buy you.

Second, there is no second. This is a blog about saving money, and not using air-conditioning pretty much only saves money, but A LOT of money. Maybe it will bring your family closer together or help you lose weight as the interviewees claim, but I have not tested either of these assertions, so I can't say. It will sort of get you more in touch with nature, if only to the extent that it will familiarize you with the actual temperature outside, which it's possible you haven't had many opportunities to know. Then, after a particularly hot day, your un-cooled home will have retained all the heat of the afternoon, likely forcing you outdoors into the waiting arms of Nature (and her insect friends) in the evening. However, I bet the Pennsylvanian quoted in the article as an advocate of "rolling with nature" would not also endorse spending a winter without heat, so I suspect that this non-cooling for the sake of natural living platform is a limited one.

But most of the complaints about life without air-conditioning are overblown (!). Sure, it's hot and that makes you sluggish and sleepy. But anything under 100 degrees is perfectly livable for most healthy people. If you don't know what to do with yourself in the heat, may I suggest a nap? Maybe a few hours with a book? Or, you could head over to those places whose air-conditioning you're subsidizing and get your money's worth (the library), or to those places whose air-conditioning is like a free gift to you (the mall). Perhaps what should be added to this article is that life without residential cooling builds community. How about that, yuppies?

The article also points out that keeping the air off can kill your cat. This may be true. My cat becomes sluggish in the heat, but I hope that putting out extra water dishes around the house will keep him hydrated so that I will not have to abandon this great money-saving tradition for the comfort of an angry beast.

The real problem of life without air-conditioning is convincing other people that it's really not a problem. For example, my roommates, who ask, "Why is the air always getting turned off?" (Conveniently, the thermostat lives right outside my bedroom and I am the Supreme Controller of House Temperature.) They do not understand my logic, which I have articulated for them several times clearly enough, "The thought of the money I'm saving cools me off."