I’m a big fan of the Foreign Service blog, Hardship Homemaking. I mean, what would I have given to be able to read a blog like this when we were posted to Zambia many years ago? Probably my left arm. What an absolutely brilliant idea.
It’s looking like my hardship post days are over, but even Vienna is not without its challenges. Most of them are pretty minor: I get by with minimal German, for example. It’s not like I had to learn Chinese or something to survive here. And the weather is kind of disgusting for several months every year. OK, you expect that in Europe.
But, this place is expensive. I mean, like “WOW, I can’t believe I just paid that!” expensive. I can easily wind up paying almost $300 for one basket full of groceries and household items at the supermarket. Yes, we do get a COLA but still! We have never served at any post where the cost of living was more than in the States. Benefits of third world living and a strong dollar. So, we had some things to learn upon our arrival in Vienna.
A friend told me when I first arrived that her rule of thumb for shopping in Vienna was that anything that is not liquid or perishable is cheaper to order online. That is absolutely true, and I would add another category: does not need to be experienced in person. We live right downtown, surrounded by restaurants, cafes and bars. We definitely want to experience those in person, and we do, dining out about twice a week and not worrying about the bill when we do. But we do try to save money on everything else!
Obviously, we order most clothing online or wait until we get back to the States to shop. We also order other household stuff such as office supplies, non-liquid cleaning supplies, prescriptions and non-prescription items such as vitamins, and any toiletries that are allowed through the DPO. (Mostly from Drugstore.com and VitaCost.com.)
When we do buy (or dine) locally, we save all receipts that qualify (over 73 Euros for some arbitrary reason) and apply for a VAT refund every quarter. This takes about an hour to do, and nets us several hundred Euros every time.
Groceries are a little trickier, though. Every two or three weeks, we go to a big supermarket in the suburbs to stock up with lower prices than in the tiny downtown stores that we use on an everyday basis. We can also spend enough that way to get the VAT refund.
I try to order most items that we use frequently (and that aren’t very heavy) from Amazon. Right now, I have Subscribe and Save orders in for cat food, breakfast granola, coffee, tuna fish, laundry detergent pouches and dishwasher detergent pouches. Other items I order from Amazon, but not quite as frequently, include dried beans, raisins, and blueberries, peanut butter, snack foods and some baking supplies.
Dried beans are a big money saver even in the States, and much more so here, where a small can of beans can run $2 or more. I work at home, so I can easily cook them on the stove top or in a crockpot. I just freeze what I don’t use immediately. I like the bean-based soup mixes, too.
I also love Texas Star Nuts for 5 pound bags of chopped pecans and walnuts for (frequent) baking. I make banana-oatmeal breakfast muffins for my teenage son that are quite often the only healthy food he gets all day (sigh). The chopped nuts and dried blueberries are also good for sprinkling on otherwise boring local breakfast cereals.
For local groceries, one of our major expenses is produce. We eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and as much as we try to go for the less expensive in-season items, a person can only eat so many potatoes and carrots. I definitely have a southern palate, and am especially fond of greens. I even grit my teeth and pay $5 for a small bunch of chard or kale on occasion. And sweet potatoes, another southern staple in part because they are cheap back home. Yeah, those will run you $4 or $5 a pound here.
I did grow some chard, turnip greens, and green beans on my terrace this summer, but as you can see, we are a ways from growing season at the moment.
Don’t even think about planting anything here.
So, year-long, I look for items on sale, and try to waste no part of them. I’m trying to find ways to cook the less-expensive winter vegetables that I am not that crazy about. I just mastered red cabbage, for example. I’ve also gotten in the habit of putting everything out on the counter when I get home from the grocery store, turning on a podcast, and prepping all the vegetables for cooking right then and there. I’m kinda lazy when it comes to cooking dinner, you see, and I love having most of the work done in advance.
From yesterday’s shopping trip: carrot sticks, sliced peppers, and sweet potatoes chopped and ready to go. Last trip: broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
I have discovered that chard, kale, and even broccoli stems can be diced, frozen and added to soup later instead of (expensive) celery. In fact, I’ve gotten in the habit of making a big pot of bean and vegetable stew about once a week, usually with some good local sausage or meat tossed in. Add yummy local bread, or homemade corn bread, and you have yourself a good meal.
By the way, I loves my cast-iron Dutch oven. We have this weird glass-topped stove that pulses on and off, for some reason. Cast iron holds heat and cooks things evenly. I can just leave a soup to simmer for an hour or so and not worry about it boiling over or going cold.
Here’s one of my favorite recipes:
Lentil, Sausage and Vegetable Soup
Yield: about 6 servings.
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 large onion, sliced thin
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cups chicken stock OR 6 cups water and 6 teaspoons chicken bouillon
2/3 cup dry lentils
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste
1 1/2 cups diced celery OR chard stems OR broccoli stems OR fennel OR any combination of these.
1/2 cup diced carrots
About half a pound of good-quality sausage links (bratwurst works well)
About 2 cups washed and sliced greens (spinach, chard, kale, whatever you have on hand)
Freshly ground pepper
Salt to taste
1. Heat the olive oil in a 4 quart pan.
2. When hot add the garlic and onions and cook over medium heat until soft.
3. Add stock, lentils, tomato paste, sugar, bay leaves and thyme.
4. Cover the pot and cook about 35 minutes until the lentils are tender.
5. Add the celery (or other options), sliced sausage, and greens to the pot and cook for 30 more minutes.
6. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
I also make fritattas and quiches to use up odds and ends. They make great lunches both at home, and at work. Here’s one I made this morning, with eggs, garlic, onion, one zucchini, half a package of mushrooms, leftover pasta, leftover pizza cheese, parsley, rosemary, and pepper. Basically, you saute the vegetables, chop up the pasta and stir it in, mix up 5-6 eggs and some cheese, pour that over the other ingredients, cover it, and let it cook slowly in the pan for a few minutes. I also like to turn it over and brown the other side, but you don’t actually have to do that. Slice it like a pie, store in Tupperware, and you have one-dish lunches for the rest of the week
So, that’s what I’m thinking (and blogging) about, on a snowed-in day in Vienna. Not so much “hardship” but the lessons we learn at every post. Keeps us on our toes, doesn’t it?