Euroglyphics: The Mysteries of European Appliances

One of the first – and most telling – differences that an American expat encounters in Europe is the control panels on common household appliances.

American appliances are like American people, simple and direct, even blunt. Our ovens generally have two settings: bake and broil. It never occurred to me that an oven would do anything else.

American dryers have three or four heat settings and a timer, and they work by simply blasting your clothes with ungodly amounts of hot air – as subtle, sophisticated, and eco-friendly as a monster truck rally. Our microwaves are so simple that you can press a single button for popcorn.

Really, the ideal cooking appliance for the American market would have just one button, labeled MASH FINGER HERE FOR FOOD.

Our first experience with European appliances came before we even reached our adopted city. We had both been traveling for nearly two weeks and were in desperate need of clean clothes. In the bathroom of our AirBnB in Spain was a machine whose front panel looked something like this:

We still don’t know what half this stuff means.

“Do you think it’s a washer or a dryer?” I asked Daisy.

She sized it up. “Maybe both?” she said. “Possibly neither?”

We puzzled over the inscriptions like junior Egyptologists on our first trip to Giza. What was the cryptically incomplete triangle supposed to signify? How about the butterfly? What was the hidden meaning behind “1200 · 900 · 700 · Turkish flag · Rectangle”? If we pressed the swirly button, would we unwittingly create a vortex to a new dimension?

An hour of careful study failed to unlock its secrets, so we did what any rational people would do and began pressing random buttons. Eventually, success! The machine gurgled to life and began filling with water. We collapsed in bed, triumphant.

Three and a half hours later, I got up to go to the bathroom, and found that the contraption was still sloshing merrily, a fine head of suds visible through the glass. It still had not reached the rinse stage, let alone the spin cycle.

Apparently, we had managed to program a setting that put the wash cycle on infinite repeat.

Which begs the question, why would a washing machine even have such a setting? Is it a vestige of Spain’s Catholic heritage, a grim reminder of the endless repetition of purgatory?

It was time to admit defeat, so I looked for a “cancel” button. Naturally, there was none. I pushed what I thought was the power button. Nothing doing.

In the end, I had to quite literally pull the plug on the whole endeavor, drag the sopping, soapy clothes out, and wring them out in the bathtub.

The problem, of course, is that while American appliance makers can use English words, Europe has no common language, forcing manufacturers to create symbols. And as appliances get more complex, the symbols proliferate.

Still, well-designed symbols can be intuitive and universal; but each European manufacturer has its own set of glyphs, all seemingly created by engineers with moderate to severe Asperger Syndrome.

Washing machines and microwaves seem to be the worst offenders. When we bought our microwave I asked for the simplest model available, and to this day I don’t know how to use 90% of the settings. Ovens are not exactly easy either. There are more than 100 possible symbols, although these are the most common: 

My personal favorites are the crying asterisk and the hand (why would you want to cook a hand?). I won’t go through the meanings of all of them. However, I have discovered that one of these settings is pure genius: the radioactive waste symbol topped by an unkempt eyebrow.

The eyebrow denotes the grill function – essentially an electric broiler element on the roof of the oven – and the three-pointed symbol below it denotes the convection fan.

This setting solves a problem I have always had when roasting whole fish: if I use a traditional roasting setting, the flesh cooks to a lovely tender flakiness, but the skin is gooey and unappetizing. If I use the broiler, I end up with nicely charred skin but underdone flesh.

The grill-fan combination provides the top-down high heat necessary to crisp up the skin, but it also circulates the hot air, thus speeding up the cooking of the meat all the way down to the bone.

Roasting a fish this way could not be easier. Simply stuff the cavity with some lemon slices and herbs, sprinkle the fish generously with salt, and put it on a lightly oiled sheet tray.

  • Drizzle a bit of olive oil on the fish.
  • Place it in the oven about 8 inches from the top.
  • Put the grill-fan setting at 450 degrees F (230 C).
  • When the skin starts to brown, check it with a fork; when the flesh flakes easily, it’s done.

My preferred fish for roasting whole here in Portugal is robalo, commonly called branzino or Mediterranean sea bass in the US. While ours is wild-caught, it is also sustainably farmed throughout the Mediterranean and is widely available stateside.

And if you’re concerned about the carbon footprint of shipping fish across the ocean, good local alternatives include porgy and snapper.

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