What’s It Like Living In Portugal For 2 Years
Writing this post is a little surreal. It’s hard to believe that we’ve been living in Portugal for two years. There have been so many experiences, and so many changes that it was difficult to write an outline for this one. So I took to Twitter and asked our faithful Food Travelist followers what they’d like to know about our last two years. Instantly, I got lots of questions. Thanks to all who sent over their questions.
We’re coming up on our two-year anniversary in Portugal. I’m writing a post about it this weekend. Is there anything you want to know about living in #Portugal? Let me know. #TheMoreYouKnow pic.twitter.com/lB1WkyNHVp
— Food Travelist Sue & Diana (@FoodTravelist) April 19, 2023
Here we go!
Biggest Challenges Moving To Portugal
Frankly getting ready to move to another country in the middle of a pandemic is not for everyone. We’ve written a lot about the move before but needless to say, there is a lot to plan and do. Once we got here dealing with the slow bureaucracy takes time but you get used to it. Or not. We belong to many Facebook groups created for expats and immigrants to meet and exchange experiences when moving to or living in Portugal. Recently, there have been several new groups created for people “leaving” Portugal. While many people will tell you their success stories and how everything goes perfectly (ha!) it seems that Portugal is not for everyone. More on that later.
Desculpe, o que você disse?
Another big challenge is learning the language. We’ve tried several different methods but have found the most success with the online course Portuguese with Carla. Their approach is very visual (good for me) and they also take the time to explain why they do it the way they do (i.e. linguistic studies, which Diana loves). We’re far from fluent but understand more every day and we’re especially good with menus and grocery stores.
The most important thing is to keep practicing. Even if it’s embarrassing or frustrating. The Portuguese are typically pretty understanding and pleased that you are at least trying to speak the language. We know enough to get the conversation going so often people think we know the language. We all laugh and then do the best we can from there.
The Cultural Differences
We thought we were prepared for the slower pace of life in Portugal. After all, who doesn’t want to slow down and enjoy the good life, right? Turns out that when you’re trying to get your driver’s license quickly or need visa help quickly, we don’t! We Americans are used to quick answers, doing it ourselves and moving on. That is simply just not the case here. You must take a breath, and prepare to wait. Bring all your paperwork to any meeting you need to go to. If you don’t, rest assured that the one thing you were sure you didn’t need to bring is the one they will ask you for. Pro Tip: Look for where to take a number wherever you go. If it’s required and you don’t you will not be helped. Period.
In time, like us, you will embrace these differences and learn to appreciate them. They give each person full attention during their time. If you interrupt for a “quick question” they will likely ignore you or ask you to take a number. You’ll also get their full attention when it’s your turn.
Many people who have moved here like to tell their stories that everything in Portugal is wonderful. Seeing everything through rose-colored glasses. To be clear there are challenges. It’s how you respond to them that will make the biggest difference. Things happen and plans get interrupted or changed. Keep trying and learn to appreciate the differences instead of constantly wondering why it is the way it is. Or worse thinking you know the solutions to make it all so much better. You don’t, you can’t, so let it be.
Biggest Surprises About Living In Portugal
Quickly Assimilating To The Slower Pace
We made a quick adjustment to living at a slower pace and taking things as they come very easily. As I mentioned earlier, not everyone does. If you want to continue to go at a fast pace you sure can. Just don’t be surprised if the locals won’t cooperate with you on this one. Want to get out of a restaurant fast? That’s just about impossible. Here people sit, relax, take their time, and enjoy their meal. Most have dessert after a meal, coffee, and even an after-meal digestif even at lunch. The good news is you won’t be rushed out of a restaurant. There’s little concern about “turning tables.” This makes mealtime really enjoyable.
I assure you that no one here will be impressed if you are “constantly busy” with work or anything else other than enjoying your life. Having coffee or tea and something a little snack or sweet in the late afternoon most days should be a requirement for assimilating in Portugal.
Working Remotely In Portugal Is Easy
Working in Portugal feels the same as it did when we were in Chicago and Madison. The internet is speedy and reliable. We have a pretty quiet apartment (except when there’s a futbol game!). And we can work outside on either of our verandas if we want. The only downside is that the weather is so lovely on most days that staying focused and not being tempted to go out to lunch with the ladies or a walk along the sea is pretty tough. Thankfully, we plan most of our days so we start out with a walk along the water, come back to our daily tai chi (yes, it’s wonderful, we do a different video most days), have our breakfast, study Portuguese, and then get to work.
We Don’t Need Much From The U.S.
We’ve made adjustments to recipes and learned to make and try new foods. Most things we really want can be found either in the larger grocery stores or in independent stores like the Liberty Store in Lisbon and the GB Store in Cascais. The few things Americans moving to Portugal might want are easily ordered on Amazon Spain or Germany. Or course, all of us immigrants also rely on each other to bring things back whenever someone is returning to visit the U.S.A. A favorite ingredient or special sauce can be had quite easily.
Finding Yourself Again
It’s funny but moving has given me the time to get back to things I liked a lot in my younger days again. I now have the time to read more, create more, listen to more music, and be more active. We’re both still working. I’m an adjunct professor teaching communications and Diana is writing full-time and also still doing business consulting. But taking a few hours to paint, draw, or write just for fun is really relaxing and fun, too.
Somehow being in Portugal lets me organize my time better to do the things I really enjoy doing. I even watched some of the NCAA March Madness games both men and women this year. It was really fun to see some great games and talented athletes playing my favorite game. I almost forgot how much I liked it. I fell right back into the routine of loudly rooting for my favorite players and teams.
What Do We Love About Living In Portugal?
I still remember the joy I felt when we arrived in Portugal with our 8 suitcases, two large cat carriers, and two carry-on bags. Although we were exhausted from making a cross-country road trip in the U.S. before even getting on the plane to Portugal it was such a relief. The cats were fine, we were fine, and about to start a whole new life. We only had a few days until we had our appointment at the immigration office (SEF) to get our residency cards. Talk about nerve-wracking. The photo of us on the paredão in Estoril after getting all our paperwork clearly shows our relief and joy.
Before we got to Portugal we started connecting with people who were already here. As I mentioned, there are a ton of Facebook groups. Some are for all of Portugal and some are more specific to the towns or areas you live in or may be interested in learning more about. Because of this, we were eating dinner out with new friends the first few days we were here. These friends introduced us to their friends and so on and so on. There are walking groups, pickleball groups, painting groups, photography groups, volunteer opportunities, book clubs, wine tastings, teas, and all kinds of activities to keep you busy.
We’ve been fortunate to make some very good friends both immigrants and Portuguese. We often serve as a family. Since ours are so far away when someone needs a hand we’re there for one another as well as to share holidays and special occasions.
One of my favorite writers and fellow immigrant in Portugal, LaDonna Whitmer, (sign up for her SubStack it’s terrific) summed it up best. She says that moving abroad is in some ways the same as when you started college. You’re in a new place, nobody knows you, and nobody cares what you did or if you were important or not. You’re starting again. This of course can bring up old (or current) insecurities that make every event seem a bit intimating. Don’t let it. We’ve met all kinds of people. Some are fully retired, some are still working, and some have kids. If you put yourself out there you will meet, as Robert Palmer sang, “every kind of people”.
The Food & Wine
This is a no-brainer. We loved the food in Portugal when we first visited and we still do. The plentiful choices of many types of seafood, pork, chicken, turkey, and of course fresh fruits and veggies make it a cook’s wonderland. Diana has tried her hand at many Portuguese dishes with much success.
Fresh citrus is also a real highlight. We had the luck to find a wonderful olive oil maker, Mario, in the Alentejo region. He also grows just about everything on his quinta (farm) as well. Eating a blood orange picked right from the tree and feeling the heat of the sun still on it is a food memory I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
The wine! What’s not to like? This country has 14 wine regions. We haven’t been to them all but as they say, they’re all on our list. Walk into any Portuguese tasca, a traditional local restaurant, and ask for the “vinho da casa” or house wine. You will not be disappointed. Many times in the U.S. ordering a house wine means that you’re getting a poor quality, cheap wine. That is simply not the case here. The proprietors are typically very proud of their house wines and with good reason. Not sure? Ask for a taste. They will happily provide one.
Travel in Europe & Portugal
One of the reasons we chose to move to Portugal was that it would make it easy for us to continue our travels throughout Europe. While COVID may have slowed down the amount of travel we’ve done so far we’ve managed to get to a few places. We went to Amsterdam with friends last fall and we went to northern Italy to check out the Christmas markets. Both trips were fantastic and very memorable. We’ll be writing more about both trips soon.
We have plans to visit Spain, Malta, Greece, and France but with the many cost-effective flights throughout Europe, who knows where we’ll go next? Plans are underway for exploring more of Portugal, too! We haven’t been to the Algarve or the Azores yet and we’re looking forward to it.
The Cultural Differences
Wait, didn’t you just say this was one of the biggest challenges? Yes! You are paying attention. We love living in this country. The slower pace, the non-existent gun culture, the people thinking of others and not just themselves. We love it. Now, we’re not wearing rose-colored glasses. We know that this country is still working on itself. We know the history and all they do to try to make up for some things their forefathers did. It’s not a perfect country but it’s one that suits us to a T.
This is Portugal. It’s not California, it’s not the United States, we’re in Europe. While there may be some geographical similarities to the California west coast, Portugal has its own culture and people. If you’re moving here to recreate what you had in the U.S. you will most likely be disappointed. If you’re moving here to enjoy the challenge of learning a new way of life you’ll fit right in.
The Cost of Living
We’re spending about 25% less on our overall cost of living here compared to living in the U.S. Now this is our experience. There are certainly ways to save even more by moving to a different part of the country and living a different lifestyle. We’ve found that our biggest savings have been in healthcare. No surprise there. We have private insurance that is affordable and use the private healthcare system which has served us very well. It’s our choice not to be an additional burden on the already struggling public healthcare system here.
More and more people are moving to Portugal. Rents have gone up considerably in the last couple of years and utilities as well. While the cost of food is still lower here we have also seen an increase since the war in Ukraine started. It’s important to realize that Portugal is not a “cheap” country. If you’re planning to move here be sure to do your research thoroughly.
What Don’t We Love About Living In Portugal?
Missing Family & Friends
I’m not sure we could ever prepare ourselves for being so far away from family and friends. COVID certainly gave us a head start. Planning Zoom calls, Facebook Lives, and staying connected on social media helps ease the change. I read an interesting article in the New York Times during their one-week Happiness Challenge. It offered many terrific ideas but the one that really inspired me suggested scheduling an 8-minute call with a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. The gist is that actually hearing a familiar voice takes you back to that friendship and the good times you had together and immediately regulates your mood. Everyone can squeeze in 8 minutes to talk to a friend, no matter how busy you are, right? I did that with several friends. It was a great experiment and one I plan on keeping up with.
You might be surprised to learn that the air quality is not always so great in Portugal. It’s a combination of pollution, allergies, and a fine red dust that makes its way here from the Sahara Desert. We’ve both had trouble with allergies in the springtime. An allergy pill and a box of Kleenex do the trick. When the pollen is high we keep the windows closed and sometimes even wear masks outside. It helps. When the Sahara dust comes it covers everything and you can see the difference in the skies. Thankfully, it passes and we’re back to the beautiful rich blue Portuguese skies before you know it.
During the winter it gets quite cold and pretty rainy here. Many people stay in most of the time. I had the extra fun of getting sick several times with colds, flu, and even bronchitis. While Diana did an excellent job of taking care of me I still felt miserable and lonely. No amount of social media, episodes of The Golden Girls, Frasier or Gossip Girl feels the same as getting together with people. I did appreciate the friends who checked in on me through social media and WhatsApp. Technology makes it easier than ever to stay in touch. And because everyone seemed to be getting sick and sharing the germs that meant staying away from large groups of people (sound familiar?). Thankfully, the sun is back, the temperatures are rising, and we’re back out and about.
We’re soon going to be heading back to the States for a quick visit with our families. Let’s face it two years is a long time to go without those hugs and in-person conversations.
Some people wanted to know where we would advise them to travel in Portugal. That, my friend, is going to take a few more posts – so stay tuned.
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