On October 6th, 2018, I landed in Lisbon, exhausted and overwhelmed, with three suitcases, my dog, and my friend, Sophia. Yesterday marks three years of this luscious and sometimes vexing odyssey as a new immigrant in Portugal.
What started as a one-year experiment, declared this way to give me an out should I not be able to handle life alone in a foreign country, has turned into three years of a new chapter.
Starting life over, when one is more than halfway through said life, has different perks and challenges. Unfortunately, we rarely allow ourselves to have a fresh restart.
The excuses/justifications are numerous: it’s too hard, I’m already settled, what would my friends and family think/say? And for those who’ve never wanted to live abroad or leave your country of origin, I can understand not feeling pulled to yank up life as you know it by the roots to settle somewhere new and different, with little assurance that it will work out.
Like plants, mature people often don’t transplant well. Not that they can’t, but change is hard.
In my essay/newsletter last year, Two Years in Portugal: A Reflection, I shared seven things I’ve learned since living here. Honestly, not much has changed from that list—I’d say all points are still relevant, but I will update you here with nuances gained from an additional year.
What’s Life Like Now?
My life is somehow still the same, yet also radically different.
First, and most significantly, although I moved with just three suitcases, I brought ALL my baggage with me! Fortunately, it wasn’t too heavy a load, but I didn’t leave my worries and fears behind when I soared over the Atlantic (rats!).
In Portugal, face-to-face with a beautiful language that I still don’t speak with fluency, and in novel and unfamiliar surroundings, I was forced to deal with my sh*t without a reliable support network. At least that’s how it was in the first year or so.
I’ve worked hard to build community with other foreigners and locals, and that effort is paying off.
Every Saturday and Sunday morning I meet my Portuguese neighbors for coffee at the local quiosque so they can dote on Milo, refuse to let me pay for anything, and regale me with tales of Setúbal from the past four decades. I love these people—they are like family.
I know more Portuguese people—shop keepers, neighbors, and other dog parents—than I did a year ago.
Milo’s great escape last October helped cement our presence in the community and in the eyes of the locals. And there are some lovely people from other countries, yes, even the U.S., moving to the charming little town where I live. We’re a mix of ages and life stages, interests and persuasions, making for lively conversations. I am so grateful for my community.
Does it Feel Like Home?
Portugal does feel like home. There’s a pace, especially in Setúbal, that fits with my predilection for contemplation. Most people here meander. That’s annoying to A-types, but it suits me (now) just fine.
You can linger at a café table, sipping your one small espresso for hours if you want. No one will shoo you away—unless it’s closing time.
Here, people take actual lunch breaks. At least an hour, but often two.
Smaller shops close for lunch at staggered times. You get used to it and learn to time your errands around various closures.
People sit in the park, under the glorious canopy of trees, and actually read books!
Yes, even in Portugal, you can’t escape people staring at their pocket casinos, but to see people actually reading books warms my heart. Portugal is rich with arts and literature; poetry is not a dirty word.
Because I use my feet as transportation, I see the same faces around town.
Like anywhere, some people are grumpy, and others are friendly, but there’s a kindness that emanates from the Portuguese that I rarely feel elsewhere. They are not the most effusive people, but if you need help or are lost, people step up—they don’t look the other way.
The above qualities make this place feel like home.
Of course, I will always be foreign, the other, and there will be cultural things I’ll never understand (though I will try!), but I fit here. Neighbors see me, and they know I belong. That’s a great feeling.
In Portugal, I never feel threatened. I don’t worry about being shot.
As a woman walking alone down the street at night, I can drop my guard a bit (but I don’t do dumb things). I can walk home alone, late, after a concert, and never have that on-edge feeling I do when I’m in the States.
Social issues are not weaponized in Portugal.
Yes, there are problems and issues, and the usual political B.S., but concerns that affect the populace are not, generally, political issues. For instance, every Portuguese person I’ve spoken to, of various political stripes, believes healthcare is a right. When I tell the Portuguese about the U.S. system they look at me like I have three heads. They just can’t comprehend what I share about insurance and medical costs, etc.
Is Portugal perfect? Of course not! But it’s a much better fit for me and my values than the country of my birth. Where we were born is just an accident; it doesn’t mean it’s the best place for us to be.
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