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So You Want to Move to...Portugal?


An increasing number of my fans have been asking me if they should consider retirement in Portugal.

Of course, I can’t answer. I haven’t lived in Portugal (except for visits that last a maximum of a week or two) for 33 years. I was never an adult in Portugal (legal adult, sure, but there’s a difference between a college student and actual independent, autonomous adult). And more importantly, I have never lived in Portugal as it is now. Every time I’ve gone back since Portugal joined the EEC, I find something else has changed. Sure, there are supermarkets and things are easier to obtain, and the highway system is a boon for anyone who needs to travel cross country.  On the other hand, there is the “sanitization” and “commodification” of Portugal which annoys me.

The “sanitization” involves bringing life in Portugal up to the standards of hygiene and such of the EU.  Which would be great if the entity that legislated the curvature of bananas were more flexible and less prescriptive.

I find there was very little need, for instance, to make the festas “religious festivals only.”  They left the masses and the processions, and the fireworks, but completely removed the… well, festa part.  Yeah, I’m sure the mechanized rides, from the little airplanes to the Ferris wheels, were unsafe.  If my memories of childhood serve, they were probably bought from retired rides from the U.S.  And we heard often enough of fatal accidents in one.  Okay, every ten years or so, but…

I suspect something could have been done under the heading of making them safer that didn’t involve banning them altogether.

And yes, I imagine the makers and sellers of comestibles, not to mention the makers and sellers of toys cut out of wood or rolled in clay that had been made and sold since the Middle Ages, probably did those at home and it involved some unsafe practices, or at least the inability to police them.

But you know, they didn’t kill me, or my grandparents or my gggggg-grandparents, so maybe the EC needs to take a breath and stop sticking its big German nose where it doesn’t belong.

Never mind.  And never mind the redware too, which had some infinitesimal bit of lead, I’m sure, but which at least didn’t scratch when used, which their new safe replacement does.

In the same way, there has been commodification.  That is, the country is turning itself inside out to become a touristic destination and to appeal to tourists, as it understands them. Which is… interesting to watch.  Yay on cleaning up the medieval part of Porto, which in my student days was a haunt of prostitutes, pickpockets, and other marginal elements, and making it a showplace. Boo on deciding that tourists like one type of pastry (pasteis de nata) and doing away with the endless variety of actual pastries that I remember.  I tried to find a pastry shop like the ones I used to haunt, but they were all gone.

So, knowing very little about how Portugal is now and how to live in it, I spent a day (it’s okay, I was running a fever and couldn’t write) tracking down blogs of expatriates who set out to live in Portugal.

And found out that … that things haven’t changed as much as I thought.

Most of the blogs I found are from British people.  One is from an Australian. There were only a couple of Americans (one of the only ones that haven’t given it up, but to be fair the couple met at an embassy in the Middle East, so they’re made of sterner stuff than most).

What I found was both surprising and not.

First, there is the dream. The Australian woman I’ll link later is the only one that articulated it as “leaving it all behind and going to be a Portuguese peasant.”

This is a well-defined dream, called “leaving it all behind.”

You’re going to say I did it, and you won’t be exactly wrong.  But look at that last word “peasant.”  I didn’t set out to be a peasant.  I set out to be an American and to reach as high as I could.

These people seem to be pursuing rather the dream of the “simple life.”  A subset of the “noble savage” dream.  Which means they usually make very big mistakes, like buying a “rustic” abode in a small village.  They try to live from the land or something like it.

Second, there is finding out that living somewhere is not the same as going somewhere on vacation.

Third, it’s finding there are aspects of the way Portugal functions that are inherent in the culture, and which they can’t stand (I can’t blame them.  I can’t either).

Fourth, there’s giving up.  Unless someone is married to a Portuguese or otherwise filled with fortitude, most adventures in moving to Portugal and becoming a peasant (!) end within five years.

Part of the problem is dream meets reality.  I suspect in that respect, moving to Portugal is a subset of the “moving to the middle of nowhere, because it’s cheap” dream.  Of course it’s cheap.  But you find out quickly enough that it’s cheap because it lacks the opportunities and even the interesting stuff you’re used to elsewhere.

These people move to Portugal like Marie Antoinette had her little Trianon, her fantasy farm at the palace.  But Marie Antoinette had enough servants and insulation from the real world to never come in contact with the less aesthetic aspects of a farm, like manure and the fact that baby animals grow up.  These people don’t.  Their dream of moving to a primitive Acadia, where they’ll be fantasy farmers and shepherds, comes up against the reality that farming and keeping animals is difficult, expensive labor.  And even if they’re not actually trying to live off the land, their ideas that village life – in Portugal of all places! – will be simple and easy meet the fact that traditional societies, bound by old cultural mores, are ten times more difficult to integrate into than a modern, technological society because the ways of living and being are either learned in the cradle or never.

Sure, the locals will tolerate you.  You have money, and bring commerce to their village.  But you’ll never be of them.  Ever ever ever.  What you mistake for acceptance and hospitality is, in fact, the kind of tolerance one gives a toddler who doesn’t know any better.

Sooner or later that grates and invades your thoughts, and will send you someplace where you can be an adult amid adults.

Then there are the everyday things.  One of the things mentioned again and again by those who went to Portugal to work remotely at their old jobs is that the internet anywhere but in the big cities (Porto and Lisbon only) is unreliable and expensive.

Then there is the culture and the way the culture works: after a while, everyone complains of having to bribe this or that person to make sure basic services get done/delivered.

It is usually the bureaucracy and the corruption that send people running away from Portugal.  But not always.  There’s also the medical services.  They’re apparently very good for everyday stuff, but fail if you need any kind of specialist.  (And I bet you that’s not true either.  If I remember correctly you have to know someone who knows someone.)

And any number of expatriates in Portugal were sent back running by the massive fires last year.  Yes, we all have fires in zones prone to it.  But the firefighting is not usually so inept that people get caught in a fire that jumps the highway and kills dozens of people.  Or at least, our evacuation and management services keep those sort of kill numbers from happening.

Mind you, reading the blogs and looking at the pictures made me homesick for my childhood, for the kind of family farm where you grow your own food, for a village where everyone knows you.  And I know that a 40k or thereabouts income makes you upper middle class in Portugal, an income we could manage from my writing alone.

But I wasn’t even slightly tempted.  If I ever get very rich (ah!) and I’m less than eighty years old, I might get a home somewhere near a city and use it for vacations.  A month or two near the ocean (a commodity Colorado is very short on) and the ability to visit other locations in Europe from there. But that’s it.

Because I know the back-breaking work of keeping a family farm economically viable; I know the problems of raising livestock; above all, I don’t want to be subjected to EU bureaucracy applied Portuguese style with the inherent inefficiency and corruption.  The Portuguese are a lovely people, oppressed throughout history by the Portuguese, a shifty and notoriously dishonest race.

At the root of it, they have no concept of “natural rights.”  Socialism slots easily into a space marked “for the collective good,” which most of the time means “for the good of the functionary in charge of this.”  And there are more functionaries in charge of more things you never thought of than you can shake a very big stick at.  The EU only increased this tenfold.

Collective rights mean that you as an individual don’t matter so much, and can fall through the cracks in ways no one can fix.

So Portugal is a lovely country, but my advice is don’t move there.  Mind you I wouldn’t move to the country or an isolated locale either.  If you must, if you absolutely think that’s what you want to do, then rent first, for a year or two, and find out how you like it, before you decide to take the big plunge.

I advise you to go look at this blog called Emma’s house in Portugal, where you’ll find at least some of the glories and pitfalls of moving to Portugal.  She’s the Australian lady I mentioned earlier.  The site is a little difficult to navigate, but it is informative.  In the post linked above, she gives advice on what to buy.  I can’t improve on it but the most important part to me was this:

  1. An hour from a city

Especially if you are from a city, you’ll find living too far from a major city a major pain. By city I mean Lisbon or Porto. More than one hour is too far. Portugal is, to be blunt, the least modern country of western Europe, which means country Portugal is not well equipped to deal with the 21st century. It took me a year to get a telephone connected. Our internet connection is slower than dial-up. You may be, like me, a refugee from the rat race, but trust me that from time to time you will need to get a computer fixed, to get something unportuguese to eat, or to browse a quality bookstore. You should get yourself a foreign culture fix sometimes – a little jazz, opera or an international act. Ikea? An embassy? A better choice of building materials and homewares? Access to more tradespeople and services. There are a million reasons why you need a city nearby.

If you’re thinking you can do without the modern life altogether, then being within an hour from Coimbra or Faro might be ok. Your minimum requirement is a Leroy Merlin (hardware, building materials, home wares), a FNAC (computers, tech accessories, music and books) and a big Continente (supermarket and homewares). Without these things at hand, life can get very inconvenient. Frankly I never should have lived too far from El Corte Ingles (more foodie supermarket/dept store). It took me 5 years and a few trips back home to realise just having more options was really important.

Trust her and me on this.  Having tried to make do in Portugal for even 2 weeks, I’m sometimes very grateful my parents are 2 hours from the center of Porto, and that we can at least find some things we need, particularly in an emergency.  Also to be fair, you’ll “fit” in more near a city than you ever will out in the country.

But once you’re in a more urban location, Portugal is not that terribly cheap. It might be cheap like, say, rural Tennesee.  And it is cheap compared to California or NYC.

What you have to ask yourself is: is it worth it chucking your entire culture, credentials, and points of reference to move outside the U.S.?

Because take it from someone who has done this, and acculturated.  Unless you want to be a glorified tourist, the rest of your life (and it gets old) acculturation isn’t easy.  And you might want to examine what you’re acculturating into.

A note that doesn’t matter if you’re retiring, but which does matter if you’re just seized with a dream of “getting away from it all,” none of these expatriates had children, except a woman who might be my counterpart, in that she married a Portuguese man and chose that for her children.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps her husband had family and connections well above mine, or a personal fortune or family assets that wouldn’t travel.  I still find the decision questionable. I know I wouldn’t do it. The U.S., for all its faults, still presents more and better opportunities for young people, and the ability to be and do everything they can be and do.

And I’ll end with that: before you jump, to Portugal, to Greece, to Italy, to any of these places I found expatriates talking about, make sure you really know what you’re doing.

You might think you’re disillusioned with the U.S. or that there’s no future for you here.

But when it comes to opportunities, to comfort, and to security, there is a good chance you’ll find what you want right here at home.  We’re a big country.  We contain entire worlds.

Sure, other places are fun and look where I say above I wouldn’t mind a month or two a year in a vacation house.  But emigrating, becoming an expatriate, changing your culture, and fitting into a society you can’t know much of till you’re there are riskier than you think.  Make sure they’re what you want to do before you buy in.

Don’t jump into a dream to find you’ve woken in a nightmare.