picnicking in Luso, Central Portugal, with fresh figs from the home village
My one-year anniversary was actually a week ago, on September 29, but that day I was 3,150km away, running around Warsaw with Canadians and Mexicans. Now that I’m back in Portugal, I can write about the year that’s flown by.
So far this year, I’ve left Portugal three times and on each flight home I was consciously testing my feelings about being on a flight to Porto instead of Toronto. Honestly, each time I was all “ahhhhh, it’s nice to be home” even though two of those trips were forays to new countries (Cabo Verde and Poland) and if you know me personally you’ll also know I truly enjoy being in new countries.
Portugal really does feel more like home than Toronto, but I know it’s also related to being part of a family here versus seven and a half years as a one-person household in Toronto. I’ve been asked whether I miss anything about Toronto (the city, versus the people I know there), and I have yet to come up with anything besides the availability of different cuisines. Ask me about Vancouver and you’ll get a different answer, and the same goes for any other city I’ve lived in. I’ve been influenced by each location, and I can tell you things I miss — and don’t miss — from each place. Home is a very mobile concept for me, not linked to any geographic coordinates but to situation. And in my current situation, I feel very much at home in Portugal.
Lest you think my first year in Portugal has been all sunshine and roses, here’s the truth: the downsides of expat life have made their appearances, too. (I’ll be referring to this related list throughout the post, even though BuzzFeed GIFs drive me bananas and I think their title is overreaching: not ALL expats have these issues and most of the list doesn’t really apply to me, some items very mildly, some strongly in the past in other countries. For me in Portugal, only the last three apply.)
Even for serial nomads, there are inescapable downsides to expat life. Probably the biggest one I can think of is that friends and family reside in multiple cities and countries, and there is never a single time or location where all are gathered — not even for weddings or funerals. (See Item #8.) Long-term expats get used to it and find ways to deal with it, because you can’t control the distances between everyone, not even with Skype. I’ve been moving around all my life, but only the first 18 years were with my family and the rest were moves made on my own. The moving part is a drag, but then it’s over and the rest makes up for it, tenfold… except someone is always too far away.
The first quarter of Year One in Portugal (Oct-Dec 2013) was pretty rocky, since Paulo was sent off to the U.S. not once but twice for two weeks each, delaying the whole process of progressing past the Skype stage to feeling married and finally living with my husband. After a year of being apart we’d grown so sick of Skype that we were less-than-thrilled to use it again, especially so soon. But when there’s an ocean in between, Skype becomes the default communication tool.
Because I’m the one who moved, it took me months to really feel at home in our kitchen (versus it being Paulo’s kitchen). We ended up reorganizing it this past spring, to put things closer to my height since I use the kitchen more than he does, and I didn’t want to use a stool all the time to reach daily items. Now Paulo can’t find anything! That’s more of a Married Life item than an Expat Life item, but it’s worth noting that getting married AND moving to a new country at the same time is not an optimal scenario if you don’t like stress! It is also worth mentioning that we are not Spring Chickens, either: Paulo is 37 and I’m 42, and together we bring 79 years of stubbornness to the table.
That said, expat life in Portugal has added new dimensions to my photography. I absolutely love photographing Portugal! This country is a feast for the senses. Now that I’ve been here a whole year, I have a full set of seasonal albums for local life in the Life By Season Collection. Travel-wise, I have visited 17 of the 18 regions in continental Portugal, all except Castelo Branco, plus São Miguel in the Azores. Here’s the full Portugal Collection of albums, which includes my first trip in 2011, May 2013 (getting our marriage license sorted), June 2013 (wedding and honeymoon in the Azores), events, and local life by season.
[Addition January 31, 2015: I’ve made an index page called Expat Life which lists the last 50 posts in the category.]
Language has been the trickiest part of expat life in Portugal, bar none. (See Item #4.) I struggle with Portuguese. We’ve registered me for government-sponsored language lessons, but they haven’t started yet (scheduling is based on registrants). I still can’t hold a conversation with my in-laws. Many people watch TV to learn a language, but I do not watch television and even the sound of TV drives me crazy. I have yet to speak Portuguese over the phone — a big stumbling block for me because I can’t read anyone’s lips for assistance in figuring out their words. The sounds all seem to run together.
Auditory learning has always been my biggest weakness: when I took music lessons as a child I needed the sheets to look at the musical notes. I know people who can play songs by ear, but they can’t read sheet music. I’m definitely not one of those people! In the case of language I need the written words to match the sounds. I can conduct simple store transactions but I’m working with numbers, not words.
But I’m making progress and that’s what counts, even if it feels very slow. I’m a visual learner, which means my Portuguese reading comprehension has outpaced my verbal and spoken comprehension, and I don’t need to run every single web page through a browser translator anymore. I’ve learned the series of keyboard strokes on an English keyboard for the Portuguese accent marks (though I have to look up the words because I forget where the marks go). I can read most signs and skim articles much faster now. Every successful exchange is a small victory: a couple of weeks ago I gave directions in Portuguese, and I watched my very first film entirely in Portuguese without subtitles. Baby steps!
You are probably wondering why I waited a whole year to register in classes, when most people would sign up right away. There are a few reasons for this and they don’t apply to everyone, but after talking with some other expats, I know I’m not the only one.
First of all, I’m not a very good classroom learner (which is why I’m in favour of alternative styles of teaching children, such as homeschooling and roadschooling, but this is a topic for another day and it is always hotly debated). I went to traditional schools with classrooms, I attended university classes of all sizes, from half a dozen to huge lecture halls of hundreds, but my greatest learning has not come from the classroom, it has always been in the field, i.e., on the job, in situ, immersion, hands-on, whatever you’d like to call it. It’s not the easiest way nor the fastest — in fact, it’s harder on self-esteem at the beginning — but learning is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It’s about endurance, not pace. I am a firm believer in choosing the manner which suits the individual best, and that applies to all ages — children and adults. Consider standards to be the finish line: the kids will get there before I do but I’ll get there before the seniors, and in the end it doesn’t matter because we’ll all be cheering for the 95-year old who was the last person to cross the finish line. We are not competing with each other, it doesn’t matter how or when we get there, we just have to get there. Were you one of those babies who walked by 11 months of age? Congratulations! Do you walk any better today than the person who only learned to walk at the age of two? I rest my case.
Travelling solo for more than twenty years made me accustomed to figuring things out on my own, but navigating public transit in another language last weekend suddenly reminded me how spoiled I am in Portugal. Living and travelling with my husband the polyglot (he speaks five languages) has thwarted my typical “sink or swim” learning process. It’s easier to turn to Paulo and have him conduct all the communication in public, and it’s made me lazy. I know this sounds very strange but I’m more self-conscious about speaking in Portuguese around Paulo than with a complete stranger (they’re less likely to laugh at my mistakes, for example). You would think it’s easier to learn a language from a spouse, but in my case it’s not — not because Paulo makes it difficult for me, but because I don’t want him to teach me. I do not want a teacher/student dynamic at home unless it’s with children, and that’s more of a parent/child dynamic.
My second point about waiting to take language classes is to avoid information overload. Taking language lessons at the beginning can backfire: I’ve talked to some expats who say they’ve had to retake classes because they couldn’t retain the information. If I were an Erasmus student, of course I’d be searching for the fastest way to learn Portuguese because there’s a lack of time for learning and it competes with the demands of university, but in my situation I have more time, less urgency, and my overriding concern is to make it stick. Retention is a problem because my memory isn’t what it used to be and it’s only getting worse, so whatever method works best for remembering the words is what I’m going to use. I actually feel more ready to take language lessons now because I’m not dealing with other very basic things like figuring out the transit system and what to eat.
There’s a reason why food is Item #1 on this list. Portuguese food takes some getting used to, but like anything it’s a matter of giving everything a shot (or two or three), learning where to look for things and tweaking recipes. After a year of eating Portuguese food almost exclusively, I know generally what I like or don’t like, but food is very regional here and I’m open to trying new ways to eat things I haven’t particularly enjoyed before (I’m rather ambivalent about octopus, for example). I view menus with much more confidence than when I first arrived, and it helps that I have no attachment to any particular North American items like peanut butter, junk food, condiments, fast food, or convenience food like macaroni and cheese out of a box. I avoid food chains, anyway, and have no love for restaurants run by corporations. In fact, I don’t miss the North American food lifestyle at all apart from greater access to the food of other cultures. But food there is generally imported, mass-produced, heavy on convenience and processing, and I wanted to leave all that behind (or at least as much as possible). Food regulations in the European Union are much stricter than they are in North America, which is a benefit to the consumers here.
Of course, Portugal is no different than any Old World country adapting to the modern world: it’s becoming more automated, and there is more processed food on supermarket shelves than ever before. But it is still relatively easy to find simple, unprocessed food made by hand rather than machine here, and I love having access to foods grown locally. In the photo above are fresh green figs which are new to me — I’ve only ever eaten the black figs fresh — and since fresh figs don’t last more than a few days, most people only know dried figs. We are lucky to receive bounty from the home village: olive oil, apples, cherries, chestnuts, figs, walnuts, pumpkins, etc. From my in-laws’ place we get gooseberries, passionfruit, lemons, cabbage, herbs, etc.
However, it took months and countless trips to be able to navigate the Portuguese groceries, supermarkets, and hypermarkets without circling for items endlessly, and to cook Portuguese food without consulting the internet for help. (See Items #20 and #21.) I’m no domestic goddess, but conquering our kitchen has at least elevated me from the role of a longer-term couchsurfer (that was me in 2011) to someone who actually lives here. I’ve learned to make a range of Portuguese food, and like my mission to find the best bolo de bolacha, I’m on a continual hunt for variety in existing dishes.
This has taken a while, but I knew it would (see: language). There are a few barriers at hand for making friends:
- I only speak English fluently. I know, it’s a handicap, a big one.
- I’m not part of a local established network such as a workplace or church community or school.
- We don’t have kids
or dogs (update: we now have a dog!) — you would be surprised how easy it is to meet people when accompanied by a kid or a dog!
- I’m an introvert and I actively avoid small talk. But with language learning, even stringing together a sentence is hard work and any talk at all sounds like kindergarten-speak. I naturally switch to silent-and-listening mode when I’m outside of my house.
- Not being part of traditional localized networks leaves me with transient social networks such as couchsurfing, or the expat communities. There are Portuguese people within these transient communities, but they are a small minority.
As it turns out, the friends I spend time with are mostly expats. This is not an ideal ratio, I’m aiming for balance, but this is still only a few people and I am in no rush to make a lot of friends at once. Relationships take time, and I’m here for the long-haul.
I should add that I am not lacking in support — in fact, I’ve had more support here than anywhere else I’ve lived, ever. Paulo’s family and friends are extremely warm and inclusive, just like Portuguese people in general. They have reached out in all sorts of ways to make the transition to Portugal easier, and have offered to help with anything and everything. But I’m one of those people who choose to build my own networks independently from my partner; I compartmentalize my life on purpose. It’s a more complicated life, for sure, but I prefer it this way.
In a couple of years I will be eligible to apply for Portuguese citizenship. I may not be language-ready in a couple of years, but I do have every intention of eventually becoming a dual citizen. My attitude is that I’m here as an immigrant versus “just” an expat, which means I’m committed to the process of becoming a citizen and it’s going to take time and patience. But like I said, I have no plans to return to Canada or move elsewhere permanently. If Paulo gets an opportunity to be an expat, too, I will fully support whatever he decides even if that means moving again to another country temporarily, but for the time being we are both very happy in Portugal.
This became even more evident a couple of weeks ago when we were on our road trip (thousands of pictures still to be narrowed down!), visiting new parts of Portugal and camping around the country. Every day was in a different place and we woke up excited about exploring the area and documenting our discoveries. Portugal may not be a very large country, but there is so much to experience — food, landscape, architecture, history — that I am perfectly content about my decision to move here instead of staying in Canada and Paulo joining me there.
The first year has not been without its struggles, but throughout the year whenever I hit a roadblock I reminded myself of the timeline pattern in all the longer-term jobs I’ve had. The ones that were more career-oriented had the same bumpy timeline: a year of uphill before the plateau. In those workplaces where I stayed longer than a year (three companies in Vancouver, two in Toronto, the rest worldwide were a year or less), the first year was characterized by steep learning curves. I clearly remember periods of feeling discouraged and second-guessing my role in the company. In each situation I always had to remind myself that once I survived the first year it would get easier, and it always did.
I’ve viewed this first year in Portugal that same way: a constant state of learning, problem-solving, researching, and analyzing before the climb became more manageable. My two steepest climbs thus far are Language and Married Life. I’m learning about my newly-expanded family which includes a husband and in-laws and extended family, how things work, where things are, how to get there, what to say, what not to say, how much things cost, how to save money, what to do, what not to do… this life is not for everyone! Especially if you get frustrated easily, have little patience, or don’t like change. For me, my whole life has focused on adaptation and being self-reliant, and I will take this life any day over switching to easy auto-pilot mode.
After a year, I feel Portuguese has become my third nationality, after Filipino and Canadian. I didn’t realize this until last week in Poland, while being in a group of Canadians and Mexicans. I haven’t been around any Canadians in a year, and I picked up on certain things that probably only a Canadian living outside of Canada would notice. Something else I realized while in Poland is that I’ve become quite used to the Portuguese lifestyle with regards to meals and meal times (there is no lanche there! travesty!) and I think the Mexicans could relate to this difference, too…
In the past year, a number of people have contacted me through the website to ask about Portugal — what it’s like to travel here, and also to live here. I’m happy to answer questions by email, just contact me through the form but please introduce yourself first. I’m always surprised when people launch straight into the questions without giving me a backgrounder! I can’t really help you otherwise, since travel experience and expat life are both driven by personal circumstance, and just like the saying goes, Your Mileage May Vary.