You can make the transition to a new country easier on yourself and I highly recommend doing so.
This is posted in the spirit of “Don’t do what I did!”
I moved to Portugal without having ever been here and without knowing a soul. It was the height (we hope) of the pandemic and traveling anywhere was just not happening. Moving to a new country? Crazy. Welcome to me.
I have been very fortunate that most things have worked out well for me—meeting people, getting by with my few words of Portuguese, establishing my new life. But I could have made it much easier on myself… if I had only known.
1. Take one or more scouting trips before moving
I’m going to give myself a bit of a pass on this one because it wasn’t all that possible to take a scouting trip in 2020. The pandemic put a halt to all but absolutely necessary travel. But now, with large swaths of people vaccinated in many countries, the skies have opened up to leisure travel.
Take advantage, if you can, and plan a trip to your new country. I recommend staying a minimum of three weeks; more is better. Stay in an Airbnb or other short term rental where you are mixing with residents. Hotels and resorts are great, but you’re not going to get a real feel for any country behind gates while you’re waited on hand and foot.
Do look at several different areas of the country. Check out the area you think you’d like to live in and stay there for at least a week. But take a look-see at other areas as well. You never know. What they show you in the glossy international magazines will not necessarily reflect day-to-day life. I knew I wanted to live in The Algarve mostly due to the weather. But The Algarve is a relatively big place. If you like the bustle of cities, you will want to check out Lisbon and Porto. Portugal has a lot of smaller cities that are just right for me but might be too dull for you. The rural areas are much less expensive to live in, but you might feel too isolated. Think of the first place you live as your initial base of operations. Use it to explore other areas. You might find you like it there just fine. You might find that after being in your new country for a while, you feel more confident about moving to a more rural area. Your first place is not necessarily your last or only place. But make sure it is a place you can feel comfortable during your first six months or year of transition.
2. Try the food
I am a very picky eater. I don’t eat fish, lamb, olives, not fond of olive oil, don’t drink port, not especially fond of Madeira wine (but I’ll drink it, for sure!). I’m surprised they haven’t run me out of the country by now. In spite of (or perhaps because of) five years of working on cruise ships, I am a meat and potatoes, very plain food type of gal. I am super-happy with a burger and fries. I can eat the same thing three or four nights in a row if it means I don’t have to cook. Most people like variety. If you’re even a moderately good eater, you will have a whole new world of food to tantalize your taste buds.
Try the local fare. If you know the area you want to live in, check out the little local restaurants. Most people are not as picky as I am and will venture further afield than I will in their food choices. The preparation and spices will be different. Sometimes the cuts of meat are different. That’s fine. You will discover new favorites, from appetizers through desserts.
That being said, you will still miss certain foods. Chinese and Mexican restaurants are scarce. Many US fast food franchises have made it over here. I haven’t been to any of them, but from past experience, expect the food to taste slightly different from the US version. You will find new favorites. I love the occasional pastel de nata. It does not fill the hole when I am craving chocolate cake with buttercream frosting. Sometimes you just want what you want. You will get past it.
Go to grocery stores. Wander the aisles. If you don’t speak the language, it will be overwhelming at first. I had never seen so much shelf-stable milk in my life. And yogurt! Finding real cream for my coffee (nata) took several tries at various stores until I found a store that stocked it on the regular. (In cute little plastic bottles. I buy six at a time.) Eggs aren’t refrigerated (they don’t need to be). Certain spices aren’t a thing here (onion powder, anyone?) but the other spices make up for that. For the record, Piri-Piri is hotter than Louisiana Hot Sauce. Adjust your recipe accordingly.
There’s deli, bakery, and butcher counters where you take a numbered ticket, same as in the US. Don’t expect the person behind the counter to speak English. It’s a bonus if they do. Choices in produce are different. I was very spoiled in the US, grabbing a package of three hearts of Romaine and chopping each up as needed. Now I buy a big head of some lettuce-y thing that I’m not quite used to, but I’m getting there.
The packaging is different. Different brands, of course, though you will be surprised to see some of your favorite US brands. (Oreos are very popular.) The big thing here is that packaging is not big. Milk is not sold in big gallon jugs. You don’t have giant, family-size bags of things. Speaking of bags, bring your own if you can. There’s a nominal fee for bags at the checkout; most everyone brings their own. You bag your groceries yourself. Put the eggs on top.
3. Join expat groups online
There is a wealth of information in the expat groups, from how to apply for your visa, to what to bring, referrals for doctors, dentists, accountants, transportation services, how the medical systems work, where to find certain foods—everything. I arrived in Portugal not knowing how much I didn’t know. Clueless.
Since then, I have joined half a dozen expat groups. The best I have found for solid information is Americans & Friends PT on Facebook. They have a library of files on just about every aspect of moving to and living in Portugal. I’ve also joined groups for my local area and recently joined a women’s group that has a monthly luncheon (usually held outdoors) which means I am meeting people in real life. After two years of COVID protocols, this is huge. While you certainly want to meet and mingle with locals, when you first get here, especially if you don’t speak the language, the expat network is a lifeline.
Meet with other expats for coffee and ask about their experiences. If you’re having problems with something, ask. They’ve probably had to navigate it or they will know someone who did. As you learn the ropes and settle into your new country, pay it forward by having coffee or drinks with newcomers.
4. Learn the language
If there is one thing I wish I had done more of before arriving here, it is learning to speak the language. I had about ten lessons of Pimsleur and the two Michel Thomas courses under my belt and really could not speak more than a few words. Even now, a year in, I catch about one in ten words when eavesdropping on Portuguese conversations. Portugal has free language classes that count towards the requirements to get citizenship (providing you pass, of course). The classes are formal and run like a regular course you would take in school. I am signing up as soon as they are offered again. In the meantime, I need to put more effort into expanding my vocabulary. Most of the people here speak some English and they are very helpful and kind, but EVERYTHING is easier if you speak the language. You don’t have to be super-fluent; but you should be able to construct simple sentences.
My biggest problem? Being too embarrassed and afraid to try to speak Portuguese. I worry about my accent, my pronunciation. I’m terrified I am going to use the informal form of “you” instead of the formal and insult someone. That is MY hangup. Honestly, the effort is appreciated and again, people are so kind. Be braver than I am. And I will work on being braver than I am, too.
5. Set a schedule for yourself to establish a “normal” routine
Making the transition to a new country is a shock to the system. You will have sensory overload. Everything is new and needs to be navigated.
As soon as possible, start establishing your daily routines. For me, that means a morning walk and then a stop at the bakery for a croissant. (Okay, in the winter when it is cold, I usually skip the walk. And the bakery is delightfully warm.) Set a favorite place, in your home or at a café, for your morning coffee or tea. If you’re still working, set your work hours. Set a time to stop working, too. (My clients are all in the US and it is too easy to work until 9:00 pm because it is still afternoon in the States.) If you golf a couple time a week or hit the gym on a regular basis, find your local club and get on over there. You may find you’re adjusting your meal times to match local customs; that’s good.
The idea is to start normalizing as much as possible. A routine not only gives you something to do, it gives you structure, something you can depend on. You don’t have to (and really shouldn’t) have every hour of the day earmarked for something, but do have a loose framework so you don’t find yourself staring at a succession of empty days. Choose one day a week to explore neighborhoods or nearby towns. One day to meet with new friends. Whatever. Just give yourself some structure so you won’t feel lost.
Bonus: Stake out your territory
Establish a favorite place—a café, bakery, bar, library, mall—that you can claim as “your spot.” Get to know the wait staff. Have a favorite drink or pastry that you feel comfortable ordering and that you know will always be as expected. If everyone goes to a certain spot to watch the sunset, mosey on over.
You need a place outside your home that is a comfort zone, otherwise you’ll retreat into your home and that will slow your transition to a new country. Go about the same time every day (or every few days) and you will start seeing the same people. You start by nodding, then actually saying hello, and next thing you know, you’re talking to a new friend. Amazing how that works.
Make It Easy on Yourself
Moving to a new country is hard, even with privilege, even with money. You’re still an immigrant learning to navigate new everything. So many people move thinking they can leave any problems behind and step into a new, miraculously trouble-free life. I have had so many things break my way—from finding the perfect apartment to breezing through my SEF appointment, and more—but that doesn’t mean that the transition has been easy. I have to navigate new stuff several times a week, even though I’ve been here a year. I’m still not clear on how the hospital and ambulance systems work. My driver’s license is hung up because of a change in requirements (came THIS CLOSE to getting it through). Make the transition to a new country as easy on yourself as possible. Follow these tips to help you through. And let me know in the comments if you have any tips or tricks that helped you make the transition to a new home easier.