Thursday I had coffee with –oh my gosh, seriously—the loveliest couple who have just arrived from the States. (And I’m not just saying that because they brought me coffee and candy.)
We have been corresponding via Facebook messenger for months. They are originally from Columbia, lived in the States for decades and were last in my old stomping grounds, Tampa. Even though they had previously visited Portugal, they had lots of questions about actually moving here and the visa process. I answered their questions as best I could and directed them to online sources when I didn’t know. They successfully received their visas and made the big jump.
Now, of course, there’s a million more things to learn. All new. All different. I compared what they are now facing with what happens when you jump out of an airplane for the first time or two. (I don’t really know how it goes after the second time; I stopped there.)
Moving to a New Country is a Lot Like Skydiving
The first time you jump out of an airplane, you walk around with a huge smile on your face for days, even a week afterwards. Your face hurts from smiling so much. Friends have likened it to dropping acid. I’m thinking the good acid, not the bad acid.
When you step to the open door of that airplane, every instinct in your body rises up and says, “WHAT? ARE YOU NUTS? DON’T DO IT!” Sometimes the voices in your head really are telling you the right thing to do.
And then you jump. Back in the day of static line jumping, your chute opened pretty fast and you floated down. Nowadays, you go out the door strapped to a jump master who gives you the full experience of freefall before opening that lovely chute. Either way, your body is hurtling through space and is taking in more data than your brain can process. Your senses are overwhelmed. There is a very good chance that you won’t actually remember the first few seconds of the jump. It’s a bit of a blur. I suspect your brain spends the next week trying to sort all that data into the proper slots. Which keeps it so busy that you walk around grinning like a very happy idiot.
Moving to a new country is like that.
Except it’s not over in two minutes.
The Sensory Overload is Constant
You’re in a new environment where everything is different—the language, the food, the signs on the road and in the shops. The weather is different. The smells are different. Things are done differently. Your brain is trying to process all these new things at once.
And there’s no getting away from it. You’re here. You’re in it. Immersion at its best. Whether you’re ready or not.
Grocery shopping still produces some of that overload for me. It is a bit noisy in the store. There is an overwhelming smell of fish in the fish section, which is large. Fish is big here and there are stacks of dried cod in every grocery store. With the exception of Oreos, Ruffles, and m&ms, I recognized few of the labels.
Grocery shopping is an onrush of colors and sounds and smells and my brain has to shift from the normal quiet of my apartment to the very people-y experience of shopping. It has improved over time, or at least I have improved. I recognize labels now. I can find most of the things I am looking for. I know the checkout process. Just like jumping out of a plane, It is much less overwhelming the more you do it. Your brain becomes accustomed to the sights and sounds and smells and instead of trying to figure out what is going on, it says, “Oh yeah, that,” puts it into the proper slot and moves on.
Now imagine everything is like that: going to the post office, the bank, a restaurant, the doctor. All new experiences for your brain to get used to. It’s a bit frightening and at the same time, I actually like that I have to learn all these things all over again. Being here forces me to figure out stuff, to make my brain work and expand. I am hoping all this new-ness will help keep my brain functioning and nimble as I head into my senior years.
Don’t Try to Do Too Much Too Soon
I have been here over a year and I still haven’t rented a car and driven anywhere. First, I have had no need to. Second, I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat. I’m at the point now where I feel like I know my way around my little area well enough to rent a car and not cause a traffic back up trying to figure out which way to turn. Fortunately, we drive on the right in Portugal, the same as in the States. I already know how to drive a stick. (Most of the cars here are manual transmission.) I’ve scouted out parking places, figured out what the loading zone signs are, learned how people navigate roundabouts, which are plentiful. I know which back streets to avoid in Tavira because they get really, really narrow. (There’s a reason why you don’t see very many big SUVs and trucks here.) So, once my new license arrives, I will rent a car for a weekend and get past the self-made obstacle of driving here.
The truth is, you can’t do too much too soon, bureaucratically speaking. Your immigration appointment is usually set several months after your arrival date. Until you have that appointment, you can’t move forward on any number of things. There are some things you can do: buy a car, get private health insurance, start lining up the professionals you will need in your new life like your doctor, dentist, accountant. You can get to know your neighbors, your community. You can explore the country.
Some people throw themselves into their new life. They meet people, go to as many events as possible, volunteer, get involved in their communities. That is probably their comfort zone and that is fine. I’m more of an “ease in” kind of gal. Rather than go gung-ho, I am relaxing into this new life. I have slowed my roll, now that I understand that things go in a certain order. My first few months were filled with uncertainty due to the pandemic and really, all of the things I did not know that I did not know. (I got really good at figuring out things on the fly. Now I am a bit more prepared for next steps.)
One Step at a Time
Everything needs to be navigated, I told my new friends. And it’s best to go one step at a time. Don’t worry about changing over your driver’s license until you have your residence permit. The same goes for changing your address with the Finanças or getting your permanent health number.
You can really only go one step at a time here. You can make yourself a little crazy trying to run around and get everything done, but it’s going to be a lot of wasted effort. I have downloaded files in advance of some bureaucratic event only to have the forms change or some requirement added or deleted a week or three before my appointment. Or the appointment itself is cancelled or rescheduled due to COVID. (The pandemic really added another level of difficulty to this whole process.)
I moved to Portugal sight unseen. I think it is wise to make “scouting trips” to your new country before making the big jump. (I didn’t have that option due to COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions.) My new friends have a lot going for them that will help them through their transition: They speak Spanish which makes it easier to cobble together Portuguese, they have made several visits here in the past, they understand the culture and protocols of their new country. They also have a keen appreciation for learning new things. Unlike me, they are not afraid to ask questions.
Now, of course, they want to make sure they do all the proper bureaucratic filings on time. That’s an anxiety for everyone who moves to any new country. No matter how law-abiding you are, you’re afraid you’re going to do something—inadvertently—that will get you thrown out of the country you have worked so hard to get into. (Just me?) You want to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s. And being told to relax about it is not helpful. You want to get everything done, set, settled and it just doesn’t work that way here.
Expect to be overwhelmed. Expect to be uncomfortable. Be open to the fact that very little will be familiar and that’s okay. Knowing this will help limit the sensory overload you will experience when you make your big move.