I’ve been living in Portugal for three months now and friends are asking what I like best about it. I try to explain that I haven’t seen more than my little corner of the country: We’ve been on lockdown for the entire time I’ve been here. Even without going farther than two miles in any direction, there are plenty of things to love.
Both of my Airbnbs have had fantastic views of the water. As I go hunting for more permanent digs, having a view is going to be important to me. Right now, I can work from my bed and see the Atlantic. While I hope that my next place is not a three-flight climb, I know that one reason why I have had such gorgeous views is because I’m up a little higher. Which leads me to…
The fact that I may actually get in shape climbing the hills (If I don’t die first)
Albufeira is hilly. Steep hills to someone who just spent 30 years in Florida. My first Airbnb was near the top of one of the highest hills in the city. This one is much less of a climb when I come back from the beach or the store. The three flights of stairs are breathtaking. I am proud to say that I can now climb the stairs without having to take a break on each landing and, while I still huff and puff, my recovery time is much faster. Two more weeks of these stairs and I might conquer them.
Lockdown is easing so the noise level has picked up a bit—more people and cars are out and about. I am very sure that during the summer tourist season, Albufeira and the rest of The Algarve are buzzing with raucous tourists. But right now, there is so little traffic that I can cross the street without waiting for a line of cars to go by. And, even if there were cars, the second someone steps into a crosswalk, traffic stops. In the US, you’re supposed to stop for people in a crosswalk. Believing a car is going to stop is a good way to get killed. In Portugal, they actually stop.
People Aren’t Getting Shot on the Streets
While we’re on the subject of not getting killed, I have yet to see anyone who needs an AR-15 to go to the grocery store here. Portugal was just ranked the third safest country in the world (Global Peace Index published by the Institute for Economics and Peace.) The US was listed at #121 out of 163 countries. Haiti is 111. Uganda is 109. For you young ‘uns, Uganda was ruled, from 1971 to 1979, by Idi Amin, who was credibly alleged to eat children. The homicide rate in Portugal is 0.8 per 100,000. In 2018, there were 81 homicides, 21 of them by firearm. The US rate is 5 per 100,000 (2019). I read the news from the States and there are shootings every day. It’s like growing up in a toxically dysfunctional family: You don’t know you’re living in Crazytown until you leave.
The Pace of Life
Things are slower here. They take longer. When I first got here, I would apologize for taking “too long” (in my estimation) to bag my groceries. I was frantic to get it all bagged up so I wouldn’t delay the next person in line. Guess what? People here are okay with you needing a minute or two to bag your groceries. They don’t get angry and huff or sigh.
The same goes for having coffee or a meal at a café. The server isn’t hovering over you, trying to move you along. Right now, the restaurants aren’t crowded and no one is in a rush. And yes, I understand the concept of needing to flip a table to get the next set of diners through. The Portuguese understand that a meal out is an experience, not a cattle feeding operation.
Mostly, it’s a different philosophy. The US is all hustle and grind. We’re all rushing around, being busy, running to keep up. Sometimes I suspect people are busy making themselves look busy because we’re all supposed to be working on the dream, chipping away at becoming a self-made millionaire. Sometimes you get more stuff done when you slow your little ass down. At least that’s been my experience. It’s a paradox.
The Scale of Things
By US standards, Portugal is a small country. It is a medium-sized EU country. There are a little over 10 million people. It’s about 35,000 square miles of territory, roughly the size of Maine or Indiana. Two-thirds of the people live in urban areas.
Portuguese is spoken by over 250,000,000 people in the world. At one point, the Portuguese empire spanned four continents. It has a large reach. Maybe because of its history, it no longer needs to prove itself. Portugal knows who it is.
Because Portugal is a normal-size country, it can create change. Portugal was the first country to abolish all criminal penalties for possessing personal amounts of drugs. People are sent to drug treatment instead of jail. It abolished the death penalty in 1867. Recycling is the norm here. There are clothing banks (donation bins) for clothing and other textiles everywhere, next to the recycling bins. In 2018, the CTA International Innovation Scorecard ranked Portugal as one of the top 13 most innovative countries in the world.
By comparison, the US is huge. It is a battleship. It takes a long time to turn a battleship. Big is seldom nimble. We live in a world of technology and innovation and in order to compete, you need to be able to change direction quickly, to take advantage of new technologies. If you’ve ever tried to get eight people to agree on a place for dinner, you understand the problem. Gaining consensus for progressive or innovative ideas in the US is an uphill battle. You can make inroads, but it’s going to take a long time for change to happen. Implementation can happen faster here.
I hear about one airplane a week overhead. That is most likely due to air travel being restricted. I’m sure it will pick up over the summer. But I’m betting it won’t be much compared to living in the Tampa Bay area. Many of the streets are old-world narrow. The cars, trucks, and vans are smaller. I have seen one Hummer since I got here. I have seen NO “truck nuts.” I did see a police car use its directional signal. I was impressed. Few people in Florida use their directionals, except for the geezers who turned on their left blinker when they left Michigan and never turned it off.
The grocery stores are smaller. There are fewer choices of toothpaste here than there are varieties of Crest at your average Walgreens. I’m not a fan of big box stores. Yes, they are convenient. Yes, they offer a ton of choices. I also know they are designed to disorient you and keep you wandering through the store, picking up more and more items. Fewer choices does not automatically equate to no choice or settling. If I really need something, I can order from Amazon.
Servings in restaurants are smaller. I can eat a meal without feeling like Jabba the Hutt afterwards. The large bag of potato chips at the market would be a medium-size bag in the States. I am a family of one. It is family-sized for me. That small cup of coffee stays hot til I’m done. I can order another if I need one.
Are there things I miss? Certainly. I get cravings for Twizzlers. A clothes dryer would be darn handy. On the other hand, I like that they are rare here. It’s a small inconvenience that is good for the environment. I don’t miss my car. In Florida, I needed a car to get everywhere. Here, I can walk to the stores and there is a strong public transportation system. Once travel restrictions are lifted, I’ll probably rent a car from time to time to explore. But I don’t need one for day-to-day life. That saves me several hundred dollars a month between insurance, gas, and mechanics fees. That’s a lot of Uber rides.
There are lots of things I still don’t know. I have a very narrow view of the country right now—I am viewing it through a peephole. I am in the honeymoon phase. I am sure there will be things that annoy me or frustrate me, just as there were back in the States. But I feel like I have found a country that fits me for this stage of my life. And that’s a pretty good feeling.