That thing you’ve always wanted to do? I highly recommend doing it.
When I decided to become a retired American expat in Portugal, I never expected to be as content as I am. Living in Europe was something I had wanted to do since I was a kid—not just visiting as a tourist, but actually living there and experiencing everyday life as a European. Well, as close to a European as a suburban American can get.
There are a lot of articles making the rounds right now about people who have moved to Portugal, who are spending a mere fraction of their US budget, and are living their dream life. Yes and [sorry] No. Not everything is rainbows and unicorns. I’m very sure the perfect place to live does not exist. After all, we live on a dangerous planet. But I have lucked into a country whose pace and culture is a perfect fit for me.
Leaving the Hustle and Grind Behind
I have spent the past 20 years in the hustle and grind of entrepreneurship, from real estate investing to freelance writing to coaching/consulting. The US culture is all about “making it” whatever that particular “it” looks like to you. The things that are normal in US culture—two weeks vacation a year, no national health insurance, little to no paid maternity leave, and, on the extreme side of the culture spectrum, school shootings—are looked on with shock and disbelief here. (Actually, just about everywhere outside the US.) What’s amazing is that US citizens DON’T look on these things with shock and disbelief. We have been brought up to believe that it is normal to work 50 weeks a year in order to “earn” two weeks off. That employer “provided” healthcare includes a large chunk of money coming out of our paychecks. That the average citizen needs and has a right to own an automatic weapon designed for one purpose: killing people. (News Flash: Your AR-15 will do jackshit against an AH-64 Apache. Just sayin.)
I distinctly remember sitting in my fourth grade classroom and being taught that America was the greatest country in the world. Even to my young ears, it didn’t ring true. I thought, I bet there are kids in Russia right now who are being taught that Russia is the greatest country in the world. Pretty cynical for a 10 year old, right? (This clip from The Newsroom captures it perfectly.) The US definitely has some great stuff going for it. For many people, most in fact, it is all they want. That’s terrific. But the world is a big place. There are many countries that have amazing cultures and democratic freedoms and fantastic coffee. If you’re reading this, you are most likely ready for at least a taste of something else.
Throwing the Lever
Moving to Europe was on my life goal list fairly early on. I blame Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. I had Scotland on the brain and “knew” I belonged in the Highlands.
FYI: The Highlands are really cold. Even in summer. I do NOT belong in the Highlands.
I started looking farther south. Italy was a natural pull for me—my paternal grandparents were from there. But the Italian government upped the requirements for residency, putting it out of my immediate reach. I did a lot of reading on places to move to and made a list of what I wanted. (More on that in next week’s blog post.) Portugal came up time and again as one of the top places for US expats. The more I learned about Portugal, the more I liked. Lower cost of living, great health care, third or fourth safest country in the world. A lot of coastline.
In the middle of COVID lockdowns, the opportunity to jump opened up. I applied for my visa and less than two months later, it was in hand. I put my things in storage, packed my bags, and got on the plane.
The Pursuit of Happyness
I kind of live by the saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.” (Thank you, Buckaroo Banzai.) It means you can’t run away from yourself; that you don’t automatically become someone else just because you switched locations. I would love to think that if I moved to Milan, I would suddenly become chic. But I know me. I can’t walk in anything taller than a two inch heel. My body shape is definitely not the lanky plank that makes clothes look so good. I am many things; chic is not one of them and moving someplace isn’t going to change that.
I did not want to be “me” on a different couch, doing the same things I did in the States. But I also knew myself enough to expect that some things would stay the same: I still have to work so yes, that means a lot of screen time. I try to sit in the middle of the couch rather than my familiar end. Baby steps.
I am an introvert and I knew that a new home country meant that I would have to be more outgoing. I can do that; it’s just that I prefer to quietly read a book and keep my own counsel. I had to be okay with stepping outside of my comfort zone; that was part of the deal. I have started going to in-person meetups (now that we’re all vaccinated and still careful) and I have met some wonderful people.
I am trying to add to the version of old me. I am getting out more. Portugal is working well as my base to explore other parts of Europe. That forces me to step out of my comfort zone and ask people to help me because believe me, you will NEVER find your platform at the Madrid train station if you don’t ask for help. I really stepped out of my comfort zone while standing in line yesterday when a girl told her friend that she would run for coffee. I butted in, gave her some money, and while I waited to get my ticket changed, she found a Starbucks. So, talking to strangers definitely has some rewards.
Being here seems to have helped my creativity level. I am writing more and I think, writing more honestly. I attribute that to the honesty level of this country. There is so much “fake it til you make it” in the US. Everyone is trying to impress everyone else. Maybe they do that here but since I don’t speak the language, I don’t notice it. I suspect that people are just more comfortable with themselves here. They don’t have to be a millionaire to be considered successful. Hell, there’s a picture of the president of Portugal in the check-out line at his local grocery store in a sweatshirt and shorts.
An Easy Going Vibe
The pace is slower here. Family is a priority. No one talks about life balance because their lives aren’t out of balance. They work but they also enjoy their time off. People are not driven by the almighty dollar (or Euro). There’s a social safety net in place. (Oh no! Socialism? Yeppers. It works.) During the lockdown, people in Portugal (and many European countries) received a monthly stipend equal to minimum wage. Workers in Florida couldn’t even access their unemployment benefits because the computer system was set up to fail if too many people applied for benefits. Those benefits that they were entitled to. Talk about your Hunger Games. Portugal has a national health care system that means you can go to the doctor when you are sick, instead of waiting until you’re at death’s door. These services do not make people lazy; the Portuguese people work very hard. But it takes away the fear that they will starve or die because they can’t get decent medical care. When you remove that fear, when you assure basic survival, people tend to be better to themselves and each other.
There’s a frenetic energy in the US. If you’re not hustling 24/7/365 then there is something wrong with you. You’re a slacker. A parasite on the system. You should be getting up at 5 am to exercise and then make a veggie smoothie, then sit down to write for two hours or hit the office early to get a jump on the day.
Here, everything gets done in its own time. If you can’t finish something today, you’ll finish it tomorrow. Or the next day. People don’t return emails immediately. Often they won’t respond to an email until they have an answer for you. This saves a lot of back and forth nonsense.
America (the US at least) is all about super-sizing and jumbo packs and bigger is better. It’s about quantity, not quality. Portugal is a small country by comparison. It’s about medium-size for Europe. It is forward thinking, progressive, and because it is not a huge aircraft carrier of a country, it is able to respond to a changing world more quickly. Technological advances are coming faster and faster. A huge country like the US can’t adapt quickly. In this new landscape, bigger is not better. In fact, bigger will be a handicap.
I ended up in a small fishing village outside a medium-size city. Really, in the US, it would be a town. I watch the fishing boats come into the dock and leave again. I watch the old men who sit on the benches down below. People here say good morning to each other and smile. The restaurant managers don’t do the obligatory “how is everything.” They hang out and chat because everyone knows everyone. They look out for each other. I am greeted by name when I get my daily croissant. Both the bakery and the restaurant down below have taken in packages for me when I missed the delivery man.
When a kitten got stuck in a car engine, it seemed everyone wanted to help, from the restaurant workers who put out bowls of water throughout the day, the life guards who, after a hot day in the sun, spent several hours trying to reach the kitten, passersby who offered suggestions and crawled under the car, a donated can of tuna as an enticement, and the woman who sat quietly waiting in the darkness for hours until the bedraggled, scared, hungry kitten finally crawled out.
Retired American Expat in Portugal Wrap-up
Small town life. People who care. Smiles and waves and a pattern of life as regular as the tide that rolls in and out. Being a semi-retired American expat in Portugal suits me in a way I never expected it to. Would it suit you? Maybe not. Maybe so. All I know is that I have caught myself singing at odd times during the day. I smile more. I am not frantic about being successful. Or perhaps I have a new version of success. I’m not frantic about most things these days. I am at peace here. I feel safe. I am content.
Moving to a new country is scary. Moving to a country you’ve never been to, where you don’t know anyone, and don’t speak the language might be downright crazy. But here was my thinking: I had six months of accommodations set up. I had enough room on my credit card to cover just about any contingency. If I hated Portugal or if I decided moving was a massive mistake, I could fly back home for under $1,000.
You might not know yet if you want to become an expat or not. You might not be sure where you’d like to live. There are people who move to a new country and after a while, decide it’s not for them. That’s okay because they gave it a try and they gained new experiences. Some people “try out” several countries before deciding to put down roots. Everyone has their own path. All I know is that I have never felt more at home than I have here in Portugal.