I was reading a “shit happens post” or as I call them, “post of woe” in one of the expat Facebook groups. This time it was a man complaining about a three-month wait to receive debit cards for a new account, due to the cards being mailed first to the wrong address and then… who knows? The poster rambled more than I do.
I have been in Portugal for two years now and, frankly, if I had belonged to some of the expat groups on Facebook before I got here, I might have thought twice about moving. Some of the hassles people have can be a bit scary. There are hurdles to getting your residency visa, such as getting a long-term lease or opening up your Portuguese bank account (there are services that do this for you). And without a doubt, the mail service here is unreliable at best. (Though US government mailings—notices from IRS or Social Security—seem to come through with no delays.) Most people post their problems looking for help and solutions—sort of a “Has anyone run into this?” question. But other people want to celebrate the Airing of the Grievances all year long.
This particular poster was VERY ANGRY(!) and couldn’t BELIEVE(!) that the level of service from his bank was so poor. He is paying a monthly service fee of €15 (GASP!) that includes a personal bank representative to help him out. In short, his personal banker was not particularly good at his job, unresponsive, and did not provide a solution. Through a series of mishaps, it took about three months to receive his bank cards.
First yeah, I get it: not having your Multi Banco card makes things less convenient and working without one for months is ridiculous.
Second, I learned that you often don’t hear back from someone here until they have a solution for you. It cuts out a lot of the back and forth, but to those of us who are used to fast replies if only to say they got your message and are working on it, it’s disconcerting to not hear back.
Third, if you’ve worked in money circles, you would know that a €15 monthly fee doesn’t cover a real personal banker. You’ve got a little upgrade box ticked next to your name in the file. Americans in general are VERY UNHAPPY that banks charge fees here. SPOILER ALERT: Banks charge fees here. I pay €10 a month for my checking account. If €10 a month is going to break you, you’ve got bigger problems going on.
Fourth, shit happens. It’s usually not personal. (Though in the case of this guy, it may have been. I mean, you know the type…)
Shit Happens to Everyone
One of the best things about the expat groups is that people tend to share their experiences. It’s also one of the worst things because how things go for one person is not necessarily how they will go for you or anyone else. The comments on the guy’s post ranged from “Yeah, that bank sucks” or “It took us that long with another bank” to “I walked out of that bank with my card when I opened my account.”
There is very little uniformity here. My residency appointment at the Faro SEF (immigration) office where I submitted my paperwork went like a breeze, in spite of a language barrier. I’ve heard stories of people who went to the same office who were asked for every last piece of documentation and then some. Some people were “treated rudely(!)” at the local hospital when they went to get their national health numbers. “They didn’t even speak English!” No shit. You’re in Portugal. I went to the same hospital, saw the same woman, read my request in VERY POOR Portuguese from the sheet of paper I had printed out (yay Google translate), and even though we had some trouble communicating, she was polite and helpful and I had my health number via email within hours. Same clerk, different personal experience.
You’ve Got to Be Flexible
Whether you are immigrating to a new country or just traveling anywhere, shit happens. Flights get delayed, luggage gets lost, your phone doesn’t work, the hotel booking is screwed up.
I always have a Plan B and usually a Plan C, too. When I went to buy a scooter, the credit card I planned to use wouldn’t work without a PIN. There was plenty of “room” on it so that wasn’t the problem, but I hardly ever use the card. I don’t do cash withdrawals on it, so I never used the PIN in the States or anywhere. I had no idea what it was. But in Europe, you don’t sign credit card receipts. Most of the machines are contactless. And for some credit cards, you need a pin. Okay. I had put money down on the scooter and the man said he would deliver it that night. I went home, spent about five minutes online with my credit card company, and got a new PIN. Easy peasy.
BUT… I know how things go in my life. So, I had a back up plan in case the machine didn’t take the card. Which it didn’t. I ended up paying with a combination of cash and a US bank debit/credit card. His machine took that card with no problem… and for whatever reason, it didn’t require a PIN. I checked the original credit card the next day at an ATM machine using the new PIN. Worked perfectly. Why didn’t it work on the dealer’s credit card machine? Why ask why? It didn’t. I was ready for that.
Because I live alone, I have back up plans for most things. If the bus isn’t running, I’ll call an Uber. If there are no Ubers available, I’ll call the local taxi company. No taxis? I walk or I don’t go. If I’m going somewhere by train, I check to make sure there isn’t a train strike. (They are very civilized about inconveniencing people here.) Meeting a friend for drinks and all the restaurants are closing early due to the cold? There’s wine at my place. (Just pretend you don’t notice the dust.)
You Also Need to Be Proactive
Someone smart once said, “If money can fix it, it’s not a problem. It’s a situation.” (Which is why I sometimes mutter under my breath, “Hoo boy, have I got a large situation.”) No one likes to waste money or pay more than they have to. But sometimes you end up doing things twice (and paying twice) or spending more money or time because you need to use a work-around.
While I am learning Portuguese, I can tell you right now that I catch one word out of every ten and can only form short sentences. When I need something, I go on Google translate and print out what I need to say so that we at least start on the same page. After that, it tends to be a crapshoot, but so far, things have gotten done. I also take just about every piece of documentation that may be asked for to every appointment.
In the case of the missing bank cards, there were a couple of different avenues the man could have taken. When I opened my account at a different branch of the same bank, I was told that for an additional €10, they could have the card sent to the branch and I could pick it up there. Yes, please. Mail is unreliable here. The place where I was staying at the time did not have easy access to deliveries. Paying an extra €10 to make sure I had the bank card in hand was a bargain. I suspect the upset man didn’t want to pay the fee. Branches can also give you a card that day, though it won’t have your name on it. They still work.
I have a Portuguese bank account and US accounts. If one account hits a snafu, I can access the other accounts. I can transfer money almost instantaneously using Wise. (It is highly recommended in the expat groups for a reason—reliable service and low fees.) I have my US bank cards mailed to a US address. When there’s enough mail (or important mail), my friend forwards it to me using DHL.
And on that note, if someone is sending you something, whether it’s by Portugal’s CTT or Amazon delivery (which usually comes via a branch of CTT), double check then triple check that your address and phone number are correct. ESPECIALLY when there’s been a language barrier. Any important paperwork from the States is sent to me via DHL. It is expensive (around $75 for an envelope-type pack), but it’s reliable. If your address here is more than a little wonky, look into getting a PO box.
If you need to get something done, whether it’s exchanging your driver’s license, changing your address with Finanςas, or buying a bus pass, do a little bit of research first. Check the websites to see what you need. Go into the expat groups and search on your topic. Find out if people ran into anything they didn’t expect. Make sure there’s no holiday on the day you are going. Check to see if they close between 1:00 and 3:00 pm.
When you’re in a new place, you need to do a little extra prep work, whether it’s figuring out how to get somewhere or making sure you get your groceries on Saturday because the village shops are closed on Sundays. A lot less shit happens when you prepare properly.
Check Your Attitude
Now, I’m not saying that people who have issues with getting things done here are jerks. I would say that some are. The phrase you need to permanently remove from your vocabulary is “Back home we did it this way.” Nobody cares and you ain’t back home. It’s a different country and things are done differently. Some things better, some things not so much, most things on par. That’s the deal.
And let’s get real. Your cable goes out in the States sometimes. There’s almost always a long-ass wait at the DMV. No one can get the same answer twice from the IRS. (That’s why sharp tax attorneys will switch IRS offices for clients in deep trouble.) If everything was perfect in the States, you probably wouldn’t have moved.
I love living in Portugal. It has a lot of benefits that work for me, including affordable health care and, where I am, a slightly lower cost of living. I am grateful to be here and I am working hard to learn the language and culture. Is it perfect? No. I really miss central heat and occasionally central air conditioning. Two years in, I’m still figuring stuff out and I’ll be doing that for the rest of my life. But you know what? I still had to figure stuff out in the States.
Shit happens everywhere, even in Portugal. Once you realize that, life gets easier to deal with, no matter where you live.