I have lived in Portugal for nearly three years now and am fairly settled into my life here. After reflecting on my move abroad and what I would do differently if I had to do it over again, I wanted to share some of the things I wish I knew before making the big move.
There were definitely things I didn’t even think about nor expect to experience and there was no way I could have predicted all the challenges and curve balls (even good ones!) that would be sent my way. If you’re considering a move to Portugal (or even a different foreign country), you may be interested to learn about the 8 things I wish I knew before moving abroad.
1. I would feel painfully lonely
When I moved to Lisbon, I fortunately had a friend who lived nearby and who I had met online before traveling to Portugal. She was a godsend — I don’t know how I could have gotten through many of the bureaucratic nightmares I experienced without her help. Her friendship was also invaluable as I struggled to find my footing in a brand-new city and frequently questioned my decision to move abroad, crippled by my longing to return to a familiar place.
I kid you not when I say that I spent the first week in Lisbon hysterically sobbing multiple times throughout the day and night — those full body-shaking, snot-streaming, gasping-for-breath sobs that leave you spent and feeling hungover. I was overwhelmed with adjusting to my new life in Portugal and achingly lonely.
After settling in and beginning my new job, I began to make friends — mostly other foreigners who were living and working in Lisbon as well. While the hysterical crying spells eventually stopped and I found myself enjoying my new friendships, I continued to feel the familiar ache of loneliness from time to time.
The loneliness was spurred on by various things — getting yelled at by a public service worker in a local government office, looking at pictures of my family and friends back home, and having no one to relate to my American-specific jokes and expressions, to name a few.
Even after establishing a group of friends and marrying the love of my life, I still feel lonely from time to time, especially when I don’t understand Portuguese references or when someone asks me where I’m from, picking up on my foreign accent.
Loneliness is part of change and nearly unavoidable in the beginning stages of a move abroad.
2. I would feel out of place when visiting my home country
I stayed in Portugal for almost a year and a half (mostly due to a bureaucratic nightmare that legally prevented me from leaving the country — but that’s another story) before traveling back to the United States for a visit.
Immediately after deplaning and entering customs, my brain seemed to glitch and I couldn’t figure out how to switch to English. My words came out jumbled and awkward and I automatically greeted and thanked people in Portuguese before correcting myself. I had become so used to using Portuguese in my day-to-day life and in the public sphere that it almost felt unnatural to revert to English.
I also felt out of the loop as I visited with family and friends — I felt as if everyone had continued on without me. When trying to talk about my experiences in Portugal and the new people and places I had gotten to know, my conversations felt shallow and lacking — no one could relate.
On another note, the food culture is completely different in the U.S. compared to Portugal and while I appreciated being able to eat some of my favorite foods during my visit that were unavailable in Portugal, I disliked feeling overwhelmed by choice and fast-paced meals. In Portugal, culture dictates long, leisurely meals at home or at restaurants with family and friends and while a variety of cuisines are available in the big cities, most restaurants are small, family-owned, and serve Portuguese food.
Ultimately, my move showed me how easily we can adapt to change and how quickly we are able to let go of our previous ways and habits.
Photo by Theodor Vasile on Unsplash
3. Not everything would be less expensive
Compared to the United States, Portugal has a relatively low-cost of living, although in the larger cities, costs are steadily rising due to increased foreign interest and tourism. I assumed that I would be able to make less while still being able to save.
Unfortunately, housing prices have increased dramatically in the past few years and I spend more than 75 percent of my monthly income on rent. Food and public transportation costs are lower but the cost of utilities (electricity, gas, etc.) are also quite high — in fact, Portugal has one of the highest costs of electricity in Europe while also being one of the poorest countries.
I have had to rethink many of my employment choices, including sacrificing doing what I love in order to make enough money to support myself. I have not been able to save and live month-to-month.
While I’ve never felt a need to make loads of money, it is also not ideal to worry about making ends meet.
4. Bureaucracy is the devil
I think the principles of Murphy’s Law can perfectly sum up my experience with foreign bureaucracy. I cannot think of a single bureaucratic task that I’ve had to complete in which something didn’t go wrong.
Not only are the bureaucratic processes much, much slower in Portugal, there are also heaps of red tape to get through and a complete lack of systematic organization. Government offices seem opposed to answering phones and it is nearly impossible to receive the same information from two different people— everyone seems to be on a different page.
Despite my struggles with all bureaucratic-related adventures since moving to Portugal, especially given the fact that I was trapped for over 12 months without a clue of when I’d be able to leave the country, it has definitely been worth pushing through. I believe that as a general rule, everything tends to work out in the end.
5. I should have planned ahead better
Spinning off point number 4, I realized that my bureaucratic process would have gone a lot smoother if I had planned ahead before moving. I found a job fairly quickly and after procuring a place to live, I thought I would just figure the rest out as it happened. I knew that I would need to apply for a residency permit with the immigration office in Portugal and that I could do that without a special visa (just a tourist visa, a.k.a. my passport). I brought all the important documents that I could think of and believed would meet the criteria for the residency permit, but I had done little research as far as the actual process and went into it with my expectations incredibly high.
It turns out that I completely underestimated the immigration process, believing that I could obtain all the required documents and simply show up to my appointment without a problem. I learned that every step of the process, each document I had to obtain, required another unforeseen step and plenty more confusion along the way.
As I had skipped obtaining a visa before moving to Portugal, I was unaware of much of the documentation that I would need and how to acquire it. I spent more money than I should have to rush order various documents and certifications for them while also ripping my hair out trying to find the right information I needed for my specific situation.
If I had to do it over, I would have simply spent an extra couple of months in the United States and applied for my visa there, thus avoiding the months of waiting and unknowns and headaches that awaited me in Portugal.
Image by nextvoyage from Pixabay
6. The language is frustratingly hard
I began learning the language before traveling to or moving to Portugal, so I wasn’t completed blinded by the difficulties of learning Portuguese. As one of the most difficult romance languages, Portuguese differs in many ways from English, making complete proficiency an idealistic pursuit.
If writing, reading, and speaking the language were enough, I would not have needed to add this bullet point to the list. However, the real kicker is actually understanding what natives are saying. To this day, I still have trouble completely understanding people when they talk and feel anxious about the prospect of making phone calls or talking to strangers for that reason.
The Portuguese language is spoken rapidly, and natives can often string together entire sentences while barely moving their lips. The sounds are closed and nasally, which stands in contrast to the open sounds of the English language.
Reaching spoken proficiency in the language took months of hard work and practice and there are still words that I find difficult to pronounce. However, I’m beginning to think that ever being able to fully understand everything that is said to me an impossible goal.
7. I would often question why I did this
Moving abroad definitely helped me put all my former worries and problems in perspective. At times I longed to return to my old life, resolving to never find fault with it if it meant I could avoid the challenges I faced after moving to Portugal.
I missed my friends and family and the places that were so familiar to me. I missed the ease of speaking my native language and having it spoken to me. I questioned the path my life was taking and wondered if it had been in my best interests to move to Portugal. Finally, I hated feeling like an outsider who would never belong.
While I eventually learned to embrace the changes and the differences I experienced, there are still times I question why I continue to live abroad. However, this might just be a part of the experience that I’ll have to accept will always tug at the back of my mind.
Image by Julius Silver from Pixabay
8. I wouldn’t regret it
More than two years in and I have not regretted my move, not once. Despite the challenges and downsides to living abroad, if I had to do it all over again, I would without hesitation. I believe living abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that even if I eventually return to the United States, I will return a better and more self-aware person with unforgettable experiences under my belt.
Lastly, if I hadn’t moved to Portugal, I would never have met my wonderful wife who has stood by my side and helped me learn and experience a different side to life and to myself.
I can say for certain that for me, the positives far outweigh the negatives when it comes to living in Portugal.
By: Isabel Cohen/ medium.com