Today marks a year when Greg and I landed in Lisbon to start our adventure. One year later, we are settling and feeling like a part of the fabric of community here. We have friends — both local native Lisboetas and expats from around the world. We have an apartment. Emily is officially registered as a freelancer. We have social security numbers and tax ID numbers and a bank account. Greg is a card-carrying legal resident. We are active members of a thriving startup ecosystem, acting as mentors at a couple of accelerators. We have a favorite Mexican food restaurant, and a couple regular cafes that we visit. Greg has become familiar with the local street art scene. We easily navigate the metro system. We are part of a project called House of Beautiful Business, which hosts an annual “pop up community” in Lisbon in November.
We have explored a little outside of Lisbon, visiting Sintra, taking a day trip to Mafra, taking a road trip through the Alentejo region to the Algarve for New Year’s, and spending a weekend in Comporta and Troia. Overall, though, we have stayed close to Lisbon, exploring narrow streets and sweeping vista points, or miradouros.
We have compared our experience here with the Americans who experienced 1920s Paris during the années folles, when expats like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald became part of a thriving arts and literary scene and cultivated a cafe culture. With its physical location as a gateway to Europe and its historical ties to Brazil and Africa, Lisbon is becoming an epicenter for startups, social entrepreneurs, and creatives. For 200 years, the Portuguese set out to discover the world. Now the world has discovered Portugal.
This has resulted in a dynamic multicultural vibe here. Yes, there is peanut butter. There is beachfront sushi and impressively good Japanese noodle spots. There are more vegan and vegetarian restaurants than we knew about in San Francisco. There are more vegans and vegetarians than we knew in San Francisco. There is avocado toast. There are jazz clubs and a regular, intimate live acoustic music gathering that features ‘lusofonic’ music — music in the Portuguese language from around the world, including Brazil, Cabo Verde, Mozambique, etc. There are wood-fired Neapolitan pizza joints that have impressed our own resident “I’m-from-Chicago” pizza snob.
I’ll admit this “working sabbatical” has been more sabbatical than work. I have used this experience to explore a ‘second life’ career, one that builds on my experience, expertise and 20 years of successful entrepreneurship. I have tapped into a creative streak and spiritual foundation that has been largely dormant for years. Instead of forcing myself to discover a new “passion,” I have instead explored and followed my curiosities and allowed myself to be pulled by joy. I believe that passion is not discovered, but cultivated. The next chapter has yet to be written. More on the internal journey in a future post.
We have learned a lot in the last year. We have learned that we are content living with a lot (a LOT) less stuff than what we had before. Our wardrobes have been cut down to one-fourth of their former size. The kitchen in our apartment came equipped with dishes, glassware, flatware, and some basic implements like stirring spoons and spatulas. Emily’s cooking set-up consists of two skillets, one large stockpot and two smaller saucepans, a few glass Pyrex dishes, four ramekins, a colander, and some mixing bowls. The biggest purchase I’ve made here is a set of three knives — a chef’s knife, a utility knife and a paring knife — and a hand mixer that has a little food processor attachment. I will address my relationship with cooking in a later post.
I have tried to live with the intention of staying off the hamster wheel of spending money, then having to work hard to earn more money in order to spend more. We practice frugality like never before, which has counterintuitively generated a sense of freedom I had not felt before. The driving philosophy is that the less we spend, the less we have to work to earn the money to spend.
Not having a car has been a singular driver (see what I did there?) of an improved frame of mind and, therefore, quality of life. Although we donated, sold and tossed half of our belongings before moving here, I get the growing sensation that we will likely undergo another purge, at some point, of the items that remain in storage back in the U.S.
We have also learned that we have a large reservoir of resilience. Moving to a new country at this point in our lives was not easy. Dealing with government and corporate (I’m talking to you, Finanças and Vodafone Portugal) bureaucracy has been a challenge that has brought me to tears. Everything takes much longer than it did back home — from navigating grocery stores to trying to understand the health care system. We have had to find dentists and hairdressers, tax accountants and a pharmacist. Greg has had to navigate the online Portuguese tax filing system. We are very slowly turning the corner on the constant feeling of being off balance, unsure of the next step.
We are getting a front row view of a city in renewal. Construction cranes stretch across the skyline. Dilapidated and crumbling buildings are being renovated. Abandoned industrial neighborhoods are becoming “creative hubs.” Co-working spaces are popping up like weeds after a spring rain.
We also see the tension. AirBnB has decimated neighborhoods; in our five-story building we are the only long-term tenants. Rents here have skyrocketed, particularly in the old center of Lisbon. Scooters and Uber bikes litter the sidewalks, blocking pedestrian traffic and causing a general nuisance for locals. Neighborhood shops have been replaced with touristy tchotchke vendors. The historic trams are impossible to use as public transportation as they are jammed with tourists using them as amusement park rides through the neighborhoods, iPhones thrusting out of the small windows.
We don’t feel we are lacking anything, but there are some things I miss. I miss having personal outdoor space, like a deck, courtyard or veranda. I miss having a proper kitchen. We miss the rugged central coast around Big Sur, with its majestic redwood forests.
We miss our friends and family, of course.
Email, WhatsApp, social media and videoconferencing have kept us in touch, but of course it’s not the same as being in person.
At the same time, I am becoming increasingly self-conscious of the damage of social media on my psyche and society in general. Surveillance capitalism has been revealing its recalcitrant ugliness over the past years. My intention is to move my postings and updates to this platform and off Facebook. While this is a public forum, open to anyone who comes, I can at least feel a degree of agency over my own content rather than allowing someone else to sell it to the highest bidder. Less time on social media also protects me from the toxic vitriol that passes for conversation and dialogue, which generally leaves me feeling anxious and “icky.”
Looking ahead to the next year, we hope to develop a rhythm, a flow, a groove. We will continue to explore all that Portugal has to offer, and we hope to bring you along our journey. Thank you for accompanying us.