Within hours of the devastating U.S. Supreme Court decision to rescind the constitutional protection of bodily autonomy, we started getting queries. Texts, emails, and Linked In messages came in, all with the same question: “Tell me more about living in Portugal.”
There was no need to read between the lines, as Justice Thomas made clear, that the Court does not plan to stop with women’s constitutional protections. They are open to questioning other precedents regarding privacy rights — the right to contraception, the right to privacy in the bedroom, the right to marry whomever you love.
This all came against a backdrop of damning testimony that puts into high relief the very real risk to U.S. democracy as we know it, and the complicit political machine that is willfully enabling its collapse.
Ever since we moved here four years ago, we have fielded requests for Zoom calls and conversations, to share our experience of moving and living here. When the news stories reach a fevered pitch as they did a week ago, the messages increase and the tone sounds more desperate. This time, they came from those who felt they were the next group to be marginalized for their personal choices. People have started to realize that their rights can easily, with a stroke of a pen, be taken away. Mostly, though, the questions come from friends and colleagues who feel of sense of helpless, resigned despair about the backward direction of the U.S.
We have spoken with people at various stages of movement — from ones who are reacting to the latest insult to their values, to the ones who have already done their homework and are actively seeking a location to put down new roots. I have met with people already here on scouting expeditions, and those who have taken the plunge and purchased property.
There is no lack of news stories about Americans, particularly Californians, choosing Portugal as their new home.
The New California Dream is in Portugal (LA Times)
I generally avoid reading the comments sections of news stories, as that just affirms the worst things about humanity. But in many of these articles you will see that a great many people are happy to see progressives leave the United States, California in particular. You also see a cautionary welcome from the Portuguese, who are frankly wary of wealthy Californians bringing their hangups and their problems with them.
The popularity of Portugal among expats is causing significant pressures on the real estate market, pricing locals out of homes and pushing them out of the city centers to the metropolitan margins. That equals more automobile traffic and congestion. Articles that quote tone-deaf Californians about “how cheap it is” are an insult to struggling Portuguese families, particularly those who are being pinched by war-induced inflation.
This post is an attempt to provide people who are considering an ex-U.S. move with some “coaching” around becoming an expat in Portugal — or anywhere, really. Here are some questions and reflections to consider.
what is your intention?
What I hear and read a lot is what people are trying to get away from. Often, they are trying to get away from a vague sense of unease. We all feel a foreboding, highlighted by news headlines and social media angst.
But they often can’t clearly define a destination, or what they want to move toward.
I have been met with blank stares when I ask, “Why Portugal?” The response is usually a rehash of what’s already in the news stories: cost of living, sunshine. There are other places (Mexico, Costa Rica, Taiwan, etc.).
As the Cheshire cat in Alice In Wonderland suggests, if you don’t know where you’re going then any road can get you there.
Take some time to consider not what you’re trying to escape, or end. Rather, consider what you want to create in your life. Imagine your life in five to ten years. Try to be as clear as you can about what an ideal life looks like for you. Be honest about where and how you can create it, and make a commitment to that ideal. What values drive your decisions?
When we first moved here, many locals asked us if we were “escaping” a particular man-child president with a shock of orange hair and a tendency toward temper tantrums. The honest answer was “no.” He was not the reason we came. We added that he and his rabid followers might be the reason we stay, though.
Do you really want to live in another country, or do you just want a foreign vacation home where you can escape the toxic news headlines for a few months? (Breaking news: you can do that in the U.S. It’s called walking away from your phone.)
Is your intention to build a resilience plan should things continue to crumble? In that case, you need to think about establishing residency. Having a holiday home where you spend only a few months a year will give you no rights to move quickly in case things unravel rapidly. COVID and the lightning-fast border closures of 2020 taught us that, didn’t it?
who will be your people?
Do you want to be part of the culture and society of your destination, or are you likely to end up being friends exclusively with other expats? If it’s the former, then start learning the language, history, and culture now, before you move. Here is a list of books that a local writer recommends. There are also plenty of online Portuguese language schools where you can start to learn the basics. Research the kinds of organizations where you might become involved in civil society — MeetUps, volunteer opportunities of every stripe are available to you.
If you are not interested in any of that, then please return to the first question.
how will you contribute?
Every single article I’ve read over the last four years is about how Americans are taking advantage of Portugal — the weather, the food, the wine, the Golden Visa. Not a single one addresses what they are contributing to their new community. If you have the means to pack up your life and move here because you don’t like who is President, then you’re unlikely to be a refugee and have the means to make constructive contributions. (We do, in fact, have plenty of actual refugees from Syria and Ukraine, who need protection.) Think about how you plan to contribute, to give back to the country that you are adopting.
what are you willing to give up?
A friend who recently bought a place in the northern part of the country and is preparing to move from Colorado. He was joking that most of his friends, when asking about life in Portugal, focus on their questions on what you can buy here. As if your ability to continue buying crap is directly related to your quality of life.
Believe me, you can live on less than half of the stuff you’ve likely accumulated. Four years after we moved, we still have very little here. It took me two months of full-time purging to whittle our things down by half. Very soon, we’re going to take another hard look at what we’ve had in storage. Another purge is inevitable.
Here’s an immediate word of advice: if you are serious about moving, start seriously clearing out your belongings now.
Beyond the required purge of personal belongings — and believe me, it’s significant — what else are you willing to give up? What habits, attitudes, and expectations are you willing to give up to make this move?
Efficiency. If you think a trip to the DMV is a visit to Dante’s Inferno, then you might not have the resilience needed to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy here. From getting your residency visa at the immigration office to getting a driver’s license can be a long and painful experience that tests your mettle and will to live. In the early months, it brought me to tears.
Give up your notions about how government — or any large entity, such as the power or cable company — is supposed to function. Whatever inconvenient experience you’ve had in the U.S., multiply it by ten and you’ll start to get the idea.
Any food, any time of the year. Don’t expect strawberries in December. Things appear and disappear in the markets according to season. And sometimes for no apparent reason at all. San Franciscans, take note: say good-bye to the Mission burrito. That is all. Lisbon and Porto have come a very long way in a short time to offer more global and ethnic foods. Avocado toast? Yes? Decent third-wave pour-over coffee? Yes. Ramen? Yes. Poke bowls? Yes. Peanut butter? Yes. Real maple syrup? For a price, sometimes. Fresh jalapeño peppers? Grow them yourself. Half and half? Fuggetaboutit.
An honest answer. Ask four people something and you’ll get five answers. And no one will tell you what they really think. That would be impolite.
A decent kitchen. I have written elsewhere about the woeful state of kitchen design here. Mix a colonialist culture with a historically poor society and you get kitchens mostly meant for domestic workers from Brazil and Cabo Verde. Anyone with any financial means will have had household help, and won’t waste their leisure time slaving in a steamy kitchen on a hot Lisbon afternoon. They also won’t waste their money designing a beautiful kitchen that they’ll never cook in. This is starting to change, mostly with the influence of foreigners who are demanding so-called “American kitchens.” But they have a very, very long way to go to match the glory of a properly designed kitchen as the heartbeat of the home.
A smoke-free outdoors. This could be the singularly most difficult adjustment for me after the sad Easy-Bake ovens and tiny sinks you’re more likely see on a boat — the inability to sit at any outdoor restaurant or cafe without choking under the toxic plume of cigarette smoke. Europeans in general don’t seem to have gotten the memo on smoking-related cancer and heart disease. Decades of funding for anti-smoking initiatives in California have instilled an attitude toward smokers as being déclassé. Not so here. And don’t get me started on the adding-insult-to-injury habit of the Portuguese to toss cigarette butts on the street or sidewalk. That’s illegal now, but no one enforces the fines and it’s still ubiquitous and gross.
how are you willing to change?
This is not to bash our adopted home. Instead it’s to give you a reality check on whatever American biases, expectations, and hangups you may have that Portugal will stubbornly resist. Leave that baggage at home. Portugal is one of the oldest countries in the world. They have been around a lot longer than you, California, or the United States. The surge in expats here is changing Portugal, for sure. But be prepared to change yourself.
One big change you would do well to start practicing now — switching from a transactional mindset to a personal one. I have been called out more than once when I’ve started a conversation with someone with the question or transaction. “Can you tell me where…” has been halted in its tracks with the other person saying, “Hello. How are you?” It was a polite reminder that we are all human beings, something that in the U.S. we seem to have forgotten. You will get a lot further if you connect with and recognize people before you ask something of them.
We are happy to answer questions and share our experience of moving here. We feel lucky to be here and are excited that Portugal is having its moment after so many years of being a sort of European backwater. The potential here is palpable.
Just don’t come here in a fit of rage. Leave that energy behind you, please. Instead, come with a sense of adventure and openness to learn about a new country and its people — and to learn something about yourself.