Moving to Portugal: Who Flourishes?

Tips for a Successful Move Abroad

As a relocation coach for people who want to move to Portugal, common themes come up repeatedly in my one-on-one sessions.

Whether it’s in the questions people ask about day-to-day life, the fears and concerns they share, or their reasons for wanting to move to Portugal, I now have enough material to write a short book on these topics (maybe…). 

You might not be interested in moving abroad or to Portugal specifically. Still, the qualities and attitudes that ensure a good transition from the old life to the new can help you manage change—even if you never plan to leave your hometown! 

Yes, you need to be resilient and adaptable, makes sense, right? But what do those characteristics look like in practical terms? Allow me to share some tips to increase the likelihood that your move abroad will be successful. 

Let’s get started! 

1. Check Your Ego 

Although you may think this doesn’t apply to you, I promise it applies to all of us—except for maybe the Dalai Lama. 

When we’re out of our comfort zone, the ego will pop up, ostensibly to protect us, but instead it feeds us with a fear monologue. It tells us we’ll be laughed at as we try to speak the language, that we know a better way to do things than these silly bureaucrats do, and that every disagreeable event that happens while in this strange new land is directed AT us. 

Nearly one-hundred-percent of the time none of the above is true. 

Although Portugal is a small country with a mere 10 million people, it’s rich in history and in bureaucratic idiosyncrasies. This doesn’t mean their way is wrong and the American way is right (despite what your government and education system told you). The system we grew up with seems right or even better because it’s what we know, but nothing will cause you more suffering than hanging on to this notion. 

Could you have thought of a better way to queue while waiting to be called to the counter at the immigration office? Of course, but no one cares and it is not worth getting bent out of shape over.

Coping with inefficiencies is not why you, intrepid soul, moved abroad, but it is a part of everyday life. So make peace with it because it’s not personal. Tell your ego to take the back seat, breathe, and proceed with one foot in front of the other. Things get done here, just on a different timeline. 

2. Lead With Curiosity

From the moment you decide to move to Portugal to the day you land and beyond, make curiosity your constant companion. 

Life in Portugal is full of curious ponderables! The depth and breadth of new things to acclimate to can be overwhelming, but it can also be fun and funny.

Small moments like why my neighbor would say the same words to me for weeks each time I said hello (she was teaching me a Portuguese phrase and didn’t tire until the lightbulb went on and I finally got it) or why Portuguese grandmas have the best neighborhood watch program anywhere.1 

When faced with unfamiliar cultural differences, bureaucracy, and the occasional death-trap sidewalk, our brains go on overload as we try to make sense of what we’re experiencing.

This unfamiliarity is an excellent opportunity to get curious about these new-to-us ways. Instead of railing against the absurdity and how there’s a better and more productive way, see if you can consider the whys without the criticisms. It’s not easy, but definitely more fulfilling than being aggravated. 

3. Lower Your Expectations & Slow Down

I’ve seen the promotional images, watched the videos, and read about life in Portugal, too. And yes, much of it is true—but it’s not paradise, heaven, or whatever other idyllic word people use to describe it. 

Portugal is beautiful, the people are lovely, you won’t get shot at for, well, anything; the healthcare is top-notch, and you won’t bleed out in the waiting room if you don’t have health insurance, but no place is perfect. Life can be hard as a newcomer in myriad ways, but if you keep your expectations low, everything that goes favorably is a bonus. 

PRO TIP: Expect to do just a few things, maybe even one thing, each day. 

Some days, you’ll accomplish nothing—especially in your first six months to a year (many of us acclimate to this pace and don’t want to do more than one major-ish thing each day). 

Life moves slowly here, so too bureaucracy and other essential activities.

Tasks will get completed, you will finally figure out how the post office works (sorry, no Saturday delivery), and you can always go out for coffee if all else fails.

In Portugal, going for coffee alone or with friends and neighbors will minimize your daily woes. So, when you’re beset with Portugal Fatigue or even when life is going great, go out for coffee. 

4. Portugal Fatigue is Real

I’m not picking on Portugal when I use the term Portugal Fatigue. I’m sure there’s Honduras Fatigue and Japan Fatigue, too. I know there’s US Fatigue. 

I came up with this term to describe the feeling that descends upon you when you’ve been back to the same office three times, each time with new documents, and each time you’re told what you have is not correct—and that no one in the office would have told you to bring those items. It’s crazy-making, especially in combination with a language you don’t understand. 

Know this now: Portugal Fatigue is real, and it’s okay; it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have moved here, and it does get better. 

My friend, Katie, who recently moved with her family from California, had an exhausting experience similar to what I described above. She told me she “[…] woke up the next day with a bureaucracy hangover.” That’s precisely what it feels like, a hangover. You just can’t do anything else. You’re tired and buried under the weight of the language barrier that burned through whatever remaining brain cells you had for the day. 

Be assured you will experience bureaucracy hangover, too. But you will also triumph doing things in your new country. It sounds crazy, but the thrill, yes, that’s the right word, the thrill of transferring the electricity account for your apartment over to your name is transcendent (okay, maybe transcendent is going a bit far). 

Embrace beginner’s mind in your new country, be willing to feel dumb, delight in making mistakes.

Love is Hard

It’s perfectly reasonable to love a country so hard (like I do Portugal) and never want to return to your home country, yet bawl your eyes out about how draining it all is. We are complex beings, we humans; all these feelings can exist at once. 

Starting over and moving abroad is a big step—and it’s way outside most people’s comfort zones. Many will talk about doing this, dream about it, but most people will not make the move. It takes a certain kind of person to step into the unknown, are you ready?

Oh, and you can have high expectations for the coffee part of your day. That usually turns out really well.


GOOD LINKS 

  • Listen to David Pearl’s Wanderful podcast. Designed to be listened to while walking, it’s a companion to his nonprofit Street Wisdom project. 

  • Best news ever! Science Confirms: Coffee Can Add Years to Your Life

  • Ready to finally learn Portuguese? I highly recommend Portuguese with Carla (aff. link). I’ve been a member for years but didn’t really dig in until recently. Carla and her husband, Marlon, revamped their entire program with a focus on language acquisition, not verb charts (they do have them)—because when was the last time you gave a two-year-old a grammar book? No, we learn by listening, consuming media, and speaking + making lots of mistakes—then we can dive into grammar! I’m excited to get back on track, so why don’t you join me? 


    Thank you Greg, Christine, Bill, Michael, Jeffrey, Flip, Elaine, Peter, Ken and anonymous someones for your support. You, too, can be a supporter of my writing and life: examined, this weekly letter, through Buy Me a Coffee. I appreciate your support!

1

When I returned from Porto I phoned one of neighbors to tell her I made it home, which she had asked me to do, but she told me she already knew. And no, she can’t see me or my apartment from hers. Portuguese neighborhood watch program in action!