So we write a lot about our trials and tribulations – and a friend of ours had just assumed that our relocation over here had been nothing but misery and heartache. Not remotely true! But the stuff that we write about is typically going to be stuff that people go through and might cause various amounts of struggle or heartache – which we want to document so that others don’t have to go through the same stuff that we did.
All that being said, you folks don’t get to see why it is we came here in the first place. And since all you see is the stuff that we’re untangling our ways through, you might come to the conclusion that this move was bad. It’s not.
What makes Portugal amazing
Ridiculous amounts of history. I mean, you hear a lot about the Moors conquering here (which they totally did), but before that there were even more. This is an old, old, old place. There is literally a museum that shows an ancient Roman amphitheater on the same block as our favorite brunch place! You get this type of stuff by default here.
The people are so warm and funny and charming. Plenty of folks will say you don’t have to learn Portuguese at all to live here in Lisbon (and other large cities) – and that’s pretty true. Some folks won’t speak English, and will only speak Portuguese. And some people won’t speak Portuguese, and will only speak English! One of our early lessons is “listen to the voice of the Uber driver’s GPS system and adjust accordingly” – if it’s in English, we speak English. If it’s in Portuguese, we at least try to speak Portuguese. We managed (almost) an entire conversation with an Uber driver who was from Angola (the Angolan accent is still European Portuguese-ish, and not Brazilian, but is a bit easier to parse for a new language learner. Allegedly, Porto is much harder, and the Azores is even harder than that). Speaking from our experience having met an Azorean back in California, we couldn’t understand his Portuguese or his English, and folks within Portugal can sometimes have a hard time parsing each others’ regional accents.
These people laugh a lot and most of the time it’s with you, and not at you. They have a weird, dark sort of mentality about a lot of things so laughing seems like the only cure. When they say they like you – they really do. And when they don’t, they’ll say that too. Honestly, it’s refreshing. It means that, most of the time, they’re pretty much wearing their heart on their sleeves.
When it’s not winter, like it is now – just about every meal we eat is outside. The farmer’s tan I have developed here is pretty impressive 😛 The food is great – specifically Portuguese food – but there are other cuisines available as well. To be honest, I haven’t found many places that knock it out of the park in terms of foreign cuisine yet. And for a place that literally invented chattel slavery, and the spice trade – that’s pretty shocking. The weather got juuust a little bit over 50°F (10°C) yesterday, so we were able to eat outside at our local tourist-ey schlock place – which we love, because we love the people there. The food is fine, but honestly that’s not why we even go.
While we do love the Portuguese folks we meet, we also meet all sorts of other people from all sorts of other places. And they’re awesome! I suspect it’s partly because we have a self-selection bias – you have to have at least a passport to come here. We’ve even met Americans with a strong southern drawl where Alison and I both are rolling our eyes at eachother – oh my god these people… But once we started talking to them, we realized they were actually pretty awesome! We’re starting to fill up our friend group here, and we don’t have any Americans yet. Honestly, I don’t mind this.
Another thing about Europeans – you will regularly, and easily, find people who speak 3 or 4 languages. It’s honestly kinda bonkers! Monophones like most US-ians are quite rare.
I love being able to walk down the street and wave to our CTT guy (Portuguese postal service – also a bank, weird choice). Or to run into local randos we know and be able to wave. We ended up looking like rockstars when we have had friends come in.
We’ve had more friends visit us here in the 6 and change months that we’ve lived here than we had in the entire 5 years we were in San Diego! Sometimes it’s a little daunting, to be honest. But I feel like our ‘tour guide routine’ is getting pretty tight.
The weather here is pretty great. Southern California is quite the tough act to follow, but Lisbon is doing a pretty admirable job. A little colder in the winter, a little warmer in the summer, but in general, it’s pretty compatible.
I hate it when people try to come here because it’s “cheap” – I feel like that’s not what here is for. But I can say that Alison and I have spent literal hours at a local cafe, drinking coffees and beers and eating sandwiches, and finally left closing out a 20€ tab. We’ve taken out a party of 6 to one of the short-listed “best food in Portugal” restaurants and the bill was less than 100€. Our rent is around 1000$ less than our mortgage back in the states (and our rent is a bit high). But, again, that’s not why we’re here.
And, my god, the people – one time we went to this lovely restaurant near our hotel (this was on one of our scouting missions) and we squeaked out a basic “Bom Dia!” greeting. Our waitress immediately sat down at our table with us and blurted out a giant chunk of Portuguese back at us – saying something along the lines of “thank goodness I can finally speak Portuguese with someone!” – I certainly couldn’t get most of what she said. (She knew well we couldn’t speak Portuguese, she was being funny. And it was very funny).
Learning the language is hard, but rewarding. Older people don’t have much English at all, and even one of our younger (mid-20’s) servers at one of our favorite restaurants is pretty weak at English. As we’ve mentioned a million times before, having a few words here and there really does make people feel like their country is at least being respected. They’re quite used to the Spanish coming here and just speaking Spanish at them. To many Portuguese people, this comes off as disrespectful. This language isn’t Spanish, though it is related. In the same way that you can sometimes understand a few words of Italian, knowing Spanish? Yeah, that’s similar for Portuguese. But knowing some Portuguese really does unlock a lot of the rest of the other Romance languages. I can eke out a tiny chunk of meaning, here and there. That’s an unexpected bonus.
It really does feel like home here. Home, with pros and cons. We’re out of the honeymoon phase, we’re in the normal, regular-issue regular-place phase. This is a place, like other places. There are many things we love about here, and a small handful of things we hate – same as in So Cal, same as in NY. The difference is when I think about “back home” I think of here. If Portugal were to tell us “sorry buddy, you need to get out” – I honestly don’t know where I would go. The US is familiar, and has lots of pros and cons, but doesn’t feel like home to me. It would feel like a fun visit to a strange country, and I would find myself wanting to go back home.
The açorda, the bread soup, feels to me like a mass delusion – like Marmite. (me: prepares for rotten tomates to be thrown at him). There are so many other dishes here! Just, like, don’t eat that one. Unless you really like soggy, fishy bread. The caldo verde, however, is a wonderful, authentic comfort-food soup that hits home on chillier days.
There are so many ex-pats here who love to go to ex-pat-friendly places – and, hey, you do you and go live your best life. But that seems so alien and bizarre to me. Why would you come to a foreign country and go hang out with people from your home country? Who would choose that? There are ex-pat meetups and ex-pat groups and we have – at least so far – not been remotely interested in attending any of those. No need. I’m enjoying the locals just fine.
Fado is definitely one of those things you want to go and hear and experience. Not every week or anything, but every now and then. Now that the language is starting to come together we started to be able to understand the lyrics, and the most common words are “fado”, “Lisboa”, and “saudade” (sad longing). It’s kinda funny; Alison and I were poking each other at the last Fado show we went to every time one of those came up.
The girls (our animals) are starting to get more comfortable here. Moxie was easy – she was completely adjusted on day two and was getting petted by random Spaniards and French folks on a daily basis, and loving it. The kitten (who is really most definitely a cat, not a kitten, but will always be ‘the kitten’) was weird for a week or so and then started gleefully murdering mice in our apartment. I saw her toying with one and had to leave the room yelling “Attenborough!” – meaning “let nature happen.” We don’t have any mice in our apartment anymore. Ripley has been more of a challenge, but just in the past few days has been making her way out of her shell. I’m impressed with her progress. She’s still nervous, but she’s always been nervous, even back in the States.
And, the people – did I mention the people? Every single Uber Eats person, every single delivery person, the mailman – everyone is just so goddamned pleasant. The servers. Bartenders. Folks at a coffee shop. All of them – so nice! I had just sorta adopted the ‘surly delivery person’ mindset in my own head as default, and it’s definitively not here. The coffee shop people are a little more terse – but still quite helpful and kind. They have to churn through a ton of people at their tiny prices to make rent, so I get it. But we’ve gotten into conversations with them – albeit brief – usually in Portuguese until we start to flounder.
I haven’t heard a single catcall here (to other people, not me, silly). Not one. Seems just like it’s not a cultural thing here. Gay and trans folks wander around, holding hands, and nobody gives a shit. Everyone basically stays out of each other’s shit.
The default ‘lean’ on most political things is pretty left. We have an election coming up – a ‘snap’ election – in March. Current polling says their weird moderate-right party might win. I don’t like that party so much, but it’s almost Biden-esque in its moderateness. I think we’ll pull through.
Tourists are an annoyance, the same way they are everywhere. The other day I mentioned to Alison “I just wonder if Lisboetas (Lisbon-folk) walk differently than other people?” And then I realized – I live next to a cruise terminal, in one of the oldest little towns in Lisbon. Of course it’s going to be littered with tourists! And they do walk funny. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’m taking the dogs out for a walk and there are people in front of my door because they want to be photographed in front of a ‘cool Lisbon tile house.’ It’s a nuisance, but it happens. Honestly, part of me loves that people are coming to visit here.
The drug policy here is quite the experiment. For a while, Portugal had some of the worst HIV rates and worst heroin problems in Europe. They, paradoxically, decided the correct route was “decriminalization” – not legalization, mind you, but de-crim. It means if you get caught with 10 days of drugs for ‘personal use’ you will get sent to a drug court. That’s where they will try to figure out if you want to get clean, or not, and figure out the next best steps. It’s not designed to be punitive. And it’s worked. Where things start to fall down is funding for those various treatment programs. You need real money and real political might to push those kinds of policies, and the will is starting to wane. That’s too bad, and I hope we get our shit together.
So that’s a bunch of disconnected little vignettes about our time here in Portugal, after 6 months. We love it here. I can’t wait for our paperwork to get straightened out. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be back in the US. I’m excited to make a trip back to New Jersey, to visit my friends, sure. I’m going to bring a lot of tins of sardines and other weird canned fish. But I also will be excited to come back home to Lisbon.