What do you do when your doctor decides you cannot go up and down the 37 stairs (a dozen times daily) in your house anymore? Especially with your three dogs—which you walk twice around the village: once with the two little ones and, again, with the bigger boy? And, further, that the aches and pains in your back and your bones are unable to withstand the uneven cobble stones paving your streets because of the stresses and strains they put on you—especially when walking your dogs around your beloved village four times each day?
You don’t have 37 steps? Or three dogs? And your streets are paved with asphalt, not cobble stone, you say? Or you live on a quinta?
Consider this scenario, one quite familiar to Americans seeking to move abroad to Portugal (and Spain). One of the indispensable requirements of obtaining a residency visa is documenting that you have a dwelling … at least for your first six months here.
You can rent or buy.
Though some opt for renting, knowing they will have to relocate when their lease is up, it’s a sensible choice—especially if you have few household items and worldly goods to transport. You’ll have a chance to live up close and personal and understand the lay of the land as you explore other neighborhoods, nearby towns and villages and cities, or (perhaps) elsewhere entirely in the country.
You have six months to travel and explore, gambling that, for whatever reason – a community of friends already living there, proximity to the coast and its Atlantic beaches, charm of the place that tugs at your heartstrings and beckons, a perfect plot to put down roots and live off the land instead of the grid – the time will provide opportunities so that you don’t have to rush to judgment about where you’ll live.
Others, like us, however, prefer to buy—submitting a property deed with our visa application, rather than a rental contract.
With all the moves we’ve made already, packing the mementos and monuments of our 25+ years together for a transatlantic shipment would be our last herculean undertaking before the Atlas in us shrugged.
Buying in a “foreign” country requires a different type of fortitude. For instance, you need to envision – even fantasize – the lay of the land where you want to be: Urban, suburban, or rural? Village, town, or city? On the coast, in the center, or along the border? Single-family detached house, “row” home, duplex, apartment, condo, or land enough to grow (maybe even sell) your edibles and comestibles? New build or resale, renovation or ruin to rebuild from scratch?
Along with such demographic factors, you’ll also want to weigh in with the “psychographics.” Close your eyes and picture your perfect place. What does it look like? More important, how does it feel to you? For the sake of seclusion are you opting for less in terms of Internet and telecommunications options—especially if you’ll be working online? If dogs are already part of your furry family (or will be), will you be comfortable in a home without any land, requiring you to walk and pick up after them, regardless of the weather … which can be day upon day and weeks at a time of continuous rain or brutal, scorching sun where it can be 100 degrees or more in the shade throughout the summer? Do you have special health issues or concerns which will dictate medical availability and accessibility?
And what many of us forget to take into account is our age: Will what seems reasonable, doable, and accommodating now feel or be just as easy to cope with down the road five, ten, twenty years hence?
In our case, we didn’t know if Russ would be able to continue working remotely. Would his close-knit Door County performing arts company consent to him not working under their thumb? Would they be willing to contract communications and marketing – as well as attendance, virtually, at staff meetings – from a time zone six hours later?
We didn’t know when we began planning our move; yet, discretion being the greater part of valor, we concluded that we’d best assume that we’d be “freelancers,” with new income flowing from the USA except for Social Security.
Along with a relatively modest budget, that was a reality which dictated many of our choices and criteria where to look and live in Portugal.
Eyes closed, we envisioned our new home set in an idyllic village with cobble stone streets and a picturesque church whose bells would mark the tempo of our daily lives. Our home would be easily accessible by car to shopping, dining, and entertainment. After ten years of flying to our vacation bolt in southern Spain, it would also be within an easy driving distance. Importantly, too, it had to be approved for commercial use, as we planned to open our “Tapas Americanas” to produce income.
All told, we made three round-trips between the USA and Portugal in search of the “right” property, searching for places between Coimbra and Castelo Branco that met our needs … and wants. We scheduled one of our trips to coincide with a Pure Portugal seminar on buying and building, losing one possibly perfect property close to Miranda do Corvo because it sold before we could make an offer; we bypassed another property after learning at the seminar that a “build,” enclosed on three sides by a mountain, would be difficult to maintain because of the moisture and constant battle against damp and mold.
Towards the end of our second tour, we found a house that ticked off all of our boxes. In a village just 15 minutes outside of Castelo Branco, it was postcard picturesque. On the street level, it had housed a café before the owner’s husband died and she put the property for sale—including the lower-level café, a courtyard, and large kitchen.
Above, rose two more levels. On the first was a huge living room, two smaller rooms (formerly bedrooms, but offices for us), and a separate wing above the downstairs kitchen with a large guest quarters and en suite that not only would provide privacy, but could be used as an AirBnB rental. The top floor featured a master bedroom with walk-in closet and separate en suite, an adjacent multi-purpose room with a second (service) kitchen, and a huge covered terrace. The house also included a large attic with ample room for storage.
The drawbacks? After being vacant for several years, the elements had taken their toll on the premises which needed repairs, mold remediation, and painting … not to mention an entirely new kitchen constructed downstairs. Those 37 steps would be our daily exercise. And, although the café was zoned “commercial,” the landlady had allowed its license to lapse. To be granted a new license would require bringing the café up to current code—at least €10,000 in construction costs to make it handicapped accessible, more mobile and modern.
Not that it mattered, anymore …
Russ’ employers wanted him to keep working for them. This was well before Covid closures and work restrictions; they were willing, at least, to give it a try. Fortunately, everything worked well. Not only did it prepare the organization for the new realities of work caused by the pandemic, but it also prepared the way for other employees and contractors to work remotely as well.
We fixed up and improved the house, using the former café as our gathering area for friendly get-togethers. Walking the streets with our dogs, we got to know our neighbors. Because few in this provincial village spoke English, our conversational skills grew beyond “Bom Dia” and “Obrigado.” These good-hearted yet private people knocked on our door, bringing baskets with fruits and vegetables from their gardens or quintas. We came to enjoy the local holidays and festivities, even as we respected the solemn processions of locals paying their last respects to those dearly departed. Living on the main street brought life’s realities and rituals to our windows, balcony, and front door.
With each chime of the church bells, I grew older … crossing that milestone from sixties to seventies, from an energetic “senior citizen” to an “elderly” fussbudget. Limbs broken 20 years earlier sent me not-so-gentle reminders with increasing frequency. New ills, aches, and allergies began to trouble me. Never particularly patient to begin with, I increasingly identified with grumpy old men filled with frustrations, feeling (felling) my physical limitations and life passing me by.
When a series of gastrointestinal problems and my first bout with sciatica brought me to hospitals, laboratories, pharmacies, and clinics, my physician insisted that pharmaceuticals could just do so much to help; some major changes must now be made in our lives.
“You cannot continue to climb up and down all those stairs,” she stated, “especially with the dogs. And the uneven cobble stones in the streets aren’t helping, as the dogs pull you going after a dog or cat.”
“So, what are you saying; what do you suggest?” I asked, presuming her forthcoming answer.
“You must move!” she informed me. “Find a one-level home with a backyard, a quintal. Maybe a bungalow. You will see how much better you will begin to feel.”
Move? Again? After all that planning? From a village that had welcomed and embraced us: Newcomers! Over the last ten years or so, the local population had been halved—from 1,200 to 600.
I had adjusted and adapted my life in retirement to one of active involvement. Since moving to Lousa, I had one book published and was working on a new one. I wrote regularly for The American Magazine (UK) and The Portugal News. I created and administer several popular Facebook groups—one for “Portalegre People” (where our other home was located); another for “LGBTQ+ People and Friends in Portugal”; and a third, “American Expats & Friends in Portugal and Spain,” for expats, immigrants, the curious, and wannabes. Most important, however, was the progressive, interfaith congregation I pastored for hurting and spiritually hungry “People of Faith Online.” And, most recently, we launched Portugal Living Magazine, an English language magazine that covers the entire country, connecting people throughout … as well as those seeking to relocate.
Move? At this point, I needed to think of it not as moving out, but moving on. Nonetheless, it’s not as easy as one might think.
Stay tuned …
Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.