American in Portugal


I am an American living in Portugal, splitting time — with my spouse — between small homes and villages in the country’s core (Alcains, Castelo Branco) and the Alentejo (Vila Boim, Elvas).


After almost four years, we’ve come to know what we like most about living in Portugal, as well as a few things that frustrate or confuse us. It has nothing to do with our love for Portugal and the Portuguese, but because we grew up in another land and culture, and can’t help but see life (for the moment) through a different lens and viewpoint.


That’s not a criticism, just a fact we’ve come to understand.


Some things can’t be taught to us; we need to learn them by experience. Answers aren’t to be found in the fine print of guide books and manuals, or in the files of some Facebook group. Only time here will tell and reveal.


Examples?


Who knew that Portuguese pharmacies would refill our prescription(s) from the USA – before we have a local doctor or our SNS number – simply by showing a bottle or box containing our existing medicine … or, better yet, a Rx from our American doctor? Or that, unlike the USA, right turns on red (after pausing) aren’t legal here? Who do you call if your car should break down on the road? And how long does it take until that “Eureka!” moment when we realize that gasóleo and diesel fuel are the same?


Moving from one address to another in Portugal brings its own load of lessons. After all is said and done, you remember that your mail needs to be forwarded. Should be simple enough … until you learn from the post office that it costs €20 per month for the service. Apart from the flyers and junk mail, our mailbox receives so few pieces that it’s better (suggests correios), if not simpler, to contact those postal patrons who connect with us through CTT and fill out the forms to change our address.


The same goes for Finanças, a legal requirement.


Changing addresses also means stopping by EDP (several times) to disconnect and stop service, as well as to resolve any billing issues. Are we the only ones who didn’t know that the country’s energy provider has us all on annual contracts? Sure, you can cancel your contract … but through its legal end date, you’ll continue to be billed monthly service charges.


Then, there’s shopping: We’ve been used to being able to return stuff we bought and get full refunds, as long as we bring the receipt, the item is in its original packaging, and the return is made within a designated timeframe. One major hardware and household supply chain in Portugal advertises, “Don’t worry! If you buy it here and find a lower price elsewhere, we’ll refund you the difference plus 10%!” Plenty of merchants will give you a refund in full if you return something, for whatever reason, no questions asked. But don’t ass-u-me that’s the rule everywhere. Stores aren’t required to post their returns and refunds policy, whether at the point-of-sale or on the receipt. So, before buying something, especially if it’s costly, you’d best ask about the store’s return and refund policy.


Did you know that, from the moment SEF exchanges your temporary visa for a residency permit, you’re eligible to vote in Portuguese elections? That’s right: legal residents, as well as citizens and Portuguese natives are entitled — and encouraged — to vote here.


Nonetheless, Portugal’s politics, elude us … probably because there are more than two intransigent political parties. But that’s a good thing, as partisan politics here don’t appear to put party before people. Instead, coalitions are formed to move things forward—unlike certain countries where nothing progresses because of unrelenting forces meeting intractable objects.


“But it’s a socialist country,” some homelanders insist, confusing politics with economics (capitalism).


“And you don’t think there’s socialism at work in your country, too?” we reply.


Economically, Portugal is poor, at least compared to the competition. The national minimum wage remained fixed in 2021 at 775.8€ (US $940/UK £665.90) per month or 9,310 euros (US $11,275/UK £7,991) per year, taking into account 12 payments per year. Accordingly, the national minimum wage has been raised 35 euros per month from the previous year, or 4.72%. Put another way, Portugal’s national minimum wage rose to 665 euros per month before tax in 2021, but is based on 14 (not 12) monthly payments. The Portuguese government maintains its objective of gradually increasing the minimum wage to 750 euros per month by 2023.


We love Portugal for its neutrality. It’s not one of the big G7 nations … or even the G20, for that matter. Rather, the country is an active (if errant) participant in the European Union, whose most recent president was Portuguese. Portugal is also a member of NATO. It’s a safe and peaceful place; to the best of my knowledge, there’ve been no mass murders, gunfire, attack weapons, or daily violence.


We adore the Portuguese people, some of who are our closest friends, even when they’re standing outside our house after midnight talking, without using their “inside” voices.


Yet Portugal remains somewhat of an enigma, an evasive paradox … which might explain that sense of “saudade” shared by so many of its inhabitants—increasingly including immigrants like us, who have come to experience much the same feeling.


Especially when it comes to dealing with the dust, flies, and mold!


(Bruce is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine.)

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