“There must be something you don’t like!”
That’s the response I get from the naysayers, those who don’t believe that Portugal is a land of milk and honey, even if its streets aren’t lined with gold. After all, almost everything they read these days paints Portugal as the best, the most, the friendliest, the warmest, the cheapest, absolutely an ideal place to live—nirvana—especially for digital nomads and foreign retirees.
And, in many ways, it is!
But, let me get this off my chest upfront—because I know there will be those mocking and taking issue with whatever I say here:
I love Portugal.
Please, reread that:
I. Love. Portugal!
Still, despite all the hype, hoopla, and fanfare about how this Iberian country is the closest to heaven on earth–calm, peaceful, friendly, welcoming, beautiful, easy on the wallet—there are some things that are bothersome here or incur a hard time getting used to.. Of course, my likes and dislikes probably differ from yours … so, what annoys or frustrates me may be perfectly acceptable to you and others. For some, these queixas aren’t applicable. And, sooner or later, we come to grips with this stuff.
I share these stories of our experiences not to complain or seek sympathy, but because we are North Americans acculturating to another country’s norms, traditions, and expectations. Information such as this typically aren’t found in tourist or relocation guides … nor asked about and answered in most Facebook groups. Hopefully, some will learn from these anecdotes and be better prepared for the grit and grist, the grain of living abroad. We love Portugal for what it is, not what it isn’t, and have no intention of leaving. And, certainly, not all “foreigners” have difficult dealing with what I may consider nuisances.
Again, let me be clear: Just because I may not like something doesn’t diminish my love for the country. Some things we get used to; others we just don’t get.
So, here’s my list of what irks me in Iberia …
Allergens. Never in my life have I had allergies—until moving to Portugal. I don’t know what’s in the environment, the air, but I cannot stop sneezing and sniffling or rubbing my itchy eyes. Perhaps it’s related to what our veterinarian warned us affects non-native dogs (and cats), requiring periodic medications. Or, more likely, it has to do with all the dust. Good heavens, you can dust something—a mirror, furniture, countertops—today and it will be back within 24 hours. Spontaneous generation? Included in this category also are heavy-duty smokers. While smoking is on the way out in many countries, it still is quite common in Portugal. If you’re coming from the USA, especially, smokers in Portugal can be very shocking. There’s no stigma attached to the unhealthy habit here.
Bureaucracy. Yeah, it’s here … and lots of it. More often than not, however, is that you never really know which form you need (or forgot to bring) and whom is the person to speak to when trying to resolve or work something out. Portuguese people tend to be friendly and, after giving you their once-over look, they’re helpful … if not happy. Despite the hoops you may have to jump through over and again — often because things are done one way in this region and another in that, while the letter of the law is interpreted differently depending upon where you are — it helps to remind yourself of how efficient transactions are with the Multibanco, how practical using the Finanças portal online is, how prudent ways exist for consumers to resolve complaints apart from suing those we believe have wronged us.
Ants, Flies, and Creepy-Crawlers. Ants are almost everywhere here in Portugal. Big ones that you find crawling along your steps and landings. Medium ones going about their business. Most of all, though, are the little ones that suddenly appear out of nowhere —entire armies—near doors, windows, and other entry points, or marching across your counters. Then, there are the flies. And gnats. And hovering predators that insist on following, needling, and targeting us … playing catch me if you can. I swear, they’re sadistic! The big, fat flies that buzz the loudest are the lamest, not lasting long against our arsenal of mechanical and chemical weaponry. It’s the smaller, quicker ones that are the nastiest. Darting around, playing hide-and-seek, they’ll find you, wherever you are—especially the loo! They last the longest and are the most persistent. Like the gnats buzzing in your ears as you’re trying to sleep … no matter how many times you slap yourself in the process of trying to say good riddance. More often than not, they swim and die drowning from overdoses of alcohol while floating in your (tinto) wine. How the Portuguese aren’t bothered by them in this café culture of outdoor dining, is beyond me. We cannot sleep with open windows without screens. Spiders, centipedes, and other common critters may creep me out; but I can deal with them. Not with the dreaded processionary caterpillars, however, whose venomous entanglements scream, “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!” to us and our furry family. My word, even if I could pronounce Leishmaniose, it’s another parasite I don’t want our dogs to encounter.
Banking It just doesn’t seem fair that we have to pay banks here for the privilege of holding and using our money to invest in their ventures, especially when coming from a country that pays us interest (however minimal) each month for the right to speculate with our hard-earned deposits. If it’s any consolation, the few euros deducted each month from our Portuguese bank accounts provide benefits (like discounts on petrol and limited health care insurance) and don’t compare with the €45-90 per quarter some Spanish banks charge to non-residents … even if you own property there!
Climate Most people associate Portugal with beaches and sunshine. Yet Portugal can be cold and damp in the winter–especially along the Atlantic coastline and north of Porto. Portugal is a long country and regions like the Algarve and Alentejo have different climates. For that matter, you can drive just ten or fifteen minutes and find yourself surrounded by completely different weather. That’s outside, of course. Inside the house is another matter entirely. Slippery cobblestone streets are very pretty — some with really cool designs — but be very careful: they’re quite slippery and dangerous when wet. (From the cobblestoned and hilly streets in the big cities to unpaved paths in the countryside and lots of sandy walkways along the coast, wearing proper shoes is a must. By all means, bring your heels too, but walking shoes will be much more useful.)
Cost of living Inflation has hit Portugal, just as it has other places worldwide. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for many Portuguese people to afford the cost of living in places like Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve … along with their suburban towns and villages. No matter where you live, however, electricity, petrol, and propane (or butane) are more costly in Portugal. Per kilowatt, Portugal is one of the most expensive countries in Europe. It’s one of the most expensive countries for taxes and fuel, which leads to a lot of people who live near the Spanish border driving across the border to fill up. (Guilty!) Other items that, at least, seem expensive here are cars, furniture, appliances, and international brands. And although you’ll sit down at a restaurant table laden with bread, butter, and cheese, some eateries will charge you for it … unless you don’t eat any. Soon enough, they’ll take these niceties away.
Customs and Deliveries The challenge of getting things delivered — albeit an online purchase, a package or letter from overseas — is a constant complaint among expats and immigrants. It’s something frustrating that you never get used to (but a small price to pay for what you get in return). CTT, the public postal service, receives more complaints than any other “service.” As for customs, the fees charged for anything imported from outside the EU are so high that it’s not unusual for import charges (taxes) to equal the value of the product purchased (or gifted) and sometimes much more. Even gifts clearly handmade by family members abroad are stopped, searched, valued at more than they could ever be sold for, and slapped with stiff import charges. And, even if you agree to pay these charges or they have been prepaid, it can take weeks — and even months — to get your deliveries released from Portuguese customs.
Domestic animals Many of us love dogs and cats. Except when we step in their discharges. Poop in the streets is the most common problem, followed by noise. Dogs barking through the night can be an issue in the countryside, as well as in residential areas, where it’s not unusual for people to leave their dogs on their apartment balconies or chained up somewhere outside.
Employment Portugal traditionally attracts older expats, especially retirees. There’s a reason for that: People don’t usually come to Portugal to work; salaries are low even by European standards … and there are only a limited number of job opportunities here. The good news is that, even though salaries are still a long way from catching up with other western European countries, there are an increasing number of jobs in Portugal. Many people are bringing work with them — whether digital nomads or working remotely for clients outside of Portugal — and young or middle-aged foreigners are cultivating the land and selling its produce or starting a growing business of their own: food-related or beauty salons.
Home construction—primarily concrete and cement—leaves much to be desired in terms of insulation. Think drywall (sheetrock/plasterboard): Remember how easy it was to hang pictures and whatever on our walls? Better tool up with a drill, lots of drill bits, a hammer, and pliers! Most houses throughout Portugal have strong interior cement walls that are rough and textured … making painting and wall-hanging time-consuming challenges. Portuguese houses can be extremely cold in the winter, as most properties don’t have central heating (or, sometimes, heating of any kind), so you may find yourself bundling up, layering, and wearing gloves inside in an attempt to keep warm. That’s not an exaggeration! Of course, you can find warm properties–especially newer builds and houses with insulation and central heating within central cities. If there’s any prejudice or distinction at all among the Portuguese, it’s based on where one lives: in the city or the “campo.”
Mold Regardless of the barricades used to keep it away, come the colder months of the year, you’ll do constant battle with mold. Typically, it appears looking like nothing more than damp shadows on your ceilings and walls (Brits refer to it as “the damp”); but then it gets dank and darker. Mold multiplies and spreads almost everywhere—even inside closets and wardrobes, attaching itself to our clothes. It’s definitely not healthy. Opening windows often to the cold, wet, and wind increases ventilation and helps to minimize mold. Nevertheless, you’re going to need a step ladder (or larger), spray bottle, cleaning rags, and face masks to tackle what’s stubbornly intruded and settled in. Many stores—groceries, supermarkets, hardware shops, even the ubiquitous Chinese bazaars—sell products to spray on, rub in, and remove the mold … but diluted vinegar and elbow grease work just as well.
(Some) Portuguese Drivers. Once they get their licenses, all hell breaks loose. About half of native Portuguese drivers are courteous and follow the laws in their roadside behavior. The remaining 50% are divided, again, in half: About 25% are speed demons and road hogs, kissing your car’s butt—regardless of whether (or not) they ultimately decide to pass you. The other 25% are slow pokes who drive 50 km/h in 80 km/h zones and 80 km/h on highways designated as 120 km/h Both types of drivers – speed demons and slow pokes – straddle more than one lane and typically drive in the wrong lane through roundabouts … sailing from the inside (left) lane to exit right, cutting you off without so much as a signal. Whether it’s people flashing their lights because they’re desperate to overtake, driving under the influence, or leaving a few millimeters when parking between their vehicle and another, driving in Portugal is über frustrating. Signal indicators are rarely used, touch parking is common in the cities, and everywhere in Portugal people often park — our double-park — diagonally across two or three spaces. Roundabout ramifications need more explanation.
Roundabouts, Parking, and Lack of Consideration. Some people swear by roundabouts and their greater efficiency over traffic lights. Others, like me, dislike them—especially the big ones with traffic coming at you from nine different directions simultaneously and nary a driver courteous enough to let you in. Panic attack territory is when there’s a series of these circles from hell … one after another. Even my GPS with its brilliant British accent can’t keep up. Before you know it, you’ve missed the seventh exit and find yourself lost along the way. And to add insult to near injury, there are pedestrian crosswalks within meters of the exit—an accident waiting to happen. Similarly terrifying are Portuguese parking lots—often with tight, awkward spaces between concrete posts that make it almost impossible to open your doors, let alone back out. They’re breeding grounds for inconsiderate parkers. Is there any reason why two cars must take up three parking spots? Park horizontally in vertical spaces? Or for drivers to park diagonally in well defined areas, often sticking their vehicles dangerously into the traffic lane, where cars are traveling in both directions, even though arrows clearly indicate which (one) way they’re supposed to move?
The flip side of the “what I don’t like about Portugal” coin is what I can’t seem to find (yet) here—stuff that’s probably no big deal to some, but important to me. Maybe these eccentricities are here hiding, just waiting for me to discover them:
• Vacuum cleaners that really can clean carpets and rugs. No matter what shop you go in or search for on Amazon, a reasonably priced vacuum cleaner that picks up the dirt and dust in carpets (especially thicker pile ones imported from elsewhere) is almost impossible to find. Ironic that upscale vacuums here are referred to as “Hoovers,” which are available online. So are Sharks, Kirbys, and Dysons. But they cost a friggin fortune—some more than 400-500 euros. In Yankee dollars, that translates to between $500 and $600. For a bloody sucker-upper! (Update: We found a vacuum cleaner that really works! It’s the Amazon Basics – [AB500] 3L 700W Bagless High Efficiency Motor Upright Vacuum Cleaner with 2 Dust Filters. But, of course, this heavy-duty appliance — for which we paid about 139€ including shipping — is “temporarily” out of stock.)
• Yard sales, estate sales, auctions, flea markets, thrift shops, and antiques malls. Yeah, I’ve been to a few “boot” sales … but, “Meh!” For intrepid bargain hunters and collectors, we wait with baited breath for those Saturday or Sunday open air markets hosting a fair share of memorabilia merchants. Sorry, online vendors: Facebook’s Marketplace, OLX, CustoJusto, and the periodic items for sale that pop up in our Facebook feeds or Portuguese second-hand groups just don’t measure up to the thrill of the hunt.
• Bagels. Yes, I’m aware that “bagels” are available in Portugal, in the bakery cases of supermarkets, padaderías and pasteleirías, and the frozen food aisles of Lidl. Sorry, Charlie, but they´re too doughy or pasty … blander than biscuits without jelly or jam. I grew up in New York, where–along with seltzer–it’s said that nowhere else can produce the same quality bagels … because of the water. Don’t believe me? Go ask Jerry Seinfeld!
• Crushed Red Pepper For the most part, pizza in Portugal is delicious—whether you prefer thin crust or deep dish, and whatever toppings you want. Except one: crushed red pepper. It’s just not served here—even when requested—in Portuguese pizzerías. Some like it hot … Piri Piri just doesn’t make it.
While we can get good pizza almost anywhere in Portugal, what we can’t (by and large) get is savory Tex-Mex or its essential ingredients (except online, through a retailer like The Chilli Experience). What the Portuguese consider tacos, burritos, tamales, and enchiladas here just don’t fit the lingo. Maybe Tex-Mex is better and more plentiful in bigger, coastal cities, but it’s sadly lacking elsewhere in the country.
So, there you have it: my big, bad list.
Ironically, my good list about Portugal is much, much longer … but can be summarized in a single paragraph, stringing words working together. We love Portugal because of its friendly people accepting of foreigners. Its diverse landscapes with a variety of climates, scenery, and topography. “Temperate” weather. Abundant arts and architecture. Safety and security. Quality of life . Strong expat/immigrant communities throughout the country. Fairy tale towns and villages. And, definitely, among the best bakeries and pastry shops in the world.
As a Boy Scout, I memorized the “Be Prepared!” motto. Now you are ready, as you prepare for your relocation to Portugal … or, as a resident already, to find whatever comfort you can in this communal balm.
I’ll end this soliloquy where I began, repeating that—despite these minor challenges and inconveniences—we love Portugal and have no intention whatsoever of moving away.
Nevertheless, there are those who are going to find fault, complain, and deplore me and my words with a variety of curious, finger-pointing comments … like, “Go back to your country!”
Have at it.
Bruce is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. Read the current online issue and subscribe to the magazine at no cost whatsoever: portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue. On Facebook: www.facebook.com/PortugalLivingMagazine.