Selling Portugal

First and foremost, let me say that we love Portugal … despite its quirks and eccentricities. There is nowhere else we would want to live, except for our periodic vacations at our pied a terre in Olvera, Spain.

It’s been five years now that we’ve been living in Portugal. Though Portugal hadn’t been on our radar — we´d had a vacation bolt in Spain for 15 years — friends who lived near us in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, urged us to consider the little country between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean where they had bought some property in Alpedrinha, a charming village between Castelo Branco and Fundão.

Why Portugal and not Spain?

As non-EU nationals, the bottom line for us was this: Portugal wanted us and did everything possible to make our residency there easier; Spain didn’t.

Over these years, we’ve seen a lot of hype and disinformation spread about Portugal. For us and many others, it’s a great place to live. But too many people get caught up in all the hype and the hoopla: How many different media and magazines have decreed that Portugal is the top place to be … to visit … to live … to retire?

Do you have any idea how many Americans from the USA (alone) are moving to Portugal in increasing numbers?

Enough to command cover and feature stories from Condé Nast TravelerPolíticoThe Los Angeles TimesCNN, and many others.

Why all the hype and hoopla about this tiny, westernmost European nation?

Lots of reasons … including the selling of Portugal.

“Portugal is a good country to live in,” reports the Goa Spotlight newspaper. “Security, the friendliness of the people, the open and tolerant culture, education, among many other aspects, are factors that lead Brazilians to seek out the country. However, promises of an El Dourado, designed by youtubers from Brazil, are bringing people from the other side of the Atlantic in search of a reality that does not exist.”

The reality of Portugal is framed by what happens on the planet. The war continues to leave its marks on post-pandemic growth, and the economic recession threatens, above all, those who cannot extend what they earn at the end of the month.

In addition, with rents rising – last year they rose by an average of 37%, with the energy bill rising, gas, water, food and transport at more expensive prices, it’s complicated for anyone looking for a better life easier, or at least with surmountable challenges, in Portugal.

Truth be told, Portugal is being oversold.

I suspect that many professionals who can’t find appropriate work (and pay) in the country are pumping up the rhetoric and joining the bandwagon of those selling Portugal. Grocers specializing in food products generally hard to find are shipping them to your doorstep in Portugal. Therapists are dealing with post-expatric syndrome and a host of other unsettling behaviors. Lawyers are catering to the big slice of business that comprises the market of people needing NIFs, bank accounts, and houses. Property agencies are a dime a dozen. Relocation experts promise to facilitate the transition. Packed tighter than sardines in a tin are webinars, blogs, vlogs, and YouTube channels catering to expats, immigrants, and foreigners. We have countless scores of people and groups teaching Portuguese in a variety of formats. Others are arranging round-trip scouting trips to the destination(s) of client interest(s), as well as charter flights bringing people and their pets to Portugal. Customized trips and tours are at your disposal, as are money lenders and currency brokers. Portugal itself is subsidizing numerous public relations undertakings that lure people — as tourists, travelers, and residents — to its land of the fado and saudade.

And, yes, some of them advertise in Portugal Living Magazine. (Think of us as a Portuguese Robin Hood–charging advertisers so we can provide free subscriptions to readers!)

Still, there’s a point to be realistic and not conjure up expectations of cobble stone streets with porto flowing freely. It just doesn’t work that way.

“The sales gimmick of Portugal having the best beaches in Europe, the warm weather, low cost of living, and hospitable people was charming and very appealing. However, as reality set in, I discovered a different picture–more of a western country being operated as a third world country, or an eastern bloc bureaucratic central system,” one critic said.

This particular person itemized his disappointments with and complaints about Portugal:

Regarding responsibility: The irresponsible behavior of the Portuguese citizens exacerbated the (Covid lock-down) problem. For example, the Portuguese government imposed a travel restriction over the 2021 Easter Weekend, so 50% of the country (5 million residents) traveled to the Algarve a day before the travel restriction started to go to the beach, only to spike the covid-19 numbers with this super spreader practice. So, Portugal went from easing the restriction phases of Mar/Apr/May to a delayed roll-out easing rules for Aug/Sep/October plan, with no consequences to law breakers.

Regarding taxes: The Non-Habitual Resident tax system for expats went from 0% to 10% overnight, with the stroke of a pin starting from 31 Mar 2020. Also, that NHR expires after 10 years, leaving expats’ pensions at the mercy of the Portuguese income tax brackets of 14.5%-48%. Another thing that I didn’t learn till later was the effect of obtaining Portuguese citizenship on tax exempt pensions under the current 1994 tax treaty with the US, where federal pensions (from Fed, State, and local governments) would be subject to Portuguese income taxes once the recipient is both a resident and a citizen of Portugal. Thus requiring the recipient to stay under the 183 days per year to avoid being a tax resident, provided that the expat’s primary residence was not considered by Finanças as being in Portugal, a big grey-area open to interpretation, especially if you own a property in Portugal!

Regarding the cost of living: While in general the cost of living in Portugal is lower than most places in the USA, some things just aren’t that much cheaper in Portugal. Many posts rant about how cheap the food is here, where lunch shouldn’t exceed 10 Euros, and dinners shouldn’t exceed 20 Euros, and never tip more than one euro. Well no one tells you that locals have two menus, where an Algarve restaurant owner emailed me his Portuguese patrons’ local-priced menu, but handed his walk-in customers the overpriced touristy priced menu. I ordered a breakfast cheese omelet, a coffee, bread, and water, for which I was charged 17 Euros! The concept of exploiting your expat residents is appalling to me. The grocery stores are not cheap, and are comparable to USA prices, unless you elect to forfeit all “luxury” foods and brands you’ve grown accustomed to back home. Residential electricity cost in PT is 211.4% of that in the USA. The average price a residential customer in the United States pays for electricity is $0.149 per kWh, where in Portugal the average residential rate [with the 23%IVA tax] is 0.262 Euro per kWh ($0.315 per kWh). The gasoline price in PT is 228% of that in the USA: The average price of gasoline in the United States is $3.043 per gallon, where in Portugal the average price of gas is $6.95 (1.527€ per Liter/5.78 per gallon). Even though renting can be affordable in Portugal, the entire Algarve region spikes rents to three or four folds in the tourist season month’s May through September, asking their tenants to pay up or evict them, resulting in the entire expat population in the Algarve desperately pleading for accommodations on expat groups. Cars cost at least twice as much as they are in the USA, simply because of the outrageous taxes imposed on imported cars and the added VAT and road taxes. Used cars are unreliable and are triple and quadruple what a reasonably priced used car should comparably cost in the USA.

(Note: I disagree with several of the points the writer made above. For one, the price of electricity. Numbers can be tricky and used every which way to justify a point. Personally, we have lived from Florida to Wisconsin and places in between, where our typical monthly electric bills were U.S. $300-500. In Portugal, we’re paying €125 on average for two separate properties with aircons, washers, dryers, dehumidifiers, and hot water heaters in use. Our Internet “package” — including a fixed line telephone, a mobile phone with more minutes and data that we’ll ever use, over 100 channels — more with a “Smart” TV — and high-speed broadband is 70€ per month. Compare that to Comcast! And property taxes? For us in the USA, it was well over $3,000 per year vs. €125 in Portugal. All things considered, our cost of living is covered by my monthly Social Security payments–about US $2,000.)

Regarding health care: Everyone touts the great prices of medical care in Portugal. That may be true in emergency medicine (life, limb, or eye sight), which one could very well require if you drive enough in this country, being cut off around every corner at high speeds for no apparent reason. However the public health system is grossly inadequately equipped and understaffed, where my diabetic expat neighbor is waiting over three months to get his eye exam scheduled. I attempted to schedule an appointment with a public clinic doctor to no avail for eight months now; every time I go to the clinic they say it’s not possible or no doctors available in the next month, and refuse to schedule future appointments that are beyond a 30-day window. The fact is that the public health doctors in Portugal moonlight at private clinics during the tourist season for more income, and their staff at the public clinics cover for them. 

(Note: Free, national health care plans — from Canada to the UK and beyond — suffer similar problems. Voilà: enter another money-making service catering to confused and frustrated foreigners in Portugal–the health concierge, whose team helps you navigate the system, make appointments with doctors and dentists, and resolve any concerns you may have. All for a fee, of course. On the other hand, private health insurance is a bargain in Portugal. My partner, 59, and I, 73, together are paying €2,000 for the most comprehensive coverage we’ve had anywhere … and it includes all of Iberia, Spain as well as Portugal.)

Like everywhere these days, Portugal — and the European Union — has its share of liberals and alt-righters. There are robberies, both burglaries and advantage-taking. Not everyone is nice–some people are downright nasty. Fuel is more expensive here, at least three times its cost in the USA. It gets bone-chilling cold all over the country, a different type of cold that we’ve not experienced elsewhere. There’s mold and bugs and flies and creepy crawlers. And lots of houses that continue to be inhabited since they were built (and hardly upgraded) in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Yes, there are some people who have different attitudes about domestic pets than we do. We cringe when we hear of their abuse and abandonment. They may cringe when they see us treating our dogs and cats as children, rather than pets. But, increasingly, I see Portuguese people walking their dogs on leads, picking up after them, buying specialty foods at upscale pet shops, and taking their “familiars” to the vet to be diagnosed, treated, and inoculated.

My friend João (don’t we all have at least one?), whom I respect immensely, responded to a litany of complaints about living in Portugal with these words:

“We describe things as we are, not as they are. As objective as one can be, the overall joy of living in one place cannot be calculated from some parameters on a bullet list. I must say that as a former expat myself, what some considered negative points were truly the things that made me happy. Take into consideration that the grass is always greener … and there will always be people (seeking to) overrate their products–countries included.”

One of the questions asked of would-be members to the largest Facebook group for expats, immigrants, and others interested in moving to Portugal is “What do you like most about Portugal?” By far, the majority of those answering say “Everything!”

Give me a break, please. Most of them have yet to set foot in the country, but they already know that they like everything about Portugal. Yeah, right.

A friend, Rudi, posted this on her Facebook feed today: “I love my little village. I spent this morning emailing and calling four companies to ask if they could send me an invoice for work they had done at my place and materials they had delivered. After four texts from me, the wood guy finally did send me an invoice for wood he delivered the first week of October. I don’t think I ever before had to beg to pay my bills.

That’s the paradox of Portugal.

For some reason, I’m reminded of these lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi: “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”

Those who come to Portugal because they’ve been sold on it being paradise are in for some surprises and reality checks. But just what is “paradise,” anyway? One person’s paradise may put another in the doldrums.

For us, it’s living in peace–safely and securely. It’s having a diverse group of multi-lingual friends who enjoy being together. It’s marveling at the splendors of the world within driving distance. It’s integrating to the culture rather than making it subordinate to ours.

We experience that in Portugal.

“At the end it’s a wonderful country to experience but it’s not paradise,” commented Jon Collier in a post. “That’s a place you create in your heart.”

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine, the “thoughtful magazine for people everywhere with Portugal on their minds.” To read the current issue and subscribe — free of charge! — please visit https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/

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1 thought on “Selling Portugal

  1. I lived in Portugal until I was 28, since then I lived in several countries but I ended up settling in London. I am 47 now.
    I like some things in Portugal but I dislike others. I like the weather, the landscape diversity, the rural vibe, the wine and the food (and conventual desserts) but I hate the excessive bureaucracy and that half world is trying to scam the other half. By default I cannot trust.

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