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).
We live in the suburbs of a major city, a comfortable if not upscale vila of mixed housing–most are row houses of all shapes and sizes, although there are plenty of upscale properties with huge houses and landscaped gardens behind magnificent gates (not fences) around the town. We moved here from a smaller village (aldea) of about 500 people, down from 1,200 or more during its glory days. Today, one corner market, two cafés, and a beautician who visits twice each week comprise its commercial corps. Except for three tremendous but decaying manor homes, still grand and stately, all of the other dwellings are attached. No, that’s not quite right: around the village’s outskirts are a number of quintas inhabited by daily commuters who work for the government (elsewhere) and dirt-poor people.
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.
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 in local elections.
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.
Trumpism had yet to transcend the 45th president of the USA; but we saw the handwriting on the wall. The Republican Party no longer was the GOP, standing for small government and fiscal restraint. Increasingly, “regular” Americans were exhibiting hatred, vitriol, and self-serving prejudice, encouraged by the cartoonish candidate. Donald Trump was inaugurated on 20 January 2017; we left the USA with no plans to return two months later.
Despite owning a vacation bolt in Andalucía, Spain, for 15 years, Portugal beckoned and was more welcoming … in every sense of the word.
Economically, Portugal is poor, at least compared to the competition. The national minimum wage jumped this year by 6%, going from its steadfast €775.83 per month to €822.50 per month. Yearly, that amounts to US $9,052 (“international currency”), with an average hourly rate of sixteen euros.
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.
It doesn’t take much (again, compared to other EU countries) to be granted a visa followed by legal and tax residency in Portugal. Doing all your homework correctly — being sure to cross every “t” and dot every “i” — will prepare most everyone for dealing with Portugal’s notorious bureaucracy. Forget to bring a document, legal identification, a signature required somewhere, and you’ll be sent to “jail” without passing “Go” and collecting your $200.
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. Back in the USA — before relocating to Portugal — he worked as a university professor, church pastor, public relations executive, book and magazine publisher.