I dropped off my midterm election ballot at DHL in Castelo Branco, so it would arrive at the city clerk’s office in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin – still, technically, our legal residence … for voting purposes – in plenty of time to be counted.
The effort made me realize that it will soon be five years that we’ve lived and had our legal residencia in Portugal. We’ll be applying for permanent residency and citizenship here soon, too.
We’ve learned so much since arriving and departing the airport in a rental car, where an attendant warned us that it’s prohibido to allow dogs (and cats) to accompany us in the car unless they’re tethered to the rear seat belt sockets or confined to an acceptable carrier for traveling.
Shortly thereafter, our second, never-to-be-forgotten experience with Portugal initiated us to the country’s bureaucracy: registering for and buying a Via Verde pass for the country’s national toll roads. Who knew when entering Portugal on land for the first time that one had to go into a post office – anywhere in Portugal, assuming it’s open – to fill out the form, pay the fee, and be on our way … with the tolls conveniently deducted from our bank account?
The process of acculturating to Portugal took us from being expats to becoming immigrants.
How exciting it was to be able to decipher what the words on the highway’s digital signage were saying—and warning. Otherwise, bom dia, boa tarde, and obrigado were the extent of my Portuguese language. Though fluent in Spanish, I had no idea that my knowledge of a sister Iberian language would be a stumbling block, as much hindrance as help that would always complicate and confound my Portuguese. I could easily mispronounce my uttered words and/or say something entirely different than intended, as I guessed – based on Spanish – a sought after word … which would or wouldn’t be perfectly understood.
I’ve come to grips that, in the western part of Iberia, I will be speaking Portu/ñ/nhol.
There’s a lot I’ve gotten used to—whether by choice or by chance since moving to and living in Portugal.
Out of choice, for instance, I now drink Portuguese coffee – Sical is my favorite, #7 on the Strength Scale – while what I drank when we first arrived had neither number nor name but was laughed at and referred to as “dirty water.”
Similarly, I’ve become accustomed to shelved milk with shelf lives three or four months hence. It’s only to tone down the coffee’s bitterness, I tell myself. Besides, as soon as I get home and unpack the groceries, the milk will be properly placed in the refrigerator.
There have been other choices, too, which we initially made but later came to regret. Like our housing and accommodations.
To be issued a visa (let alone residence), Portugal requires that we document our housing—whether rented or purchased—for a minimum of 12 months. It’s hard enough to find suitable housing that’s both agreeable and affordable these days, even with feet on the ground … which could require multiple roundtrips between the USA and Portugal. That was the route we took … since we pictured precisely what and where we wanted to live.
We’ve never rented, always owned, and wanted to live in a quintessential fairy tale village with cobblestone streets and church bells tolling the time, rather than packing and unpacking more than once. And, as we thought we’d open a snack bar – Tacos Americanos – the street level of the property had to be approved for commercial purposes. Even back then, Lisbon, Porto, and Algarve were beyond our budget, so we looked to the interior and towns bordering Spain.
Searching the Internet daily from the USA, we found four properties that fit our criteria. That called for one round-trip visit to Portugal. Too bad that one of the four was under contract, another already sold, and two … just weren’t what they appeared to be online. We made a second trip to look at available properties in another area (Coimbra) and attend a Pure Portugal seminar on buying property. We thought we’d found an ideal place to live and, possibly, work … until the experts (especially architects and builders) explained why we shouldn’t buy a home built directly into the mountain on three sides without any vapor barriers.
Back to searching the Internet, we expanded our horizons and property portals.
At last, we found something that looked and felt like “us” (even) online. Spacious and interestingly configured with a separate wing for a guest suite, the faded sign on the storefront downstairs announced that it formerly was a café.
You got it: Another trip to and from Portugal. This time, however, we worked with a lawyer to negotiate the price, write a contract, open a bank account for us, pay a deposit, obtain our NIFs, and transfer the utilities to our names.
There was a lot of work to do before we moved in—lock, stock, and barrel.
Who knew back then that we’d have to upgrade the electricity throughout the house to handle the upgrades we wanted to install: inverter aircon units, a new fridge, range, hot water heater, and washer? Didn’t the sweet little old lady who owned the house and ran the café below (“the most popular one in the village because it was the only one to sell lottery tickets”) know that her commercial license on the café had expired and couldn’t be renewed? That, to get a new license and permit, we’d have to bring the place up to current code and standards—amounting to somewhere between €10,000-€15,000? Had I any inkling that, within three years, I’d no longer be able to go up and down the 37 steps dozens of times daily, especially to walk our three dogs … two together and the third by himself … around the cobblestone streets of the village—including in the rain, which we had back then? And that living on the main street of the village with your bedroom facing the street would subject you to noise, traffic overload, and processions for every occasion?
Following a series of examinations, procedures, and laboratory analyses, the doctor spelled it out load and clear: “You must move.” I couldn’t deal with all those steps anymore. The cobblestone streets are too slippery—especially when it’s raining, and I’m being pulled by the dogs chasing after a cat or street dog. “What I prescribe for you is a bungalow, and one-level house with a small, enclosed quintal (backyard) to plant and let the dogs out,” said Dra. Conceição.
And, so, we sold our imposing dwelling and purchased a hobbit house nearby.
Other choices have been far simpler.
I choose to read the Portugal News instead of the Portugal (aka Algarve) Resident. The former seems more forthright and honest; the latter is a tad too tabloid and sensationalist for my taste. I’m choosier, too, about my Facebook friends. Usually, I choose vinho tinto over branca. And I choose not to be surrounded by smokers.
I also elect to do my weekly grocery shopping at a variety of stores.
Because I prefer Lidl’s orange juice and bagged salads, along with its small pouches of chicken chunks. The aisles of non-food items are for browsing and buying stuff one wouldn’t expect to find in a grocery—at prices much lower than Aldi’s. Oh, but Aldi has a couple of great items in its bakery & bread department, like those mini quiches that make for delicious lunches. Continente is the only supermarket that carries the refrigerated grapefruit juice I mix with the orange for my cold breakfast beverage. In my opinion, Continente also has the best tasting bakery items, although Auchan’s is a close second. But Auchan only sells the branded (Bailey’s) Irish Cream – for 15 or 16 euros – while Continente has its own store brand which costs about six euros. While we do the bulk of our weekly shopping at Auchan, we run out at least once or twice a week to our town’s Intermarché for whatever we’ve run out of or forgotten.
I generally like seafood — shrimp, crabs, lobster — but I’ve never been particularly fond of fish. (I know: Living in Portugal and not liking fish?) Of course, I do like tuna and salmon and sometimes, depending on how it’s cooked and served, cod (bacalhau). But I’m completely turned off by ads for fresh fish–no matter how attractively their dead heads, fins, tails, and other pulpous parts are arranged and published by photographers and designers.
Other things, I have gotten used to—like Portuguese workers and government agencies moving at their own pace. And that there’s often disagreement between one and the other: One branch of SEF insists on a year’s worth of private health insurance, while others accept a six-month travel insurance policy without question. One electrician (from EDP) insists that we hard-wire our cooker directly to the electric; another (British) electrician says “rubbish,” that hooking the contraption up to the electric using a plug and socket will work the same.
I have nibbled a bit of saudade — that pervasive tension between yearning and resignation — knowing that massive fires are frequent and persistent, no matter where in Portugal you live. That persistent dust and predatory flies won’t stay outside. And that Portugal has its problems, too.
Slowly but surely my Spanish is receding. My immediate impulse now is to (try to) respond in Portuguese, especially when angry, although my accent and pronunciation will always sound foreign to the natives.
No longer the tourists, we’d trade a couple of those magnificent azure skies, day after day, for some rain—lots more of it. Because Portugal needs rain desperately.
There’s lots I’ve learned without realizing it over the past few years. I can deal — argue if necessary — with people who have tried to do us wrong. I can carry on rather lengthy conversations with neighbors and strangers … as long as they speak clearly and devagar. I understand what store clerks and delivery people are asking for and respond appropriately. I can even converse over the phone rather than online where I had the benefit of Google Translate. I now know quite a few ways to take leave and say goodbye, although I’m still not sure which to use when. And I can readily detect the difference between Brazilian and European Portuguese, along with a few expressions particular to given reasons.
Yet, one thing I’ll never learn is to pull when the sign on the door says “Puxe!”
It’s here that my Spanish (or Portu|nh/ñ|ol kicks in, wanting to know why the Portuguese don’t use the verb tirar, a word recognized and used (at times) by both languages.
Oy, vey. There’s still so much to learn!
Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine, the “thoughtful magazine for people with Portugal on their minds.” You can read the current issue online and subscribe — FREE! — at https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue. Prefer the feel of fingers flicking paper pages? High-quality, low-cost copies of Portugal Living Magazine are available through all Amazon sites.