Has it really been six months?
This past Monday, 13 July, marked six months to the day since we arrived in Portugal. Wow. Time really does fly when you’re having fun! It has been a fascinating experience with loads of adventure and a lot of learning.
I thought it might be a good time to stop and take a breath and reflect on our journey:
- Would we do it again? In a heartbeat!!
- Was it hard? No, not really, because Won did a significant amount of research in advance to ensure we were ready and fully prepared for each step. He was always organized and stayed calm when things didn’t go as expected. And, he displayed remarkable patience and persistence. My role? I was the trusty sidekick, of course.
- Would we have done anything any differently? Yes. We would have gotten our NIFs and opened a bank account when we were visiting in July of last year had we known they would be required for our visa applications. That would have saved us an extra trip back in October to get them (refer to “We Need What!?” for details). And, if we had gotten them in July, it would have allowed us to submit our visa applications as soon as we returned from vacation, which meant we might not have needed to rent an apartment to cover the gap in time after we sold our house. We also wouldn’t have mailed anything to ourselves. That was a painful experience; ouch. And, we would have packed the car with more household goods and fewer personal items like clothes and shoes. Live and learn.
- What has been the biggest surprise? Won is so impressed with how many people speak English, because it wasn’t that way when we were in Spain back in 2018. If our brother-in-law Adam, who speaks Spanish, hadn’t been with us, we would have really struggled. For me, it is how much Portugal looks and feels like California – from the weather to the landscape to the laid back vibe. I am also struck by how beautiful the country is, especially the coastline. I think it’s better than California.
Overall, the experience has been wonderful even with a global pandemic tossed in for an unexpected twist.
I made an outreach last week to see if anyone had any questions and want to send a big thank you to everyone who came up with one. They were all terrific. I had a hard time not starting each one with “That’s a great question!” Won and I sat down, pondered and discussed each, so we could provide a thoughtful response. Here they are in no particular order:
Q – It can’t be as perfect as you describe it. What’s not so great? (Gary T)
A – The price of fuel is VERY high and it’s been going up nearly every week for the last nine weeks. Currently we are paying €1,69 per liter for premium gasoline (not diesel). We buy premium for our BMW which we imported (refer to Holy Ship for details). There are 3.785 liters to a gallon which makes it roughly $7.29 per gallon using the current conversion rate of $1.14 to €1,00. So, yeah. That’s not so great. What offsets that pain a bit is the relatively low cost of nearly everything else. Won also wanted me to mention that Portuguese drivers are crazy so being a defensive, calm, ego-less, driver is critical. And, Won doesn’t think there are enough Asian restaurants outside of Lisbon, even though I reminded him that Lisbon is a 30 minute drive from our house, but he insisted I add that.
Q – I wonder if you have ever felt as though some local folks are treating you unkindly, like recent immigrants to our country are sometimes treated. (Joe B)
A – Nearly every interaction has been a good one. There has been the occasional grumpy, over-stressed government employee, but that was the exception rather than the norm. And there was one time when a woman began to back up her car and we beeped the horn so she didn’t run into us and she didn’t understand why we honked at her and then she got really angry and yelled at us to “Go back home!” (because she saw we had New Jersey license plates on our car) and we yelled back “We are home!” But other than that? No. Everyone has been super nice. The Portuguese people are known for being friendly, welcoming, and very helpful. That was one of the primary reasons we chose to live here.
Q – Has the experience of being an immigrant changed your perspective or given you any special insight? And, did Won’s experience prove helpful? (Claire T)
A – Legal or illegal, there is one thing all immigrants have in common. We are all in a foreign country desperately wanting to be welcomed, to feel integrated, to be settled, and to feel safe. Won had some very interesting insights on this because his family immigrated from South Korea to the US when he was 16 years old. Teenagers, as we know, can be particularly cruel. He said that many kids were mean to him and made fun of the fact that he wasn’t from the US using derogatory terms like “fresh off the boat” and “rice ball.” They made fun of his accent, the way he looked, and lack of knowledge of the English language. He knew he was an immigrant and he was working hard to fit in, but it was hurtful nonetheless. He was keenly aware that the US wasn’t his home country and wanted to be respectful, to learn the cultural norms, and do whatever he could to be accepted. It was a balancing act though, because his family had their own traditions and norms that helped them feel connected and comfortable in a completely foreign world. Won would eventually go on to serve in the US Army, become a US citizen, join the Los Angeles Police Force, and work for the US Internal Revenue Service so he has served his adopted country admirably. We drew on those experiences to help us in our transition to Portugal by approaching the process with an open mind and no preset expectations. We are keenly aware that we do not know Portuguese customs and norms but are excited to learn them. We want to find a way to integrate without losing who we are so we can connect with others and feel more settled. Patience, understanding, and empathy on both sides is what makes that possible.
Q – I’ve found that most people from other countries are far less driven by consumerism than Americans. Has living in another country changed it for you and Won? (Christy T)
A – I’m reluctant to generalize, but by and large, the Portuguese are very family focused. They are ambitious, but not driven compared to US standards. For example, if their business is providing a sufficient level of financial support that affords a comfortable standard of living and enables a happy personal life then that is enough – there is no need to work harder just to make more money. And, they typically don’t start with the question “what do you do?” but more often with “tell me about yourself?” I find this approach to life healthy, admirable, and balanced. By the time Won and I got our car out of customs we were pretty much settled and quite comfortable with what we had brought in our suitcases. When we unloaded the car we were appalled at all the stuff we thought was so important to bring. We have definitely streamlined our lifestyle and are much happier as a result. Now it’s all about experience and adventure and less about acquiring stuff.
Q – In retrospect, would you and Won have moved to Portugal if you knew about COVID-19 or if the pandemic had already taken hold? (Chris L)
A – That’s a tough one because it’s hard to know what decisions we might have made under different circumstances, but one of two scenarios would have probably played out. The first is this: If our 120-day visa had already been issued and the virus was starting to spread, but there were no barriers to leaving, we most likely would have moved forward given how complex and time-consuming the process was to get the visa and not knowing that it was going to become a global pandemic of such significant impact. The second is this: If the pandemic was already in full swing, Portugal would have delayed issuing the visa and/or closed its borders essentially preventing us from coming, which meant we would have had to stay put for who knows how long. And, keep in mind, we had sold our house and moved into an apartment with a short term lease. At that time we were living with the bare minimum in anticipation of leaving having put nearly everything we owned in storage. So, in retrospect, we’re glad we arrived when we did.
Q – What kind of graffiti do you see? What are the themes of the graffiti? What kind of sub-culture is flowing beneath the surface? (David T)
A – There is the type of graffiti you see ubiquitously scrawled on walls and freeway dividers like every other city and then there is street art – the type of artistic expression that is creative, encouraged, celebrated and appreciated. Some street art is meant to beautify a neighborhood, some is focused on music, some are expressions of emotion or are cultural in nature, and still others are political (you can still see some murals from the Carnation Revolution that took place in April 1974). Lisbon is often referred to as an outdoor art gallery and considered one of the world capitals with the best street art. The city ranks 5th on the Huffington Post list of the 15 best cities to see street art, ahead of Los Angeles, New York, London and Paris. The Lisbon City Council will sponsor graffiti artists, making abandoned buildings available to them, realizing that good-quality street art is an asset. How cool is that?!
Q – Family is very important and the pandemic has changed the world. Experts are hinting that we may have to live with this virus for a long time. How do you feel about being so far away? Have you thought about years passing without seeing certain family members for a long time or ever again? (Liliana H)
A – That is a natural concern for anyone who moves away from family, whether to another city, state or country. Tomorrow is never guaranteed – for anyone – and missing family and friends is one of the downsides to this adventure. Pre-pandemic I was less concerned because we have the means to fly back whenever we wanted or needed to. Now, while it is not impossible, it is certainly more difficult and dangerous, especially for older family and friends who could be in a fragile or compromised state of health. Travel back would involve quarantine time to ensure safety. Thankfully, video chatting is a safe way to see each other and stay in touch in real time. I cannot begin to imagine what families went through before technology. Saying goodbye back then was nearly always a real and lasting goodbye. When an effective vaccine is widely available, it will allow for more in-person visits both here and there. Until then, video chatting, messaging, and social media are blessings for which I am truly grateful.
Q – The Portuguese language seems difficult to me, but maybe if you are immersed in it you can pick it up faster. What has your experience been? (Bill H)
A – It’s HARD!!! Even the Portuguese acknowledge that it is a difficult language to learn (and we’ve heard that from more than one Portuguese). Interestingly, Portuguese ranks 9th in terms of total speakers globally (English is #1 followed by Mandarin Chinese), but moves up to 6th place when looking at the number of native speakers. Our original plan was to hire a tutor, but the country went into lock down so that plan went down the drain. To compensate we use language apps, online tutorials, and watch a lot of local TV to become more familiar with the sounds – and it’s starting to work! When selecting online tools, however, we have to be careful because it is not always European Portuguese that is being taught and we don’t want to have to unlearn something later on. As an example, Rosetta Stone teaches Brazilian Portuguese. I’ve said it before and will say it again, Google Translate has been a life-saver, but it doesn’t always get it right. Won has been really good at practicing and using what he has learned. I’m a lot less confident, but because Portuguese is Latin-based, I find I can figure out the meaning of many words. It is the “connector” words like verbs and grammar that have to be learned. At this point, we both agree that it is easier to understand the language when we are reading it vs when someone is speaking it to us. To reinforce how difficult Portuguese is, we’ve been told that a Portuguese speaker can understand about 70% of the Spanish language, but a Spanish speaker can not do the same with Portuguese. And, we’ve learned that the Portuguese people prefer that you default to English vs. Spanish when attempting to communicate. If Won accidentally says something in Spanish, he will be immediately corrected. We will persevere though and get that tutor when it is safe to do so.
Q – I’d like to know what the Portuguese think about Americans. What words would they use to describe Americans? (Kathryn K)
A – I had to ask for input on this one and, when I did, I reinforced that I wanted completely open and honest feedback. I asked a friend to talk to people he knows and to come back to me with a list of 2-3 words, both positive and negative, that describe Americans. He said they had a very spirited discussion and this was the list they came up with: patriotic, entrepreneurial, innovative, egocentric, puritan, racist, ignorant. He said this was heavily influenced by recent TV and social media coverage. I spoke to one other person and asked them directly about their thoughts on Americans. He is a short and long term property manager. He said he thought Americans were very polite, more polite than his European clients.
Q – What, if anything, do you miss from home? (Tara M)
A – The thing I miss most are hugs from my son, Matthew. He gives great big enveloping hugs and even though we video chat frequently, I miss those awesome hugs. Of course we both miss our family and friends, but as mentioned earlier, technology mitigates that to some degree and, had the pandemic not hit, I’m pretty sure we would have already had many visitors. Sweet Pea says she misses her favorite Buddy Biscuit treats, specifically the Oven Baked Teeny Treats with Bacon & Cheese and the peanut butter flavored ones too – both are so yummy! Won says he misses taking money from Adam, Bruce, David, John, Josh, Ray, Ron, and Tim when they play golf. He liked the supplemental income.
Q – How do you say Sweet Pea in Portuguese and did the laundry situation get better? (Amy W)
A – Sweet Pea in Portuguese is ervilha doce (er-veeya dose), but I think that might be referring to the vegetable and not the flower, which is what her name is meant to reflect. We get an odd look when we say it in Portuguese so I’m thinking it may be the vegetable or we’re really mispronouncing it badly. We have learned to just use “Sweet Pea” since she would not recognize the Portuguese version of her name anyway. The laundry situation has improved because we are completely comfortable with the process now. We’ve learned that the trick is to stay on top of the volume of laundry because of limited outdoor drying line space and a small washing machine. This means we do one or two loads every couple of days. We have come to enjoy, and even appreciate, drying our clothes outside because nothing shrinks and everything smells good. Plus, the clothes dry super fast now that the weather is warm.
Q – How does Portugal feel about the U.S.? Do you feel comfortable saying you are American? What kind of response do you get? Warm? Cold? Indifferent? (Marchele H and Taffy H asked nearly identical questions)
A – Most Portuguese that we have spoken to have shared that they are confused by the lack of a unified approach to battling the pandemic in the US. They don’t understand why people are not wearing masks or are arguing about wearing masks when it simply seems like common sense to them. They are also really confused as to why the US doesn’t have universal healthcare and why it is tied to your job. Beyond that, it is a little hard to make generalizations, but I get the sense that the positive impression the US may have historically enjoyed is slipping away. Policy decisions and growing nationalism are definitely sending a negative message. We haven’t met anyone who has said, “I want to move to the US.” While the European Union has its own challenges and issues to work out they have shown strength, conviction, and partnership these last couple of months. They are open about what they did wrong during the pandemic and how they plan to address those short comings to avoid similar mistakes in the future. I believe this is reinforcing a sense of pride and confidence in the people here. I encourage any of you who are based in Europe to share your thoughts on this topic. In terms of our comfort level sharing that we are Americans? Our accent gives us away the moment we open our mouths to speak, but other than that one incident mentioned above, it has all been very positive, but I also believe our experiences are a reflection of how we behave; always trying to be positive, respectful and appreciative.
Q – What retail store do you miss most? (Lori P)
A – Won misses easy access to a Korean market. He can’t find kimchi or gochujang – staples of Korean cuisine. I miss the J&J employee/retiree online store where I could order all sorts of J&J products at a significant discount. Unfortunately, it is only available in the US. As for retail brands? I really couldn’t think of one I miss. Malls here have many of the store brands you would find in the US like Sephora, Le Creuset, Sketchers, Nespresso, Zara and Zara Home, Foot Locker, Calvin Klein, Furla, Guess, H&M, Haagen Dazs, Hugo Boss, Kiehl’s, Levi’s, MAC, Starbucks, Sunglass Hut, The Body Shop, and ToysRUs. Given our rush to get settled and then immediately going into a lock down, followed by a slow restart to control the virus, the malls only reopened about three weeks ago, so we haven’t done much shopping for anything other than food. Plus, there are so many interesting places to go and see that shopping isn’t a top priority right now. But, when we do, I’m looking forward to learning more about Portuguese and European, stores, brands and services that are new to us.
Q – How has your diet changed based on the local food offerings and customs? Any new favorites? And, how do the wine offerings compare to what we are used to in the U.S.? (Deb G)
A – For one, we eat dinner later now. When we were in the US we typically ate dinner around 6:30 or 7PM. Here we don’t eat dinner until 8PM or 9PM. We have definitely adopted more of a Mediterranean Diet simply due to the ingredients that are available. Fish is fresh, plentiful, and varied so we eat a lot of that. We also eat a lot more fruit and vegetables because we can walk around the corner to the little fruit and veggie stand and pick up whatever was just picked. They also sell freshly baked bread, marinated olives, and a small selection of cheeses. Due to the pandemic, we got into the habit of cooking at home every night and haven’t really changed that practice too much. This means we haven’t been able to experiment with local cuisine as much as we’d like with the notable exceptions of pastel de nata and fire grilled chicken from churrasqueiras. As you know, Portugal is a well known wine producing region. Their port wine is famous and wine, like fish, is plentiful and extremely affordable. You can get a really good bottle of wine – all varietals – for under €6,00 or €7,00 (and in some cases even less)! The selection is pretty amazing. You’ll just have to come for a visit and taste as many as you can while you’re here.
As I said earlier, this has been a great experience and we are so happy to be here. Based on how fast the first six months sped by, we’ll be celebrating one year before we know it! Thank you for coming along on this journey with us. It’s been so much fun to share it with you. Now, I’ve got to get cracking on next week’s blog post!!
Until then, stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch.
From Portugal with love,