So, now we’ve been in Portugal for 75 days, according to the countdown that I haven’t yet taken off my phone. If you’ve read about our Week 1, Week 2, and Week 3 transition to moving to Portugal from the United States, then you’ll know it’s been quite the adjustment for us.
Our experience in Portugal is starting to look up. It’s taken a long time to get settled and we’re still not finished. But, now that I’ve been able to take my focus off of moving apartments and whatnot, I’ve been able to get a feel of what it’s like living here so far.
And, maybe because of my experience abroad, I’m more attuned to the positives and negatives. I’m not confident about many things yet here, but I am confident that I’ve quickly picked up on the positives and negatives of living in Portugal — or, a better way to say: my favorite and not-so-favorite things about it so far.
A Little Background
Every time we have moved abroad, we have no doubt faced obstacles not only settling in, but living there in general. But, I wonder now if it was harder this time because we now have a baby, or because we moved from the U.S. directly instead of moving from elsewhere, where we were already used to many of the challenges that come with living and settling in another country in general.
When you’re in the U.S. — especially with a newborn — you get used to certain conveniences, which also — ironically — can become inconveniences. For instance, it’s nice being able to have a car, go to Costco, and buy what you need in bulk (if you can’t order from Amazon). But, it’s also not a good thing to have to take a car to get anywhere altogether, even living in a city.
Now, let me preface all this by saying — we chose to move here. Everyone has their own push and pull factors for making such a life change (though, it didn’t seem that big of a deal for us). And, when you go to another country, you cannot expect things at all to be like they are in your home country — or, in our case, in other countries we’ve lived.
As a foreigner, you should never expect things to adapt to YOU — instead, you need to learn to adapt yourself. This was one of our goals of living abroad with Mika as well. Of course, for her it will be her home, so she won’t feel that as much. But, maybe exposing her to this experience as a baby will teach her to be more adaptable (or, resent us forever and ask us to go back home to the U.S.)
But, let me also preface this by saying that what might be considered a pro for one person, might be a con for another and vice versa. (Or, what might be a pro for one person could also be a con for the same person [or your spouse] — see below). You can never generalize — and, even one city to another — one neighborhood to another, even — in the same country, can offer a total different experience. But, as it happens, we are human, and we tend to make generalizations about even whole continents. As long as it’s done from a place a love and doesn’t hurt anyone, then I think it’s okay.
No place is perfect. If it were, I’m sure we’d all live there. If only there was a country that you could create with all your favorite things pulled from all over, leaving out the things you can’t stand. That would be paradise, would it not?
Pros of Living in Portugal: A Few of My Favorite Things
Cafes at the Grocery Store
By far the best thing about being in Portugal (and, maybe this is a concept in the rest of Europe — TBD) is the cafes in grocery stores. Grocery stores, at least for me, can either be a very stressful or very enjoyable experience, depending on my mood (or, Mika’s).
But, here, grocery stores have cafes, which means that you can take a break before, after, or during your shopping. Need a pick-me-up before deciding what to cook for dinner? Boom — slam an espresso and you’re good to go, while Mika crawls on the benches and everyone admires how cute she is.
The malls here are SUPER nice, and a place that offered reprieve from the stress and torrential rains when we got here. One thing I abhor about malls in the U.S. is the lighting which gives me a headache 10 minutes after arriving, as well as how difficult it is to find the store you want — you need to walk through the entire mall before you can even find an information booth. It’s like how they put the dairy section at the back of a grocery store so that you have to walk through the entire thing to get a gallon of milk, with the hope that you’ll choose to buy more items.
Anyway, in terms of baby stuff, this has been quite the blessing (though, we’ll get to the con of this in a minute). Every mall we’ve been to so far has a line of all the baby stores in one place, which makes it easy (with a baby) to go in and out to get what you need.
Desserts — Everywhere!
If you don’t like to be taunted by pastries in the window on every street in Porto, then this city is probably not for you. For me, on the other hand, it’s wonderful. I’m honestly not a HUGE sweets person — I prefer salty — but, I will never turn down someone asking me to go get a pastry. And, these days, that person is Max: because, “European Max eats pastries.”
Nice Food Courts
One thing I really hate about the U.S. is the lack of (healthy) food options when you go to the mall, stop at a rest stop, strip mall (unless we’re talking bagels and pizza), etc.
While I’ll settle for a hot dog from Nathan’s or a slice of pepperoni pizza from Sbarro’s — even some stir fry from Panda Express (OMG – do you remember walking by this restaurant when an employee would have a tray of chicken, and you’d sneak back and forth like a master of disguise getting as many pieces on the toothpick as you could before someone noticed?) it’s disappointing that if you’re trying to be healthy, it’s hard to find something good.
Here in Portugal, though — and, I imagine most other parts of Europe from what I remember — the food courts have lots of options, many of them healthy. Yes, there’s/they’re fast food more or less, but also actual restaurants (and, we’re not talking Ruby Tuesday’s or P.F. Chang’s) where you can order off the menu.
Recently, we discovered at NorteShopping — the big mall here that we like to go to (it has Primark!), has a Fogo de Chao quick takeaway option, which is delicious (and, always has a massive line). There’s also a ‘gourmet’ food court with wood-fired pizza, Indian, etc.
If you’re like me and can’t sleep with the tiniest bit of light seeping through the curtains, then you’ll love the apartments here in Portugal. I have never seen blackout curtains like this in my life (and, still can’t, because they make the room so dark…ha!).
For someone with photophobia and vertigo, these would have been a lifesaver 20 years ago, but alas, it took this long to find them. They are also great for Mika, but unfortunately, I think they’re starting to mess with our circadian rhythm. It’s hard to tell if we’re tired from having a 8-month old or because we don’t know night from day…
Lots of Expats
We were a little nervous to come to Portugal when we knew how many foreigners were moving here. Yes, you heard that right. While we love meeting others — including those from our home country — I was worried that this might dilute the experience; that we wanted to become friendly with Portuguese people, as we did in Mexico with Mexicans.
But, when you have a baby and not a lot of time to go out and meet people/socialize, the closeness of the expat community — at least the one we’ve met so far — has been super nice and welcoming. Sure, we don’t have the ability to accept every invitation, but I’m so glad we have them. We’re also meeting loads of other families with kids, and although Mika is by far the youngest, it’s definitely a difference from our other experiences abroad. It makes us feel like we can be comfortable settling down here for a longer period of time, which we are!
Of course, there will always be downsides to too many foreigners from wealthy nations — or, generally, foreigners with money — moving it to a new city in influx. No matter who is to blame, this type of change leads to a rapid increase in the cost of living, which has an impact on the local population.
Wine, wine, and more wine. I love wine (though, I’m allergic to the sulfates in some of them). Porto is the storybook, magical land of wine. Douro wine, Port wine, Vinho Verde (which I just discovered after my cousin introduced us…amazing)…many of which come from right here in the Douro Valley near Porto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While I’m still learning which wines I like and which I don’t — as well as how to drink them, which might change which wines I like and which I don’t (apparently, Port wine is meant to be sipped like whiskey, which explains why I would pass out after a single glass at lunchtime at 4 o’ clock in the afternoon) — we are definitely spoiled here!
The Healthcare System
Currently, I’m very frustrated with our inability to get into the healthcare system. But, apparently once you’re in, it’s very good — not just because it’s the EU, but also Portugal happens to rank 12th in the world. (Guess where the U.S. ranks?) So far, I’ve/we’ve seen a few doctors, and overall, aside from the bureaucracy, it’s been a pleasant and affordable experience.
The “That Makes So Much Sense!”
Though we have faced quite a lot of contradictory things since we’ve moved here which has been frustrating, there have also been a lot of, “Wow! That makes a TON of sense” moments. This includes at the grocery store, the avocados are organized by degree of ripe-ness. Genius. I can’t think of other examples right now, but I did want to mention that one.
Friendliness to Babies
People LOVE babies here — to the point where I’m worried someone might kidnap Mika, not maliciously, but because she’s just so adorable they want to borrow her for the day but then happily give her back. Many people will coo at her (which is usually okay for me, as long as they keep some social distancing — they don’t always) and Mika loves it. And, it will help with her Portuguese since we won’t be putting her in school for quite some time.
Additionally, the elderly, pregnant people, people with disabilities, and people with children have “priority” here. If I’m at the bank, I can grab a ticket for priority and not have to wait very long. At the grocery store when there’s a long line, as soon as the person at the register sees the stroller, they come and pull us out of line and tell us to go to the front (which, usually, I politely decline due to all the stares, usually from foreigners who aren’t yet aware of this rule).
But, it is nice on those days where Mika is fussy or we don’t have time to wait as it would throw off her schedule, she needs a diaper change, or a nap.
Also, I love how at the mall, there’s the bathroom section, and a whole room designated for changing babies! There are comfy pads to change them on, sinks, garbage cans, and it is very clean. You get to meet people in there while you’re changing your baby.
Speaking of naps, Portugal — like Spain — still has the “siesta” time more or less. Every day, most restaurants are open until 3 and then close again until 7, while banks are open until 3:30, etc. (Grocery stores, on the other hand, are still open all day which is nice.)
And, while it’s taken some time to adjust to this (having to rush to make sure we can eat lunch before 3, or not really being able to go out at night unless the restaurant opens literally AT 7 and is close to home), it’s nice to see this societal work/life balance implemented. Of course, I don’t know yet the full implications of a day setup like this, and I imagine it doesn’t make sense for people who do work regular hours despite the siesta time and need to run errands, etc.
The Convenience of a Small, Walkable City
Porto is a city of a bit more than 200,000 (I know because I looked it up, after discovering I knew the city already after a month.) Generally, this is a complaint for Max and I; we realized we prefer to be close to bigger cities, due to the anonymity as my cousin says (she lives in an even smaller city of Estapona, Spain).
One day, Porto might not be our city anymore because of this, but with a baby, it’s amazing. If we want to go out but don’t want to be far from home, we can do so, and generally be back within a 5 minute walk at minimum, 25 minutes at most. Sure, if we want to venture out a bit further, we may take an Uber, but it usually costs about 4 euro to do so. It’s much healthier to be able to walk everywhere, and we’re also able to be more productive since it takes a while for us to get out of the house with Mika.
The Old Charm & Beauty
In addition to the pros of living in a small, walkable city, Porto — and, many cities throughout the country and Europe for that matter — are just so beautiful. I love the cobblestone streets (and, Mika can’t resist falling asleep when when we walk on them while she’s in the stroller), the architecture, the “oldness” of it. That being said, strollers and Europe don’t mix well in general.
I recognize this is extremely cliché, but clichés often exist for a reason. Porto, in particular, is incredibly beautiful, especially on a sunny day (on a rainy day, not so much). The views of the river are amazing, and we try to take a walk at least once a day (when it’s nice out) to see it.
The Cons of Living in Portugal: A Few of My Least Favorite Things
Europe is old, and in many parts — especially the old historic center — so is the plumbing. Actually, I don’t know if this is why it is the way it is or it just is that way (which is to say, it’s different), but I’m not that into it. (This is inspiring me to write a book about toilets.) Anyhoo, when we were smelling a lot of sewage coming from the toilet (multiple toilets) we asked around if this is normal/what the deal was.
Apparently, Portuguese toilets don’t have the U-shaped pipes, which means that the shit and pee essentially get stuck in the pipe and, well…you can imagine. No amount of flushing, bleach, or toilet deodorizers seem to help. Luckily, so far in the new apartment, all is good. (But, the dresser they delivered smells like they used 20 layers of fresh spray paint in a closed room — not a surprise for a country near the sea, but I will forever deem Portugal the “smelly” country.)
Errrr myyyy g—–d. Here’s the thing. Bureaucracy sucks everywhere. In some places, it’s worse than others, but it’s really never “good”. (Although, I do remember when we lived in Korea everything was rather straightforward.) In many ways — and, I mean this as an observation and in the nicest way possible — I feel like a country’s bureaucracy is an example of how the culture and its people operate.
Here in Portugal — and, most parts of Europe, according to people I know who have moved here — the bureaucracy is painstakingly slow and also a bit contradictory. We’ve discovered this in our journey navigating the health system, apartments, visa stuff, etc. And, makes sense. Here, so far, everyone is very laid back and has a “don’t worry — it’ll get done when it gets done” type of attitude.
None of it has been easy or even makes sense at times. But, it’s all part of the journey.
Update* since starting to write this, we’ve utilized this company here that has helped us with the healthcare stuff for Mika — something I REALLY did not want to pay for — but, it’s been worth it. She seems to be on track for her vaccines and all is good (even though I still need to be a bulldog at times, because on a few occasions they didn’t look at her chart and were just about to jab her with some random vaccine!)
The Food (Depends)
I have not visited enough places in Portugal to know everything about the food — and, when we visited here in 2020, was had some really nice food experiences. But, ever since living here — which is certainly different when traveling somewhere — we haven’t been too impressed with the food. And, that goes for a lot of the people we’ve met here as well.
Ultimately, it’s kind of basic and missing out on salt, spices, and any seasoning for that matter. (Which, makes it easy to feed Mika some bits of fish!) There’s also rarely any veggies. Just a lot of fish, chips, rice, meat, hot dogs (yes), etc. I do love the word for veggies here though — “legumes” (which I know is a common word, but it’s so fun to say!) but we don’t get to say it too often seeing as there aren’t much of them.
But, when our Brazilian friend came to visit, he said we were missing out on knowing where to find the good food. (Obviously — so much of that comes with asking people where to go.) His last night here, we went to this delicious place that served bacalhau com natas, which was like this delicious casserole of bacalhau with the curdy part of cream and cheese, basked with breadcrumbs on top. YUM!
Proximity to the Rest of Europe
So, Portugal is definitely far from the rest of Europe, but it’s also…close. Kind of the same way New York is far from New York, if you know what I mean. Sometimes, I think it’d be nice to be more central, but it’s still great. I just looked up flights to Paris, for instance, and they were 30 euro!
If you’re used to the convenience of Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Target, then you’ll have a hard time adjusting to being in Europe. Even though we’ve already lived abroad for a while, Mexico had Wal-Mart and Amazon, and a lot of stores back from the States that we were familiar with. Even Party City and Chuck E. Cheese.
Here, the biggest box store is IKEA, and if I have to go back there one more time, I’ll lose it. This also goes for baby stuff, which is really hard to find here. We tried to find Mika a play-mat and the only ones we saw were about 95 euros. We ended up finding one for 20, but only after a hunt. Which, if anyone knows me, I absolutely hate shopping for something that I need to find. HATE it. Yes, they do have Amazon Spain and Amazon Germany, but I haven’t used yet because the price of things makes it not worth it.
Another update* my personal computer broke, so I had to get another one. Somehow, this always happens to me. My last computer before buying one in the States was from Mexico, and I had forgotten how used to having a laptop in Spanish (I broke out this laptop which Max brought with us in the meantime). Eventually, I went to the FNAC – which is like, the Best Buy of Portugal – and got a new laptop there which I’m using now. Not bad, but it as a bit more than it would have been from the States. But, I probably saved myself a lot of headache with customs and whatnot.
Obviously, the upside to this is that you get to shop a bit more local, and you don’t see strip mall after strip mall with the same stores.
’nuff said. It has rained probably 90% of the time we’ve been here so far. Apparently, Porto is quite rainy, but this winter is much more rainy than last season. Put together with everything we’ve been dealing with, and it’s been a real…damper. Because the sun rarely comes out, there are a few things that happen. First, Mika needs vitamin D drops which I keep forgetting to give her. Second, we feel the need to really get out on the days that it is sunny, which doesn’t always go well with our life as parents to an 8-month old. I think because of all the images we see of Portugal — including memories from our first trip here — we just imagined sunshine all the time. That’s most definitely not the case.
I spoke to my friend who is an interior designer about how much the design here frustrates me. In our temporary apartment, the closets were built under the stairway, and there were about ten doors that led to little pockets, instead of just two doors like a normal closet. Then, the dishwasher was right next to the stove, so everytime we cooked, our hips would go into the pause/start button on the washer, and start it all over again.
Speaking of washers, here they have the good ol’ 2-and-1 washer-dryer, which makes sense in theory, but is not practical whatsoever. With the baby, it takes us all day just to get two loads done, and the dryer needs to be run several times before it actually dries anything. And, because it rains everyday, there is no way to hang out our clothing.
Our new apartment is a similar design as the other because it’s owned by the same people, but WAIT, THERE’S MORE. Aside from the mold we’ve already had in the new place (yup!), they gave us a lot of decor that was so excessive.
One was a coat hanger, which we’ve put in the hallway outside the door because it takes up the entire narrow hallways. (Same case in all the apartments.) So, we put it right outside our door, but the owner said there are “rules” we have to follow. As for me, as long as the neighbor doesn’t mind — which they don’t — I don’t see the problem. So, we told them if we can’t keep it outside, just take it. Because they’ve given us so much unnecessary furniture (think, just STUFF), we’ve had some of it removed which they’re probably frustrated about. Oh well. A baby won’t do well with the knock-off HomeGoods version of the vases from the Ndebele tribe they gave us.
I’m becoming Portuguese one day at a time, because of how long it took me to finish this particular section. Things move very slowly here compared to the U.S. (which is, of course, one of the reasons we enjoy living abroad). But, when you need to get things done, it can be extremely stressful. When I moved here, someone told me that if you’re patient in Portugal, things will get done.
So, I’ve tried to adopt this.
I assume if I need something done one day, it likely won’t get completed on that specific day for whatever reason. For example, if I tell myself, “I’m going to pick up my medicine from the pharmacy tomorrow,” I could get there and it’s closed. Or, if I have to do something for Mika at the health center, I assume that I’ll get about half of what I need done (i.e., scheduling an appointment, getting an answer to an important question), but will have to come back for the rest.
All in all, things are improving, but we still have days where we wonder if we made the right decision. And,
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