couple getting prepared for settling abroad

By now, you’d think we’d have this whole moving abroad thing down. I mean, I guess we do. But, somehow, we always run into some bumps that make settling abroad just a bit more difficult than we would have liked.

We’ve been living abroad for most of the last decade, and we’ve become very adaptable in that time. We did it with a dog. But, now with a six-month old baby, it’s just a bit harder to navigate the obstacles.

Our first week in Portugal was not at all what we expected. Which, goes to show that behind the scenes, moving abroad is not what the movies make it look like. There’s a lot that goes into it, from the time you make the decision, to the time you can call a new country home.

Getting the Visa for Portugal

Moving to Portugal has been a long time coming. We began preparing before Mika was born, trying to understand what the timeline would be of everything. Getting her passport took a lot longer than we had hoped (we applied for it about two weeks after she was born), and until we got her it, we were unable to apply for the visa.

We finally were able to visit the consulate in August, and preparing the documents and all that was very time-consuming, especially with a young baby.

Here’s what we needed to do for the D7 visa (for all those who think I make it look so easy, I appreciate that, but it was HARD):

  • All our passports (somehow, this was probably the biggest challenge). If you need a new passport and you’re having trouble, this group was extremely helpful
  • FBI background checks
  • A Portuguese bank account, funded with enough money to meet the requirement for our family of three
  • A Portuguese tax number
  • A 12-month lease
  • Health insurance/travel insurance
  • Application for visa and SEF border check
  • Passport copies and photos
  • And, some other documents that depend on which consulate you apply at, such as an apostilled marriage certificate, birth certificate, an an apostille on the application and border check, and of the passport copies
  • Appointment at the consulate
  • Lots of coffee and deep-breathing to get you through this stressful time. A lot of information out there can be confusing to sift through, but you also don’t want to show up to the appointment unprepared

We left our apartment in Jersey City September 10th and sold what we could. Everything we planned on shipping — which we did with a company called UPakWeShip — was packed away in bins. We moved to my aunt’s home where we stayed until we heard back from the consulate, which we finally did the first week of October.

Between my work, taking care of the baby who still wasn’t sleeping through the night (and, actually entered a month-long sleep regression which was horrible), planning a trip to Newark to pick up the visa, spending time with family, catching COVID after strictly trying to avoid it for two years, bringing our car into the shop because Max had been in an small accident right before we left, and packing up our pallet for shipment, I have absolutely no idea how we did it.

But, we did.

Now, the time has come — and, we are here.

The Journey to Portugal

Our last destination in the U.S. before leaving was to Max’s hometown of in Jersey to spend time with his family. We hadn’t seen them in a bit since we were staying far out east on Long Island.

Our flight was on a Monday, so when we were sure that we had everything we needed, we came the Friday before.

We were going to leave our car at Max’s mom’s house since it’s so close to Newark airport and would be good to have on visits home. But, because it was in the shop, we got a rental car which we were luckily able to return at the airport. Somehow, someway, we managed to fit our six pieces of luggage, our carry-on bags, all the baby stuff, the car seat, and the stroller, without having to ask for a ride.

That being said, Max’s family thankfully came with us to the airport. The rental car area didn’t have a shuttle, so six bags and a baby just wasn’t going to work on the airtrain. Our bags — though we had weighed then 27 times — were overweight (by ONE pound). So, we had to take time to rearrange all that.

In all our years of traveling, we’ve never been asked to take weight out of our luggage just for one pound. Usually they just slap a “heavy sticker” on. Or, they at least give us a minute to take a t-shirt out (after all, Mika was wailing, too). But, the lady at the counter sent us back to weigh our bags at the scales again which she said “weren’t accurate anyway.” Love it.

I decided to get us TSA precheck because there was no way I was going to be bothered with the stress of the security line and a baby. For me, it made a big difference, but Max who deals with holding all the bags would not agree. I purchased a United MileagePlus Club credit card a few weeks prior, which granted us access to the lounge at the airport.

Over the years, we’ve used Priority Pass or guest passes. But, found that many U.S. airports don’t accept Priority Pass and have limitations on guest passes. I prayed it would work, and it did. The lounge was a great place to relax before the flight, feed Mika, and change her into her pajamas, while we grabbed a bite to eat, some water, etc. I considered taking a shower (yes, some lounges have showers!), but decided against it. This was going to be a sweaty journey, after all. Though, we also had priority boarding which helped a lot.

After a red-eye flight in which Mika actually did very well and complained far less than the adults sitting behind us, we arrived.

Landing at Oporto Airport

The flight wasn’t so bad. Not very comfortable and didn’t sleep much, but I haven’t slept much since my 9th month of pregnancy, anyway. So, I was very grateful to Mika for preparing me for that. Love you, my baby. (I do.) The airport in Porto was very quiet which was a nice reprieve, and we felt we could take our time getting through. Customs was easy; we just had to answer a few questions. Then, we were on our way to baggage claim without a plan on how to get all of it to our apartment.

Max got two carts to get the luggage, while I changed Mika. When I came back, the carts were pretty far away from where we were sitting, so naturally, a customs agent came over and started asking us loads of questions, suspicious of the amount of bags we had. Ultimately, he asked me how many laptops I have (two), and we had to go through the red “declare” line. Apparently, because one of my laptops was new, they thought I may have to pay an import tax on it. Turned out it was fine, but not too enjoyable.

We ordered an UberXL (which is the size of a regular Uber in the U.S.), tried again to fit all the luggage in, and made our way to the apartment to meet the landlord and the realtor. I expected in Iberian fashion for them to be late. They were. So, like true scruffy Americans, we waited outside the apartment disheveled, wearing sweatpants and crocs, with about 10 bags, a stroller, and a baby. “Hi, we’re your new neighbors!”

Settling Abroad: Surprises at Our Apartment

In order to get the visa for Portugal, you’re required to take out a 12-month lease. Apartment hunting from abroad is no easy feat, but we were able to find something right in time for our visa appointment. Generally, foreigners have to put a lot of money down because the visa isn’t guaranteed (quite the conundrum), but we ended up finding an okay deal in the town of Matosinhos, right outside Porto.

We’ve been so excited about this apartment, and have been showing everyone and anyone a video of it. It’s a two-bedroom and furnished (albeit, with old furniture), and right in the center of Matosinhos. Close to public transportation and the beach.

The landlord and finally realtor met us, and they were very friendly. But, when we got into the apartment, we noticed a funky smell and that the windows and black-out steel “curtains” (which are AMAZING when you want to sleep) were sealed — and, had been sealed since we rented the apartment back in July. I bookmarked that thought — we’d deal with it later.

The first day is always the hardest. You’re fighting jetlag, but trying to stay awake until bedtime. We’d hold off unpacking, and just get the necessities — cleaning supplies, water, etc. Luckily, eating out here is probably still a bit more expensive than cooking, but for us, half the price of what it was back in Jersey City. And, eating out anyway has also been easier with Mika, versus cooking a whole meal and hoping she doesn’t get hungry right when we start eating (she always does!)

We walked around our neighborhood and explored a bit, including buying a pacifier for Mika that she spit out. Avent Soothies were her preference.

We’d eventually have to go back to the apartment and start getting settled in.

But, we’d deal with that tomorrow.

In one of our suitcases (we had to dig it out) was a bottle of champagne a friend gave us a while back, which we decided to save for a special occasion. Pregnancy (as exciting as it is!) obviously put that off, and being new parents meant coffee was our drink of choice.

So, we polished off the bottle by the balcony, and were able to rejoice in the fact we made it here. Sure, there was a lot to do still, but WE WERE LIVING IN EUROPE! YES!

Trying to Make It Work

We woke up in Portugal. We were excited and happy to be here after all the work we put in.

But, our noses would disagree.

When we woke up the next morning, the stench was OUTRAGEOUS.

However, my go-to attitude thought, “This can be fixed!” and I knew that the sooner we could settle in, the better we’d feel.

But, unfortunately, this was familiar. In the past, settling abroad hadn’t been so easy. For instance, when we had our housing provided in Korea, we thought it’d be smooth sailing. Until we arrived and cockroaches were everywhere.

Luckily, this wasn’t quite that. What’s a little mildew? I had to put on my big girl pants and figure it out.

So, we visited the local store — Pingo Doce — and got a boatload of cleaning supplies so we could get to work.

settling abroad buying cleaning supplies

We spent the first day just moving the extra “stuff” — cups, antiques, wicker baskets (SO MANY wicker baskets) — to the wall.

The apartment belonged to the landlord’s mother, and apparently, ws still being used as a storage place for her belongings. We knew the apartment was furnished, but when we took a closer look, we realized the mildew bled into the furniture. When I sat on the leather couch, for example, my clothes literally stuck and peeled off the leather. The chairs, though beautiful, were made for Princess Diaries tea-time (the back support was SO straight), and the kitchen cabinets were filled with dishware that I was afraid to hold.

We asked the landlord about moving out some of the furniture, and he agreed. But, when…we didn’t know. And, as the smell was coming from a lot of the furniture, it was going to be a battle.

Then, we started opening up the cabinets, drawers, closets, etc., in order to start unpacking. With each drawer I opened up, though, the smell got worse and worse. I could hear my grandmother’s voice in my head. “How do you know the apartment won’t smell when you get there?”

A day or two went by, and we tried to stay positive. We kept cleaning. I bought vinegar, baking soda, Lysol — the works. We spoke to the landlord a few times about mitigating the issue, but smell can be rather subjective. (And, who knows if a bout of COVID damaged his smell.) All I know is that if Max was complaining about it, it was bad.

We took a trip to IKEA to start getting stuff for Mika’s room. Once I could unpack her things, surely I’d feel like we’d be nesting and the dust would settle (literally). IKEA was fun. It’s in a big mall close to Matosinhos, with another big grocery store called Auchan attached. Here, we could easily get everything we needed to start settling abroad in our Portugal home. Sure, we were there til 10 PM and tired as hell, but we did it. We got what we needed — a crib, a dresser, and more heavy-duty cleaning supplies. Then, we grabbed another UberXL (ha) and headed “home”.

After the hell of putting together IKEA projects, the last thing you want to have to do is take it apart. But, when each day we were waking up asking each other, “Does it still smell?” we knew we might have a slight problem on our hands.

settling abroad visiting Ikea

Panic Mode

Apparently, Portugal is prone to mildew. Not surprising — it’s old, by the sea, and before we arrived, it had been torrential downpouring and still was. (Nothing like showing up in a sunny country to no sun!) The fact that the landlord had sealed up the apartment like a bank vault through the humid months seemed to take it to a point of no return.

When we thought we could find solutions (like those big-ass dehumidifiers), more smells started coming. We Scruff Mcgruffed that place, and realized the new smell might be coming from the refrigerator. Further investigation reviled that the fridge was indeed the culprit. It was clear that it hadn’t been stored properly all those months. In addition to what smelled like leaking freon, the chorizo we had in there smelled to high heaven.

By this point, it may sound like we are quite the complainers. But, here’s the thing. When you’re living in a foreign country and settling abroad, it’s important to have a place you call home. (Even if that’s your Airbnb.) It can get overwhelming, and being able to go inside away from all the noise can help recenter you and get you adjusted.

But, it became clear that it wasn’t going to work here. When we started to feel dizzy, we knew we just had to get out. This wasn’t going to get fixed any time soon.

So, we went for a walk and talked about our options. Did we really want to break a lease not even a week in? (Though, after reading our contract, we knew that we’d not be at fault.)

It was time to get food in our bellies. After all, you can’t make decisions when you’re hungry!

We stopped for a delicious dinner of fish by the sea, and decided we had to take some time away from the place, So, we booked an Airbnb for a week. When we came back, we immediately packed up what we needed to take for a week. If it had just been us, a carry-on would have sufficed. But, we had to take everything for the baby, too.

We’d deal with the rest later, but we just needed a place to breathe (both figuratively and literally). The Airbnb was in the city center, and it would be a nice distraction from everything.

Could settling abroad this time around be THIS difficult. And, was it going to get worse before it got better?

The truth is, moving abroad — at first — is definitely not always as glamorous as one would hope.

Stay tuned for what happened next!

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