I’ll be the first to tell you that traveling is not always as glamorous as it seems. And, living abroad can take that to a WHOLE new level. But, generally, in the ten years we have lived abroad, a lot of those years were way better than I could have ever imagined — an absolute dream. In fact, I remember when I was little planning trips that I’d do when I became an adult — like a trip to go hunting for the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland (haven’t been there yet), or wondering what it would actually take to get to see the Great Wall of China (check).

So, when the plan came up to move to Portugal, we had all these thoughts and dreams of what it would be like, even with the experiences we’ve had thus far. And, how far off could we be? After all, we had done this before. We knew nothing was perfect, but that with all the things we loved about Europe — which was one of the main reasons we decided to move here (albeit Portugal may not have been our first choice) — it was going to be a beautiful experience.

  • Trips to another European city every weekend?
  • Fresh baguettes every morning?
  • Wine for breakfast?
  • Delicious, fresh seafood?
  • The beach and sunny weather, all year round?
  • Baby-friendliness?
  • Less consumerism?
  • People that say, “bom dia” when you pass them on the street?
  • Affordable prices and access to healthcare?

What could POSSIBLY go wrong?

Phase 1: The Dream Phase

Dreaming about a trip or moving abroad can be one of the best parts of the whole experience, assuming the rest goes mostly as planned. I’m a big fan of this phase. If it weren’t for the dreaming part of travel — the part where you make your vision board, talk about it until you can believe it, count each penny in your bank account to make it a reality — many of us wouldn’t have the desire to travel in the first place.

And, it’s that dream (or dreams) that for many of us, keep us going. It’s the “thing to look forward to,” that gets us through the next few days, or weeks, or months, that drive us.

To quote the Alchemist — a book that apparently many people strongly dislike but I loved, and read it in one day at a library in Seoul — “Because it is the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive. I’m afraid that if my dream is realized, I’ll have no reason to go on living.”

I don’t remember every detail, but the character behind this quote was being pushed by the alchemist to finally go for his dream to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

This resonates with me a lot. The dream is, in many ways, also the travel bug we talk about. It keeps me going for sure, but it has also been my downfall in many ways, making it hard for me — for us — ever staying put anywhere.

But, especially with a baby — that’s what we needed. A dream that wasn’t the be all end all, but something beautiful that we could create in order to have a lifestyle that was similar to the one we were always chasing for.

Dreaming about Portugal — again, even though it wasn’t our first choice — is what kept me going when Max was still teaching full-time. When I was heavily pregnant and waiting for the constant of being pregnant to finally be over, and come to fruition. To, essentially, getting back out there after being back. And, to get back out there in general, after the pandemic made traveling impossible for a long time.

When it started looking more like a reality, oh boy — did we dream.

What We Thought Life in Portugal Would Be Like

We knew we were moving to Porto. Once we knew our (now old) apartment in Matosinhos, we would check out the location on Google Maps (and, show everyone while we were at it). “Look how close it is to the beach!” “Look at all the cute Portuguese bakeries nearby!” “And, there’s a mall there, and a gym there, and ooh…our apartment has a window and small balcony that looks out onto the street!” It wouldn’t be our permanent situation there, but there was certainly a lot to look forward to.

And, then there was the house. Oh, the house. We had a few in mind, but this was the one. We’d live a simple life, fix up the house for fun, with Mika running around in the yard. Maybe get a few dogs. We’d do this while we waited out our five years in Portugal before getting our passport, and maybe even fall in love with it in the meantime.

I dreamed of a kitchen where I could cook lavish meals for all our new friends and visitors, with fruits and vegetables from my garden. I’d bake bread (in my outdoor oven) and sit outside and read a book with a tall glass of lemonade (freshly squeezed from lemons off our very own lemon tree), while Max worked on yet another project. Our library would fill the walls of the home, and in the early mornings or evenings when Mika was asleep (I was going to wait on this one, but HA!), I’d sit in my writing room and write in a beautiful journal that my friend Liz got me, while I gazed out at the Portuguese countryside — the countryside that Max could now look at since he finally had time and space to paint on oversized canvases.

Best of all, we’d be a skip, hop, and jump to Porto, and most importantly, the airport (which, meanwhile, was only ten minutes from the place in Matosinhos). And, the cost of it all — well, the mortgage — would be about what we paid in Toluca, Mexico — about $500 USD. And, with a downpayment we could actually afford.

THAT was that kept me going. Through Max’s final weeks of work, the sleep deprivation, the agonizing wait of Mika’s passport, the loads and loads of paperwork, moving, shipping, and dealing with a horrible landlady, etc., etc., etc. I loved this part, though. This chaos meant we were getting closer and closer to living that dream — again.

A Little Context

Okay, there’s a lot of dreams up there, and it’s true. A friend recently helped me realize that it’s going to be hard for us to make decisions about what’s next when it’s hard to know exactly what we want. This is something I struggle with often, and part of the reason I probably travel all the time — it helps keep things fresh and exciting.

For a long time, Max and I have wanted to own a house, and that was part of the reason we moved back to the States. There were a lot of reasons for this, but the top two were financial and logistics. We wanted an asset (even better if we could rent it and make money off of it), and we wanted a place we could stay at when we visited our family back in the U.S. A place we could also store sentimental items — the ones we’d never bring abroad.

But, our circumstances — our reality — was a lot different than we envisioned, much like our thoughts about Portugal (more on that in a bit). Prices went up. The downpayment was going to be larger (and, the mortgage) then we were comfortable with. Our standards changed — when we were abroad, a one-bedroom in Jersey would suffice for visits home, but with a baby on a way, we needed something we could actually make a home for the foreseeable future. The market got insane, and we weren’t willing to settle on a house that needed loads of work. We looked in other towns, and couldn’t imagine living far from NYC.

But, then again, we have ALWAYS wanted the simple life. A country home and a slow life, but still with access to the city. Albany was too far. South Jersey wasn’t diverse enough. Another state? At that point, we may as well go back abroad.

So, we did.

“Always Better in Hindsight”

Another good friend of ours told us something a few years ago that stuck with us — that “travel is always better in hindsight.” Or, as my grandma would say, “the grass isn’t always greener.”

All the things that I just mentioned that we were searching for then — that we are still searching for — made us realize that we had something like this when we lived in Toluca, Mexico — in our house we rented that had cost us $400/month. We had everything — a yard, a huge house (each with our own office), good weather, parks in our neighborhood, walking distance to all the stores, market, etc., and very close access to Mexico City (even though Toluca had everything we needed, too…”It’s got a Costco, a Chuck E. Cheese…” I can still hear us telling everyone, just like we did about Matosinhos).

Except, that time worked out, didn’t it?

Or, maybe it didn’t.

During the hard days in Portugal that we’ve considered moving back to Mexico (and, who know…maybe we still will), we still left for a reason. I still remember sitting in a bar in Mexico City, drinking wine as we said to eachother, “We have to go to Spain. It’s always been Spain.” We went home and started the dreaming again — putting on walking tours of Barcelona on TV; playing Spanish cooking music as I made dinner.

Portugal was supposed to be our ticket to getting closer.

What Life in Portugal is Actually Like

As you may have seen from my previous posts, life in Portugal is almost nothing like we thought it would be. That doesn’t mean it’s horrible. It’s just, different. I’ll get to the details later on the differences between traveling to a place and living there, but right now, I want to talk specifically about Portugal and our own situation here.

My kitchen — and, many kitchens in Europe (unless you have on of those country homes) — is functional. It works. But, there is no space. And, the fridge…oh boy. At least I live close to the grocery store. We like being able to buy food as we need it.

Our particular apartment has no natural lighting whatsover. It faces a back wall of another building — kind of like a tube — so the only way you can see the light is if you walk on the terrace and look straight up. We knew this going into it, but we also needed a place to live due to the chaotic situation we were in when we moved here (which, was unavoidable — I realized after several weeks of self-deprication). And, many homes in Portugal will either have a lot of good lighting or none (same for NYC, no?). So, when I wake up in the morning, I’m not getting that European street view. I’m getting a wall — one currently with bird shit all over it.

We can get freshly squeezed juice; which is nice. We can also get loads of great wine everywhere we go. But, the first week I came here and saw a doctor, she asked how much I drank. I said, “Well, I’m in Porto, so I’m having a glass a day right now”.

She was flabbergasted, and told me that even for Americans, that’s not okay. Obviously, because it was our first week, we were exploring a lot. Now, we don’t have wine that often. When we do drink wine, it’s a bottle from the grocery store, not outside a restaurant admiring the view. (And, though the weather is nicer now that we can do that, when we first got here, the endless rain meant we couldn’t).

Trying to See if the Dream is Possible

I’m sure that the dream we created about Portugal would still be attainable. In fact, we made an effort to put into play a plan that could create that scenario for us. About two months ago, we went down to a city we discovered called Santarem. It’s on the train line to Lisbon (about 40 minutes away!) and has its own downtown and lots of pretty country homes, and access to everything you need.

We even looked at a home to potentially buy. It was really pretty and sat on a lot of land, but it felt like a scene straight out of the Ozarks (the show, to be clear). There was evidence that a baby was living there, but there was also no baby in sight (okay, that’s plausible).

But, apparently the mother was the new wife of the man who owned the home (who had to be 60), and there also appeared to be boarders living there. The young mother had arrived to the meeting with a fresh bandage on her foot, limping. No idea what happened to her, but then we stepped outside and there was a big dog barking. Was it a dog bite? Did she step on something? No idea.

To top it off, there was a whole mechanic shop out in the back, which is cool, until they lit a fire and the fumes coming out of that had to be extremely toxic and foreboding.

When we envisioned our life there, sure, it would be nice. But, was it practical? We’d still have to drive just to get to the train station that went to Lisbon. And, Mika was supposed to start daycare back in Porto. The closest daycare we’d send her too would still be a solid 40 minutes away. Was it worth it?

(Spoiler alert: no).

We did for sure enjoy that trip out there. But, the thing is, suburbs — the very thing I’ve been trying to avoid my entire life — were suddenly making a lot of sense to me. Yet, it doesn’t exist in the same way abroad as it does here. And, even when we considered a smaller town or someplace more rural, we felt it was either too far, too small, not diverse enough, etc. (We know, we’re hard to please.)

Living Abroad and Traveling Somewhere are Completely Different

Most people I’ve met in Porto either love it or hate it; or they are getting used to it. And, those who have visited here, the first thing they say is, “Wow, this city is SO pretty.”

And, it is. Porto is very beautiful city; Instagram-worthy, if you will.

But, I realized…just because a city is pretty, doesn’t mean I like it. Or, I should have to like it. The same thing goes for countries as a whole. One person’s bucketlist item may not be another person’s cup of tea.

Sometimes, I wish I could be like the tourists that come here. They’re in awe of the city. And, sometimes, when we get out on a sunny weekend afternoon and walk among them through the cobblestone streets, we can pretend for a little bit. We can marvel at the colorful buildings, with their intricately-designed doors, clothes hanging across clotheslines, watching a gorgeous sunset over the Douro River illuminating red rooftops during the magic hour.

But, then I get back home and think about my to-do list. The hours I’ll spend at handling something bureaucratic this week, and I clear my already full week to make space for multiple visits to an office or dozens of phone calls. I browse the list of apartments online for rent, to see what’s available within my price range with natural lighting and a nice energy rating, a high one the difference between mold and freezing in the winter, and…not.

I could go on and on about each little thing that’s been hard. Some of it is on us, of course. Things in our own life we need to change that will be the same no matter where we are living. But, the things that are hard are that much more pronounced where you’re also feeling guilt about not liking a place that you should have.

As I’m finally able to finish up this article, the latest is that we had our immigration appointment and have also talked to another lawyer about what we need to do in order to move to Spain. We’ve debated between making it work in Porto another year; getting a new apartment where we can feel more at home, or ripping the band aid off and doing what we need to do to move to a place that we’ve always wanted to move.

For those who are thinking, “Well, why did you move there?” or “Why not try a different city?” or “Why did you move to Portugal if you haven’t really checked it out before, or why not another country altogether that’s just easier to move to?” Or, even, “If it’s so bad, why not come back to the U.S.?” Trust us — we’ve considered all of these things more than enough times to send us emotionally spiraling out of control. And, some of the best advice I’ve been given is that if you’re plagued with decision fatigue, then maybe just stay put until you have a better idea.

So, you could say that in a way, we are doing that.

What I have learned is that Max and I are definitely a bit jaded. We’ve been so grateful to experience so much of the world at such a young age. But, as they say, ignorance is bliss. Is the grass really not greener, when we know that it is? Have our circumstances just changed because we have a baby now? Has the world just changed since the pandemic? Or, is it just that Portugal was never meant for us?

I guess we’ll find out!

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