A Fresh Outlook – and a Wonderful Book

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As a regular reader of the blog pointed out, my last post was “uncharacteristically negative,” so I’m pleased to report that last week was a better one! We heard from our Portuguese bank that our paperwork was finally back from London and were invited in to apply for our car finance. We have yet to hear back as to whether or not we can go car shopping, but fingers are firmly crossed. If we are successful, we can go shopping for something with a service history and a warranty, rather than having to take a €5000 gamble!

Just as suddenly as it had arrived, our homesickness vanished, helped by some fine weather and a conscious effort not to allow the slow-turning wheels of bureaucracy to phase us.

I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating: moving to a warm, sunny country does NOT make you immune to life’s crap. Sure, I don’t have to start every Monday on the London underground, wedged cosily against a strangers armpit, but living in Portugal, when you have a living to earn and tax to pay, does not mean 365 days a year of “summer time, and the living is easy.”

Portugal Spring Flowers
Portugal Spring Flowers

However settled we feel here most of the time, decades of conditioning as to how things work in a different culture, and one where you speak the language, don’t just get shaken off after 18 months. I feel I have a duty to people considering a similar move to be completely honest about this. Things that were previously simple—such as making an enquiry to the tax office or seeing a doctor, become vastly complicated.

I sent two very simple questions by email, in perfect Portuguese (translated with the help of a Portuguese friend), to Portugal’s Financas several weeks ago and have received no response.

What would I have done in England? Well, I would have picked up the phone and used my extensive vocabulary to bitch and moan until I got the answers I required. Now here, that’s not an option. Despite my best efforts, my Portuguese vocabulary doesn’t yet stretch to complaining over the phone. Sure, I now know the difference between a dourada and a robalo, but proudly showing off my knowledge of fish is unlikely to get me anywhere with the tax office. It’s an unsettling feeling.

It’s my duty then to warn prospective expats of something the estate agents selling a new life in the sun are unlikely to mention: The language barrier has the potential to turn previously intelligent, articulate people into blathering fools. Stumbling your way through a two week holiday with nothing but “sim” and “obrigado” is one thing, negotiating the realities of life is quite another!

Shellfish on a Trip to Spain
Shellfish on a Trip to Spain

Anyway, as you can probably tell, I’ve now managed to be a lot more philosophical about all this, freeing up my brain to enjoy some of the good things we moved here for. Last week we found time to enjoy the beach, watch sea trout sizzle on our barbecue and venture into Spain for a feast of shellfish at the weekend. Our equilibrium has been restored.

Key to restoring my spirits last week was the arrival of a book called “The Moon, Come to Earth,” by Philip Graham, a series of dispatches from an American author who spent a year living in Lisbon.

I’m always keen to read tales of people integrating into other cultures, and the adventures of Philip and his family have so many parallels to our own experiences that I found the book truly compelling.

Graham has a fantastic gift for analogies. I particularly loved the observation that “making complex financial arrangements in a language one barely understands feels like riding white-water rapids using a teaspoon for an oar.” That sentence alone went a long way to shaking me out of my dark mood last week!

My wife can always judge how much I’m enjoying a book by how often I want to read a section out loud to her. I read her so much of “The Moon, Come to Earth,” that I hardly think it will be worth her reading it herself!

The author skillfully blends his Portuguese discoveries with his personal thoughts and feelings as he watches his daughter’s integration into Portuguese life and schooling, and her poignant last days of childhood as adolescence begins. This book is absolutely essential reading for anyone considering moving abroad with children.

“The Moon, Come to Earth” helped me in another way too. Graham spends a lot of his time in Lisbon sitting and observing – taking it all in. As our work and red-tape stress has increased, we have unconsciously stopped doing this, ending up back on a bit of a hamster wheel, albeit a sunnier hamster wheel with cleaner air. The wonderful observations in the book jolted me back to remembering why we moved here, and the need to slow down, soak up the culture and open our minds to understanding the different way of life. For that, I am very grateful to the author, and heartily recommend the book to anyone with an interest in life in Portugal.

You can find the book here:

The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon

With all that said, however much I remember why we moved here, manage to slow down and soak up the culture and adapt to that different way of life, I have a feeling that the tax office failing to respond to my queries is still going to piss me off.

Have a good week 🙂

Exploring Portugal - Castro Marim from the Castle
Exploring Portugal - Castro Marim from the Castle

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9 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. Dear Ben,

    Never expect a public service in Portugalto reply to one of your emails. Sending emails simply doesn’t work there. This true for you and is true for me.

    The Portuguese culture is everything about the personal contact, and about to whom you know, you have to go there, present your self(or use the phone, but in this case you need to insist), make them to know you, try to create some links with people in these key places (this doesn’t involve any money, I am not talking about giving tips etc…). The important thing is that at the third of forth time they see you entering, they already can antecipate the answer for your queries etc…

    Remember, Portuguese people love to help their friends….

    The only time the public services will use the email is when they want something out of you and even so they will prefer to send a letter….

    Soon I will make a comment about the integration of a Portuguese in your Country, and you will see that the difficulties that we have to face are not so different as you may think….

  2. Or, as my American husband would say “It’s like being 4 again, with the difference that I can now reach the sink and get water all by myself” 😉

    Oh, and the Finanças are perfectly able to write emails to people… it’s just that apparently they can’t read them!

  3. I can certainly relate to that 🙂

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  4. Thanks for introducing me to this book. As someone who moved to Lisbon at the start of the year, I’m off to get a copy.

  5. Toca – I hope you enjoy the book which I think by now may be available in a choice of English or Portuguese. Perhaps if Philip is following these comments he can confirm….

  6. The Portuguese Financas is probably the most difficult entity to deal with, even for the Portuguese. Anything related with taxes in Portugal is complicated, very intricate system with so many variations and alineas than even some staff have dificulties applying. An advice. .. make friends with the staff in person and improve your Portuguese. It will make a huge difference. You will see yourself in a couple of years in a bliss, believe it. All good for the future

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