It’s now around six years since my wife and I started thinking about moving abroad, and over three years since we touched down in Portugal on a one-way ticket.
I frequently say it’s the best thing we ever did. But, like so many things in life, not everything has turned out exactly how we thought it would.
I remember the way we used to imagine it, when we were stuck in the UK daydreaming about our future life in the sun whilst stuck on slow, packed underground trains. If you’re contemplating a move of your own, this post may seem as if I’m trying to dissuade you from moving abroad. That’s not my intention at all – but I am going to try to inject your dreams with a healthy dose of realism.
Here are five important lessons I’ve learned since I arrived in Portugal:
1. Research is everything – and nothing
A short while ago, I was on one of the popular expat forums, and a discussion about tax laws in Portugal became slightly heated. An individual had clearly spent plenty of time researching a particular tax incentive, but made the mistake of assuming that qualification for it was certain if certain boxes were ticked.
As a couple of us tried to explain, that’s simply not how Portugal works. I know that now, but I could see in the individual exactly the kind of naïve confidence that I myself had on the day I arrived in the Algarve.
The person in question said something along the lines of “it’s the law – they cannot refuse.” This made me giggle. Having spent many hours in official Portuguese government buildings, often walking out deflated and near to tears, I would dearly love to hear someone try to tell a Portuguese official that they “cannot refuse” something. And this, of course, is assuming that they speak the fluent Portuguese that will be insisted on by the officials; whether or not they can actually speak English themselves.
I thought I had researched thoroughly – I DID research thoroughly. But research can only tell you so much about how a country functions. Those of us on the forums who sound tired and cynical are only trying to help.
2. The weather won’t be what you expect
I lose count of the times I have told people back in the UK that it’s “cold and wet today,” only for them to say “yes, but it’s not as bad as England is it?”
We have seasons. It gets cold. Sometimes it floods. Last year we had wind that was strong enough to blow the roof off the airport.
There’s an awful lot that a headline temperature doesn’t tell you. Yes, we do get days when it hits 23 degrees in December – and it’s bloody great when it does – but it’s neither normal nor guaranteed – so don’t go relying on it.
3. Stress doesn’t disappear
Yes, moving abroad can undoubtedly remove day-to-day stresses from your life. I don’t commute, I work from a laptop (often reclined on a bed or sofa), and sometimes I don’t get properly dressed until after lunch.
That doesn’t mean there’s no stress in my life. I don’t have such easy access to well-paid work and I certainly don’t have the social safety net that those in the UK can take for granted. I live in a country that, last year, saw the second highest tax increases in the whole world – and next year we can expect to give around 10% more of our entire income to the taxman.
People still get ill, have disagreements and occasionally get out of bed the wrong side. If you think moving abroad will change your life in this way, you’re going to be awfully disappointed.
4. You won’t become fluent in the language without serious effort
You don’t learn to speak a language simply by being exposed to it – not unless you’re four years old.
We’re getting there with Portuguese. I find that I now understand a fair chunk of the conversations I overhear. Day-to-day interactions in shops and cafes are now effortless, and I can get nearly as much entertainment from a Portuguese newspaper as one in English. However, it’s taken three years and I can still only talk at the level of a toddler. I wish I’d learned more before I got here.
5. You never escape the world’s crap
The first few months of moving abroad are months of blissful ignorance. You don’t understand enough of the language to comprehend the gory details of the latest political scandal, and you’re too blinded by the bright sunshine to notice things like poverty and unemployment.
Once you’ve been somewhere a couple of years, you will become familiar with “warts and all” reality. There will be politicians you hate, TV shows that wind you up and government policies that seem like insanity. You can’t avoid reality when you live in it.
It all sounds awfully negative doesn’t it? But, as I said at the start, it’s not designed to put anyone off. If, however, you are considering moving abroad, you really need to know these things. If your dreams are realistic, they really can come true.
As for me, I’m going to upload this article now. Then, as I do every day, I will take time to cook myself a proper lunch with good fresh local ingredients. Then I’m going to hang out the washing, as it’s a bright November day without a cloud in the sky. After a bit more work, I have the family coming over for dinner. As I don’t have to travel, I’ll have a relaxed couple of hours of shopping and cooking before they arrive, probably bringing a couple of good bottles of wine with them. Would I move abroad again – what do you reckon?
Thinking of moving to Portugal? Then please check out my book.
US readers can find it here.
Image credits: fotopedia, Dennis Mojado.