Moving Abroad – What I’ve Learned

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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.

Research does not teach you everything
Research does not teach you everything

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.

Weather is not always perfect
Weather is not always perfect

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.

Stress doesnt disappear when moving abroad
Stress doesnt disappear when moving abroad

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.

Learning a language takes effort when moving abroad
Learning a language takes effort when moving abroad

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.

You cant escape the politics
You cant escape the politics

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.

Moving to Portugal: How a young couple started a new life in the sun – and how you could do the same

US readers can find it here.

Image credits: fotopedia, Dennis Mojado.

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8 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. Another great post Ben. We dont have satellite in our house in Tavira and on rainy days I sometimes catch the Portuguese version of the Price is right – enough said!

    How are the book sales going? Saz

  2. Great article- but I still dream of retiring to Porto or Lisboa, in a couple of years! I have been learning Portugese on-and-off for about 20 yrs; but have no-one in UK to converse with, so am “still at the level of a toddler” myself. I can read it better than I can speak it.
    Also immersed myself in Portugese literature over past few years (translated into English!)- at least I sort of understand all the images of Pessoa everywhere. Also try & follow basic Portugese politics- talk to the people on the ‘anti-cuts’ demos when in Portugal.
    I think that if a place grabs your heart & imagination, you will put up with all sorts of horribleness to live there.

  3. such a great post Ben! it is hard isn’t it to reconcile ‘holiday’ with ‘reality’ – I love that we can have both now – we sat on a gorgeous deserted beach yesterday and watched the most beautiful sunset and I thought ‘wow this is real life, it’s fabulous!’ – and then today I am sat at a computer all morning thinking ‘groan groan!’
    thank you for reminding everyone that the ‘work’ still has to be done!
    but one of the joys of this life is being able to ‘swop’ what I am doing according to the colour of the sky!

  4. Hi! This is my first visit to your blog, and I must say I was ‘stuck’ for a good half an hour reading it. Thank you for loving my country, it’s so heartwarming!I am an expat myself (have been living in Sweden for 4 years) and reading your blog makes me feel like returning home. Hope that Portugal keeps treating you well!

  5. Dear Ben!

    First, thank you so much for your blog. I have used it a lot for the last couple of weeks. It’s great to finally be able to get a straight answer to ones questions, as well as some very funny and enjoyable time spent reading your postings, as well as your book. Or as I call it; our new bible. I bet this was the book you yourself would have loved to have, when you moved.

    We are danish citizens, and moving from Denmark to Lisbon next month. We are retired, but in our forties and fifties. We will be living on a €2000/month pension, and renting a small apartment 35km north of Lisbon for €300/month. We spend a month or two in Morocco during the period from November til February.

    We will try to learn the Portuguese language as fast as we can – but apart from a few phrases, we’re unable to speak any Portuguese whatsoever at the moment, but very keen to learn.

    You are doing a great job here, and I wish you the best of luck in the future. I might write you again at some point to get some questions answered perhaps. Also thank you for writing such a readable and easily understood English.

    All the best

  6. Hi everyone and a special welcome to the new Scandinavian readers!

    @Saz – book sales pretty good, had a feature in the Portugal News this week which has produced quite a flurry!

  7. Thanks for a very enlightening article. It brings back all of my struggles getting settled in France in 1975. I am an American currently living in the US but wanting to return to Europe and Portugal.

    I see lots of UK Expats that are worried about the rising taxes in Portugal, increases of as much as 11% over the last two years. I am wondering if taxes in the UK were higher than Portuguese taxes to start with and Portugal is only now catching up or is Portugal simply paying for years of big spending? Thanks.


  8. Hi Linda,

    Thanks for reading 🙂

    While taxes are on the rise all over Europe, Portugal’s increases are the second highest in the world, and it’s not simply a case of the country “catching up.” Allowances are far lower than the UK and the higher rates kick in much sooner.

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news – and sorry also for my slow response – I’ve been off for Xmas

    Best wishes,


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