One Year in Portugal

What do I have to show for it?

I first set foot in Portugal one year ago today, completely spent and slightly smelly. My husband met my daughter and I at Humberto Delgado aeroporto. He (and our dog) had landed in Lisbon 10 days earlier. That arrival marked his introduction to the country, as well.

We made the leap from the US to the EU sight unseen, mainly because of pandemic travel restrictions. If we had held firm in our original plan to do a “scouting trip” before the move as so many American emigrants do, we would have had to postpone our relocation by quite awhile. As we made our plans in the turbulent fall of 2020, we found ourselves unwilling to wait.

And so 365 days ago, I stepped blinking into the Iberian sunshine and took my first look at my new life.

In December, reaching the six month milestone felt significant, so I wrote about what I had learned so far. I’ve just re-read what I wrote, and don’t know that I’ve learned a great deal more since then. I’ve made more progress, certainly. I’ve gotten more comfortable with the culture, the language, my own place in the midst of it.

I have flown away from Portugal three separate times now. On returning, when the plane banks over Lisboa and the red tile roofs reveal themselves, I test out the word “home” to find that it rolls more smoothly off my tongue with each arrival.

On this anniversary, I want to leave a marker not just for you the reader, but for me, so I can return to this day a year from now or three or thirteen and remember who I was in this moment.

Weeks ago, I made plans to write a clickable listicle: 10 Things You Need to Make an International Move. Something pragmatic, something you could bookmark and highlight. Something that would get shared and shared again, trailing new readers in its wake. A writer always wants more readers.

I had begun a draft of my list of 10 Things and made it up to 6:
1. Humility
2. A sense of humor
3. Patience
4. Curiosity
5. A willingness to fail
6. An aptitude for trying, and trying again. (If I were truly trawling for clicks I’d label this one “growth mindset.”)

I jotted down notes about time zones and about how blithe you can be about an eight-hour time difference between you and your friends, until you begin to live it. Until you try to schedule those zoom calls when it’s nearly time for dinner and your friends are just brewing their morning coffee. It’s not a simple ask, maintaining a friendship across all those miles. It requires a lot of persistence. And math. I planned to recommend the Time Buddy app.

After I talked about keeping old friends, I was going to talk about making new ones. About how it’s not the same, but that’s ok. Friendships, like anything worth having, require building. Require time and trust and tenacity and other t-words that I hadn’t figured out yet, but they would have been a clever a alliteration indicating the construction of something with longevity.

I had all sorts of plans for this post. But when comes the moment to do it, I can’t write it like that.

I make a decent living writing SEO-friendly articles with lists of tips and tricks and things you need to know/learn/grow. But the time I spend tapping these particular pixels onto this screen is my own. I’m not earning anything. I’m not trying to please anyone but myself.

So today I don’t want to write about what I’ve learned but about what has changed. Not the swap of pavement for cobblestones but what has changed within me.

Everyone who talks about leaving their homeland talks about the transformation. After the devastation and stagnation of 2020 (a culmination of the years that came before it, really), I was desperate for a difference.

Six months ago, I closed my post with the thought: “Wherever you go, there you are.” I acknowledged that a new address, no matter how international, does not by itself remake the person. I wrote: Through all the anxiety and elation of the past six months, through all the upheaval and discovery, I have remained essentially myself. But I can see movement toward a better version of me, a slow unfurling.

Now that I’m another six months down the road, how goes that unfurling?

Well, I don’t know, exactly. That’s the truth.

Perhaps I was more clear-headed back in December. Maybe in the season of bare branches I was conjuring spring to unleash herself within me.

Now, as June relaxes into the true heat of summer, those same branches are festooned with the greenest of leaves, the brightest of bougainvillea; they drag the ground with a burden of blackberries.

Everything, everywhere is bold and busy and I am fighting the urge to wonder why I don’t have more of my shit figured out by now? Yes, 2020 was a slog and 2021 was chaos but here we are halfway through 2022 and one year into a Brand New Life and what do I have to show for it? (There’s that capitalist programming shining on through.)

So I’m using this post as an exercise in self-examination. What difference has a year really made?

The tangible changes are easy enough to put on parade:

  • One year in, I know my way around Setúbal and the surrounding area by foot and wheel without using Google maps.
  • I am a legal resident of Portugal with the título de residência to show for it. That little plastic card is extremely valuable to me.
  • I almost have my Portuguese driver’s license. (You can exchange your US driver’s license for a Portuguese license, which is what Marido and I have done. Alas, it’s not a straight-up trade. If you want to ride a motorcycle larger than a small cc putt-putt scooter, you have to take a written and practical test… in Portuguese. So that’s what’s up next for both of us.)
  • I have found and forged all those relationships required to maintain a minimum standard of upkeep and polish: a hair stylist (cabeleireiro); a nail salon; a girl who threads my eyebrows (sobrancelhas); a doctor, a dentist, a dermatologist.
  • I don’t cry in the grocery aisles anymore. I generally know what’s expected of me in any given situation; how to begin a conversation;* what to say to the delivery men who can’t find my house.
  • And hey, I have a house! That’s very tangible, and kind of a big deal.

These touchable, seeable things might not be headliners (except for the house), but they do make everyday life vastly more livable. When I try to explain to friends and family what makes all the upheaval and uncertainty worthwhile though, the intangible changes are the ones I keep coming back to…

1. There are less Shoulds

Street art in Sintra

I have carried a lot of Shoulds around my entire life. We all do, I think: you Should be more like this or you Should be less of this. You Should do this or that; you Should go to this kind of school; you Should love this kind of person; you Should drive this kind of car; you Should dress in these sorts of clothes. The Shoulds are pounded into us from an early age by our parents, our friends, our teachers, our preachers, our societies as a whole.

I carried so many Shoulds but didn’t call them by that name until 2019 when I attended a leadership retreat called Within. The retreat was led by my friend Mia Blume, who founded Design Dept, a company led and staffed almost entirely by women. Design Dept. provides workshops and executive coaching with the aim of transforming the way design leaders work — from the inside out.

At the retreat, we talked about identifying saboteurs — the limiting beliefs that hold us back and cripple our ability to be our most resilient, creative selves. I bore a lot of Shoulds that came not only from professional expectations but from my über-conservative religious upbringing.

Since moving to Portugal, I am getting better at letting go of the baggage of my Shoulds. I am finding it easier to relax into the here and now. To give myself leeway to be who I am, where I am, with whatever is going on right now.

For example, when my brain says: “you Should be more than halfway through writing your book by now!” I am getting better at recognizing that I’ve had a lot going on for the last two years. My priority for the last half of 2020 and first half of 2021 was getting to Portugal. And for the last half of 2021 and first half of 2022, my priority has been to get us settled. I have not given up on my book. But I cannot to everything all at once. So I am making space for its creation, both inside of myself and within the realities of my life.

Portugal isn’t a fairytale land dispensing magic and granting wishes. But I have found that dismantling one way of living gives me the room and the permission to build something new.

2. I have a wider gaze

View from Castelo Palmela

America is not the world. But when you live there, it can feel all-encompassing. It’s so big and so loud, and it really loves to hear itself talk. Being a cog in the machine of American exceptionalism takes up so much of your time and attention that it’s hard to see beyond those star spangled borders to the wider world.

Living in Europe may not remove those blinders completely, but it does shrink them. I feel more aware here, more a citizen of the world. When the war in Ukraine began in February, it wasn’t happening at an impossible remove. It was happening to neighbors. When I ingest the news here, the stories are told from multiple voices. The angle of the lens is wider, the picture more broad.

It’s good to be reminded that the world is a big place, and there is so much we do not know. When you’re an immigrant, every day is an exercise in facing just how much you don’t know. It’s humbling and it’s freeing. It teaches you to ask better questions, to listen for longer periods of time. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

3. My shoulders are looser

Tiles in Lisbon

You don’t realize how high and tight you hold yourself until you finally relax. The past year, while not a relaxing experience, has been an experience of relaxing. Does that make sense?

It’s not just about a sense of safety, although there is that sense, and it is huge. The fact that Filha no longer has nightmares or anxiety about school shootings; that I have no hesitation about walking around at night by myself — these are proof enough for me.

There’s proof more solid than my feelings, though: In 2022 the Global Peace Index ranked Portugal number 3 in its list of the 10 safest countries in the world. Iceland tops the list, followed by New Zealand. Out of 163 countries examined, the United States is number 128.

So yes, my shoulders have relaxed because I have a more solid sense that I live in a place that does not mean me harm. But there are other reasons for the drop.

I’m no longer running the capitalist rat race, trying to keep my income high enough to maintain a very middle class standard of living in San Francisco. That was a massive amount of pressure and ambient stress that only mounted as the years went by and the cost of living just kept climbing. I still need to make money, and as I’ve written recently, I haven’t figured out a happy balance yet for that endeavor. But it’s not the same sort of stressor it used to be. I don’t feel caught in a hamster wheel running to nowhere. If I do run, I’m headed somewhere, and I can keep my pace to a sedate jog instead of an all-out sprint.

I am removed, also, from the 24-hour doom-cycle of life in the modern United States. The Trump Years were their own particular brand of dread. Every day I’d wake up and wonder what fresh horror the headlines would bear. And though the administration is different now, the horrors remain. I keep up with news from my homeland enough to be aware of all of it — the January 6 hearings are top of mind at the moment.

But being aware is different when you’re not living under the lowering sky. It’s so different. You feel it in your shoulders. You feel it everywhere.

View to the Sado River in Setúbal

The sum and substance of all the days from June 12, 2021 till now is this:
I have no regrets.

I worry and I wonder, of course I do. But I consider the move we made, and all the leaps big and small we’ve taken within the last year, and I am filled with profound relief and a sober sense of gratitude.

*When I first got here, I learned the phrase, “Podemos falar em inglés?” which means, “Can we speak in English?” I wielded that phrase all the time and everywhere, sometimes receiving a resounding, “Não” followed by an awkward pause in which I’d fumble with the few Portuguese words I knew. Now, though, I don’t ask people to come to my side of the language barrier. I do my best to speak the língua of the country I now call home. I preface it, though, with a warning: “Desculpa, não falo muito bem português.” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese very well.) Usually all my faltering attempts are met with great encouragement and patience. It makes a difference, I think, to begin by trying instead of asking for a favor. A sound philosophy for so much of life, really.

Originally published in Word Salad Newsletter

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LaDonna Witmer

LaDonna Witmer

Reader. Writer. Hangnail biter. @wordsbyladonna