Six Months in Setúbal, Portugal

December 12 marked the six month anniversary of our arrival in Portugal. As with most dates significant enough to circle on a calendar, I marvel at how quickly the time has passed, and how it feels like only yesterday.

It seems worthwhile to sit still for a moment and take stock of just how far we’ve come in the last 188 days…

Six Things I’ve Learned Since June

Ok, it’s not so much “learned” because that implies I have mastered these things, which I have not. It would be more accurate to say these are things I “am learning” or “have realized.” And it’s not a comprehensive list. I have learned — am learning so much, all of the time.

Here’s a sampling of six things I did not fully understand or appreciate or make space for six months ago when I stepped off the plane at Humberto Delgado Airport…

#1: Slow Down / Ir Mais Devagar

The days here go by so fast, so fast. The sunlit hours fold in on themselves, succumbing to twilight, before I’ve gotten halfway through my to-do list. This isn’t a phenomenon relegated only to Portugal, of course. It’s more an indicator of state of mind/state of life.

But we moved to Portugal, in part, because of that slower pace of life. People here, as a culture, do everything more slowly than in the States (except driving). Café coffee chats are lingering. Meals are leisurely. So is customer service. Emails get returned eventually, not immediately. There is more room to breathe.

The thing is, I’ve had to learn to regulate my breathing — and unlearn my capitalist programming. I took a work break for three months when we first arrived, and only picked up my writer-for-hire keyboard after Filha started school in mid-September. So in the beginning, before our shipping container full of stuff arrived, I felt untethered in every possible way. I had no job, no furniture, no friends, no overstuffed slate of engagements to send me ping-ponging all over town. And I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself.

Eventually, I settled into the lull, but it took weeks and weeks. Of course, just when I began truly enjoying the slower pace, things sped up again with school and client calls. Life doesn’t resemble the bustle of the pre-COVID San Francisco scene, but I’m never without a next thing on the agenda.

A Portuguese teacher offered Filha some advice, early in the school term, that I have taken to heart for myself. She said, “You don’t have to do everything all at once. You don’t have to figure out how school works, and learn Portuguese, and make friends immediately. Just take one small step, and then another, and then another.”

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with how very much there is to learn. But when I pause and look over my shoulder, I see just how much we have done so far. And we did it all — compiling the paperwork, navigating the bureaucracy, acquiring doctors and bankers and contractors and hairstylists and friends — with little steps.

That is how I mean to go forward into these next six months, as well. Slowly, thoughtfully, with plenty of time for walks in the trees and picnics at the beach.

#2: Be an Immigrant / Ser Imigrante

Before we made this move, I threw around the word “ex-pat” with carefree nonchalance. I thought the term was interchangeable with “immigrant.” I thought “ex-pat” could be applied to any person who left their country of origin to live in a foreign land.

But in the intervening months, I’ve come to see a vast difference between an ex-pat and an immigrant. Now I recognize them as two different mindsets.

Technically, an ex-pat (expatriate) is defined as a person who lives in a foreign country; and an immigrant is a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.

Colloquially, the word ex-patriate is used to reference retirees and “professionals, skilled workers, or artists who have taken positions outside their home country… they are just passing through.” An immigrant, by contrast, has plans to stay, to put down roots, to learn the language. To call this place home.

My experience with the ex-pat mindset has also revealed a great deal of unacknowledged privilege. Those who embrace the term without reservation tend to be white, and (at least) upper-middle-class. They hail from the UK, from the States, from first world countries that are accustomed to using other places as their playgrounds.

Of course, #notallexpats and etcetera. Obviously this is a generalization. An interpretation. Some might say semantics. But in the States, the non-white people who paint your house and clean your hotel room are never called “ex-pats,” are they? They are immigrants. Migrants. Foreign workers.

When I think about who I want to be in Portugal, I lean hard into the immigrant frame of mind. I don’t want to insulate myself in a bubble of fellow Americans. I don’t want to pretend I’m on an extended vacation. I want to assimilate, to take it all in and fully understand it — the language, the culture, the geography, the everything.

I want to have Portuguese friends — not just people I say “Bom dia” to every day, but friends of the heart, friends who come over often enough to know which drawer I keep the silverware in.

I want my daughter to attend a Portuguese school, even though an international option would be easier, in the short term. I want her to be a third-culture kid, not just American or just Portuguese, but an amalgam of both.

I want to make this all permanent. I want Portugal to be our home, not a notch in our braggart’s belt.

#3: Speak Portuguese / Fala Português

Learning Portuguese is essential if you truly want to live here. Sure, in the larger metropolitan areas, it’s fairly easy to find someone nearby who speaks English. And sure, there are great translation apps you can carry around in your pocket. And sure, Portuguese culture is generally bent toward helpfulness. But there are also people who will tell you: “You’re in Portugal now, speak Portuguese!” The waiter taking your dinner order might be charmed by the way you butcher his language, but I have yet to encounter a bureaucrat or office manager or medical person who finds my lack of fluency adorable.

Six months ago, I could barely speak to anyone in a store or restaurant situation. My collection of Portuguese words was so paltry, I was equipped with only the barest essentials — and was too intimidated to use even those. But navigating everyday interactions is difficult if you refuse to speak, so I loosened my trepidatious tongue.

Soon, I began craving more significant conversations. I wanted to compliment a woman on her sundress. I wanted to respond when fellow dog people asked if my pooch was friendly. Being unable to string a sentence together left me feeling adrift and unknown.

The truth is, if I want to have deeper interactions with my Portuguese neighbors and friends or even the random passerby, I need to learn their language. And I can’t just learn it at tourist level — enough to find a bathroom and the train station. I need to learn it well enough to be conversant, to talk about more than the weather. I need to become fluent.

This will take work, likely for years.

But it is quite an entitled thing to think you can move to another country and just expect everyone to cater to YOU. And it is a very Western-person thing to assume everyone, everywhere will switch to English for you. There are plenty of stories of Brits or Americans expecting such treatment, like a woman who became so frustrated that a (Portuguese) shopkeeper (in a store in Portugal) didn’t speak English, she fisted her hands and shouted, “STOP SPEAKING PORTUGUESE TO ME!!!!”

Our neighbor Germinia, at the cafe out front, speaks zero English. But she still wants to talk to us, and we want to talk to her. So we stop by for a cha preto and make our bumbling attempts. She slows her Portuguese way down and enunciates so we can (try to) keep up. Once, after a semi-successful conversation that involved a lot of repetition and gesticulation, she told Marido and I that if we want to converse, “Ambos temos de correr riscos” — “We both have to take chances.”

#4: Take the Chance / Arrisca-se

Once you decide to take make one big leap — like, say, uprooting your comfy life and moving across the world in the midst of a pandemic to a place you’ve never even visited — it becomes easier to leap again, and again.

Pretty soon, taking chances becomes a way of living. I’m not talking about ill-considered chances or foolhardy choices that leave everyone involved feeling sorry and raw.

I’m talking about taking the chance of speaking a new phrase in a new language. Maybe you’ll say it wrong. Maybe someone will laugh at you. Maybe no one will understood what you said. But that’s ok, because you’ll figure out what part didn’t work, and you’ll try again.

I’m talking about taking the chance of meeting absolute strangers for coffee in your new town, in this new country you’re trying to call home. Maybe you won’t have anything in common, other than your language and location. Maybe you’ll have a miserable time. Or, maybe you’ll have some new phone numbers to drop in your contacts. Maybe these former strangers will introduce you to a tiny, out-of-the-way bakery that sells amazing sourdough bread. Maybe, a week or three from now, they’ll call out your name from across the street and you’ll feel seen in a way you haven’t before, not here where your neighbors call you “Americana” instead of your actual name.

I’m talking about taking the chance of making yourself uncomfortable. The chance of being awkward. The chance of not knowing what the hell you’re doing. The chance of getting lost.

These are the leaps that get you somewhere. These are the chances worth taking.

#5: There’s Always a Prettier Lady / Uma Senhora Mais Bonita

My dad was drafted into the US Army during the Vietnam War. Because of his religious affiliation (Mennonite, which is pacifist), he was handed an apron and a ladle instead of a gun, and sent off to cook in the mess halls of Korea.

A small-town farm boy, he had never ventured far from northern Illinois, and Korea was a revelation. Six decades later, he still tells stories of the motorbikes, the kimchi, and the beautiful women.

“I’d see someone walking up the street,” he’d say, “and I would think to myself, ‘Now that is the prettiest lady I have ever seen. She must be the most beautiful woman in the world!’ And then I’d turn a corner and see another pretty lady and think, ‘No, SHE is the most beautiful woman in the world!’”

The lesson in his story, for his children who sought greener pastures, was that there will always be a prettier lady, a better deal, a more perfect outcome. But beauty is fleeting and perfection is an illusion. Prettiest, best — they are not worthwhile objectives, he told us. Instead, he encouraged us to seek peace and contentment. Harmony and joy.

So it is with Setúbal. When we planned this move, we weren’t sure that Setúbal would really be our final destination. We diligently researched before putting a pin in the map, but since we hadn’t yet seen the city with our own eyes, we didn’t know how we’d feel about it in actuality.

It seemed like a good landing place, though. A starter home. We thought we’d look around a bit more, drive the length and breadth of the country, find the “most perfect” spot to settle down and sink some roots. That was our plan.

But then we got here, and two weeks later Marido purchased a warehouse up the hill from our flat. For years, he’s had dreams of a woodworking shop, and this building was an opportunity too plum to pass up. Then we met some people and we made some friends. Filha started school. And a few months in, we looked around and realized we had already sunk some tendrils underground.

Last month, on a cross-country drive up to the Serra da Estrella, we talked about our grand plan. Instead of spending the summer trekking all over Portugal, we stayed in Setúbal, buying furniture and exploring grocery stores and searching for the best mint ice cream cone in town. We landed, and immediately began feathering our nest.

It wasn’t exactly how the plan was supposed to go, we agreed, but not a one of us felt bad about it. We love Setúbal. We love the water and the beaches; we love the historic bits and the café culture; we love the walkability and the art. It feels right-sized to us.

I’m sure there are other cities out there, other towns, that have more delightful baixa districts or more charming waterfronts. Filha was quite taken with Parque Dom Carlos I in Caldas da Rainha. Marido loves the beach at Nazaré. There will always be a prettier lady.

But all things considered, this lady right here is pretty enough. We’re content; we don’t need to spend the rest of our days questing for perfection.

#6: Wherever You Go, There You Are / Ainda é Você Mesmo

You can leave a lot of things behind when you leave your native land. Some of those aren’t difficult to jettison — your old couch, your unintentional collection of Mason jars, rush-hour traffic on the 101. Others you will mourn for years — your family of friends, your favorite hiking paths, the Thai place by the beach with spring rolls to die for.

But the one thing you can’t get rid of, not for a two-week vacation or a life-long relocation, is yourself. You and your preconceived notions, your brain full of baggage, your habits and hang-ups, are all of a piece. So if you think you can just up and move across the ocean and *Prest-O Change-O* become a different person, you might give pause. (To continue a thread from my last post, Portugal isn’t Narnia, no matter how magicked I felt upon my recent return from the States. And even in Narnia, Edmund was still Edmund. Lucy was still Lucy.)

Changing your circumstances, though, can absolutely give you the impetus to change something about yourself, as well. I quit my big-time corporate job to move to Portugal and work half as much. Moving to a country with reasonable health care costs made it possible for me to go freelance, which in turn makes it possible for me to have more time to do the things I want to do — like hang out with my kid and write my book and explore ancient castles. Moving to Portugal has allowed me to slow down, look around, and live my life in a whole new way.

That change alone, as you can imagine, has done wonders for my mental health. So yes, moving your body can give you the power or the push you need to change things about yourself that you want to change.

But it’s not pixie dust; it requires effort and intention.

I have left the country of my birth and become an immigrant in a foreign land. I say “Bom dia” now to strangers on the street, when I never even said “Hi” to anyone on the sidewalk in San Francisco. I keep a notebook of words in a whole new language. Yesterday I discovered that platypus = ornitorrinco. I’ve taken some exhilarating leaps and daring flights of fancy. I’ve cried in a grocery store because I couldn’t find sour cream. I’ve made a fool of myself, asking for dick instead of bread in a bakery. (I didn’t make the word “pão” nasal enough, and it came out sounding like “pau.” Pão is bread. Pau is stick, which is slang for dick. Here’s some more fun Portuguese slang, if you’re into it!)

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.

I can’t predict what our next six months in Portugal will bring. I have some high hopes, though, and some big ideas. And as we head into the final days of 2021, I am filled from top to tips with a softly fizzing kind of hope.

Dusk falls on the Setúbal harbor

<<originally published in Word Salad Newsletter>>

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Reader. Writer. Hangnail biter. @wordsbyladonna

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LaDonna Witmer

LaDonna Witmer

Reader. Writer. Hangnail biter. @wordsbyladonna

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