The question I’m most frequently asked when meeting someone new is “So, how do you like living in Portugal?”. It’s also something I’m repeatedly asked when I visit my Polish home or friends in the UK, and despite my efforts to give as exhaustive answer as possible (for it really isn’t a matter of a simple “yeah it’s great” or “nah, not especially”), I usually don’t have the possibility to embrace the great scope of things that shape my life here. That’s why I’ve decided to write a blog post, hoping that not only will it satisfy the curiosity of people interested in my experience of Portugal, but that it will perhaps be useful to those debating whether to move to this country.
I arrived at Lisbon Portela airport exactly one year ago, on 13th June 2017. While a year is not nearly enough to get to know a foreign culture, it is long enough to make observations and establish how one feels about a lot of things. This post is a very honest and naturally subjective view, written from the perspective of a UK-shaped, Polish-born freelance female artist.
In the past few months I’ve heard on a number of occasions, often from the Portuguese themselves, that Portugal is the best country in the world. This kind of statement always surprises me, for I don’t think one can say this about any country. For one thing, there is no such thing as perfection, and secondly – it is always a question of one’s needs and expectations. For a digital nomad with substantial savings who enjoys the proximity of sea, surfing and hiking, Portugal might indeed be perfect. For someone interested in career options, good healthcare, and a high standard of living, it probably won’t be. For me Portugal is still a fascinating and exotic place where I’m very much an outsider, learning and discovering a lot of things, and evaluating whether it can become my permanent home.
As an artist, I care deeply about the arts and culture, and from that point of view, I can say that Portugal is indisputably a fascinating country.
I first fell in love with Portugal upon seeing Wim Wenders “Lisbon Story” film which came out in 1994. Although the mysterious and quiet city portrayed in the film is in many ways long gone, as hordes of tourists are now exploiting its every corner, entertained by fake fado clubs and cheap souvenirs, and the enchanting Alfama has become the home of an aggressive Airbnb business, it is still possible to find this disarming charm in places like the little streets of Mouraria. The beauty oozing from almost every piece of architecture and omnipresent tile works makes life here an aesthetic feast. And then there’s the music. I remember that while watching Wenders’ film I was absolutely enchanted with the voice and persona of Teresa Salgueiro, the singer of Madredeus, a band so unique that it’s impossible to compare it with any other group. I was thrilled to discover that both Madredeus and Teresa are still very much active (though they work separately now). But Madredeus was just an introduction to Portuguese music. Besides numerous fado musicians, both traditional and more avant-garde, there are a few great bands of different genre I particularly like. One of them is Moonspell, a band discovered in my teenage years (which broadly could be described as heavy-metal though it escapes categorisation) which combines great music with poetical lyrics (its frontman, Fernando, is an avid writer). I also love Sinistro, another fantastic music formation known for its heavy riffs, theatrical singing and captivating spectacle (given their rising popularity here and abroad, I count myself lucky to have seen them at a tiny club in the São Paulo district) and Löbo, an instrumental feast of cinematic melodies and hypnotising passages.
Wender’s “Lisbon Story”, besides intriguing and firing my imagination of what Portugal’s capital would be, also introduced me to the concept of saudade, a vital part of the Portuguese culture. As a stereotypical artist prone to nostalgia and mild neurosis, I was pleased to find myself in the culture with so much acceptance and appreciation of melancholia and sadness. I used to think that the Mediterranean countries are colourful, happy, bouncy, but I was glad that it is not the case. Portugal has a dark side to it and I love it.
Then there’s the visual arts and literature, with countless incredible personalities, some of whom became the studies in my Lisboetas project. From Vieira da Silva, through Alexandre O’Neill and Maria Keil to Alvaro Lapa, there are many fantastic painters, sculptors, writers, poets to enjoy… Too many to list here.
Lisbon offers an absolute abundance of fascinating places to see, both in terms of historical sites and modern venues. Since there is an infinite amount of both online and printed guides and websites such as the Trip Advisor providing detailed information about places to visit, I’ll limit myself to listing the favourite of mine, which is The Gulbenkian Museum. Thanks to its stunning gardens, a lovely art collection and an auditorium with a glass wall behind the stage, which opens to the gardens, turning a classical music concert into a spectacular experience (you can literally watch the birds fly behind the orchestra!), it is like no other place I’ve seen. But there’s so much more than Lisbon, and I say this fully aware that I’ve explored only a fraction of the country. Despite being very small, Portugal is incredibly diverse and each region has its own character. I’ve seen a bit of the north, including Porto and Guimarães, Sintra, Cascais, and Peniche, and bits of Alentejo. Any place is worth visiting, and I look forward to discovering more.
When I was coming to Portugal, I didn’t know exactly what to expect in many areas, but I did expect two things: sun and warmth. I arrived in the middle of a heatwave and apart from the odd cooler week, temperatures stayed high until the end of October. I was delighted. But as soon as we got into November, the summer ended abruptly and before I knew it, I was sitting in front of my computer at home, wrapped in blankets, with a hot water bottle on my lap, shivering from the cold. I didn’t know that a hot water bottle would become the most precious possession both in my house and my studio for the following… 6 months. Neither did I know that all my conversations with foreigners (especially from the north!) would begin with discussing ways to deal with the cold. Yes, Portugal is exceedingly cold in winter. And it’s not because of particularly low temperatures (yes, they can go down to a few degrees but on a typical sunny January day, with temperatures around 10-12 degrees, one can enjoy a glass of wine in a café wearing a winter coat) but because of a lack of heating and insulation. Portuguese houses are not at all built for winter, central heating is non-existent, windows are single-glazed with holes for ventilation, and the humidity makes the cold even more palpable. I was absolutely shocked, never having experienced such acute cold indoors, even though in my home country temperatures go as low as minus 15 or 20. But our houses are properly insulated and central heating provides so much warmth that you can often wear a T-shirt in winter. Here, I was putting on as many layers as I was able to fit on me, and I was still cold. I can’t even begin to imagine spending winter in the north of Portugal, which is much colder than the south. From February onwards, I was counting days until the spring, but then I was faced with another unpleasant surprise – the rain season. And I’m not talking about occasional rainy days. This is monsoon-style rain for flat weeks, with cloudy skies and little sun, and a typical Portuguese home won’t provide much of a shelter – in the case of my flat, there was water coming in though the windows and the roof. It was cold, humid and horrible. The myth that Portugal has a short and mild winter should be once and for all debunked, such as the notion that Portuguese homes don’t need central heating. Winter can be very long and unless you have an insulated flat, you’ll be freezing your, erm, everything off and paying enormous bills for electric heaters which are the most popular method of heating, even among the locals (who might be more immune to the cold but not so immune as to not need any form of heating). The only way to have a comfortable home is to buy a flat and do it up, installing a heating system.
The biggest irony is that in all the years I lived in the UK, I didn’t have a fraction of the conversations about weather that I’ve had here!
I came here on San Anthony’s Day, the most revered Patron Saint, celebrated with a festival and holiday. Pretty much all of June in Lisbon is the time of “arraial”, little festivities happening all over the city, from big touristy areas to hidden neighbourhoods, where local people go out, dance to live music, drink Sangria and eat grilled sardines served on a slice of bread. Despite being under threat of extinction, sardines make up about 40 percent of Portugal’s fresh fish production each year, and have long been a staple in the nation’s cuisine. I can testify that it’s hard to remain eco-conscious when the smell of freshly grilled sardines teases one’s nostrils pretty much anywhere one goes. I love fish and seafood, so I was very enthusiastic about being able to enjoy fresh octopus, squid and all sorts of seafood, shellfood and fish. The same goes for meat, particularly pork, and numerous desserts, starting with the famous Pastel de Nata through to Queijadas de Amêndoa, almond tart, which quickly became my favourite dessert. There is a huge variety of cheeses as well, with the strong Azores cheese being at the top of my list of favourites. But the more I was exploring the local cuisine, the more I started noticing that Portuguese cuisine is almost devoid of vegetables. Lunch revolves around protein and carbs (rice, potatoes or bread or often all three in one meal), followed by fruit (which from the health point of view should never be consumed after a meal) and pudding. Afternoon “tea”, taken around 4-5pm, consists of bread and cakes (so again: carbs carbs carbs). For any paleo / low GI diet followers like me, for whom vegetables are the absolute essential and carbs are largely to be avoided, these habits were something very hard to get used to or work around. The worst situation, as I found out, is in the north and east (Alentejo) where meals come without any raw or cooked vegetables at all so people basically eat carbs and fat. My first visit to Porto area ended in an emergency visit to a Polish proctologist, followed by a 3-month treatment. In Poland, traditional lunch will also be protein-oriented, with potatoes or rice as the carb side, but any meal will come with “surówka” (a raw vegetable salad, made from a variety of vegetables, including white or red cabbage, beetroot, carrot, sauerkraut, cucumber with yogurt, tomato, raddish etc.), as well as cooked vegetables (green beans, carrot with peas, broccoli, cauliflower, beetroot, etc.). In my family we may not have any pudding, but we will have at least 2-3 vegetable sides. Therefore the Portuguese eating habits, which are sadly quite unhealthy, really puzzle me, particularly since there is a great availability of fresh, delicious and cheap vegetables. In my local frutaria I can buy a huge bag of veggies and pay no more than 3-4 euros, with fresh herbs such as coriander or parsley always added for free (something I’ve never encountered in any other country).
What I really love about Portugal besides the seafood though is wine: white, red, vinho verde (green wine, which makes for an excellent refreshing drink on a hot day), and Muscatel, fortified wine made with grapes of the same name, a superb aperitif or dessert wine. The standard here is so high that even the cheap supermarket wines are good so one can easily buy a bottle not knowing the brand.
For a long time, when asked about my favourite aspect of living in Portugal, my answer was: the people. I’ve met a huge bunch of wonderful people here, many of whom are fellow artists, and my social life is more active than ever before. But when I think of it, my friends are predominantly foreigners (mostly from Poland, UK, US, Norway, and France), with age range between early 20s to 70s. The reason why it’s been so easy for me to make friends here is because from my observation, people moving to Portugal don’t do so for economic reasons; they come because they want to change their lives, careers, and reconnect with themselves. That’s why I get along so well with expats, for a lot of them are very active, charismatic and inspiring people with big hearts and big horizons. As for the Portuguese, I’ve also made some friends (and found men especially easy to get along with), but the kind of friendship I tend to have with foreigners is harder to achieve with the locals because people seem to stay within their own long-established circles of friends. The Portuguese don’t make it particularly easy to connect with them, but will be friendly enough when approached. I have a few excellent Portuguese friends but I’m not sure if they’re a representative group, since most of them either have an experience of living abroad and have been introduced to me in a particular context.
Cultural ways and habits
Portugal, like other Mediterranean countries, has a different pace of life. Unlike Londoners and Varsovians, Lisbon people don’t run around like headless chickens and their faces are not contorted with stress and anxiety. But this laid-backness has a downside to it. While I appreciate the slower pace and the idea of living more in the moment, I do admit I sometimes miss the kind of energy that Polish people have. We, Poles, might be highly irritable and impatient, but we’re productive and efficient. I’m often told by the Portuguese themselves that a typical “Lusitano” will sit back and wait until somehow something gets done. This relaxed approach and calm can be very charming and refreshing in the modern societies where everyone rushes to get things done as fast as possible, at the cost to their health, but it can also be exceedingly annoying. It’s been five months since a large chunk of roof in our building fell off, leaving a huge hole for the rain to come in. In February and March when it rained continuously, the puddles outside of our flat were so big that I was considering getting wellington boots just to be able to get through the staircase without getting wet. In Poland this hole wouldn’t last a week, while here the tenants decided to patiently wait until the landlord gets around to fixing it. (Which he still hasn’t.)
If the Pole in me is missing Polish energy, my British side is missing British politeness and gentleness, with “magic words” and smiles accompanying all social interactions on public transport and in public spaces. I take the train every day and rarely hear people say “Com licença” (Excuse-me) when pushing their way through the carriage. After years of living in the UK, I still have that very British habit of apologising when someone else bumps into me, but even then I seldom hear an apology. I don’t know why that is because the interactions I witness in my local shops are mostly very friendly and sellers often engage in lengthy conversations with their customers. But the train journeys are admittedly odd. The worst experience was witnessing a scene where a heavily pregnant and noticeably unwell young woman was standing around (or rather slouching against the door) while numerous passengers, comfortably seated, were looking at her without moving. It was only when her partner started explicitly addressing people that one man reluctantly stood up and gave her the seat. It was a situation I had never witnessed before elsewhere.
Portugal, as indicated in the beginning, is not the ideal place to look for work. It is on the other hand a good place to either have as a base for remote work or for anyone thinking of a startup. Some go even as far as calling it the new Silicon Valley and while I think this may be a bit far-fetched, it is true that the startup industry here is booming, with many facilities available to help young entrepreneurs. But for those seeking the security of a permanent contract, it is not overly optimistic, especially now, when the salaries don’t match the rapidly growing prices (the minimum pay is around €550 which is much below the price of a one bedroom flat in Lisbon). It is a strange time for the country, and the media are constantly talking about the problems of property price hikes (35% in just one year in Lisbon) and their negative impact on the Portuguese communities (in places like Alfama, there are virtually no local residents except for the few senior people protected by rent control but threatened by Airbnb owners who look for ways to chuck them out). It feels to me that Portugal, after years of being slightly disconnected from the rest of Europe (in both good and bad ways) is now catching up, but in a way that is dangerously fast and scary for the residents. But despite these rapid changes that are happening due to the influx of tourists and foreigners moving in, the country is in some areas stuck in the old ways. Online shopping is almost non-existent, unlike in the UK and Poland, where I have the luxury of being able to choose between several shops that sell organics cosmetics and provide a next-day delivery, often at no extra cost. Whenever I ask about an equivalent to eBay or Amazon, which the Portuguese don’t have, I’m advised to use the OLX, a second-hand exchange-style site that can be useful but is an entirely different concept. What I’ve observed, and I’m not sure to what extent it might be a result of the left-wing government controlling the market, but there seems to be little competition in various areas that would help bring prices down. So for example, I’ve been buying most of my art materials in both Warsaw and London shops, online and stationary, as they offer significantly lower prices in comparison to Ponto das Artes which monopolises the market with its overpriced products. I suppose it is a matter of time but at the moment there are many things that are not easily available or come at high prices (organic and bio products being a good example of that).
What I probably most like about Portugal is the fact that it’s an incredibly liberal country on the social front. Abortion is legal, same-sex marriage and children adoption by same-sex couples is legal; people can self-identify their gender and gender change can happen as early as at the age of 16 (with parents’ consent, at 18 without). I am still quite stunned how two Catholic countries, Portugal and Poland, can be so different, with Portugal so progressive and Poland so extremely intolerant and discriminating towards both LGBT, trans and intersex people, and women. To be able to live in such a tolerant and open-minded society here is something one cannot take for granted. It was heart-warming to take part in the People’s Parade happening on the 25th April (the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution) and see so many different groups and organisations campaigning for — in some cases — opposite causes, but in the most peaceful way. A real democracy.
Adjusting to a new country and culture is always a long process, and it’s important to keep an open-minded, calm and accepting approach; to be appreciative of the good things the new culture offers and respectful of the things that are different from what we know. At the same time, if we are to determine whether the new country can become a home, we need to be objective and honest in our assessment. The initial euphoria upon encountering things that are wonderfully exotic and exciting will eventually wear off, like the thrill of the first few months of a romantic encounter. The stunning views will become everyday views and the wonderfully charming oddities might become highly annoying liabilities. So a stoical approach and a careful examination of pros and cons is the best way in deciding whether a new place is right for us or not. As for me and Portugal, this process of observing and analysing continues, although sooner or later I will want to make the decision whether to stay here or not. It is most certainly a very unique and in many ways wonderful country and I feel grateful that I’ve had a chance to experience it for the past year.