When I first started the Moving Stories series my aim was to try and give a no holds barred view of what it is really like for expats, beyond the TV programmes like Relocation Down Under and Wanted Down Under.
And it’s been a fantastic series full of interesting and inspiring different stories from a whole raft of expats, but as I come to the end of writing up this series and preparing the ebook I realise that common to the expat story is the intensity moving brings to any situation.
The expats I’ve talked to have had their moments of pain, and fear and sadness as well as joy, and the fact that they were experiencing them in a land far from their homeland has meant that those common human experiences have been overlaid with a deep intensity.
Nothing is as grittily real as being in financial trouble when you’re far from ‘home’ and you have no idea how to get the money together to head back to safety. Relationships become stronger or are sorely tested when the familiar is taken away and families are left to rely on each other in a land of strangers. Even the strange food cravings (I mean, craving HP sauce? Come on!) are stronger when you know that it could be months or years before you enjoy it again.
For many expats, this sense of heightened life starts to fade and they morph from being ‘expats’ to becoming immigrants, identifying home with their new land, but for many others the Moving Stories must come to an end. Either way, the intensity cannot last.
In this last Moving Story, English expat blogger, Christine relates her family’s experience moving to the Algarve in Portugal, and how the GFC has resulted in an unexpected ending to their expat adventures.
1)Why did you move from your home country originally? I have always wanted to travel and live abroad (from England), but to be honest in an english speaking country. I spent a year living and working in the United States and loved it, but once I settled into grown up life that idea was pushed to the back of my mind. And even though my husband is Portuguese (we met and married in England) and he had always wanted to go back at some point, we didn’t have any immediate plans to return.
But, of course, times change and an opportunity came up.
My husband had been looking for a progression in his career and was getting nowhere and I had just been made redundant when a better paid, better job came up in the Algarve. So we made the decision to go. We had a two and a half year old daughter and it appeared to give a better lifestyle and financial situation, better work/life balance for us etc. We actually felt a bit stuck in a rut and this seemed a good way to improve our life.
2) Can you remember the time before you left and what your concerns about moving were? What did you think your biggest challenges would be?
The move itself was fairly easy but costly, though luckily we were in a position to make it. As I was newly out of work it gave me the time to get everything organised while my husband carried on his job until we left. The company my husband was working for gave us accommodation for the first three months, which suited both parties, meaning my husband was on site pretty much all the time and helped us to get settled.
My concerns were housing, but that wasn’t urgent (with the offer of accommodation), getting a car and the biggest concern – the language barrier. I knew a few words of Portuguese and before I left I tried to do some self study, but it didn’t help much.
I also worried about how different things would be, as even though I had been to Portugal several times it had been mostly to family in Lisbon and a couple of holidays to the Algarve and I knew that, of course, living there would be a whole other world!
3)What did you think you would miss most about your home country, apart from family?
Familiarity. For a long time I missed the things, behaviour and reactions that I was used to and I soon realised that becoming an expat meant understanding a different type of person. To complicate things, the people in the Algarve, are different from those I knew in Lisbo
I missed my favourite meals and foods from home – mostly the simple comfort foods – but also the range of food we have at home. I’d learnt when living in the States it was hard to find ingredients to make an item and everything was pre-made but here it was the opposite problem – you have to buy all the ingredients and make it yourself! I miss shopping on so many levels, as they do not have the variety of shops – no large department stores and until a couple of years ago, no large supermarkets nearby.
4) What have you missed about the other homes you’ve had?
I really miss having a garden, here where we only have a terrace, and before we left England I had started getting into gardening. I miss central heating in the winter and carpets. The houses are not made for the cold and it is very hard to heat a house with little or no insulation in the concrete walls and tiled floors. The houses are very chilly in the winter and I miss the soft warm carpet under my feet.
5) Do you see your old age in this country or in your home country, and was moving a ‘for life’ decision or ‘for a while’ decision?
To be honest, Im not really sure.
When we came, we came for the long term but always with the option of moving on to somewhere else or going back to England. I think it is very hard to say ‘forever’ in any decision, because you never know what is ahead. You can always make plans but it doesnt mean it will work out the way you think or want and so no-one can really say ‘for life’. So I guess it was a ‘for a while’ decision and see how it goes.
6) Aside from the weather, what positives about life in Portugal can you tell us about?
The people are very friendly and helpful, even if you cannot fully communicate with them in their language they will still be friendly and try to help if you need it. I live in a small village, near a larger town but its the kid of place where many of the residents have been here all their life and everyone says hello to you. At first I was a little shocked when people passing me would say hello in the street and ask how I was. I know people are not like that everywhere but in the Algarve, especially the east side which is less touristy, the people are very community orientated.
The food -the diet is very much like the Mediterranean diet; lots of fish, vegetables, olives, fresh fruit etc. Here seafood and fish is abundantly available at accessible prices, which means we as a family eat pretty healthily and our kids love fish, which for me is very important. They have also tried things typical for Portugal that they would not otherwise have access to, things I wont touch, although my range of foods have increased since coming here.
The countryside - over here is very different to home, but I love it. It is quite rural where we live and you only have to drive a few minutes inland and it is dead quiet. It’s very green, (outside of Summer) and there’s lots of trees – fruit trees, olive trees, pine trees or indigenous trees. In Spring the countryside fills with flowers, and even in the dry season you still have plants flowering with beautiful big deep red and pink flowers. So everyday as I drive around I am surrounded by beautiful countryside.
The beaches -are gorgeous and the Algarve has many different types of beaches. Where we are, the beaches are long and flat, and you can walk for miles, but we also have the Ria Formosa, which is a stretch of protected barrier islands, a beautiful set of islands, many with gorgeous white beaches.
7) When you think of home, which country comes to mind now?
England will always be my ‘home’, it’s where I was born and where I spent most of my life. I cannot ever see myself being anything else, because I think no matter how long you can be somewhere or assimulate their culture, you will never fully be one of them. I feel far more comfortable here than I did a few years ago, but still sometimes feel like an outsider and I don’t think that will change. I think if you spent most of your life in a certain culture, you have aspects ‘embedded’ in you and that cannot ever change for most people.
Of course the longer you stay away, the more your home country will change and you may not recognise that place as home anymore, but you also my not have a ‘home’ anywhere else…its a common feeling for serial expats I think, to not fully be at ‘home’ anywhere.
8) In what ways do you think your family life, and your relationship/marriage, has become stronger after undertaking this adventure?
After the difficult times we have had, I think we are stronger both as a couple and a family. We are quite isolated here as we have no family nearby and only a few friends. We are not a huge part of either community – the expat or local – so we spend most of our time together.We haven’t ever really got into the expat community and I don’t know whether that is because we are a mixed nationality couple or its just not something we really wanted to do.
“Overall though, it has been a great experience for our children (and myself) to have experienced a life in another country and another culture, and learn the language.”
9) Were the challenges the same as you envisaged or not?
At first I found it very lonely and isolated and it took me a long time to meet people and make friends and that was hard. The bureaucracy is terrible here, things move so slowly and finding information is also a problem. You normally need to speak to three different people to have any idea of what you’re supposed to do next.
We have encountered other challenges that we did not expect, as unfortunately though life started well here it has not continued.
When we arrived I had always planned to do some type of work, so I took a course in teaching English with the idea to teach. With the storm of the financial crisis brewing, things turned against us, my husband got made redundant from his job after a year and struggled to find work. My teaching opportunities never developed as I learned that where I live in the Algarve, people either dont have the money or the desire to learn. My husband found work on and off for periods but nothing long term, this has put great pressure on us financially and put us in a position I never imagined myself to be.
The crisis has hit Portugal very hard and life here is challenging. This was something we never imagined would happen to us.
10) What surprises have you had – good and bad – setting up your new home in Portugal and what snippets of been-there-done-that advice would you give would-be expats?
My biggest surprise was the strength and effect of the crisis and how much it has affected the Algarve.
We both have a background in hospitality and where else is better to find work than the Algarve, the most touristic area of Portugal with hundreds of hotels, restaurants etc? What we didn’t realise is that this all year round resort is actually extremely seasonal.
My biggest advice would be to do your homework, do not come here and expect to find work that pays your cost of living as wages are terribly low. You need to come here with some financial backing, especially these days, and you should speak Portuguese so you have more work choice, especially non-seasonal work.
The life style here is great, it’s very relaxed living near the beach but people make the mistake of thinking it will be easy finding work and that the cost of living is low, but that’s just no longer true. Life here is not easy, as it used to be, and unless you have a very good plan or strong business, I would say don’t do it.
11)Will you stay in Portugal or will you returning home?
Due to the difficulties here, we have decided to end our expat adventure – for now at least – and return to England in the very near future. We are sad to be leaving and will miss it a lot but in the current climate cannot make a viable lifestyle here.
Though sadly, Christine’s family’s expat adventures might have come to an end, for now, you can still follow her as she makes plans to resettle in England, on her Blog – Expat Mum in Portugal and on Twitter as @expatmumport.
I know that Christine’s family is not the only one resettling due to the global financial crisis, are you considering it too, or have you done it? And if so, what suggestions do you have for Christine and her family and all those other re-pats!?
Image: Flickr cc