Gail: Gail at Large
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Portugal, etc.
My name is Gail, I was born in the Philippines and raised in Canada. Portugal is my sixth country of residence and fourth expat country. As of this writing (February 3, 2014), I’ve been here just over four months, which means my answers to some of these questions may very well change! I first visited Portugal for my birthday trip in 2011, continuing in my personal tradition of celebrating in a new country every year. I’ve been using hospitality exchange networks since about 2001, and my preference is always to stay with locals. I arranged three hosts in Portugal for the trip and stayed in touch with them all afterwards, but mostly my third host in Porto. We became a couple during his first trip to North America in 2012 and were married in the Azores on my birthday in June of 2013. Three months later I moved to Portugal. That’s a very short version, of course; the planning and execution had the hallmarks of all great adventures, including the requisite bumps and setbacks, but that’s characteristic of life in general.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I started blogging in July 2002, in my university years on top of a full-time job. Publishing online was a way of organizing my messy brain. In 2004 I moved across the continent to eastern USA, my third expat experience. Life took another dramatic turn and I needed an efficient way to let my family and friends know how I was doing. I decided to register my own domain in 2005, when my previous moniker was already taken, and I’ve been ‘Gail at Large’ ever since. The name comes from travelling solo since I was 18; I’ve visited about 30 countries so far. Stories of my expat lives and my travels are littered among about 4,900 entries to date, everything from hitch hiking in New Zealand to dealing with my car breaking down while driving to New York City, to what it’s like searching for work in a city of 6 million strangers. Here’s a post I wrote about blogging, on the 11th Blogiversary.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
I have a favourites page, because there are many, after almost 12 years. But with regards to expat life, I’d say my two favourite expat-in-Portugal entries of the past four months are mostly photographic:
I wrote this post a couple of weeks before moving, in part to explain why I was moving: Get Unstuck. And related to the practical matters of marrying a Portuguese citizen, a very detailed post about the paperwork involved, written by my husband: Marriage Paperwork, or An Easy guide on how to marry in Portugal with a Canadian born in the Philippines and previously married in the US.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Portugal differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
The Portuguese language is probably the biggest difference in my new life, because I’m a ‘uniglot’ — I only speak English fluently. But there’s exposure to the Portuguese culture already, due to the large Portuguese communities in Canada, especially in Toronto where I lived previously. It helps to have Latin roots, which makes Portuguese culture oddly more familiar than Canadian life in many respects. I’m come full circle in my ‘cultural loop’. I’ve lived in the Old World before (Scotland), so the Old World/New World comparisons were made a long time ago, and I’d travelled to Europe many times since. I’ve experienced culture shock once in my life, when I was 12 years old and visiting the country where I was born but left too young to remember (the Philippines). I was an immigrant as a child, and witnessed my own parents struggle with immigration concerns. They moved from an impoverished tropical country to Canada with two small children and little else. It took years for them to get past the survival stage. In many ways, they had it much harder than I ever did.
I left home after high school to live in other provinces, travel, and educate myself through the rigours of firsthand experience. I have re-started my life many times over, alone in new places — made friends, found jobs, housing, learned the public transport system, etc. I’ve learned how to adjust expectations according to new situations. But if I compare my new life in Portugal specifically to my life in Toronto, where I lived for 7.5 years, the pace here is definitely slower. That is a plus for me.
When I was a much younger expat, I preferred a faster lifestyle in the big cities that gave me big experiences. There’s also a shift in attitude: what can I bring to my new country versus what can this country do for me? Now that I’m older, I have different priorities – I’m more interested in producing than merely consuming. The North American consumer culture is out of control, and I’m relieved to leave that behind. Portugal may be in an economic crisis, but at least the ostentatious lifestyles are not revered here. I also appreciate that the Portuguese are more environmentally conscious: people sit and drink their coffee in real cups, not carry around disposable ones to fill up a recycling bin or litter the street. The food courts in the shopping centres use plates and cutlery. Our apartment building recycles household (cooking) oil to convert to biofuel. All of these practices matter. I value that the Portuguese culture is more family-oriented, people aren’t in such a hurry, they take time to socialize, and they eat well for less money. It’s also very appealing to me that plenty of food is grown very locally here, lunches are leisurely full meals, many retailers have longer hours and people stay up later. This lifestyle suits me well!
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Portugal? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
Moving to Portugal was facilitated by my Portuguese husband, who speaks fluent English and enjoys research. He is also an incredibly helpful person in general, as are his family, which makes for an easier transition. I wasn’t trying to translate everything myself or endlessly search for information about moving here. Before visiting Portugal in 2011, I did my own research into the culture, ways of life, some politics, and the economy. It’s something I do before visiting any country for the first time, because I like a more immersive experience, and to use hospitality networks. That particular approach helped towards knowing what it would be like to live here, but learning Portuguese is far more important now than it was then.
In my opinion, an expatriation experience has a lot more to do with circumstances than with the country itself. Of the four expat moves I’ve done, Portugal has probably been the easiest and least stressful. Starting from scratch is tough – even in my own country – but my move to Portugal was far from that. From the beginning of the process, I was already well-supported and it was relatively straightforward. I moved from a city to a city, not a city to a village or vice versa. I didn’t ship anything. I only moved myself, and chose to re-home my pet in Toronto. Moving here would’ve been a different story if I had dependents. Expat life is not for everyone. Some people have this expectation that a life established in one country exports to the new country intact and entirely, but often this is not the case — there can be compatibility issues. Academic degrees and credentials may not be accepted, work experience may not count, credit history isn’t recognized, even driver’s licenses may not get converted. Lack of a credit history affects the ability to secure housing, set up utilities, pay for services, fund big-ticket items. Many of these problems can be discovered early through research, to lessen the shock or make adjustments before the move. But sometimes there is no way around it: you have to be prepared to adapt, problem-solve, or in some areas of life start over completely. Being an expat without citizenship is to be in a vulnerable position, it can be expensive (especially at the beginning), and we must accept this instability as part of expat life and acknowledge the risks as well as the rewards.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
I went to a tapas bar in December that had washroom doors labelled with the initials of H and M. In English, M on a door stands for men, but in Portuguese M is mulher/woman, which means if you’re an English woman you may automatically push through the other door without looking, or if you’re an English man you’ll realize too late and then proceed to back out speedily into a hand dryer. The potential for embarrassment is heightened by the doors positioned right next to each other, with the M door first, and maximum exposure to the rest of the tapas bar. Throw in a few drinks, more native English speakers, and it gets more entertaining. Thankfully I visited the WC early, before I had too much sangria. Even then, it took me a very long moment of staring at the doors before making a decision. The tapas bar may want to switch to graphics.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Portugal?
My 3 tips are good for anywhere:
- Keep an open mind.
- Be patient.
- Find a local who can help you, especially if you don’t speak the language.
How is the expat community in Portugal? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
It’s very easy to find expat communities to join here; I imagine it’s tougher in rural Portugal. As meeting other expats has not been a major priority in the past four months, so far I’ve only attended one meetup each for three different organized groups, all with rather different demographics. I’ve met up with individual expats as well.
How would you summarize your expat life in Portugal in a single, catchy sentence?
I’m reinventing myself (again), slowing down, and enjoying life one Portuguese coffee at a time.