Expats: Setting down roots in crisis-ridden Portugal

Choosing a remote corner of Europe as your home amidst an ongoing financial crisis can seem strange, especially if you come from a more prosperous country like the UK or Australia. PDV asked three expats who have recently taken the plunge about what attracted them to Portugal.

Culture What's New — 27 May 2013 by Marina Watson Peláez
Expats: Setting down roots in crisis-ridden Portugal

Emma's house in central Portugal (Photograph: All Rights Reserved/PDV)

“Why would an Australian, who had a job and a nice car and good family, want to live in a shed in Figueiró dos Vinhos?” That’s what Emma Brunton, 42, says the Portuguese first think when they meet her. “What’s amazing is that they don’t assume you’re a criminal,” she says.

Emma left Sydney, where she worked in television, in 2006, with a vague plan: to renovate a property, open a café or run a backpackers and thought she would end up somewhere like Bulgaria or Slovenia.

But Portugal was first on her European tour list and Emma instantly became fond of Figueiró dos Vinhos, central Portugal, where she ended up renovating an old home and starting an entertaining blog, Emma’s House in Portugal – about travel, recipes and how she fixed up her dream home.

I liked Portugal immediately – the faded grandeur of the cities, how relaxed and unpretentious the people were and the language. I thought I could understand it!” says Emma.

Everything looked like it was for sale. So I looked up the property prices. And then I quit travelling the country and took a room in a hotel in Lisbon next door to an internet café, and took up researching property full time.”

Emma says the downside to Portugal was its bureaucracy. “It was a battle,” she says. “And I would never recommend doing a rectification on a €30,000 house with a 70-year-old Portuguese owner.

So how does Emma make a living? “I don’t,” she replies from Australia. “I’m on recession-relief work stint.” Emma now works in Sydney for six months a year but makes no mention of leaving Portugal permanently.

Despite the gloomy economic atmosphere, a recent OECD report reveals that 71% of people in Portugal say they have more positive experiences in an average day (feelings of rest, pride in accomplishment, enjoyment, etc.) than negative ones (pain, worry, sadness, boredom, etc.), lower than the OECD average.

And perhaps the weather and plentiful nature help. That is the first thing that Stephen McKay, 37, who owns a tree forestry surgery company, mentions when he explains why he moved to Portugal, as well as pointing out that there are more “family values” and a healthier lifestyle.

“Even though we work hard, long hours, it doesn’t seem like you’re working your life away,” says Stephen. “We definitely escaped the rat race.”

Stephen says he got great support when he made the move through online forums like Expats Portugal.

Expat forums are absolutely amazing”, he says. “They were a great way to get information from people who had already moved out here, from bureaucratic red tape to day-to-day living things. We’ve met up with quite a few people and obviously that’s generated a lot of business for us as well,” he says.

Stephen and his wife moved to their traditional Portuguese rural village house near Coimbra, central Portugal and within a year got started on their new business.

It started small, dealing with a few expats locally,” says Stephen, “and then it started to grow.”

Their company offers all sorts of forestry services including removing trees, replanting or generating forests, which wasn’t common when they first moved to the isolated town near Coimbra.

But teaching can also be a smart and affordable way to make a living and change scenery.

English expat Julie Fox, 42, used to work in a bank in the UK before she went backpacking for over a year and then decided to take a teacher’s qualification. She then worked in Barcelona, Venezuela and Tanzania, before stumbling over Portugal and now lives in Moura Morta, a small village 35 km from Coimbra, in central Portugal.

“I had hoped to return to Spain but a couple of jobs came up in Portugal so I applied for them too and got offered the job in Coimbra. A friend had spent some time in Coimbra a few years back and loved it so I accepted and moved here,” she says.
“Central Portugal is usually overlooked. It’s beautiful. Very varied, with beaches, flat lands, mountains and river beaches,” she adds.

Julie also says she was attracted by the weather and by the fact that she could one day buy a house there. “The weather makes a big difference,” she remarks. “When the skies are blue most of the time, it sets your mood and what you can do.”

Julie also wanted to put down some roots somewhere. “I decided I wanted to come back to Europe as I was tired of having a temporary life,” she says. “Coming here (to Portugal) also meant I could get a foot on the housing ladder, which in the UK was well out my possibility.”

One of the things she cherishes about Portugal is that it’s safe. “When I got here I felt safe because of the contrast with Venezuela and Tanzania. It was suddenly a relief to walk around on my own and not worry.”

Julie is weaning off teaching and is now working towards full-time writing. She has written several travel pieces for CNN and also has her own blog which she updates regularly.

But she says teaching has been a great way to meet people, including her husband. “The benefits of being a teacher,” she says, “is that you usually end up working with English-speaking people, so you have your ready-made expat community at work.”

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Marina Watson Peláez

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