We sold or donated most of our belongings and moved to Portugal, bringing only 3 suitcases each. I imagined it would be difficult living without so many things I thought were necessities. I was wrong.
Moving to Portugal
Moving is considered one of the most stressful “life events,” right up there with the death of a loved one and divorce. It sounds crazy, but that’s what mental health professionals say.
In the last six years, we’ve moved four times. And, they weren’t “across town” moves. We went from Austin, TX to Honolulu to Charleston, SC to Atlanta and then, Portugal.
I feel that each move prepared us to move to Europe because each time we moved, we downsized our possessions until, finally, when we came to Portugal, we did so with just 3 bags each; filled with clothes, electronics, and a couple keepsakes.
At each turn, we had to make hard decisions about what we were willing to part with. But, with each move, it seemed that these decisions became easier and easier.
Still, when we moved to Portugal, there were a few things, and some creature comforts, I wasn’t sure I could do without.
Things We Do Without
I’ve had a car since I was 16 and was fully reliant on it, just like most Americans. That said, over the last 20 years or so, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with cars and car culture. Since 2002, every time I’ve looked for a house or apartment, I’ve wanted it to be walkable to the grocery store, the gym, coffee shops, cinema, etc.
The realtors I worked with often ignored this request or told me I was being unrealistic. And, they were often right. So, I had to compromise.
But, when we moved to Portugal, we knew we would be without a car, at least initially. That’s because we sold our car before leaving the US and didn’t intend on buying one once we arrived.
How has it been?
Well, to be honest, we don’t miss the car at all. Our city of Setubal is set up to make life very easy to live without a car. We can walk to the local market and the grocery store, which I do almost every day. Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops are also within walking distance as is the beach.
If we want to go somewhere out of town, Lisbon is just 35 minutes by bus. We bought transit passes and use them all the time to get around, but mostly we walk. And I have to say, I don’t miss driving or having a car one bit.
That said, many of our friends who don’t live right in town have cars and they say they are thankful to have their own wheels.
Central Heat and A/C
The first time we visited Portugal was 2019. It was August and it was unseasonably hot. Temps were in the 90s, which is unusual, but not unheard of. Lots of hotels and apartments don’t have air conditioning so it can get quite uncomfortable if you’re used to central air.
Then, when we began researching our move to Portugal we discovered that central heat is also something that many Portuguese do without.
I was certain that both these items were absolute “must haves” in our new place, so we didn’t even look at places that didn’t have A/C and central heat. Realtors were nice about it but we could tell that they thought we were making a mistake by dismissing these places out of hand.
Turns out, the realtors were right.
We found a place in a great location with plenty of space and a nice kitchen (all things we wanted). But, it didn’t have A/C. After searching for weeks in vain for a suitable home, I had decided that we could live with a portable air conditioner.
This place had heat as well; or so we thought. Turned out the heating system was highly inefficient and barely raised the temp of the rooms. In the end, I bought a small portable heater which I would use for winter mornings to take the chill off. I also bought a dehumidifier which did a good job of taking the damp and chill out of the air.
In the end, we only need the A/C for a couple weeks in the summer and the heater for a couple weeks in the winter.
An American Phone Number
We’ve lived away from our family and dearest friends for many years. To keep in touch I call and text. In Portugal, it’s expensive to have a phone plan with international calling and texting. I kept my American phone number and paid the high international rates for a couple months, but, in the end I relented and dropped the American number and got a Portuguese phone number.
Now, I use WhatsApp, Zoom, Skype, and Facebook to stay in touch with family and friends.
Having a Portuguese number also makes it much easier to do business like getting utilities turned on and communicating with our local friends. The biggest problem has been dealing with American businesses who don’t understand that some of their customers live in other countries.
Lots of Stuff
For most of my adult life, I’ve lived in a house. Even though it is just me and my girlfriend, we always had houses that were much larger than we needed. In fact, a few of them had rooms I didn’t set foot in for months at a time.
Even so, we always managed to fill the house with stuff. Furniture, decorations, knick knacks. What we couldn’t fit in the rooms we stored in the basement or stuffed into closets. I even had a whole room dedicated to my collection of LPs and CDs.
When we moved, all that stuff came with us.
That is, until we sold our house in Austin and moved to Hawaii. There was no way we were going to ship the contents of a 4 bedroom house all the way to Hawaii. Especially since we didn’t plan on being there forever and our apartment would be a fraction of the size of our house.
So, we sold and donated a bunch of furniture and put a bunch of the other stuff in storage.
Then, a funny thing happened. We didn’t miss the stuff we had in storage one bit. In fact, as the months went by, we couldn’t even remember most of the stuff we had in storage. That’s how unimportant it was.
But, even after we moved back to the mainland to Charleston, SC, we kept the storage unit.
For almost 3 years that stuff sat in storage, untouched.
When we moved to Portugal, we still held on. Our thinking was that if Portugal didn’t work out we could come back to the States, get our stuff, and fill up another house. But, after a few months in Portugal we knew we were staying.
I booked a flight to Austin and we spent five days cleaning out our storage unit. We sold some stuff, donated a bunch of other stuff, and threw some out. We also took a couple bags of clothes and other odds and ends with us back to Portugal. And, we shipped a few keepsakes to parents and friends.
In the end, we didn’t miss any of that stuff. There were a few things that were hard to part with, but all these months later I can’t for the life of me remember what they were.
Sure, the walls in our Portuguese apartment are a little bare, but I’m sure we’ll acquire more stuff as time goes by.
Things I Do Miss
On the other hand, there are a few things that I really miss since our move to Portugal.
Friends and Family
From the start, we knew that being so far away from family and friends would be the most difficult part of moving abroad. But, like I said earlier, he haven’t lived near our families or closest friends for several years. And, we felt like we knew what it would be like in Europe when we lived in Hawaii which is equally far away.
The good news is that we’ve had several family members and friends come to visit here in Portugal. Getting to show them our new city and share some of our favorite spots has been a true delight that we hope to repeat over and over again.
The bad news is that some folks can’t visit because of physical or financial limitations.
And, others have just dropped off. It’s never fun to lose touch with a friend or family member, but let’s face it, sometimes it happens. It still stings, though.
With that in mind, we have built a trip back to the U.S. into our yearly budget, although it won’t be possible to see everyone we want to see.
When we first arrived in Portugal we rented a temporary apartment while we looked for our permanent home. There was no washer or dryer in the apartment so we lugged our laundry to the laundromat every few days. Later, when we got our permanent apartment, it had a washer buy no dryer.
Most apartments in Portugal are like this, washer but no dryer. You’ll often see laundry hanging outside windows or on drying racks on the patio.
So, we bought a drying rack and after each wash, we put the laundry on it. I found that running the dehumidifier greatly reduces the time it takes our clothes to dry.
But, I do miss the convenience of having a dryer, even if it is an energy hog.
However, I have noticed that our clothes are lasting longer. Without the beating that they take in the dryer, they’re far less likely to fray and wear out, so I’m not sure if I’m going back to using a dryer.
Grocery Store Selection
My local grocery store, a decent sized place by European standards, doesn’t carry tortilla chips or pesto or sun dried tomatoes. Or, a lot of other things I thought were “essential.” They’re just not that popular in Portugal.
If I want to walk 35 minutes to a larger grocery store I can get these items (and them lug them back home or take the bus). But, I still can’t find a decent tortilla. Or, a good meat substitute deli slice, or decent peas, for that matter. It’s also much harder than it should be to find good craft beer.
On the other hand, I live within a 5 minute walk of an amazing fresh market where I can get super fresh and incredibly tasty local (and imported) produce year-round, 6 days a week. It all comes at what I think are crazy low prices (50-75% less than what I was paying for similar quality at Whole Foods).
That’s a trade off I’m willing to make. However, I still keep an eye out for tortilla chips when visiting a new store.
I’ve yet to see a Portuguese kitchen outfitted with this convenience that has been standard in American kitchens for as long as I can remember. I didn’t think much about garbage disposals until I moved to Europe.
Here you put a little strainer in the drain that catches the food bits when you wash dishes.
It takes a little getting used to because if too much food is left behind it will quickly plug the little strainer and water won’t go down the drain. It’s best to thoroughly scrape dishes and pans before washing them. But, of course, some food is inevitably left behind.
I understand the logic of not having garbage disposals (you don’t want bits of food clogging pipes), but I have to admit, I miss the convenience.
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink, including in-depth eating and drinking guides to Lisbon and Porto. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.