Moving abroad is a big decision. It involves many details, making arrangements, doing lots of paperwork, and learning to be flexible. We took plenty of time, diligently did our homework, tried to anticipate challenges before they arose, and executed our detailed plan when it was time for us to make our move to Portugal. Even so, there were a few things that surprised us about moving abroad. Here are some of the most interesting surprises that we experienced.
1. Everything Moves Slower
We knew that life abroad would go at a slower pace. In fact, that was one of the attractions for us of moving abroad. But we were surprised by the fact that almost everything was at a slower pace. Both of us were thrilled not to be hurrying all the time. But there are some times you need to pack your patience. It’s nice not to be rushed out of a restaurant. But when trying to get through administrative tasks like changing our address or getting a credit card, we had to learn to relax and wait 1 more day, or week, or 2. Things usually do get done, just not quickly.
2. Walking Becomes Part Of Everyday Life
Back in the United States, we would take walks in the park to get exercise and enjoy the great outdoors. But when it came to going shopping, visiting friends, or running errands, we’d hop in the car and drive. Now, we put on our comfy shoes and go for a walk. A 20-minute walk gets us to a vast array of major shops and services. We walk to buy groceries and walk home with them. We walk to visit our friends in nearby towns unless they live quite far away or at the top of a very steep hill. We walk along the beach, through forests, around neighborhoods, and walk to meet people in many places within 30 or 40 minutes. We are surprised by just how much we can do by simply walking around in everyday life.
3. Shopping Habits Change
One of the most surprising things about moving abroad is how much our shopping habits have changed. For grocery shopping, we used to fill up our large refrigerator and freezer every couple of weeks. Now, we buy almost everything fresh and shop nearly every day. Another surprise is that we often visit specialized vendors. A butcher, bakery, produce stand, and gourmet shop all have a place in our new shopping habits.
We also visit local shops and weekly markets offering everything from handmade crafts to linens, clothing, cookware, and more. Sometimes we discover delightful things to purchase instead of what we had planned. The sense of community we feel makes us eager to buy from local shops as much as possible and go shopping online or non-local sources much less frequently.
4. It’s Easy To Make Expat Friends
One of the things that concerned us most about moving abroad was the idea that we might feel isolated or lonely. But we found many people willing to welcome us before we arrived and make us feel at home once we did. This is one instance where social media was a real help. Not only did we find people to answer questions we had about moving abroad, but we also encountered some who warmly befriended us. We joined several groups on Facebook, some based on age, gender, location, or other interests, and other very large groups of people who are from one country and moving to or living in another.
Once we made ourselves known, one introduction led to another and another and another. In our first few weeks, we shared picnic lunches, trail walks, and happy hours. We also received a steady stream of lunch, dinner, and event invitations, which we began reciprocating. We were surprised to have friends to share Thanksgiving and Christmas with, as well as birthdays, soccer games, and other celebrations.
5. Much Former Life Still Available
Originally, we thought that when we moved abroad we would have to give up much of the life we lived before moving. In fact, many of the things we loved about our life in the United States are still available to us, and where they are not, we have often found even better options instead.
We communicate frequently with family and friends through WhatsApp, Zoom, and other media. Movies and television shows come through cable or satellite and online streaming services. We receive our favorite comic strip (Mutts by Patrick McDonnell) via email along with New York Times headlines and Google Alerts for anything we don’t want to miss. It’s surprising that we don’t feel as though we miss much.
6. We Need Less Of Everything
One of our motivations for moving abroad was to live a simpler life. By that, we mean a life with less stress and less “stuff.” When we moved, we literally gave away all of our furniture, donated most of our clothing, and passed along anything with a plug to family or friends. We kept our art, some clothing, and a few personal items with sentimental value. But as much as it sounds good to go “minimalist,” we had our doubts.
When we moved to an unfurnished apartment it felt like every day there was something else we needed to buy — beds, chairs, desks, lamps, sofas, and on and on. But we actually have far less furniture here than we had in the United States in an equivalent space. We opted to make our second bedroom into an office/guest room using a sleeper sofa that can fit two adults. Our dining table expands to seat 10 if we choose. We have one television instead of three and one bookcase instead of five. We don’t have a car and may not get one, at least not where we currently live because trains, buses, and rideshares are plentiful and inexpensive. We are pleasantly surprised that we now know we need less of everything.
7. Friendliness Of The Locals
We moved abroad not knowing any non-expat locals. Our hope was that eventually, once we learned the language and found a way to contribute to our neighborhood, we would be tolerated by the people who live here. We were quite surprised that the locals went out of their way to be friendly. From the people on the streets who smile and look you in the eye when they say hello to the neighbors who pick up your packages and hold them for you until you return, we have found the friendliness of the locals to be truly surprising.
One night we were walking back quite late from an event with a friend who is moving to Portugal in the spring. We were three women on a small, dark back street nowhere near anything. A group of teenage boys approached from the other side of the street. All three of us instinctively bristled. And then, the most surprising thing happened. One of the boys said, boa noite, which means good evening. Then all of the boys said the same. We were shocked but responded with boa noites of our own. They continued on their way and we realized our move abroad would continue to surprise us with friendly locals of all ages.
8. Many Places To Discover
We’ve generally lived in pretty big places with hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, and all the infrastructure to support them. It wasn’t surprising there was much to see and do in places like that. However, now that we live in an area with 60,000 people, we didn’t expect that there would be too much exploring to do. Fortunately, we were absolutely wrong!
Not only can we explore the shops, markets, attractions (such as one of the largest casinos in Europe), hotels, and museums, but we can explore the variety of natural spaces too. There are beaches, hills, valleys, farms, vineyards, trails, parks, and more. Extending our visit to nearby towns, there are medieval castles, monuments, ancient ruins, and nature preserves. From a casual day at the beach to an evening gala at an exclusive golf club, we have been surprised by how many places there are to discover even in a small town abroad.
9. Start To Feel Like A Local Quickly
Although we expected to feel like fish out of water for a long time after moving abroad, we have been surprised by how quickly our transition to residents of our new country has been. We often find ourselves talking about “we” when discussing Portugal and “they” when talking about the United States. We have our favorite stalls at the weekly farmers market and share “insider” restaurant recommendations with visitors. When it came time to celebrate one of our birthdays, we went for dinner to one of our favorite “tascas” (small family-owned restaurants) where we were treated like family. We root for our home team at soccer matches, and know the best places to see a sunset and the hidden gems where “tourists” don’t go. We celebrate local holidays and have learned to drink the small beers, not the large ones, that only visitors order. It’s a surprise to us that we already feel like locals so soon.
It may take some courage to make a new home by moving abroad. But if you allow yourself to experience it freely, you might just be surprised to find that it is one of the best experiences of your life.
There are many things to consider when moving or retiring abroad. Some of which include: