How We Became American Expats in Portugal

In January 2019, my husband Mike and I officially became American expats in Portugal. After planning for more than two years, we quit our jobs, sold our house and car, got rid of nearly every earthly possession, and said goodbye to our family and friends.

We packed what was left into 14 suitcases and crossed the ocean. For good.

A view of Lisbon’s Tagus River from the Praça do Comércio

Moving to Portugal: “I’ve always wanted to do this.”

When our friends found out we were moving overseas, they usually responded with some variation of “I’ve always wanted to do this.”

And we’d say, oh you can. And they’d say, no, we could never leave everything we know. We’d go around like that for a while, until I eventually caught on that big changes are scary and weird, and most folks don’t want to go through this level of upheaval. Not even if it means you get to move to Portugal.

An American expat in Lisbon

Expat life is about uncertainty.

What this taught me, also, was that growing up as a poor kid in a small, rural town actually prepared me for stuff like this: uncertainty, upheaval, and adventure.

My family didn’t teach me to love travel — not directly, anyway. In fact, no one in my family had a passport; most of them have lived and died within 20 miles of where they were born. The idea that any of us would become expats in Portugal — let alone move to Lisbon — was pretty wild.

Side note: Travel can’t be a priority when keeping the lights on is a challenge. And not everyone gets out from under that financial burden. I know I’m one of the lucky ones.

So I spent a good part of my adolescence thinking about all the places I wanted to see. This was pre-Internet, of course, so I dug through encyclopedias and atlases, and spun classroom globes with my eyes closed and plunking my finger down to divine where I’d live someday.

All I knew was that an entire world was waiting for me, as soon as I could figure out how to get there.

And the upside to growing up poor? I learned to say “What have I got to lose?” and mean it. When you can ask that, fearlessly and honestly, it’s easier to make big changes in your life.

So when it came time to move to Lisbon, that’s what I did. Don’t get me wrong; we planned and saved, we worked hard, and we got a little bit lucky. Everything came together once we decided — for real — to move abroad. And it started with the same question: What have we got to lose?

Lisbon, Portugal – our new home

Expats in Portugal: It’s more than “follow your bliss”

First, let me be clear. In a world brimming with Instagrammed perfection, this was not a “follow your bliss” snap decision.

Moving to Lisbon took a ton of research, planning, and gritty resolve. The bureaucracy alone – both Portuguese and American – has, many times, made me feel like I’m wading through knee-deep peanut butter. And even though we planned our expat life in Portugal for more than two years, we still made a few mistakes.

For every mistake, however, we’ve done many more things right. We stuck to our vision, even when the move to Portugal felt stupidly far off.

You’d be surprised how quickly that departure date comes up on you when you’re trying to figure out how to get a 15-year-old dog across the Atlantic (hint: I got seasick).

Lisbon, Portugal at night

Life as expats in Portugal: Perfection is not needed

The best thing we did was to go ahead with our plan even though the timing felt weird. Eventually, we realized there was never going to be a perfect time to start a new life abroad. Instead of perfection, we decided that we’d be happy with not-the-worst timing.

This has become a recurring theme in my new life in Portugal, by the way: Perfection is not needed.

It’s not about lowering standards, either. For me, it’s about hitting the balance between expectations and reality — as in, I expected our Lisbon apartment to be remodeled in maybe eight weeks. The reality is, it took five-and-a-half months. You live, you learn.

So we let go of perfection and now we aim exclusively for happy progress.

Moving to Lisbon: What if we fail?

But it’s easy to talk about happy progress when things are working out more or less as planned, right? So, what if we had failed?

This is where “What have I got to lose?” becomes really important in expat life. It’s the question that’s allowed me to feel secure and safe, no matter what, in the midst of all this change.

Mike and I had built a comfortable life in the US – stable, if not a bit predictable. Our life in America was already so much better than my early years that moving to Lisbon was just the icing on an already amazing cake.

I ran through every worst-case scenario I could think of: If we failed in every way possible, if we were booted out of Portugal and came running back to Boston, if we went back to cubicles and morning commutes and all the rest, would that be okay with both of us?

Yes, it really would. Ideal? No. But absolutely okay.

Enjoying our new life in Lisbon

Expat life in Lisbon: Everyone makes mistakes

Being okay with the worst-case scenario has let me truly enjoy moving to Portugal from the US. It means we’ll do our best, but moving abroad is a complex, unpredictable process, and we’re bound to make a few mistakes.

When those mistakes happen, though, we’re prepared to roll with it. We’ll be together in our new life in Lisbon. And safe. And happy.

It just takes one question to get started.

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