Moving to Portugal: Our First Six Months Abroad

Today marks six months exactly since I boarded a ship with the girls – our pups, Macy and Tillie – and started our transatlantic journey. It was our last day in America. As I kissed Mike goodbye at the dock and stepped through the security checkpoint, I flashed between thrilled and terrified.

Moving to Portugal: The “what-ifs”

Everyone who makes a big change feels at least a moment of doubt at some point. For me, the “what-ifs” kicked in within our first few days in Lisbon.

To wit: What if this is all a huge mistake? What if no one in Lisbon likes us? What if spending 24 hours a day together makes us feel like *we* don’t like us?

Yes, I lost some sleep worrying about this stuff. And no, none of those worries actually came true.

In fact, for every one thing that has gone wrong — oh, and they have — at least two more have gone right. For example, we have our residence cards, we’re enrolled in Portugal’s national healthcare system, and we’ve switched our US drivers’ licenses for Portuguese ones. We’ve even started to make friends. Imagine.

What is expat life really like?

So far, the overall experience of moving to Portugal from the US has been incredible. Expat life reminds me a lot of college: learning something new every day, figuring out where I fit in, and feeling like the whole world is open to us.

It’s been about personal growth and celebrating tons of small successes. Ultimately, too, being an expat in Lisbon has made me question everything I thought I knew about adult life.

Probably the most important lesson I’ve come away with so far is the importance of building habits.


Real-life advice from a new expat: Lessons learned

Because I was just emerging from full-time work in a cubicle, I was super-excited to experience something besides a tightly scheduled day.

Moving to Lisbon definitely loosened things up – and now I’m a freelance writer with virtually no set schedule. I’ll be honest, non-structured time isn’t something I’ve ever had much experience with.

So I decided to build some new habits to make the transition to expat life easier. Here’s my real-life advice:

In six months, I’ve build three habits that are now the foundation of my new life. These habits give me structure without confinement, if that makes sense. They’ve kept me grounded and happy during a time of tremendous change – which is important for anyone thinking of making a similar leap.

Habit one: Make lists. Lots of ’em.

This one’s a no-brainer. I use my trusty yellow legal pads (which are not easy to find in Lisbon, by the way) and my favorite pink pen to write out each day’s tasks, longer term goals, or just things we need for the new apartment.

It’s a small ritual that doesn’t seem particularly groundbreaking – but if I don’t do it, I’m lost. I become — wait for it — listless, basically wandering around with my coffee and wondering where the day went.

My process is simple: I write down every goal for the day, big or small. I also throw in a couple of super easy ones – like “make coffee” – so I always feel like I’ve accomplished something early in the day. My lists keeps me focused, and helps me chip away at the massive process of re-establishing our lives in a new country.


Habit two: Practice the language

One of the smartest things we did when we moved was sign up for intensive language classes right away.

One of the dumbest things we did was stop practicing when those classes ended.

Lesson learned. Now I practice every day, because learning Portuguese has been exactly like going to the gym. That is, if I don’t do it regularly, the next time I jump into it, it’s awkward and painful.

Unexpected bonus: Feeling like a bozo every time I try to order a coffee has become a fantastic motivator.

Outside of Portugal, you’ll find tons of Brazilian Portuguese resources, but not so many for European Portuguese (and yes, they’re very different). Plus, my impatient nature means I have a really low tolerance for boring or confusing apps.


One app I’ve loved, however, has been Memrise. It’s like playing a game, it’s easy to use, and I’ve found it incredibly helpful as I try to remember all the stuff I learned in February. I actually look forward to practicing – which has made this habit much easier to build.

Another resource I really dig is Besides a huge website of learning resources, they have podcasts on iTunes that are super helpful for listening comprehension.


 Habit three: Explore Lisbon

There’s a lot happening here. Lisbon is a fascinating mix of tradition and modernity. Even though we’d visited a number of times before we relocated to Lisbon, the city was still largely a mystery once we became expats.

As with any new experience, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.

Once we realized how much we were missing out on, Mike and I started scheduling time to explore different neighborhoods. And because he’s awesome, he made a list of restaurants all over the city. We take a train or bus across town, go for a walk, learn about a new area, then have lunch or dinner in a new place. Highly recommended.

Unexpected joy: The best part of moving to Portugal

Some of the most wonderful moments I’ve had since moving to Portugal from the US are when we’ve stumbled across something amazing, totally by accident. Street art by Vhils and Banksy. An impromptu fado performance. The impossible cuteness of the Alfama’s narrow, winding streets at sunset.

They’re like mini-dates, and we do them every week. We keep them just like any other appointment. Real talk: Everyone should try to make time for this. Single or together, in a new place or same, old town, a peaceful walk can put some much-needed perspective into an ordinary day.

Six months, three habits. And more to come.

Six months, three habits. I’m working on more now – like putting myself out there to meet people, creating the most productive home office, and managing the bureaucracy  that comes with being an immigrant – and I’ll write about them eventually.

It’s been an adventure and a blessing to be able to learn something new every day. I love it.

This post contains links to products and companies I like. If you click and buy something, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. This helps keep the website running (and keeps the girls stocked with puppy treats).

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