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The Life of a Portuguese Immigrant

Updated: Apr 8

It’s Official…I’m a Portuguese Resident! (photo by author)

In Week 19, I received my Portuguese resident’s card and spent time reflecting on the life I’m living here and how it impacts others.

An Official Resident

After being approved, fingerprinted and photographed in the immigration office at Viana do Castelo, I was now in the system as a Portuguese resident. I just needed my resident’s card to make it official which was being mailed to my apartment. Finally, I came home at lunch one day and found a slip in my box saying the mailman had missed me and I could pick up my letter from immigration at the Baixia post office nearby.

Too excited to think straight, I rushed upstairs, grabbed my bag and headed to Baixia. What a complete moron. Of course the postman did not rush back to the post office in order to unite me as soon as possible with my resident’s card. He was still finishing his route. The man at the post office patiently went through “How the Post Office Works for Dummies, Chapter 1” and invited me to come back tomorrow for my letter. I thanked him and left.

The next day, I headed back to the post office and waited in the obligatory long line that is life in a Portuguese post office. You can count on there only being two people working while two people engage in a serious conference that is critical to the functioning of the Portuguese postal service. Finally, my number was called and the lady smiled at me as she handed over my letter with the card inside.

I waited to open it outside, fittingly across from a café I went to during my very first hours in Lisbon. As I checked the card to make sure it looked official, I felt my eyes tearing up a little. It had been a strange journey that ended unexpectedly here in Lisbon. But hey, a girl has to do what it takes to look after herself no matter how challenging and unplanned.

The Portuguese Struggle

As this place feels more and more like home, I very much want to be a good citizen. However, being one of the many in a wave of Western immigrants coming to Portugal for a better quality of life, it is tough to watch how our presence is changing the city and driving out a piece of its soul.

During my first days here, one of the young bartenders in the pub where I watch football, told me of the struggles he was having finding a place to live. It was hard to hear his daily updates filled with fruitless searches that kept leading to disappointment. He desperately wanted to move out of the boarding house he was living in and get a one bedroom apartment with his friend.

After a long search, the friends finally found an apartment in one of the not so great neighborhoods of Lisbon for 900 euros a month. A Portuguese resident makes no more than about 750 euros a month so his share of the apartment rent takes over half his salary. He and his friend moved in without enough money to buy beds so they slept on the floor and saved until they could afford one. They are adding furniture as time passes and they can save more.

And it’s not just housing. It’s cafés, restaurants and markets in the city that are becoming out of the reach of normal Portuguese people.

The Portuguese Spirit

One day, I was chatting to the bartender who had struggled to find decent housing. I sympathized with him saying I could not believe how hard it had been to find a place. He said half jokingly and half seriously, “It’s because of YOU people”. He knew my reasons for leaving the States and was sympathetic, quickly explaining that he did not blame me. In my situation, he would have done the same thing.

That just made me feel worse.

As I get to know more of my fellow residents and learn their stories, it saddens me to see how the changes in the city encourage someone like me while pushing these kind, hard-working souls out of their homes. The very same people who helped me, offering me support and friendship as I adapt to my new surroundings, are forced to watch their quality of life erode as mine improves.

I struggle with this constantly. It’s just not fair.

Lunch at a Local Portuguese Café (photo by author)

Minimizing My Impact

To minimize my impact on this divergence in the quality of life, I make an effort to only frequent local places that a regular Portuguese person could afford. Lisbon does not make this easy. There are entire neighborhoods where it is very tough to find a restaurant or café that is not out of reach of everyday citizens as Western immigrants crowd into the city, many oblivious to the impact their lifestyle has on others who came before them.

Take my friend Felix. He works at a local café and said he raised his prices once and the locals stopped coming. He says he doesn’t need the money bad enough to force the locals out so the prices went back down and the locals packed the place again.

Felix is the kind of business owner I want to support. His café is one of my regular stops.

Fighting the Good Fight

While it remains a struggle and I fail weekly, I try to stay true to my new home. As time passes, I find myself more comfortable in places that locals can afford. I can read the menus well now, I can speak some basic phrases and I’ve adapted my expectations as to what kind of atmosphere to expect. For example, instead of always watching my football games in the sports bars catering to immigrants, I sometimes watch in local cafes, especially one near me where I sit at a table in the back room with 6 local older men who cannot speak English. Strange but it works.

What makes me slip up is when I miss things about NYC. There are ways to live here that would minimize that sense of loss. However, I came here to live amongst the Portuguese and I will do what I can to preserve their way of life instead of imposing my own.

We may not be able to hold the entire city, but I believe the longer we can keep these local places in business, the better the city will be for the level of diversity they create. No one wants to see Lisbon become some Disneyfied Portuguese version of America.

Come to visit me and I’ll show you all my “local” favorites! We’ll start at Nuno’s, then over to Felix’s place, followed by my dear friend Antonio’s, and many others!

Até já!

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