Here’s a question. Say you are one of a couple, or just yourself if unattached, and you expect to work for maybe 10 more years, and then retire. If someone asked you to describe in a few sentences what you expected life to be like about 15 years from now, or 5 years after retirement, what would you say?
My answer to this question then would probably have been, “It’s not something I want to think about right now. I’ve done all I can, but likely I’ll be working ‘til I drop. Now, let’s talk about something else!” I certainly wouldn’t have said, “Oh, we’ll be retired to Portugal and loving it!” No signs appeared in the crystal ball, or the stars, about that.
And here’s a truth. Most of the time we sacrifice our precious, limited time, worrying about things that don’t happen. Some unfortunately do. That’s the nature of chance, of life itself, and we hope these things pass us by. Other times fantastic things happen that we would never have predicted! Such as being blissfully retired with my lovely lady in Portugal.
And we have now met so many people here from different countries who made the decision later in life and have done the same thing. I guess the lesson is the further out we look, the harder it is to predict how the future may unfold.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it makes sense to just ignore the future. We need to engage on the basis that life will evolve in a normal way. We need to do reasonable things that stack the odds in our favour. And be ready and willing to grasp opportunities that appear along the way. That’s the way I was looking at it when the possibility of retiring to Portugal emerged some years before it came about.
It’s been a real thrill it turned out this way. Here are a few reflections on it all.
Ireland, my native country, and Portugal are both EU members. Thus, there were no visa requirements or entry restrictions for periods up to 90 days, or for 5 years with appropriate residence documents. As I was working shorter term contracts at the time, I enjoyed several exploratory trips. This was a great opportunity to see what Portugal was like and seek out areas that might be attractive for the longer term.
We focused on northern Portugal, mainly to avoid areas of heavy tourism and high prices. We preferred the north – being quieter, more authentic Portuguese. I stayed at Airbnb’s for weeks at a time, mostly near the coast. It didn’t take long to feel comfortable in the relaxed, unpretentious charm of the place and the people.
I noticed things like general safety, relaxed lifestyle, respectful courteous easy-going people. Pleasures like good healthy food at fantastic prices, wonderful traditional cuisine, very pleasant climate, fabulous outdoor environment, quiet beaches, and a great coffee culture. Even small out-of-the-way cafes serve fantastic coffee, and a delicious traditional custard cream pastry called ‘pastel de nata’.
From there it’s easy to see why we decided we liked northern Portugal! We organised all the important things over the next few months and were so excited to move and get settled in.
Moving to a different country is an upheaval, of course. It can challenge one’s inner sense of equilibrium and security. The usual; family, friends, familiar surroundings, etc. They give us anchor points in our lives, a sense of belonging and security. But I’d been through it three previous times in my life – this would be the fourth. It’s not the impossible mountain it might seem. And it gets easier with practice.
There were many practical details to setting up in Portugal. Here’s an outline of the main ones.
It’s natural to accumulate ‘stuff’ over time. So, we just got rid of what was unnecessary or cost more to ship than replace with new later. Little-used clothing, books, tools, miscellaneous hiking gear, furniture, etc. Not worth it and takes too long to try to sell. Lots went to charity shops and give-aways to family and friends.
It felt good to prune our attachments, shed superfluous ‘stuff’ and travel lighter. The slimmer inventory gave us mobility and flexibility. And yes, there will always be something we wish we hadn’t got rid of or could have brought with us – Murphy’s Law! But they would normally be ‘nice-to-haves’, not ‘must-haves’.
Of course, there are formalities and some bureaucracy around settling in a new country, EU colleagues or not. Bank accounts, Certificate of Residency for long-term stays, suitable accommodation, drivers permit, tax matters, public health system enrolment, etc. Sure, it can be a little baffling and tedious, but we got there. Many times, it took more than one attempt to fathom bureaucratic requirements. But the public service officers had a job to do, and patience, politeness and persistence won the day!
This brings us to the Portuguese language, which we needed to madter to at least a simple conversational level. Needed for day-to-day activity, and to make headway in being part of the community. Plenty online resources, free and premium, are available for just about any language we want. I used those quite a bit. The local authority also provided a full 1-year classroom-based Portuguese program free of charge to help foreigners assimilate the language. Great networking opportunity too.
Modern air travel and the Internet are great for maintaining existing links with family and friends. And we need to invest time and effort in building our new social networks too. There are online and in-the-flesh ex-pat organisations in the major cities. Also, walking and biking groups, and just opportune contact with locals in the supermarkets, cafes, restaurants, etc. We try to make the most of these.
The original plan was to rent an apartment for a year and take the opportunity to look around before deciding on a longer-term location. We were extremely lucky and found a fabulous apartment to rent for the year, in a coastal location we loved. We built an excellent relationship with the apartment owner. It turned out careful, reliable, long-term tenants were what she was most interested in. Perfect. We love the apartment and area so much we decided to stay put!
On the point of accommodation type, we had owned several houses up to then. In terms of the lifestyle we prefer now, a well-situated and adequately sized apartment has proved a better option. It is comfortable, less maintenance and upkeep, and we can simply lock the door and disappear for weeks if we wish.
The last major thing we did was get a suitable car. Some bureaucracy again in terms of an initial temporary driving permit, and then swapping for a Portuguese driving licence. Well worth the effort though, as the outdoors in Portugal is fabulous, and we can now explore far and wide at our leisure.
There’s a lot to think about in retiring to a new country. In the case of Portugal for example, that might be language, re-establishing social networks, finding suitable accommodation, private transport, etc. And dealing with necessary formalities. The highlights would certainly be safety, superb quality of life, great cost of living, beautiful outdoors, amongst lots others.
It may be a big mental leap for most people. We’ve met so many who have done it, and nobody we’re aware of has voiced regret.
If retirement is on the horizon for you, what thoughts and considerations are foremost in your mind? Or if you are already retired, what advice would you offer someone thinking about it?