It's been 9 months since we packed our necessities into several overstuffed suitcases, said a tearful goodbye to friends and family, and stepped on that plane with our 2 thoroughly miserable cats in search of a new life in Portugal. It's been one of the biggest undertakings of my life, right up there with quitting my restaurant job to pursue a career in photography and food styling. Today I'd like to highlight some of the differences and similarities I've discovered during our time here in Coimbra.
I was lucky to live in one of the most low-cost cities in the United States: Albuquerque, New Mexico. Before researching our move to Portugal, I figured that most things would be more expensive over here. It turned out to not be true over all and in the end I think everything has somewhat evened out when comparing our expenses in the US to our expenses here.
Some of the items and services that have been surprisingly less expensive are:
-PRESCRIPTIONS! One of the prescription medications I use cost $100 in the US. Here, I can buy it over-the-counter for about $4. Other prescriptions I've encountered are about 1/2 the cost they were in the US. If it's something you need to survive or function, it's usually pretty cheap.
-And with that being said: an appointment with a doctor or dentist is WAY cheaper than in the US. My husband went to have work done on a tooth and ended up paying about 10% - 20% of what it would have cost him in the US to have similar work done. The veterinarian also tends to be cheaper here. Whenever we'd take our cats in for injuries/illnesses in Albuquerque, it was usually $300, regardless of the amount of work being done. When one of our cats was having intestinal issues, the bill came to about €55. A friend whose cat was hospitalized for days here said the total came to just €69.
-Meat, fish, local fruits & veggies, baked noms, coffee. It's about $5 - $8 for two salmon steaks and fruit and veggies are dirt cheap. My husband buys an entire roasted chicken for 1/2 what it costs in the US.
-Cafes and some restaurants. An espresso is rarely more than €.75 and pastries are about €1 - €2. When I worked at Starbucks almost 20 years ago, I remember an espresso costing about $3. Tipping isn't done in cafes, though we tend to slip some cash under our plates for the server/busser to find. Tipping in restaurants is usually 5% - 10% if the service is good and you have to leave it in cash because there's no option to add it to a credit card receipt. This doesn't particularly sit well with me though, despite being asked to please not tip well because it makes the European customers look bad. :D
-Rent. You'd think rent in a major city would cost a hell of a lot more than it does here, but we're currently paying $100 less than we did in Albuquerque. Granted, I think we got some sort of a deal since this apartment had been unoccupied for awhile, but glancing through the classifieds shows pretty reasonable prices for renters.
-The local bus within Coimbra. If you buy 11 rides at once, they come out to about $.85 - $.90 each. Riding the subway in Lisbon and Porto is also less than NYC or other similar major US cities.
Of course, everything isn't cheaper. There are some goods and services that cost a little more or a lot more. These are below.
-Cars, gas, tolls, anything involving transportation except the local bus. If I want to take the main highway from Coimbra to Lisbon, it's about $120 - $140 round trip between gas and tolls. Expect cars to cost 2 - 4 times more than in the US. Gas is about a 300% markup compared to what we were paying back home, but that's what happens when the government doesn't use subsidies to offset the cost of a non-sustainable resource.
-Most imported food. 1 American or Belgian beer can cost as much as a 6-pack of Portuguese beers. Peanut butter, soy sauce, chocolate chips, a box of Lipton tea, certain tropical fruits, etc.
-Computers, electronics, appliances. We are so used to being able to buy a lot of appliances in the US for $10 - $20 at Walmart or Target, so it's surprising to see a fan or mixer or hand blender starting at $30. However, all these purchases came with a 2 year guarantee, which is something I never encountered in the US. If I have to buy a new computer or camera gear though, I'm definitely doing it in the US if possible.
-The way something that costs $100 in the US costs €100 in continental Europe and £100 in the UK. For example, check the prices of Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets on Amazon US versus Amazon ES/DE/FR versus Amazon UK.
-Shipping costs from the US. Some sellers gouge you for shipping to the EU from the US. A package that weighs a couple ounces can end up costing between $30 - $90 to ship to Portugal. Back in the US, I ran two online businesses through Etsy - shipping mainly light items such as jewelry and jewelry supplies - so I know what it really costs to ship something that weighs 2 ounces to Europe and it's not $50.
- Certain non prescription drugs like ibuprofen or acetaminophen are a fair amount pricier than in the US, where we eat that stuff like it's candy. We bought bottles of 100 - 200 pills of ibuprofen for about a dollar in the US. Here, it's sold in blister packs of 12 - 60 tablets, which will run you anywhere from €3 - €6.
-Cosmetics. I rarely buy makeup, but I've looked at the prices and it is out of control for imported items. A new cosmetics store opened up at Dolce Vita though that sells Astra makeup from Italy and a single eyeshadow was €3, versus €20 in the Sephora-esque boutiques.
-Utilities (minus internet). This has made us super conservative with our electric, gas and water usage. We now save the water that comes out of the shower as we're waiting for it to get hot to wash dishes or handwash clothes. The only time we use warm or hot water is when we shower and we turn the hot water heater off for the rest of the day. Lights are not used during the day and we try to make sure only one is on at a time at night. No wonder so many businesses use ugly fluorescent lights to illuminate their establishments.
In addition to the cost of things, we noticed other differences between Portugal and the US. Wonderful differences! A few of these have been highlighted below:
-The people. The Portuguese people are the nicest, most helpful people of any community I've ever lived in. Nobody here seems to have something they need to prove, people actually move out of the way when you say "excuse me" and I've never seen a fight yet, even among drunk folks. If it wasn't for the help we've received from people here, life would have been way harder than it has been.
But it's not just that the Portuguese tend to be nicer (in my opinion of course!), they also seem saner. People seem to be more okay with who they are. I haven't seen anyone with extreme cosmetic plastic surgery, but back in Albuquerque I'd see ladies who had taken it so far they looked like the Joker. No one gets breast implants or calf implants or butt implants and unlike the US, no one I've talked to about these things wants them. I never see dudes so hopped up on 'roids they can barely walk, even among everyone I've encountered at our gym. And while sometimes, especially with fashion, you don't tend to see a lot of individuals who stand out from the crowd, you also don't encounter people who are just begging for your attention, positive or negative.
-It's safe. People leave their front doors and 1st floor (which is floor 0 here) windows open. In a major city. Up until a decade or so ago, our friends at one of Coimbra's Republicas said their open-door policy was literal. They actually left the door open until a few robberies forced them to change. We get asked all the time - what's up with all the shootings in the US? Does everyone really have guns? Because that's just not an issue here. You rarely hear about rapes and murders here in Portugal. People just don't tend to do that.
-The warm temperatures. While I'm having a difficult time dealing with the humidity and resulting mold and allergies, the temperatures here are really nice. Especially if you're someone who likes warm weather. I've been told it probably won't snow because it doesn't get below freezing, except up in the mountains, and I'm good with that.
-The food. Such noms. Everywhere. There are cafes EVERYWHERE and everything they serve is fresh. The fish is amazing - I've never had such fresh fish anywhere that I can remember. It's just better here, in my opinion.
-Europe is at your doorstep and there are some really cheap flights available to nearby countries. We're talking $50 round trip to Barcelona or $75 to Paris. I'm really looking forward to exploring.
-Marijuana and most other drugs are decriminalized. I know people have differing opinions regarding this, but drug-related crime and addiction rates have gone down in Portugal since this has been instituted. We see changes happening in the United States, with lots of positive results similar to Portugal and I hope the entire world continues to progress when it comes to this issue.
-Kids are really well behaved. It's almost magical. I rarely hear kids screaming and if they are, it's not for long. Their parents take them out of the store or the restaurant and calm them down. I also never see parents hitting or screaming at their kids in public. Children are really beloved here and it's easy to see why - because most of them are little sweethearts.
-Public transport. If you don't have a car, you can still get things done, it just takes longer.
-Customer service is leaps and bounds ahead of the US. No one is snarky, no one rolls their eyes and acts like you asking them a work-related question is the most difficult thing in the world to handle. In fact, most people even speak English, which makes things so much easier. The only place the Portuguese don't measure up to the US in regard to customer service is in some restaurants and bars, but it's a different service style here and everything else more than makes up for that.
Now, like everything in life, Portugal has its drawbacks. Some of these might be bigger issues for certain folks and less important for others, but it's worth mentioning that not everything is perfect. Some of the negatives are:
-The humidity and mold. This is the biggest problem for me. When I left New England to head west to Albuquerque, the dry desert air saved me. I no longer had any asthma issues and colds or basic infections rarely lasted the week. Now that I'm living in a more humid area, I get sicker more often and for longer and both my husband and I suffer mild to extreme allergies from the mold and other unknowns. We've had books and clothes we've carted across the ocean ruined by the mold in our garage and we find we go through a lot more allergy medicine, eyedrops and tissues. This is the saddest part for me, because we still haven't decided if this is something we can tolerate or if in the long run it will make living here too difficult.
-Trying to understand what people are saying. Portuguese is a weird language. It looks like Spanish, but it sounds like a record being played backwards. Sometimes I go in to a store, armed in my head with what I'm going to say to the clerk and after I say it, I have no idea what they said back to me. I'm sure it'll come with time and practice, but I did expect to be further along now than I am.
-Camping. I love camping and the part I love most of all is being completely alone surrounded by nature. Things aren't set up like that here - there's no BLM land equivalent. Campgrounds have sites that are close together and frequently feature a restaurant and a pool. Ugh. That's not camping to me. If I can hear other people or their music or TV then that completely defeats the purpose of going. I might as well stay in a hotel.
-Driving. People are insane on the road. It's common for the traffic around you to be traveling at 20 - 50 km above the speed limit and it's terrifying. I've been given the finger and honked at quite a bit because I just don't feel comfortable driving like that. If you're used to driving around in NYC or LA you'll probably do okay over here.
-Not handicapped accessible. There are almost no people out in public in wheelchairs and now that I've been here awhile I understand why. They would have an impossible time getting around. So much of what's here has been here for hundreds (or thousands) of years though and trying to make it accessible would be extremely difficult. However, it's really something that needs to be addressed as it's not fair that a certain segment of the population gets excluded from certain activities or locations.
-Portugal does not appear to be part of the general train system (Eurorail?) that runs through the rest of Europe. Hopefully someday it will be, but for now there is one really infrequent, super expensive, very slow train to Madrid that you can take to connect to the trains elsewhere. I believe there's also another train to Vigo in Northern Spain. However, it's much cheaper and more convenient to fly to surrounding cities outside the country like Madrid or Paris.
-Getting your hair dyed. I've been doing weird things with my hair since the day I discovered Sun In at the drug store in 7th grade. In the US, I had my pick of amazing stylists who knew everything possible about the different hair dyes, bleaches, lighteners and crazy colors. I have now had two bad and one sort-of-okay experience with stylists (cabeleireiros) in Coimbra. The first woman dyed my hair a horrible orange, the second one fixed it the best she could, and the third fried my hair until chunks fell out. Most hair stylists I've spoken to in addition to these three (I've visited several shops to ask questions), have no idea how to lighten fine hair like mine and are not using the latest, most gentle products or are up-to-date on the most recent techniques. At this point, I've decided to buy professional products online from England and do my own hair dyeing with my awesome husband's help, until I can find someone who knows how to handle my hair without destroying it.
So there you have it: the good and the bad, the cheap and the expensive. Granted, these are my thoughts and opinions and many are based on generalizations, so others may find some things to be different. I'm also going off what I know currently, which with time will undoubtedly change. I hope this has been of some help to anyone who is considering moving to Portugal and if you have any other questions, please don't hesitate to ask in the comments!