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Interview with Gail – a Canadian expat in Portugal

Updated 7 Sep 2018

Gail Aguiar is a Philippines-born, Canadian-raised freelance photographer who made Portugal home in late 2013, six countries and three continents later. Her blog, Gail at Large, chronicles more than 16 years of travel-centric living through a unique lens as an expat. She first earned her photographer stripes in the urban jungle of Toronto and moved across the Atlantic to focus on Portuguese culture and practice her nasalised vowels. She lives in photogenic Porto with her Portuguese husband and their rescue dog from Guimarães.


About Gail

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I was born in the Philippines and raised in Canada.

Q: Where are you living now?
A: I live in the metro area of Porto, Portugal's second-largest city, 300 km north of Lisbon.

Q: When did you move to Portugal?
A: I moved to Portugal at the end of September 2013.

Q: Did you move alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved alone, to join my Portuguese husband who I'd met on my first trip to Portugal in 2011. We'd married in the Azores a few months earlier, in June 2013, after which I'd returned to Canada to deal with paperwork and consolidating stuff from a trail of cross-continent and cross-border moves over the years. Out of all the moves, this was definitely the one that required the most coordination.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: Moving was a joint decision, one that was made during Portugal's economic crisis. Many people expected us to live in Canada, but at this point in our lives, we have a better quality of life here in Portugal.

In Toronto, I was both employed and self-employed, working in the financial industry (capital markets) and as a freelance photographer. I moved to Portugal to leave corporate life behind and forge a new path. I didn't quite know what that path would be, but I wasn't looking for an employer. Not just because Portugal's economy was in full-on crisis mode at the time and young people were emigrating to other countries, I also wanted to create and be self-employed. In Portugal, my work has been a mix of inbound tourism promotion, photography, and more recently, relocation consultancy.

Living in Portugal

Q: What do you enjoy most about Porto? How would you rate the quality of life compared to Canada?
A: What I love about Porto is that it is full of history. There are stories embedded everywhere, not all obvious. It's a goldmine for a curious person who can see past the crumbling buildings to the stories in the cracks and crevices. History is more than buildings, however. The people make the city. The people of Porto are hospitable and also famously vulgar (if you ask a Lisboeta), but genuine.

Regarding quality of life, I work less and live more here in Portugal compared to Canada. I also volunteer and am active in the community that has been so giving to me.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: The move was entirely a net positive. The downsides are typical expat ephemera: long distances from family and friends, not being able to see people as often as I'd like, the occasional food craving. I've moved around enough to have this situation everywhere, even while in Canada (I've lived in five provinces). Until teleportation is possible, I just accept it as the cost of living the life I want.

But Portugal is a great destination, too, and I always encourage everyone to visit (and add to my stash of real maple syrup). I'm a pretty good tour guide.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Portugal? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: There's a lot more smoking in Portugal than in Canada, especially among young women. While I can sit outside on patios many more days of the year here, which is nice for my dog, too, we have to dodge the smoking.

Portugal is not an immigrant country like Canada, so there is less diversity overall. In Canada, you'll see turbans, Buddhists, Muslims, a variety of places of worship, and more. In Portugal, the Catholic Church is the dominant religion, but what I appreciate here is a more defined separation between church and state than in other Catholic countries like Ireland, where reproductive rights are a political battleground.

I wouldn't say I had culture shock from moving to Portugal, it's more of a feeling that something is missing. For a Canadian, that something would be multiculturalism, which is one word that captures many things, from food to lived experiences.

The pace of life is much slower in Portugal, which is what I wanted. But until you actually live here, it's hard to evaluate how much more time things actually take. If you're not a patient person, you'll either adapt or end up leaving.

Q: What's the cost of living compared to Canada? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Consumer products made in Portugal are cheaper, like shoes. Labour and services are cheaper, everything from the veterinarian to auto mechanics to taxis. Public transit, especially compared to urban Canada (Toronto, Vancouver) is much cheaper.

This all comes down to the fact that salaries/wages are lower than in Canada. What is (expectedly) expensive is imports, specifically electronics and consumer goods where a small market like Portugal doesn't have the buying power. As part of the EU, yes, but then savings are lost to distributors in the supply chain because it all gets shipped from the bigger countries like Spain and France.

Q: How would you rate the public transport? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: Public transport in Porto is pretty good for the size of the coverage. Each municipality in Porto has its own bus network, which was combined with the metro to create an integrated network. (An awkward one to navigate and manage, though.) The Metro do Porto is about 15 years old and in need of expansion, which was very delayed due to the economic crisis.

You don't need to own a car in Porto. After 28 years of driving, I let my Canadian licence lapse last year. I've never driven in Portugal, I take public transit, trains, and the very rare taxi. Although I don't use it, Uber is available in Porto and many of my friends use the service often, with positive reports. The two most widely used ridesharing services in Portugal are Boleia, which is Portuguese, and BlaBlaCar, based in Paris.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Porto? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: I haven't used the healthcare much beyond the routine exams, but my handful of experiences have been positive. I have yet to visit a hospital as a patient, but I know plenty of expats who have, and everyone has reported good care.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Portugal? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Portugal is rated as one of the safest countries in the world, and violent crime is rare. Rioting and large-scale vandalism are also uncommon. There isn't a gang culture or presence of organised crime. It's one of the few places in Western Europe that hasn't had incidents of terrorism.

Crime is generally of the petty thievery variety. Most people would steer clear of social housing, but personally, I don't view poverty or groups living in poverty as something to avoid. I know that many people don't share this view, however.

Portugal had a drug addiction problem in recent decades which contributed to the crime rate, but the decriminalisation of drugs in 2001 through public policy has made Portugal safer.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Porto? What different options are available for expats?
A: Due to the economic history of Porto, many buildings are falling apart and in need of renovation. There's been progress in recent years, but not at a pace fast enough to offset the housing crunch created by the boom in tourism, which is consuming the rental inventory.

Due to rising prices in real estate, students and those with smaller budgets are finding it difficult to find affordable housing. Depending on who you ask, there may or may not be a real estate bubble in Porto right now.

Q: Any areas/suburbs you'd recommend for expats to live in?
A: Pretty much anywhere outside of the historic centre. If you choose to live in the historic centre, know that you'll be either living in a fishbowl, a construction zone, or a noisy district (or all of the above) filled with tourists who are themselves escaping from work and forgetting that other people need to work.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: After living in a variety of countries and visiting dozens more, I would say the Portuguese are high on the 'live and let live' end of the scale when it comes to foreigners. I noticed this on my first visit in 2011 and it still rings true today.

Although some people disagree with me on this and the locals do have their own set of prejudices, I find discrimination levels generally low towards minorities and women in general. I think it's easier to be a single woman in Portugal than in many other countries – less unwanted attention, for example. I have never witnessed a woman get catcalled or whistled at (men will look but say nothing), no matter what they were wearing. Also, I have walked alone at night in downtown Lisbon and Porto and didn't feel unsafe anywhere.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Meeting people and making friends in a new country is actually not so different than moving to a new city in the same country. It comes down to two things: personality and stage in life.

I've reached the blessing/curse of middle age. That is, I do everything more slowly than I used to: slower travel, slower learning, taking longer to cultivate friendships. I'm no social butterfly and just meet people in normal, everyday interactions or at events and through activities.

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: I've made friends with both locals and expats. It's very important to me that I do not live in an expat bubble. Actually, any bubble, but especially the expat bubble because it creates divisions between foreigners and locals. The goal is to integrate and learn, and that takes time and effort. You reap what you sow.

Most people turn to Meetup groups, Facebook groups and InterNations for social activities. Other networks can be found through work, school, sports, and hobbies.

About working in Portugal

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I didn't have any problems establishing residency, as most of the paperwork was done to get married under Portuguese law. I've used an immigration consultant once (a lawyer for the USA residency), but it wasn't necessary for Portugal, the requirements are straightforward and my Portuguese husband was my advocate.

Q: What's the economic climate like in Porto? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: At the moment the economy is improving, which is noticeable in the form of consumer confidence and government spending. Infrastructure projects that were halted are finally stuttering back to life, new projects are underway, and more announced recently.

This does not mean all industries are enjoying the same level of gains, but in terms of work, I would recommend expats who are considering a move to Portugal to investigate remote work and foreign clients before relying on the local job market to float them. Especially if they don't speak Portuguese or have work connections already. The economy is still fragile and the job market uneven. There is always a lag between the rise in compensation and the rise in the cost of living.

Q: How does the work culture differ from Canada? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Portugal?
A: The work culture is quite different from what I've observed compared to Canada, especially in a business environment and the service industry. There are tourism and hospitality schools, for example, but most of the service industry is untrained. Many small businesses are family-run establishments, which means family members are pitching in as employees.

In the business environment in Portugal, expect nepotism to prevail in competitive situations. It's the double-edged sword of the strong family bonds which exist in Southern Europe. Great if you're in the family, not so great if you aren't.

You will also hear about corruption in the usual centres of power, such as politics and finance. I have not personally witnessed it, but I'm of the opinion that you can't let situations outside of your control get you down – you have to press on and find the right people to do business with and focus on that.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Maybe it's stating the obvious, but it bears repeating that the sheer deluge of change when moving to a new country can be hard on people, even if you're a seasoned mover. For that reason, reducing the major changes at the beginning will make it easier to ease into the new life.

For instance, if you've always been a city person, moving to a very rural part of a new country can be quite isolating and difficult to manage without any of the conveniences of city life. Even simple things like buying groceries entail getting into an unfamiliar car, navigating unfamiliar roads; it can be defeating even before the mission has started. Fetching basic food items can take much longer because the supermarkets have different layouts and labels can be hard to read. You won't be the first foreigner to have a meltdown at the cash register because of language issues, nor will you be the last. Moving is stressful, so keep things as simple as possible when times are the hardest.

Interviewed September 2018

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