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Interview with Helena – a Swede in Portugal

Updated 4 Apr 2017

In the first month of 2016, Helena Radeson Silverup and her husband left Sweden's icy shores with their four year old daughter in tow. They headed straight for sunshine and easy living and found themselves in Cascais, Portugal. Helena chats to Expat Arrivals about life in a town once frequented by royals, and raising her child in a new country.

Follow her journey on her blog, byRaDe, or catch her in 140 characters on @byradetweets.

About HelenaHelena Radeson Silverup

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Sweden.

Q: Where are you living now?
A: Cascais, Portugal.

Q: When did you move here?
A: January 2016.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved with my husband and four-year-old daughter.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: We moved because we wanted to. My husband got himself an expatriate job, and I quit my Swedish job. For starters, we wanted to give our daughter a multicultural and eye-opening start in life while learning an incredible language like Portuguese. Secondly, as a consequence we also gave ourselves the chance to break out of the normal and do the new, including thinking in new ways and trying new things, both professionally and personally.

Living in Portugal

Q: What do you enjoy most about Portugal? How would you rate the quality of life compared to Sweden?
A: There are two big differences between Sweden and Portugal: Firstly, the weather, no doubt. The climate in Portugal is very comfortable; it means you can dress in a relaxed way and engage in outdoor activities year-round. But it is the amount of light that makes the biggest impact on your well-being – the light and the sun are a prominent feature in Portugal for most of the year and are very life- and energy-boosting.

Secondly, the general attitude of Portuguese people is very different. People are generally very relaxed and calm in Portugal, in contrast with Sweden, which means everything is quite laid-back and calm, making the pace of life, and thus quality of life, quite unstressed and enjoyable. These are easily two things that have definite, positive implications for quality of life here in Portugal.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about Sweden?
A: The building and housing standards in Portugal. Sweden knows it is a cold country, so houses are thoroughly insulated and well built, which ensure an enjoyable indoor climate all around the year. In Portugal, houses are built to keep the heat out in the summer, meaning that they are really cold, very damp and without fresh air in winter. Luckily winter isn't too long.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Cascais, Portugal? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: Portugal is a very easy country to move to. The people are relaxed, friendly and welcoming. English knowledge is quite widespread in Portugal, compared to many neighbouring countries, but it's definitely not the general Portuguese speaker's preferred language. I would recommend learning Portuguese because it makes a difference in being able to participate in society, despite the fact that it can be a difficult language to learn.

However, the biggest hurdle is the paperwork. Because of the relaxed attitude of the bureaucracy in Portugal, it can be difficult to get things done. Making use of an immigration agency makes this hurdle much easier to overcome since it means you are dealing with people instead of a system, and, they are generally very friendly.

Q: What's the cost of living in Portugal compared to Sweden? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: The cost of living in Portugal is definitely lower than that of Sweden. Expat concerns like housing, schooling, and eating out (in certain restaurants) are not very cheap, while groceries and food and alcohol prices are about half of what they would be in Sweden. Moreover, services are cheaper here. For example, cleaning services, dry cleaning, and nannies are cheap because of the low wages. However, it should be noted that in Portugal, salaries are also substantially lower than at home in Sweden. Portugal is a country of big economic inequality, and therefore there are big differences between what different people can afford.

Q: How would you rate the public transport? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car in Portugal?
A: There is a public transport system in Cascais, and it is used, but I don't have very much experience of it. Lisbon's public transport system seems to be quite well connected. As a tourist it should not be a problem. However, if there are no other options, a taxi is pretty cheap. For the locals and expats in Portugal, cars are absolutely the basic means of transportation, and each family has at least one, no matter how old and used. As an expat family and living in the suburbs, two cars is an absolute must to create any type of efficiency and freedom of movement.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Cascais? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: As an expat family we have private insurance. Because of this, we go to the private hospitals, and we have no complaints with these. The only problem is that healthcare without subsidies is very expensive.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Portugal? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Portugal has practically no safety issues. Rather, locals that have lived and worked abroad move back to live in Portugal when having children, partly owing to the fact that Portugal is so secure and low on crime (most commonly though, they keep at least one job that is paid outside of Portugal). It is said that the biggest safety issue here is traffic, the number of traffic accidents is on the higher side.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Cascais? What different options are available for expats?
A: Cascais is the expat place to live, and there are many opportunities to live very nicely and have a garden, a pool and parking. Condominiums with security, shared pool and gardening services are quite common. As mentioned earlier, though, the building standard in general can be quite uneven, so no palace standard is to be expected, despite most housing offering plenty of space. Renting is very common, but buying is increasing as it is seen as a good investment.

Q: Any areas/suburbs you'd recommend for expats to live in?
A: Cascais and Sintra in general are recommendable, as there are many international schools and nice housing/condominium opportunities in the area, but really all of Lisbon and surrounds is very attractive.

Meeting people and making friends in Portugal

Q: How tolerant are the Portuguese of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: Locals are very tolerant, friendly and quite welcoming. It is easy to get help, but smart to find a local 'fixer' who can hook you up with whatever you need. I haven't experienced any discrimination whatsoever. The Portuguese are a very tolerant people.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: The locals are very friendly and always have a warm 'hello' for everybody. They are even generally quite curious about people. As locals anywhere though, most already have their set of friends who they spend time with. However, you will be welcome to take part in any activities, and they always have the time for a chat if you engage in it.

No doubt, starting in one of the international schools was the absolute beginning point of our fuller social life here. Expats are, as everywhere, open to new acquaintances and have all been in the same situation themselves, which makes them want to help others. Also, it lies in the expats' interests to invite more interesting people into their groups, since there's continuously someone leaving. Having a kid in school is an even stronger motivation for meeting new people – everybody's looking for company not only for themselves but also for their children.

Q: Have you made friends with locals in Cascais, 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: It's a mix, but definitely the vast majority are other expats. Again, being in the same situation brings with it an understanding of and natural interest in each other's situation. There are is also a given set of first questions: 'When did you get here?', 'Where are you from?' and 'How long are you staying?'. In Cascais/Lisbon, there are a few groups worth looking into: IWP (International Women in Portugal), country-specific groups (SWEA for Swedes, for example) and a couple of Facebook groups.

My advice would be to go about it from an interest point of view. In other words, the same thing that works back home: find people you share something with, whether it's in schools, at golf courses, in the gyms or in a bar. You're probably not aiming to make best friends, but some can absolutely end up becoming so. Initially, allow yourself the privilege of not having to be so picky, and talk to everybody! You are not the only one!

Working in Portugal

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit for Portugal? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: Everything was handled by an agency through the workplace.

Q: What's the economic climate like in Cascais? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: Portugal is still struggling from an economic standpoint. It has one of the lowest BNP indexes in Europe. This is obvious in the situation for the locals. They work many hours, and often need to have more than one job as wages are low. I have no insight into the resources for finding jobs.

Q: How does the work culture differ from Sweden? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in the city/country?
A: I have none of my own experiences to share here.

Family and children in Portugal

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home in Portugal? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: All change takes adjustment which differs from person to person, and depending on the family situation and where you come from. Our first six months were pretty tough: getting into new work versus not working versus new daycare in a new language, and on top of that, a new culture. A lot of things are still new, but the first six months were tough because everything was so in-our-faces new, which makes it difficult to find a secure 'haven'. However, getting the house in order, getting to know the close surroundings and getting children's activities in place definitely helped.

I don't see that Portugal itself offers any type of added challenges. On the contrary, my opinion is that Portugal likely is one of the easier countries to move to; it is a Western country yet still quite exotic.

Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move to Cascais?
A: Without a doubt, the language was the biggest challenge for our daughter, who spoke nothing but Swedish when arriving. Otherwise, Portugal has quite a child-oriented culture, with a lot of marks of affection, which makes it easy to feel safe.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: There are quite a few international schools available, and I hear good things from nearly all. IPS (International Preparatory School), which our daughter attends, is outstanding. It is the home of committed teachers and committed parents, which means engaged children – we wouldn't want to change it for the world!

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Remember to enjoy yourself, and remember you are a temporary visitor, so be humble towards the locals and appreciate your time here!

~Interviewed in April 2017

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