I have loved Portugal for nearly my whole life. I first came here as a little girl for summer holidays with my parents. I can still remember the dry heat of the Portuguese summer, the ice-cream from the beach stalls that was never quite frozen, and the delicious pastries in the cafés. I’ve been coming back to the same city, the same coastline ever since.
The result is that, although I’ve only been actually living in Portugal for over a year, I sort of feel like a local. Take me anywhere in Portugal today and I’ll probably find the place imprinted somewhere in my memory, even though I thought I’d never been there before. I can go to the same ice-cream parlour I went to over 20 years ago and order the same flavour. There are family photos of little me sitting at the top of the farmer’s market steps just like my son does today. No wonder Portugal feels like home.
And then sometimes it is jarringly obvious that I’m not from around here. My Portuguese accent is from Brazil; sometimes I even still have problems understanding the local pronunciation. In the summer, most shop-owners think I’m an English tourist on a week’s holiday. I don’t vote, I’m not up-to-date with Portuguese politics and have no idea what’s on Portuguese TV.
But my most glaring lapse is that I don’t have any Portuguese friends.
It’s not by choice. The local expat community welcomed me with open arms and I simply haven’t had to look elsewhere. In Brazil, you could basically count all the foreigners in the city on one hand. Outside of the big cities, people would look at you funny if you spoke English. Waiters at restaurants would often confuse England with America, London with Miami.
Here, playgroup alone includes mums from Sweden, Germany, the UK and Holland. On Saturdays the organic market is full of French and German people. There are English, American and German schools up and down the coast and nobody blinks an eyelid when you say your child is bilingual.
On the one hand, it’s lovely to be part of such an eclectic international mix of people. In some ways I feel more at ease with other nomads like myself, who know what I’m talking about when I mention living out of boxes or moving every couple of years. But I worry that I’m missing out on the real Portugal. Did I really move here just to buy Waitrose tea at the supermarket and chat about the weather with other Brits?
Of course it’s lovely that I can buy peanut butter and proper English tea bags at the supermarket, but shouldn’t I be experimenting with local ingredients?
At the playground it sometimes feels that there is a bit of a “them and us” mentality between expat and local parents. Of course it’s difficult to mix when you’re not sure if the expats speak Portuguese (many of them don’t). Different attitudes to parenting don’t help: most Portuguese parents look aghast when I let my son splash through puddles without shoes or climb the slide – I in turn can’t believe they take their children to the park in such beautiful clothing (the washing! the ironing!). I wish it weren’t so. I don’t want my son growing up in Portugal but not a part of Portugal.
Since I’ve had no luck sidling up to Portuguese mums in the park, I’m trying to find other ways to connect with my community. A couple of weeks ago I bought a bus pass – what better way to get to know the neighbourhood than via the bus route? Plus, there’s always a friendly pensioner looking to chat about the weather.
Are you an expat or a local in your country? If you’re from abroad do you find it easy to mix with the locals?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Julie of Portugal. Photo credit to the author.