Setting Up House in Portugal
We returned to Lagos, Portugal in mid-November accompanied by a strange mix of feelings. We were tired from many airports, the long, uncomfortable plane rides, losing a piece of luggage (located the following day) and zoned out trying to adjust to the five-hour leap ahead of the clock. There was a bit of culture shock as a new language surrounded us and we gazed out of the windows of our shuttle at a somewhat remembered but still unfamiliar November countryside of orange trees still bearing fruit, houses built in tiers upon the hills and the giant chimneys scattered about the region where the storks build their colossal nests.
But there was also the giddy realization that WE WERE FINALLY BACK IN PORTUGAL as well as the low-level anxiety about all the strange tasks that lay ahead of us as we settled into life in a new country. Our friend, Ana, met us at our apartment, showed us how to work the combination gas-electric stove and washing machine and whisked us off to the grocery store to pick us up some basics.
Our furnished apartment itself is small, very sunny, and sparsely “decorated,” less than 700 square feet with two bedrooms, a living-dining area, one bath and a galley kitchen designed for two skinny chefs. When we prepare meals together it’s an elaborate dance to pass each other, open the pantry and drawers, etc. The apartment itself is far from ideal: too small, too basic and we’re paying too much for the convenience of having a very lovely, Portuguese couple who speak English available for the times we need to reach out for answers to all of the complexities we find ourselves confronted with in our new setting. But it’s a fine start and the time here gives us the chance to figure out if Lagos is where we want to live while we explore other cities and villages in the Algarve as well as Portugal.And the location is perfect: the primary reason we chose our modest abode to set down our shallow roots. We’re situated on the first floor overlooking the Marina de Lagos with its variety of humble boats to small yachts, views of pallid to spectacular sunsets, the caws of huge, fat seagulls and cormorants perched upon sterns with their wings outstretched, bat-like, drying themselves. Next to us is a row of shops and bistros while the train station is a two-minute walk straight ahead.
We can walk to a large supermarket in ten minutes or cross the drawbridge to the main street of Lagos and stroll through the weekly farmers market, wander through narrow streets with shops or a variety of restaurants (traditional Portuguese, Indian, British or Chinese fare) passing medieval buildings, a castle and the ancient stone walls that guarded the city long ago. Close by are giant sandstone formations and rocky cliffs overlooking the Atlantic interspersed with golden sand beaches.
Our checklist of things accomplished within our first weeks is small but each day we untangle another mystery that makes up daily life in Portugal. Nothing can be done without the NIF numbers (ńumero de identificacão fiscal) which establishes our official existence in Portugal and were procured for us by our attorney prior to our return. The first “to do” was getting connected which involved setting up cable TV and internet, a local mobile and home phone at the cable store, Meo (pronounced mayo). We showed our passports, rental agreement, walked back home for the NIF papers and returned, filled out some forms in triplicate, signed multiple times, made friends with our clerk, Catia, and then… stymied! We needed a NIB number. The NIB (pronounced neep) stands for ńumero de identificacão bancária which would allow the cable company to receive payment online from our nonexistent bank account. Off we went on a quest to the bank, Millennium BCP, to set up a bank account with Teresa, our next new friend. The bank account required passports, our rental agreement, our NIF numbers and social security cards (foreign banking law requires notification to somewhere in the US of its citizens setting establishing accounts outside the US – probably so that our last tax dollar can be squeezed from us). Again … stymied! Who carries around their social security card in a foreign country? Home we went to email my sister (our guardian angel) to copy and scan our social security cards which we then forwarded to our new BFF, Teresa. The next day we again walked to the bank, chatted with Teresa, signed papers, obtained our NIB number and walked to Meo, chatted with Catia, presented our new NIB number, and set up an appointment for later in the week for cable/internet/phone installation.
Fortunately for us the cable store and bank have proved to be the most difficult things so far requiring lots of patience and remembering our smiles from time to time. We’ve also set up local health insurance policies with Médis (90 € per month for both us) which, with a copay will cover doctor and hospital, dental and vision after a waiting period of three months. We found a place, located in a shoe repair shop that also sells handmade shearling slippers, to copy our apartment keys. And we rented a car for our first month(s) at the cost of 320 € during low season including full insurance. Driving is on the right-hand side of the road like the US but reacquainting ourselves with the proper round-about etiquette and road signs has been a little tense with some testy sniping involved. And gasoline, sold by the liter, goes for over $5.00 – that’s US Dollars – per gallon. So much for the oil glut!
We’re discovering that the process of settling in and becoming residents in a new country is more challenging and quite a bit different from passing through as full-time travelers. There’s a whole new vocabulary of acronyms to learn and various bureaucratic hoops to jump through. But the people we meet have all had wide smiles and patience galore for two bewildered foreigners trying to integrate ourselves into their welcoming country. Who could ask for more?
By Anita and Richard