Category Archives: US Expats in Portugal

Playing Twenty Questions: Life as Expats, Life as Travelers, Life in Lagos, Portugal – Part Two

 

There’s no getting around it: writing a blog is work. It takes time.  It takes discipline. It takes waiting around for a brilliant insight to hit you or an inspiring thought (a very rare event) and slogging ahead anyway when your muse is silent. However, the effort is well worth it when we hit the ‘publish’ button and add another page to our personal time capsule.  Because, by far, our favorite thing about blogging is the comments part where we get to interact with old friends and new readers, trade ideas, exchange experiences and share some of the things we’ve learned as full-time travelers, expats and now, residents in our adopted country of Portugal.

Occasionally, we have an outline that we follow for a post but often, we just kind of watch and see how our post evolves in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way as this post did.  In fact, it got away from us, growing into an unwieldy tome, which is why we broke it up into parts.  In case you missed reading Part One, you can find the link HERE.  And now, on with the countdown and our version of Twenty Questions.

 

 

LIFE AS TRAVELERS

13)  What are some of the upsides and the downsides of full-time travel?

The Ups.  For most of the three-plus years we were nomadic, we were slow travelers and spent an average of one to three months in each country.  This allowed us to immerse ourselves into a destination, get familiar with how to navigate our way around a village or city and find out where the ATMs, markets and restaurants were located.  Traveling slow also allowed us to settle into the not-so-exciting business of living our lives with the familiar routines of cooking, cleaning, laundry, paying bills, correspondence and researching future places to visit.  Actually living in a place, however short the time, also gave us a chance to explore and discover the landmarks and landscape at our leisure: sightseeing at its best.  We chatted up the locals as best we could in our fractured Spanglish and exchanged a lot of smiles, nods and the occasional shrug. Whenever possible, we tapped into the local expat community to ask questions and meet people, many of whom we keep in touch with still. Our favorite thing about traveling full-time was the feeling of being more in the here and now, and slowing down to appreciate the unique quality of each countries’ similarities and differences.  And always, there was the anticipation of our next destination.

Tip – We traveled like the locals too, using the low-cost and well-developed bus systems of Mexico and Central America to slow travel from destination to destination.  In countries where we were more concerned about possible violence or danger like El Salvador and Honduras, we checked with local travel agencies about shuttles and would hire recommended taxi drivers to act as our personal guides.  Many times we used public boats and ferries to take us to more remote places like Placencia in Belize, Utila, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, and Bocas del Toro in Panama. Once we reached South America where the distances are much greater, we used local airlines which are less expensive than their international counterparts.

 

 

The Downs.  To be truthful, there were very few things that got us down for the first two-plus years.  Maybe we were in the ‘honeymoon phase’ but the sheer freedom of structuring our days (or not) as we wanted to, was exhilarating.  We loved unfolding our big wall maps of Mexico, Central and South America (something we were always glad to make room for in our limited suitcase space) and figuring out how to zig or zag our way to our next destination. Gradually though, the idea of packing and repacking, living out of a suitcase, schlepping it from bus to taxi and back, just got plain old. Deciding what clothing to pack was easy in the one-season tropical climates of Mexico, Central and South America and some of the island countries. However, once we decided to shift our travels to Europe, the clothing needs doubled for a two-season climate and our suitcases got a lot heavier.  Visa restrictions, especially the Schengen Visa (click HERE for more info) made traveling more complicated. Living in too-small rooms and making-do with just the basics in an AirBnB apartment (every traveler has experienced a dull knife or two) gradually became less enchanting. We felt a growing isolation in places where we met few people and patching together our health care needs also seemed to get incrementally harder. The glow of nomadic life gradually dimmed in year three and we knew it was time to set up a base and use it as a place to launch future travels.

LIFE AS EXPATRIATES AND LIVING IN PORTUGAL

12)  Why Portugal?

Honestly, we’d always pictured ourselves living somewhere in a beach community in Mexico or somewhere in Central America.  As we traveled, we’d say, “Sure this is a nice place to visit but … could we picture ourselves living here? ” We kept a list of places that might work (interestingly, none of these were on a beach) but gradually we realized that the draw of many of the towns and cities we’d visited was more about the people we’d met than the actual places.  And, the more we traveled, the more we recognized our preference for places with historical landmarks and histories that went back centuries.  We wanted to be close to old world culture and museums as well as country landscapes including beaches and seas that we could look at for hours. We wanted to be close also, to markets and grocery stores carrying a selection of good foods and inexpensive restaurants that offered a variety of choices.  In a nutshell, we wanted our version of paradise:  a place where the cost of living was affordable, a mild climate and close proximity to many destinations for future travels.  We knew within a week of our first visit to Portugal that it had everything we were looking for – plus that indefinable feeling of coming ‘home’.  In fact, Portugal is rated Number 1 on Forbes’s 2017 Best Places To Retire Abroad and Number 3 on the 2017 Global Peace Index (right behind Iceland and New Zealand), ahead of Canada at Number 8 and a light year away from the US standing at a dismal Number 114.

 

 

11)  How do you get a Resident Visa in Portugal?

We wrote about how to get a 4-month resident visa HERE for US citizens with some explanations and links.  To give you a recap:  you need to apply in person or by mail to a Portuguese Consulate (information can be found HERE) or the Embassy in Washington, D.C.  Information listing the various types of visas and how to apply, including a list of supporting documents needed is available HERE.  Once your initial 4-month visa is approved and you arrive in Portugal, you’ll have time to settle in before you’ll need to renew it at the SEF (Service de Estrangeiros e Frontiers or, in plain English, the Immigration Office) and submit a few more documents.  Our post detailing our first experience at the SEF can be found HERE.  This visa renewal is good for one year. The next renewal will result in a two-year resident visa which is what we have now.

Tip 1–  If it sounds complicated, we’re not going to argue.  However, think about the bureaucracy in the US for a moment (or any ‘First’ world country for that matter) and you’ll realize how many years it took to assemble your paper life.  The ‘Great Document Roundup’ as we called it may seem daunting but only because you’re amassing all the required documents at once.  Just take a deep breath, muster your patience and break things down into steps.

Tip 2 – In our various posts, we talk about hiring a lawyer to help us through the visa process.  In hindsight, this expensive assistance really isn’t necessary although a little handholding is always nice. (However, we’d rather hold our own hands at this point and save some money.)  You can do everything yourself for the first step of the visa process when you’re gathering your documents to submit to the Portuguese consulate. Once in Portugal, there are a few times when you might need a lawyer but this is a pricey way to go.  A much less costly alternative can be found in the form of a Portuguese resident who can act as your fiscal representative in obtaining a couple of documents. Check with a local expat group when you arrive for recommendations.

 

 

10)   What is your Cost of Living?

This is the question that always interested us when we’d read about the lifestyle of other expats in various countries because, while it wasn’t our main reason for expatriating, it still played a major part in why Portugal appealed to us. We’ve kept track of our monthly expenses since September 2012, at first because we were curious as to how the countries we were traveling in would compare in terms of expenses, and as a way to monitor our own spending. We have an up-and-coming post where we’ll itemize our expenses but we have a quick and dirty estimate of our monthly costs for the last three months which includes rent, utilities, food, car maintenance and gas, health insurance, household goods and miscellaneous costs.  Excluded are travel and medical expenses.  Our monthly average is about USD $2500 – $2800 per month.  We probably eat out two to four times a month and our rent is about $900.  We’re mindful about how we spend our money but we like our comforts and splurge occasionally too.

Tip – Keep in mind that we live in the Algarve Region of Portugal which, along with the city of Lisbon, is the most expensive area of Portugal.  Your money will go farther if you opt to live in other areas.

9)   How do you find a rental apartment in Portugal?

There’s no such thing as multiple listing here in Portugal and finding a rental can be a slog, especially in the popular Algarve where you’ll find yourself working with multiple property managers.  Rents are all over the board with the area around Lagos one of the spendiest for a long-term rental.  Anywhere between €600 – €1200 is reasonable for a 1-2 bedroom/1-2 bath apartment.  To start your own research, check out the Facebook page called Long Term Rentals Algarve for listings or type Rentals in the Algarve region of Portugal into your browser for listings and property managers.

Tip – We tell people who are thinking about visiting the Algarve area and Lagos in particular to avoid the high season months June through August and maybe even the shoulder season months, May and September, when rents are at their highest and tourists crowd the streets.  AirBnB has listings for short-term rentals anywhere you want to visit and nothing beats the boots-on-the ground approach to finding a year-round rental you like.

8)  What about buying a house or condo?

We don’t know about the rest of the Algarve, but a common sight in Lagos are the cranes silhouetted against the sky and apartments and condos in various stages of building.  Signs saying ‘For Sale’ or ‘A venda’ can be seen wherever you look. It’s a hot market and the asking prices are still climbing way past anything we’d want to spend.  Having divested ourselves of our property back in the US, we much prefer the freedom of renting versus tying ourselves down anywhere. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be upside.  At the very least, wait until you’ve been here awhile and have had a chance to explore the variety of regions and the country to find what suits you best.  We happen to like the more rural, laid-back feel and climate of the Algarve but friends of ours prefer the central and northern coasts around Lisbon and Porto where there’s more of a cosmopolitan vibe.

Once again, this is a l-o-n-g post and many of you may be saying, ‘Enough already!’  Our fervent wish is to leave you hanging on the edge of your seats and wanting more (dare we hope?) rather than tuning out.  Part Three of Twenty Questions will conclude with our last seven frequently asked questions and start out with the lowdown on all things medical.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Playing Twenty Questions: Life as Expats, Life as Travelers, Life in Lagos, Portugal – Part One

 

Life is full of milestones and dates that mark important events and this month, we celebrated a significant anniversary.  On September 11th, 2012, we locked the door to our house on Padre Island for the last time, turned over the keys to a property manager and set off in an entirely new direction.  With the exception of our house (which we sold a couple of years later) and a safe deposit box, everything we owned was crammed neatly packed in our suitcases.  We each had a carry-on and a 24-inch suitcase plus a mid-size backpack when we set off for our first destination in Mexico.  Not more than two months later, we ditched the carry-ons and left a pile of clothes and extra shoes behind.  For the three-plus years that we traveled full-time, we carried everything we owned in the remaining two suitcases and backpacks.

 

 

A few months into our travels, while we were house-sitting for a friend in Antigua, Guatemala, we started our blog and, just as our travel style has evolved over the years, so has our blog.  And, while the main focus of our blog is still on our travels, we’ve also begun to write about life as expats in Portugal: the conundrums, the inexplicable differences between life as we knew it in the US and life as it really is in Portugal and some lessons we’ve learned – sometimes the hard way, sometimes the expensive way.

 

 

Which brings us to a major update and tweaking of our FAQ page – the questions that we get in our comments section, Facebook and emails and our answers: hopefully helpful, accurate and probably neither pithy nor profound!  Here’s our version of Twenty (pertinent) Questions.

THE BIG WHY?

20)  Why quit your jobs, leave a home you love along with friends and family and start all over in a completely new direction?

Clichés become clichés for a reason and the phrase “Life is short” seemed to be beating a drum in the year 2011.  We’d reached the age where gradually, a few of our friends and close family were battling chronic illnesses and life-threatening diseases.  Living the “American Dream” had increasingly lost its allure as the things we owned gave us less pleasure and we started thinking about how to restructure our priorities.  In short, although our lives were okay, we were mired in routines that no longer mattered and we missed the anticipation of the ‘What’s next?’ part of living.  Having more time to do the things we’d put off for ‘someday’ assumed a greater importance.  Instead of waiting for a someday (which might never come) we decided we were ready for a lifestyle reset now.

LIFE AS TRAVELERS AND EXPATRIATES

19)  But what did you do with all your stuff?

Imagine the unthinkable – getting rid of everything you own.  Selling it, donating it, or gifting it to friends, family and charities.  It took us a year to do it but that’s exactly what we did.  We passed on family heirlooms to other family members, digitized treasured photos onto DVD’s and uploaded them to our computers and the cloud, figured out what to do with our art collection, became Craig’s List experts and held two garage sales.  We leased our house and eventually sold it the third year of our travels.

Tip – Read a book or two on minimizing/simplifying and start slow.  It takes time and a major mind reset to let go of your stuff.  Two books that we read and recommend are Simplify by Joshua Becker and The Joy of Less  by Francine Joy.

18)  How do you support your travels?

The question everyone is thinking and no one wants to be rude enough to ask, right?  Richard receives a social security check each month (Anita is not too far away from the time she can double that income) and we withdraw savings as needed to allow for a comfortable lifestyle.  We’re not about to go bare-bones but we don’t live extravagantly either.

Tip – Either set up a budget or track your daily expenses to be more mindful of where your money goes.  It helps us to keep in mind the ‘want versus need’ conundrum.

17)  How do you access/transfer your money?

After some research on how to avoid the high foreign transaction fee costs, we decided that the Capital One credit card and Charles Schwab debit cards would work best for us.  Capital One has no foreign transaction fees and Charles Schwab reimburses all transaction fees, both foreign and domestic, at the end of each month.  Bank of America has a traveler’s plan with no foreign transaction charges also and we use their credit and debit cards as our backup plan in the event of a damaged, lost or stolen card.  Richard’s social security is directly deposited into the Charles Schwab account and ready to access by ATM.  Also, it’s easy to transfer funds online between Bank of America and Charles Schwab as needed.

Tip – We use our credit card sparingly and for large purchases only to avoid possible credit card fraud. (This might be an example of being too cautious since that leads to the loss of credit card points we could use for future travels.)  We withdraw the local currency from the ATM and use that for day-to-day expenses.

16)  But how do you get your mail and make/receive calls?

We use a family member’s address (a big shout-out to my sister, Kari, who acts as our fairy godmother) as our official address which allows us to keep a near normal presence in the US.  Whenever possible, we opt for the ‘paperless’ route and pay our bills online.  Since we’ve been gone for 5 years, the mail is dwindling although apparently, junk mail never dies.  We can review our bank transactions, pay credit card bills online, file our taxes and conduct other business as needed. We have a US Skype number that allows us to receive and place phone calls.  In short, unless we tell them, no one really needs to know we’re out of the country.

15)  How did you deal with your medical needs and emergencies while traveling full-time?

For years we recommended buying an annual policy from Global Medical Insurance (IMG) with a very high deductible to cover us in case of a catastrophic accident or illness.  We both had to submit medical records and ended up with different plans with one of us receiving coverage worldwide including the US (as long as we spent at least 6 months outside the US per year) and the other obtaining coverage for any country with the exclusion of the US. We never filed a claim and the costs increased each year at exorbitant rates until we finally dropped the plan.  BUPA and CIGNA are also in the same cost bracket.  We found that going naked (or without insurance) might be an option to consider as we paid out-of-pocket throughout our travels for all our medical, dental and prescription needs. Healthcare (doctors, dentists, labs) is very reasonable once you leave the US and we’ve been pleased with the professional and knowledgeable people we’ve encountered so far. Of note, our costs for doctor’s visits and prescriptions were ridiculously (but not in a funny way) less than what we were paying in the US for insurance premiums and copays.

Tip – We’ve had several friends recommend World Nomads which is much more affordable.

14) What do you do about your prescription medications?

We each have a list we update regularly of our medications with both the brand and generic names, strength and the condition the medication is treating.  This includes vitamins, over-the-counter meds for nausea, cold symptoms, pain and fever, etc. In Mexico, Central and South America as well as many of the Caribbean islands, we didn’t need a written prescription to refill our meds. European countries, too, will allow you to buy a variety of medications without a prescription.  Our advice is to stock up on those prescriptions that you can and check at a pharmacy when you arrive to see how to refill what you need.  If you need a written prescription, you can get recommendations for a doctor from expat groups, hotels and the local pharmacy.

Tip – Brand and generic names may vary from country to country. Some of the names may be similar to their US counterpart or you may find that a medication you take is not available in another country.  Almost all of the pharmacies that we’ve been to have internet access and will look up the medication name and availability if you ask. Sometimes they can order a medication for you, obtain it from another pharmacy or substitute it with a similar medication.

 

 

As we guessed, we’re way too wordy so we’ll continue our ‘Twenty Questions’ countdown in Part Two starting with some of the upsides and the downsides of full-time travel and then getting into life as Expats and Residents of Portugal.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Boot Sales, Hippie Markets and Chinese Stores

cliffs by Porto de Mos, Lagos

It’s been a ‘staycation’ kind of summer for us here in Lagos, Portugal, with lots of friends stopping by and making use of our guest room (if you want your friends and family to visit, just move to Portugal!) and day trips here and there.  We’ve met several new friends who have contacted us through the blog and are checking out both Portugal and the Algarve to see what all the buzz is about. We’ve also enjoyed some great conversations as well as mentally filing away travel tips and fascinating stories about future places to visit.  And, over and over, while lounging by the pool, enjoying the beautiful beach near us called Praia Porto de Mos or scarfing down a meal dining with friends, we’ve congratulated ourselves, several times in fact, about our decision to skip visiting the US this year and taking a time-out to enjoy our piece of paradise.

This summer we’ve also indulged in what seems to be one of the Algarve’s favorite past-times: the hunt for a good bargain that you didn’t even know you needed.

 

 

Boot Sales:  Flea markets are held in the villages and towns up and down the coast on designated days with traveling vendors.  The Brits call them “Boot Sales” as the items on sale are (theoretically anyway) sold from the “boot” or trunk of the car. Usually the goods are displayed on a blanket spread on the ground although a lot of the vendors set them up on tables, too.

 

Need your own copper still to make moonshine whiskey?

A boot sale we went to in the Central Algarve Region near Paderne had an herbalist displaying baskets of dried herbs and dispensing advice while a nearby couple deep-fat fried doughy rounds and dusted them with powdered sugar.  It might have seemed that the heat would have dampened our appetites but – no.  In fact, we were just a little tempted to split a third one between us!

 

 

Lagos’s Boot Sale is held on the first Sunday of every month and is as much a treasure hunt as a people meeting and greeting venue.  We always make it an event to visit and drag a friend or two along for the fun.

This may sound strange but by far our biggest score has been a circa 1970’s, pumpkin-orange slow-cooker that weighs about 25 pounds with a Euro-plug that’s been modified from the original UK three-prong.  When the seller saw my face light up at the find (slow-cookers aren’t sold in Portugal) he wouldn’t even bargain with us and we forked over the full €20 for an appliance at least 40 years old.

 

 

Chinese Shops: Every town and village we’ve visited so far in Portugal has at least one emporium (Lagos has several hiding in plain sight) literally stuffed to the gills with all sorts of paraphernalia and staffed by someone of Chinese descent, hence the name.

 

 

From floor to ceiling and usually piled in no particular order, you can find beach toys and bikini panties, thread and thermometers, shower curtains and slippers, paper goods and plasticware and Christmas décor year-round.  We tried to ferret out the origins of these Portuguese versions of the old five-and-dime stores or the newer Dollar Stores and all we’ve learned (unverified so who knows?) is that there are old trade agreements between Portugal and China that allow the owners to import goods duty-free.  If you have a little time, there’s no telling what bargain you’ll find poking around!

 

 

Hippie Market:  Going to this flea market held the 4th Sunday of every month, near the quirky village of Barão de São João, about a twenty-minute drive from Lagos, is kind of a blast from the past for us.  It’s as much fun to watch the retro European hippies, check out the “Pimp-my Ride’ caravans and make a lunch of the vegan/gluten-free pakora with mango chutney, as it is to look at the offerings for sale.

 

 

 

Sounds of live music and the smell of incense float in the scant summer breeze (our friends Roy and Ann hint that other smoky smells can be fired up too) and the whole scene reminds of us outdoor concerts in the 70’s when hair was long, clothing was billowy and we were weekend hippies ourselves.  Wandering about the area, you watch unleashed, happy dogs nosing around the dusty field for anything edible, scruffy kids playing or holding on to young mothers who look almost as disheveled in an appealing, exotic way and men looking laid-back and chill.  Like the other flea-markets we’ve been to, there’s a lot of junk and some interesting antiques and you never know what you might find as you wander round.  We’ve been tempted to buy some colorful paintings and jewelry by local artists, checked out the clothes straight from Thailand, bought some fresh herbs and sipped some fruit-infused water. The vibe is infectious and we always look forward to going – even if we do stand out in our uncool, buttoned-down way!

 

 

 

Of course, there’s always the Saturday farmer’s market down by the bus station in Lagos but we tend to avoid it in the summer as the crowds make the tented area inside a jam-packed, chaotic and sweaty event.  We prefer to wait until the cooler weather of fall and winter to visit the market and check out the fresh produce, baked goods, live chickens and rabbits in cages, and flowers, all offered at reasonable prices by friendly sellers.

It’s always a little sad to say goodbye to summer. But we’re looking forward to getting on the road again and traveling as well as taking advantage of the off-season prices for restaurants and accommodations now that the vacation crowds are returning from whence they came.  Our staycation was an all-around success this year and has us thinking that this might be the way we spend our future summers.  After all, why travel somewhere else during the high-season when you’re right where you want to be?

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

A Rant-A-Thon From a US and a Canadian Expat: Bureaucratic Contortions

Sagres, Portugal

A few weeks ago my Canadian blogger friend, Frank, at The Travels of BbqBoy and Spanky  reached out to me with an idea he had for a collaborative post called, “The Absolute Worst Thing About Being a Fulltime Traveler,” comparing our different perspectives.  What made his idea intriguing was that our worst experiences actually have nothing to do with traveling full time or with being an expat, he in Croatia and myself in Portugal.  This turned into a rather fun and enlightening rant-a-thon by both of us, so I thought I’d reprint parts of Frank’s post here with his permission. 

 

The US Perspective  By Anita @ noparticularplacetogo.net

Six years ago I decided that I wanted the life my husband had: early retirement. We’d worked hard over the years and, lucky for us, weren’t hit too hard by the great recession. We had savings, our home was well on the way to being paid for and we’d had a recent epiphany that life was short. The lifestyle that I was working for (house, cars, stuff) was no longer important to us.

Rant 1 Exorbitant Healthcare Costs. We quickly found out that the US isn’t set up for middle-class people who want to retire early. The biggest problem that we ran into right away was how to pay for our health insurance. My employer picked up half the cost of an excellent health care plan but I was still paying $800/month for the two of us. We solved that problem by deciding to leave the country and “going naked” (that’s what people from the US say when you don’t have health insurance) except for traveler’s insurance policies. We took a year to sell everything, leased out the house and became nomadic expats in 2012, slow-traveling through countries where healthcare was affordable.

Rant 2 Capital Gains Taxes. About three months into our new life we knew that we’d never live in Texas again and probably not in the US either. Deciding to sell our home wasn’t difficult but the whole *when to sell* decision was taken out of our hands. Rather than waiting for the best time to sell our house, we were forced to sell between years two and three of our travels in order to avoid paying hefty capital gains taxes on a place that was no longer our primary residence. (Not that we had any residence at that point!)

Rant 3 Transparency. We consider ourselves to be fairly honest. However, having a US street address is important for so many reasons we’d never considered. In fact, it seems that you need an address to prove your very existence. And so, we use my sister’s address. Simple things like keeping our money in a US bank, having domestic and international credit and debit cards, keeping our US driver’s licenses current, paying income taxes, remaining active voters, etc., all need a US street address. We’re not quite comfortable with the deceit but …

Rant 4 And speaking of honesty and transparency: Be careful to whom you mention that you reside outside the US. Banking and investing places seem to equate opting to live abroad with offshore wealth, tax havens and money laundering. If you want to avoid needless hassles and make your life a little easier, you might opt for, “We’re living out of the country for a while …” not, “Hell no, I’m never coming back!”

Rant 5 Taxes. Aren’t taxes always worth a good rant? And yes, we’re still paying them, on time and every year. We have an accountant who keeps us up to date on changes. All to stay law-abiding US citizens with piss-poor representation and absolutely no benefits.

Rant 6 Banking. It was fairly straightforward to open a bank account in Portugal where we live now unlike a lot of other countries that are refusing to open accounts for US citizens because of onerous reporting requirements and paperwork. However, we had to present our social security cards to open our accounts (who carries those when traveling? Or anytime?) and we’re careful to maintain our account balance under $10,000 to avoid complicated paperwork. (Try paying for a car using your debit card!)

Rant 7 Healthcare. And we’re back at where we started. Richard now qualifies for Medicare and we pay $110 each month for that luxury. However, Medicare is only good in the US and the insurance is not something you can cancel and pickup at a whim when you’re in between countries. So, he has “cheap” insurance (by US standards anyway) and I have none for the occasional visit back in the US. Our solution, should I ever get sick during a visit, will be to hurry up and get the hell on a plane and anywhere else before we’re bankrupted.

Our expat life has been all about minimizing what we have and simplifying where we can. Seems that our country of birth could be a little easier on us too and make the hoops to jump through just a little closer to the ground!

 

The Canadian Perspective By Frank @ bbqboy.net

Three years ago, after 20+ years of working in Quebec (Canada), paying a shitload of taxes every year (Quebec has the highest tax rates in North America) we decided we wanted to leave our 9-5 lives to travel.

It’s not that we didn’t enjoy our lives or didn’t love Montreal, Quebec or Canada. We were getting older and we just wanted to see more of the world before we died.

When we left to travel, we continued paying Canadian taxes. No issues with that, we’re Canadian, we’ll pay our taxes just like we suffer through 6 months of winter. But paying a shitload of taxes doesn’t mean we get any of the benefits that come with been Canadian.

Rant 1 Health Care. Two years into our travels we were no longer eligible for Canadian Health care. We’ve used up our “exception year” (I wrote about Canadian health care/insurance in detail here). Ask any Canadian why we lose our health care after 6 months out of the country and they’ll just shrug. Nobody seems to know. So we ended up getting expat insurance which, at 50 years of age, costs us about $3,000/year Canadian between the 2 of us. Basically we’re double paying because as Canadians our taxes are supposed to cover our health care coverage. That sucks.

Rant 2 Capital Gains Taxes. So we’re into our 3rd year of travelling, loving it, we don’t want to come back to Canada.

After renting out our Montreal condo for the last 3 years, our tenants decide they want to move, they want to start a family in the suburbs.  After weighing our options (rent? sell?) we decide that we would face reality – we love our lives travelling and have no plans to return to live in Canada.

So we put our condo on the market. It takes 2 months to sell but we’re happy when we find a buyer. Great!

Until the government bureaucrats get involved. “You’re a non-resident. This complicates your file. You will need to obtain an accountant in order to obtain for the provincial and federal governments a certificate of disposition. Furthermore, we must put a hold on the sale price in our in trust account until we have received confirmation of these certificates and the payment of the required taxes”.

Exact words with bolds and underlines cut and pasted.

Lucky for us, we have an excellent tax accountant who took care of this. It helped that a few years ago he made us fill out a form stipulating that our condo was never intended as an investment property and that it is still our primary residence and exempt from capital taxes.

Note: Just because you have an overseas address, that does not mean you are not a resident of Canada. As long as you stay a fiscal resident (ie. pay your taxes) you are still deemed a resident (although, as I say, without some of the most important benefits).

What would we do without an army of tax accountants and lawyers dealing with this bureaucratic shit?

Rant 3 Home Insurance on the rented property. When renting out our Montreal condo we had to get “renter’s insurance”. I specified to the company that we needed the insurance because we wanted to travel and rent out the property while doing so. Easy enough. But when year 2 came TD Insurance kept calling me, asking me when we would be coming back to Canada. Our renter’s insurance depended on it they said. By year 3 they said they could no longer cover us because we were out of the country too long. WTF? It ended up being another factor in the decision to sell.

Why would I get renter’s insurance if I came back to Canada? I’m renting out the condo because I don’t live there…

Rant 4 Needing a fixed address. We found out that you need a fixed address for everything: banking, investments, anything to do with government… Everything. In the first 3 years I used my condo address. Now I’m using my son’s address. You’d think in this day and age, with more and more people working remotely, that businesses and governments would keep up with the times. They haven’t. In fact, if you don’t have a fixed address or telephone number you realize pretty quickly that you are a rare species (I’ve had people look at me, wondering if maybe I was a vagrant…). It took full-time travel to bring home to us how totally non-existent you are as a person if you don’t have a permanent address and fixed telephone number.

Note: I should have used my son’s address as my address when selling the condo (Rant 2). Would have saved me and my accountant a lot of hassle.

We don’t mind paying Canadian taxes, Canada is still ‘our’ country. We have Canadian passports, Canadian driver’s licenses, Canadian bank accounts and investments, Canadian credit cards. I have Canadian family living in Canada. And I pay Canadian taxes. But why is the government taking away our benefits (notably Healthcare) or trying to screw us over with Capital Taxes? And it’s not just us, I know older Canadian friends who are not entitled to the GIS (Guaranteed Income Supplement) because they chose to live overseas (where they can get by with less money. Some can’t afford to come back to Canada). It just doesn’t make sense.

I wish the Canadian and Provincial governments would have a more modern and open approach to how people live today. With more and more people working remotely from overseas it would be nice to see a little more flexibility in the system.

One last thought.  For those of you thinking about making the jump to becoming either full-time travelers or expatriates, maybe this post will address some questions you haven’t thought about yet.  As for me, and I think I can speak for Frank too, I feel just a bit better now that I’ve done some ranting and raving about the bureaucratic contortions we go through to live outside our respective countries.  And despite all the hassles, it is, without a doubt, worth it.  It’s a whole ‘nuther world out here!

 

Lagos, Portugal

 

Terezin: If A Picture Paints A Thousand Words

It’s the children’s drawings that linger in our minds, haunting us long after our tour of the town of Terezin that once served as a concentration camp. We’d seen some of the drawings years before at an exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and then at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. Pictures showing happier times with houses and gardens, holiday celebrations with family, children playing, flowers and trees.  Pictures showing darker times too: the day-to-day life in an impoverished ghetto, the faces of sickness and starvation, acts of savage cruelty and the endless transports by train of people arriving from elsewhere or departing for the camps.

 

Field of canola with the Small Fortress in the background

Terezin, better known by its German name Theresienstadt, is a little over an hour’s drive north of Prague.  It was originally built as a fortress in the late 18th century by the Habsburg emperor, Joseph II, who named it after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. (Incidentally, the Empress was also the mother of Marie Antoinette of the “Off with her head” fame.)  The fortress, divided into two parts, never served its military purpose as protection against Prussian attacks but instead proved useful as a prison for dangerous criminals, eventually evolving into a political prison for anyone (which numbered thousands) who the Austro-Hungarian authorities deemed a threat before and during the first World War. (Another interesting factoid is that this is the prison where the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, whose murder set off WWI, was incarcerated.)

 

Small Fortress, administrative offices and barracks

Small Fortress

Following Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, the garrison town of Terezin would also prove to be the perfect place for the Nazis who, in 1940, modified the political prison known as the “Small Fortress” into a police prison for the Gestapo to interrogate, torture and imprison its enemies. The town of Terezin itself, called the “Big Fortress,” met the Nazi requirements for a Jewish ghetto since it was surrounded by thick ramparts which would facilitate guarding of the prisoners. It was located about a mile-and-a-half from the Bohušovice nad Ohří railway station and had several barracks buildings.  Additional barracks were built by Jewish prisoners with triple-tiers of bunks constructed to make the most of available floor space in anticipation of the large populations (ranging from 35,000 to 60,000) who would be “concentrated” and crammed into the small town. The townsfolk of Terezin, numbering about 7,000, were evacuated and the ghetto opened for business. Between 1941 and 1945, Theresienstadt served as both a concentration camp for many prominent Czech Jews (musicians, writers, artists, poets and prominent intellectuals) and as an intermediate stopping place for other populations including communists, the Gypsies or Roma people, the educated and elite, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and religious leaders.  Tens of thousands of Jews deported from Germany and Austria, as well as hundreds from the Netherlands and Denmark were in the transports into Theresienstadt.  All too soon, many of these prisoners would be outbound, selected for transport to Auschwitz and other death camps in the east.

 

“To the Train Station” by Petr Ginz February 2, 1928 to October 24, 1944

Artist Unknown – Transport – Jewish Ghetto

And yet, despite the abysmal conditions – severe overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, insufficient supplies of potable and even non-potable water, vermin (rats, fleas, flies and lice) starvation rations, illness, disease and death –  a semblance of life went on. In between the work details and selections for transport going to the death camps, noted musicians gathered themselves into orchestras and played concerts, poetry recitals were given, writers wrote, operas were performed, artists sketched and painted with whatever supplies they could find and clandestine classes were held to educate the children.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944)

In December of 1942, Freidl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944), an Austrian Jew who lived in Czechoslovakia, arrived in the Theresienstadt Ghetto with her husband.  A talented artist, she had chosen to fill much of her limited luggage allowance of 50 kilos (about 110 pounds) with art supplies which she used to give surreptitious art lessons to over 600 children in Theresienstadt between 1943 and 1944.  Serving as a reminder of a world outside the camp, the lessons also provided a sort of therapy to help the children deal with the harsh reality of life in the ghetto and the constant fear and uncertainty that surrounded them.  Freidl Dicker-Brandeis encouraged her students sign each of their works with their names and ages and collected the pictures from her pupils after each class. Over the two years that she worked with the children, she assembled a collection of almost 4500 drawings, watercolors and collages. Before she and 60 of her students were deported in the autumn of 1944 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, two suitcases filled with these pictures were carefully hidden in one of the children’s dormitories. The drawings were recovered after the war and have served as a reminder of the names and lives lost that might have otherwise been forgotten.  An important part of Prague’s Jewish museum collection since the war’s end, the pictures have been exhibited around the world.

 

 

Almost from the beginning of Theresienstadt’s existence, the Nazi’s had maintained the fiction that the ghetto was a place for resettlement, a haven of safety for the Jews of Czechoslovakia (and later, other countries) and a model city of great culture with its high proportion of musicians, writers, artists and prominent leaders.  No one really cared to follow up on their story until a group of 466 Danish Jews (we wrote about them here) were transported to Theresienstadt on October 5, 1943.  Soon after their arrival, both the Danish and the Swedish Red Cross Organizations began asking questions about their whereabouts as well as their treatment and living conditions.  In a move of astounding audacity, the Nazis decided that they would invite the Red Cross to the camp and prove to the world that the Jews were being treated humanely by their benefactors. A huge cover-up ensued to hide all outward signs of the ghetto’s true circumstances: deplorable sanitary conditions teeming with vermin and pests, widespread disease and rampant starvation. Seven thousand, five hundred of the ghetto’s sickest population along with all of the orphans were deported east to the death camps to reduce the severe overcrowding. A predetermined route for the June 1944, visit was decided upon and buildings were spruced up with paint, flower boxes and curtains while the grounds along the way received more flowers, grass and benches.  Shop windows were filled with foods and goods and an elaborate play unfolded with bakers baking bread, a load of fresh vegetables being delivered and people singing. Prisoners were nicely dressed, cued with pre-rehearsed praise for the camp and carefully placed along the route to present a picture of a charming village filled with happy people.  Musicians played music in the background and the Red Cross fell for the ruse, never deviating from the route nor probing too deeply.  In an ironic twist, the Nazi’s liked their elaborately staged hoax so much that they produced a propaganda film called, “The Führer Gives a City to the Jews.”  After the film was completed, the director and most of the cast of prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz.

 

 

Terezin was a way station for almost 150,000 people from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Hungary to the extermination camps of Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz-Birkenau, to name a few. And, while it wasn’t a death camp by the usual definition, approximately 35,000 people died there between 1942 and 1945 from exposure, starvation, disease, torture and executions.  Fifteen thousand children under the age of fifteen passed through the Terezin Concentration Camp.  Only 132 of those children were known to have survived.

 

 

It’s not easy to visit a place like Terezin, nor is it fun.  And yet, we believe that visits to places like Terezin are necessary and that we owe it to ourselves to learn what hatred based on religion, race, political beliefs and sexual orientation can become.  We need to take those lessons and draw parallels to what we see around us today.  We owe it to the victims to honor their memories and never forget.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

A Walk Across Prague’s Charles Bridge, Three Towers and Thirty Statues

 

It took us three tries to make it all the way across the Charles Bridge but, like they say, “The third time’s the charm.”  Following a leisurely river boat tour that introduced us to the city of Prague on both sides of the river Vltava, we joined the throngs of tourists and passed through the Old Town Bridge Tower to walk a short distance onto the bridge. The Sunday crowds only seemed to grow bigger with each step so we decided to save our crossing for another day and turned back.  A few afternoons later, on a chill and gray day, we reasoned that the cold might keep people away from this popular tourist destination and decided to try again.  Bundled up in our light down coats and new cashmere scarves we’d bought at a street market, we made our second attempt and walked about halfway across before deciding we should have bought mittens too!  However, as the early days of May passed by and Prague warmed up degree by degree, we picked a day in the middle of the week and set off for our third visit.  Success!

 

 

Tourist map of Prague and Charles Bridge – (source)

There are seventeen bridges that cross the Vltava River as it makes its way through Prague but the iconic Charles Bridge (called Karlův Most by the Czechs) is the oldest, with an intriguing backstory and more than a few legends, too.  Replacing the Judith Bridge, the first stone bridge built over the river around 1170 and destroyed by floods in 1342, the Charles Bridge formed the only link between both banks of the Vltava: the Old Town on the west bank and the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) where Prague Castle is located on the east. Known as Stone or Prague Bridge for several centuries, it was the only “solid-land” connection over the river until 1841, making Prague an important trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.

 

 

Czech king, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor (how’s that for a job title?) Charles IV commissioned the Charles Bridge and laid the cornerstone on a date decided by his royal astrologers, the 9th of July, 1357, at 5:31 AM. (When written in a year, day, month and time format, it makes a scale, going upwards and then downwards: 1 3 5 7 9 7 5 3 1.) The King’s favorite architect, Petr Parléř, oversaw the majority of the construction and divided his time between the bridge and his masterpiece, St. Vitus Cathedral, at the Prague Castle.  Finished after Parléř’s death in 1402, the bridge is built of sandstone blocks supported by sixteen arches of varying spans and shielded by ice guards. For centuries, folklore said that eggs were mixed with the mortar to give it extra strength but recent investigations have debunked this urban legend. Nevertheless, the Charles Bridge, one of the mightiest bridges in its time, has survived for 665 years despite countless floods that have damaged or demolished various pillars and arches, invasions, occupations and wars. Horse-drawn trams crossed the bridge beginning in 1883 until they were replaced by an electric tram line in 1905. Shortly thereafter in 1908, the trams were traded for buses which served as public transport until World War II. Cars were allowed to cross the bridge until 1965 and then the bridge was closed to all but pedestrian traffic.

 

Old Town Bridge Tower

Flanked on either end by fortified towers which were built to guard access to the bridge, the Old Town Bridge Tower, a blackened, Gothic structure, is truly impressive.  Built at the same time as the Charles Bridge and completed in 1380, it was part of the royal road and a symbolic archway through which Bohemian kings marched on their way to Prague Castle and St. Vitus’s Cathedral for their coronations. One of the most interesting stories we read (gruesome in other words) was the tale of the Protestant Bohemian uprising in 1621 against the area’s ruling power, the Catholic Hapsburg dynasty.  After the revolt was quashed, twenty-seven of the leaders were decapitated in a formal execution on Prague’s Old Town Square and their severed heads were displayed at the Old Town Bridge Tower in a grisly warning against future resistance or uprisings by the Bohemians.

 

Lesser Town Bridge Towers

At the opposite end of the Charles Bridge stand two more fortified towers, connected by a walkway, which protected the gate to the Lesser Town and serve as the main pedestrian entrance to the Malá Strana quarter of Prague.  The smaller structure dates from the 12th century and is named Judith’s Tower. Originally part of Judith’s Bridge, it’s the only remaining part of the original stone bridge. The larger building, Lesser Town Bridge Tower, was built in the second half of the 15th century and is modeled on the Old Town Bridge Tower. Inside the tower are exhibitions of the bridge’s history and, for a modest fee you can climb the spiral stairs which seem to only get narrower and become steeper (as you huff and puff your way up to the top) for spectacular views of the historical city on both sides of the bridge and the river Vltava, winding its way through the historic city.

 

 

The Charles Bridge itself forms a wide avenue set between its three watchful towers and serves as a kind of open air gallery for thirty impressive, mostly Baroque statues and sculptures made over the years by a variety of artists. It’s hard to believe now as the sculptures have come to be synonymous with the bridge itself, but for several centuries the only decoration on the Charles Bridge was a simple crucifix placed in the 14th century.  A more elaborate crucifix was erected in 1657 followed by the first statue, a tribute by the Jesuits to St. John of Nepomuk in 1683.  Other Catholic orders installed their own venerated statues of favorite saints and patron saints (the majority were erected between 1683 and 1714) and, as the years passed, new ones were added to replace those damaged or lost to floods.  Most of the sculptures were made of sandstone and, beginning in 1965, have been systematically replaced by quality replicas.  The originals can be found in the National Museum’s Lapidary (closed for renovation during our visit) or Vysehrad National Cultural Monument.

 

We’re not quite sure what’s attached to their heads but they looks like pinwheels!

 

By far the most popular statue on the Charles Bridge is St. John of Nepomuk, which can be located about halfway towards the middle of the bridge.  He’s also the first person hurled to his cold and watery grave from the Charles Bridge in 1393. The story goes that he was the confessor to the queen and that her husband, a jealous King Wenceslas IV, son of King Charles IV, demanded that the priest reveal her confession which the good priest refused to do. (The more probable reason may have been a bitter conflict between church and state.)  Wenceslas had poor St. John’s tongue cut out, then weighed him down with armor and heaved him off the bridge. Perhaps the story was a bit too macabre so it was given a pretty little twist and concludes with the stars in his halo following his body down the river.

 

St. John of Nepomuk

Now a patron saint in the Czech Republic, he’s also a protector from floods and drowning.  We noticed a small group around the statue and learned that the real reason for St. John of Nepomuk’s popularity seems to be the tradition that says if you rub the bronze plaques (notice how shiny they are?) you’ll have good luck and return to Prague one day.

 

 

Charles Bridge has provided a backdrop for numerous films and the combination of the Gothic bridge towers on either end, the hulking sculptures that line the parapets and the wide expanse of the Vltava River below makes a visit to this historic bridge a must do for any serious sightseer.  The guidebooks recommend visiting the bridge at dawn (seriously?) when the mist is lifting from the river or in the evening for a romantic stroll.  Weekdays seemed to be less crowded and it’s a great place to people watch, listen to the talented street musicians spaced along the wide thoroughfare, eye the offerings of the souvenir vendors who line both sides of the bridge, and watch the local artists at work drawing landscapes, portraits or caricatures.

 

 

And, to make sure that we would return to what was fast becoming one of our favorite cities, we made sure to give both of St. John of Nepomuk’s plaques a little rub!

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

Portugal’s Love Affair With Tiles and the Museu Nacional do Azulejo

Landmark Green Tile Building, Lagos

You don’t have to be in Portugal long before you notice the colorful, hand-painted tiled plaques on building walls, tiled murals randomly placed here and there as you enter a village and tiles covering the facades of whole buildings. You’ll find tiles inside and out decorating humble homes, large homes, churches, cathedrals, grand palaces and train stations.

 

Peacock Building, Lisbon

 

Old Train Station, Lagos

Named azulejos (our mangled pronunciation sounds something like “a zu lay zhosh”) the tiles are a unique part of Portugal’s artistic heritage. Originating in Persia and adopted by the Moors, the azulejos spread to southern Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese adopted painting on ceramic tile as their national art with many artists preferring tile over canvas, painting religious images and historical scenes as well as vivid, decorative patterns. Inspired by many cultures including Asian, Arabic, Italian, Flemish, Spanish and Dutch, the styles also vary from Baroque to Art Nouveau to contemporary and range from simple, repeating patterns to massively complex and sophisticated murals of fine art.

 

Museo de Azulejo, Lisbon

For those of us honing our appreciation for all things tiled, there’s no better place to learn more about Portugal’s love affair with the azulejos than the National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo) located in Lisbon.  It’s worth the trip alone to see the 16th century building, the Convent of Madre de Deus, which is deceptively modest from the outside and a jaw-dropping example of Baroque architecture and decoration inside.  Important paintings, lavishly gilded alters – and any other surfaces that might have once made the mistake of being plain – relics from the virgin martyrs and of course, the azulejos – all compete for your attention.

 

Church of Madre de Deus (left) and Chapel of St. Anthony

The museum is spread out among the convent’s three floors (there’s a lift too) and set around a courtyard.  Since it was way past lunchtime for us, our first stop on the ground floor was in the café where we had a very inexpensive (less than €5 each) sandwich and coffee in the convent’s former kitchens.  While we scarfed down savored our tasty lunches, we admired the walls around the café which still retain their original 19th century tiles.

 

 

From there, we spent a few fascinating hours learning about the origins of Portugal’s unique artistic heritage and admiring the enormously impressive collection which dates from the 15th century to the present day.

 

 

 

It would be hard for us to pick favorites out of the many tiled murals we saw but, after all the solemn religious art and oohing and ahhing about the sheer magnificence of the tiles, we were ready for a couple of laughs and to speculate about the backstory behind these two tile murals.

 

Social satire? – 1720

 

The Marriage of the Hen – by Singerie, 1660-1667 (A political lampoon?)

And we couldn’t help but wonder if this old saint was flashing us the peace sign.

 

 

Despite its somewhat out-of-the-way location, a visit to the National Tile Museum should be on your list of must-sees whenever you find yourself in Lisbon.  It’s probably safe to say it’s one of the most important museums in the country and a visit will give you some insight into the historical and cultural significance of Portugal’s love affair with the azulejos.  The Portuguese are justifiably proud of their unique artistic heritage and we love being reminded of it whenever we happen upon it in this amazing country.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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