What does it take to feel comfortable if you live abroad?
I was recently interviewed for a television documentary about my experience as an expat. The producers were exploring the concept of home comforts; how certain objects might affect the way that people living away from their home countries feel about living abroad.
After my initial reaction, I found myself dwelling on the notion of comfort for days. Aside from beds and sofas, my idea of comfort is not related to objects. I equate it to feeling secure in most aspects of life.
Is it possible to relax?
That sense of security comes in part from feeling generally safe from physical harm and the actions of criminals. I remember the relief and freedom I felt when I arrived in Portugal after living in Venezuela. I think the last straw for me there was when I had to give my employers a ‘proof of life’ question so that they could check whether it was worth considering any ransom demands if I was kidnapped.
Being in a country which is generally law-abiding and that has systems in place to protect people is also important. Portugal isn’t perfect but it’s a lot better than some countries I’ve lived in.
It’s also important to strike a balance between adjusting your behaviour to comply with local rules and social norms and feeling restricted and unable to relax. Thankfully, Portugal is an easy country to be myself in.
Comfort for me is also tied into being able to pay the bills without worrying where the money will come from. I’ve been skint before and it’s no fun. Fortunately, since I left Spain for better paid work, I’ve been okay in this respect. So far, at least; Portugal’s austerity measures have taken a hefty chunk out of our finances so I really hope it doesn’t get any worse.
How much time is spent outside the comfort zone?
Feeling confident and capable in situations is part of comfort, and expats are frequently placed outside their comfort zone in every aspect of their lives. Nothing is familiar or easy. People do things differently and no amount of research is going to prepare you for every situation. It takes time to get used to how systems work and learn what to expect and how to behave in other countries.
It gets easier with practice but even after five years of living in Portugal, there are times when I feel awkward and uncomfortable because I don’t know what’s ‘normal’ in certain situations.
Language is an issue, too. Despite the length of time I’ve been here, I’m still not fluent in Portuguese and if I have to do anything complicated, this is a serious handicap. I am stripped of the ability to use linguistic devices, sophisticated phrases and the appropriate levels of courtesy and have the communicative powers of a six-year-old.
It’s up to me to fix this but it takes time and effort. In the meantime, I often feel uncomfortable and frustrated in my attempts to communicate effectively.
(I’ve compiled a list of useful free resources for learning European Portuguese.)
Making new friends
Another major contributor to my sense of comfort is the support I have from other people. I’ve moved country four times as a single person and each time, I had to start from scratch making friends and creating a social network in my new home. I’ve been lucky as an English teacher in that I’ve usually made some friends among my colleagues but it’s still a daunting task and fraught with potential problems.
In the expat world, these friendships tend to be transient. Even if you are staying for a couple of years, your new best friend may only have six months left on their contract and the painful process of separation and replacement kicks in. For similar reasons, I’ve found that many locals tend to be wary of getting too involved with foreigners for fear they are wasting their efforts on someone who will soon abandon them.
Keeping old ones
Knowing that my family and lifelong friends back in the UK are there for me is extremely important. I visit the UK at least once a year and make a point of spending time with my oldest and closest friends. They and my family are my rock; an anchor which has given me the strength to drift around the world, knowing that someone’s got my back in an emergency.
I’m married now and settled in Portugal so I have a stable network of people around me but it’s always reassuring to know that ‘my people’ in the UK are still there for me.
More than just a home
During the interview, they were keen for me to hone in on a physical object that gave me comfort in foreign surroundings so I told them about my paintings and ornaments. I use them to personalise the places that I move into so that they feel more like home.
While my home in Portugal is a cosy haven (when everything is working properly!), I think it takes more than that to provide a true sense of comfort. To really feel ‘at home’ in a foreign country, safety, support and confidence are essential.
So, do I feel ‘at home’ and comfortable as an expat living in Portugal?
Most of the time, I’d say yes, absolutely. When things go wrong or I don’t know how to go about making something happen, not so much.
And I certainly don’t feel comfortable about the documentary which is about to be broadcast on Portuguese television very shortly. Mike and I did the interview back in September so I can’t remember what we said and we haven’t seen the edited version. In fact, we’ll both be teaching when it’s aired (Produção Habitat on RTP1 at 11 am on 9th March if you’re interested) so plenty of other people will see it before we get a chance to. I just hope they’ve been kind to us in the editing!
Will I ever feel completely comfortable as a foreigner in Portugal?
Who knows? There’ll always be cultural differences but I’m continually learning and adapting so once my Portuguese is up to scratch, things should be a lot easier.
What does comfort mean to you? What does it take for you to feel comfortable in another country? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
This post forms part of My Personal A to Z of Portugal.
- If you’re thinking of moving to Portugal, or any other country for that matter, you’ll need to do your homework. This book, A Better Life for Half the Price (affiliate link), and its various extra support components is a useful tool to help you decide if becoming an expat is right for you.
- Or start with this article on my blog: A Better Life For Half The Price In Portugal Or 17 Other Countries