That must have been fun!
It was. Some of the time.
Here’s something you might not know about me: from the mid 1980’s to the early 1990’s, Paul and I owned America’s oldest country store in continuous operation1. This is usually a highlighted point of interest to people we meet in Portugal and beyond when they ask us about our past lives in the United States. The reaction that most folks have when we talk about this part of our lives is, "That must have been fun!" Our usual answer is, "It was. Some of the time."
It was fun. Some of the time.
When you walked into our 3,000 square-foot store built in 1799, you took a step back in time. Paul and I had taken an old, run-down historic Rhode Island country store selling antiques, quarts of Sturbridge Village milk paint, dusty bolts of fabric, colonial-style hardware, tools, and stale penny candy and created what became our bestselling item: atmosphere. We were proud of what we created! Old beamed ceilings, worn wood floors, original countertops, a brass cash register, hanging electrified oil lamps, a fully stocked penny candy counter, a 30-pound wheel of Vermont cheddar cheese cut to order, classical music playing in the background, gourmet foods, freshly ground coffee, cinnamon incense burning, a 30-seat café, antiques, dried flowers and gift items, and a working pot belly stove all created an ambience that people of all ages had fun in, enjoyed…and envied.
We had lots of “regulars” who came into the store. Some of these folks became friends. We also would get many tourists and well-dressed couples from around the world who would come in to experience a step back in time for themselves. Many of them were curious because they had read an article in a national magazine or newspaper about our store, or saw an advertisement featurning the store for Rhode Island tourism, or they saw a segment on the local PM Magazine television show about us, or they heard an ad on the radio. They would see Paul and I – a young husband and wife – and see the vibrancy of the store – the sights and smells – and they would invariably wish they were the owners of this magical place – you could see it in their eyes. Without fail, these folks would say to us, “This must be fun!” Our answer was always the same, “It is. Sometimes.”
All people saw was how much fun it looked like! They never thought to pull back the curtain to reveal the other side of running a small business such as the constant upkeep of an antique building, sleepless nights wondering if we could pay our employees for the week when business was way off because of a major snowstorm, the stress of always having to be happy and upbeat even if we didn’t feel like it, or if we were feeling under the weather. After all, Paul and I were a big part of that “atmosphere” we sold. People expected us to always be there, always be attentive, always be cheery. So sure, it was fun. Sometimes.
Am I having fun in Portugal?
People we meet from the U.S. and beyond envy us. (I mean, after all, what charmed lives we must be living!) As with the country store, all people see is how much fun it looks like! Folks dream about seeing themselves living in another country much like those folks that dreamed of running our country store. They have probably watched House Hunters International or have subscribed to International Living magazine and envied those people who made the move. How much fun it must be to be an expat!
A recent conversation with a new acquaintance who asked about our background including owning the country store (and exclaiming to us that it must have been so much fun) made me think about the present and our lives here in Portugal, and I asked myself the question: Am I having fun?
I openly admit that I have my moments when I wonder what we were thinking moving to Portugal – a country that we had not visited previously. What were we thinking when we sold our beautiful home, gave away or sold most of our 40+ years of accumulated possessions, left our family and friends, moved to a country without knowing the language, wondering if the apartment we rented sight unseen would be okay. Wondering how we were going to find our way around, how to take the train, or the bus, how to shop for groceries, how to find doctors and dentists, how to find people to help us navigate this new journey, how to make new friends, how to fit into a new culture. Talk about sleepless nights…
Being (sort of) retired in a new country is fun. Sometimes. There are still day-to-day things that must be done that aren’t always fun. There are still challenges and new frustrations even though we’ve lived here now for over 30 months. Things like not being able to leave the country until our temporary residence visa renewal cards came in the mail (this took 2 months), or the frustration of the (private) Portuguese hospital system when they lose our test results, and they must be taken over again. Or waiting for our Portuguese driver’s licenses to arrive in the mail (this took 6 months) or having to prepare information for not one but two income tax returns – one for each country. Or shopping for beds and mattresses without really understanding bed sizes and measurements in Portugal (don’t even get me started on how to buy the correct sized bed sheets). Or getting a delivery of groceries only to find after the delivery person has left that half of your order is missing. Or going into Leroy Merlin (the equivalent of the Home Depot in the US) and trying to find one particular type of light bulb, or one particular color of paint where the helpful salespeople will try to assist you if they could only understand what the heck you were trying to ask.
Are these all-life-threatening problems? No. They’re not. It’s everyday crappy stuff that happens wherever you live. But when you live as an immigrant in a new country and things are not familiar to you, simple things you took for granted in your home country can feel like catastrophe and frustration in a new one. And it is definitely not fun.
Pulling back the curtain.
For me, living in Portugal is fun. Some of the time. But not always and not every day. Personally, I think it’s important to periodically pull back the curtain in my life to be sure I still like what I see on the other side. So far, the pros far outweigh the cons, so I think I’m good. Paul on the other hand is completely happy here and has no regrets and takes these little bumps in the road in stride (something I aspire to do). Still, in my opinion, being honest with yourself (and your spouse or partner if you have one) is a far better path to self-care and personal happiness no matter where you live.
So, if you already live in Portugal, I’d love to know if you’re having fun and if you’re happy here. People move to a new place for a lot of reasons. Just make sure you really understand your ‘why’. And understand that whatever emotional baggage you left behind will follow you. Portugal is a wonderful country, full of warm, friendly people, but it’s not without its warts and blemishes. And it’s not always fun.
If you’re having trouble feeling happy about your decision to move to Portugal (whether you’re already here or contemplating a move), here’s a resource that might help.
Muito obrigada (many thanks) to Anonymous 1, Maggie S. and Anonymous 2 for supporting Our Portugal Journey through Buy Me a Coffee. Your generosity and interest help to keep this publication free to subscribers.
Until next time…
Brown & Hopkins has changed over the years and our concept for the store was exactly that - ours. The new owner has chosen not to serve food, so the café is now a retail space. We also lived in 8 rooms above the store which has now become additional retail space except for a 3-room apartment that the current owner rents out long-term. If you visit Rhode Island, be sure to visit the store (and tell them Paul & Carol sent you!).