All About Belonging with Catherine Jordan
Cath is an Irish expat who now lives in Portugal with her husband and son. A former scientist, she gave up working when they emigrated south from the UK. She is a family travel blogger and hopes that, through her blog, they will inspire more families to travel, especially with the toddlers in tow. As a family they love travelling and have started working their way through their family travel bucket list. Cath writes about their family travels and experiences on her blog Passports and Adventures.
If someone gave you the chance to live in a warmer country and give up work, would you jump at the chance? Even if it meant leaving behind a life you loved and moving somewhere where you didn’t speak the language. I did.
My husband has wanted to live in a hot country for as long as I can remember. He never stopped moaning about the wind and rain, whether we lived in Ireland (where we’re from) or in the UK. He always said he wanted to move somewhere warm, or hot, and I would agree, nodding my head, thinking “yeah, when we retire”.
My parents had been holidaying in Portugal for many years and had decided it was where they wanted to retire to. My Dad always wanted to return to a hot country and, since he knew some Portuguese having worked with some Portuguese nationals during his time in Angola, my Mum agreed as she knew he at least spoke the basics of the language. They spent time travelling around before finally deciding the Algarve was where they wanted to base themselves.
In September 2016 they bought their holiday home and set things in motion for my Mum to retire from work, my Dad having retired many years before her. We thought “brilliant, we’ve got somewhere to go for holidays”. Then, the tenants in our rental house moved out and the new tenants became a nightmare from day one. So much so, we paid for them to move out and put the house on the market. We didn’t need the hassle and thought we could use the money to buy a holiday home in Portugal near my parents.
Holiday home talk turned to talk of a more permanent move and at Christmas we made the decision to sell up and move to Portugal for several reasons. One, to stop my husband complaining so much about the weather. Two, to give our son a more outdoor life. We had realised that by the age of three he had spent more than two thirds of his life stuck indoors because it was too cold and miserable to let him play outside. And three, the tax breaks were better for my self-employed husband.
Fast forward five months, and with the car packed to the brim, we set off on our marathon two-day journey to drive from the UK to the Algarve via the Santander ferry. We arrived in May and the summer was soon approaching but we got settled into our new home and enjoyed seeing my parents on a regular basis after fifteen years of living away from them. Our son started forming a proper relationship with his grandparents and life started to take on a more normal routine. That routine becoming more settled once our son started Portuguese preschool.
However, it hasn’t all been a bed of roses for me. While my husband is thrilled and topping up his tan, and while my son is enjoying being outdoors and having fun with new friends, I’ve increasingly felt like I’m lost, like I have no sense of belonging anymore. To the point where if you gave me the option to move on, I’d jump at the chance.
The language barrier is a big reason why I feel quite unsettled compared to the boys. Our son is talking and understanding Portuguese as he is immersed in it from 9am to 4pm in preschool. My husband is picking up bits here and there, but his work life hasn’t changed one bit. He works remotely and speaks English all day. However, I am the one at the frontline, trying to cobble together what I can to speak to people. And my favourite phrase in response is often (in Portuguese) “sorry I only speak a little Portuguese”. Now, 50% of the time the person I’m trying to speak to has some English, enough that we can get our points across. However, the other 50% of the time they don’t, and we’re completely lost. It never helps when you are trying to do something official like get social security numbers for everyone, so our son can stay in school. Or to register with the local health centre, again because we need something from them for school. And as I don’t work, it’s always me who has to do it.
As mentioned I don’t work, having given up my job as a scientist before we left the UK. I left a job I had grown to love and cannot work in Portugal within the same industry because I don’t speak the language fluently. And I really miss my job. I recently returned to Wales to see my ex-work colleagues and it really hit home how much I miss my old job. I didn’t spend nine years in university getting a PhD to sit at home twiddling my thumbs all day. I feel wasted and I’ve really lost a big part of myself as a result. Yes, I have my blog to keep me busy, but it’s just not the same as going into work and wondering what’s going to come through the doors for me to get my teeth into.
Last summer, as we settled in, everything was a bit of a whirlwind and it partly felt like an extended holiday. Once our son started going to school, that’s when my sense of not belonging started to set in. But the worst thing is I can’t tell my husband outright as he’s living his best life. He loves it here, yet not much has changed for him other than the weather is better. He still has his job, albeit for a different client, and he travels regularly for work. He doesn’t need to do much of the “official stuff”, and the bits he does he can do in English because the bank manager and his accountant all have very good English. It’s me who must do all the struggling with everything else.
I’ve started dropping hints that I don’t feel Portugal is our forever home, that I am not going to die of old age here. He’s half-heartedly joked about moving to New Zealand, a part of the world I swore I’d never move to because it would be so far away from our families. But my parents aren’t getting any younger. My Dad is eleven years older than my Mum and I genuinely feel if he goes before her, she’ll move back to Ireland, even if we are still here. So, I’ve said New Zealand can be on the cards for another move. My reason; to be able to go into any office, supermarket, building and know that no matter who I need to deal with we will be speaking in English. Everything is just so much harder when you are struggling with a difficult language.
It’s not as if I am not trying. I have a good grasp of the basics and have been taking lessons, although I’m on a break as my teacher is on maternity leave. But I just don’t feel like I’ll ever get good enough at the language to hold a full conversation or even enough to apply for a job. Yes, I want to work again, and I want to return to science in the future. I don’t want to feel like my university years are going to waste.
I want to live in a country where I don’t struggle on a daily basis. I want to be able to understand every word someone says to me when they speak to me. I want to make friends, something I haven’t been able to do because I don’t work and none of the mums at the school gates speak English. They’re polite enough and nod, smile and say “Bom Dia” as we pass, but I feel rather alone in this country.
Don’t get me wrong, not all of it is bad. The weather is great, although I can’t take the heat of July and August. It’s unbearable and made worst because our son is off school in those months and it gets too hot to go anywhere with him during the day. We have no things like soft play or bowling near us, so we’re stuck together, in a tiny two-bedroom holiday home, while my husband tries to do work calls around us.
The cost of living is cheaper than the UK or Ireland, and the people we have met and interacted with are lovely, especially when they know we are trying with the language. We’ve got my parents close to us, which is so lovely after 15 years apart.
But deep down, I know we’re going to have to move again, for me this time. I cannot put my hand on my heart and say I love it in Portugal. I like it but given half the chance to move to an English-speaking country and I’d be gone in a flash. And if New Zealand talk springs up, I’ll encourage it. I’ve even hinted I’d move to America, another country I always said I couldn’t live in.
We left a beautiful six-bedroom house in Wales and I left a great job when we took the leap of faith to move. And while I don’t regret it, I know deep down this isn’t my forever home, whatever my husband thinks. For now, our son is settled, my husband isn’t complaining about the weather anymore (it’s me doing the complaining instead), my parents are close by and we’re saving for a bigger home, although we might not buy a house. But if anything happens to my parent’s situation, or if our dog dies sooner than we think, I’ll be actively encouraging my husband to agree to a round-the-world-trip as a family, with a view to settling in an English-speaking country when the time comes for our son to attend high school. I am lost and really don’t feel like I belong anymore. And that’s got to change in the future. I just don’t know when – that light at the end of the tunnel isn’t even a faint blur yet.
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