Chronicling my move to an ex-pat life in Portugal
And… we’re in the air.
I am flying the same route as I had set for last Monday when Jacksonville Air Traffic Control shut down. (For the gory details, see It’s an Adventure.) I figure second time’s the charm, but I didn’t feel like it was really happening until the second leg of the trip, when we left Chicago heading for Heathrow.
I have my computer bag and a Nantucket bag with minimal clothes in it with me. I’ve spent the last five or six days doing very small loads of laundry, and alternating between my jeans and my cousin’s very soft leggings. I am not a leggings girl, but they could be in my future. New things.
On Friday, I set the land speed record from Pasco County to Tampa Airport to get my Covid test done. FYI: They close at 1:30, not 3:30. Oops. After the test, I stopped by to see Donna in the lost luggage office. She recognized me immediately, brought out her clipboard, and showed me that she had checked on my bags three times. She must have called again before she left for the weekend because I got a call a few hours later from Tania in Chicago. My bags have been located and will be on my flights with me, available for pickup in Faro. I’ll believe it when I see it, but really, why not? As it was, I was reconciled to losing all my possessions, even though the paperwork in my small suitcase was irreplaceable. I asked myself, “What would you do if it had all burned up in a fire?” Somehow that helped me over the anticipated loss.
This time around in Tampa, my paperwork was organized and ready to go. No questions asked. The American Airlines flight was packed — no empty middle seats. It was NOT a comfortable feeling. I figured maybe half the people had been tested. I kept my face to the window and tried not to think about it.
The first week of January in the US has been nothing short of a shit show. (I mean, really, the POTUS put out a HIT on his own VP. Mike Pence is still wrapping his head around that one and I don’t blame him. I am no Pence fan, but sheesh, that’s a tad extreme.)
I feel like I am finally starting my new life. And, if something horrible happens before it all starts, at least I wasn’t sitting on the same corner of that same damn couch. As the plane took off, I had a strange thought: “Escape from the US.”
We are fed-something that may have been chicken parmesan with an orzo mix. I meticulously pick out the bits of broccoli. No “new year, new me” happening here. The cabin has been darkened. I know the technique. The crew wants us all to sleep which will make the trip faster for everyone. I’m good with that. Back when I worked on ships, we gave the passengers Dramamine for seasickness. It would put them right out. They were better off and so were we.
I’m going to make the crew happy and take a nap here. I have the whole row. Just about everyone on the plane has a whole row. That doesn’t happen very often anymore so I take advantage. But airplane sleep is never solid. I am more awake than asleep. I watch our progress on the screen, places under the North Atlantic I’ve never heard of: Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone, Eirik Ridge, Immarsuak Sea-Channel… What places will I miss out on because they exist beyond what I once thought was a well-rounded education? Starting over.
We land in Heathrow and it is easy to navigate over to the proper connections area. I check in with British Airways. The ticket agent says I can’t get into Portugal; the borders are closed. I squash the urge to say, “So are England’s but here I am!” No, I point out politely and with false confidence, I have a residency visa. I live there. (Well, technically not yet, but…) He calls a supervisor on the phone and we play 20 questions:
Do I know anyone there? (No.) Do I have accommodations set up? (Yes, six months.) What do I do for a living? (This one is a trap. I give him a simple explanation of what I do, one someone who is not an entrepreneur will accept.) Do I have a business card? (Of course!) The business card seems to give me some credibility. I don’t know why — it’s the one I use for events and it’s colorful and salesy. But printed on good, thick stock.
I point out my residency appointment letter that is scheduled for April. “I have to be in Portugal for this appointment, don’t I?” It clinches the deal. They decide I can go and the agent, who has been polite all along, apologizes. I have done three months of paperwork, crossed all the Ts and dotted all the damn Is and I still feel like I’m bullshitting my way into a country.
Welcome to Portugal?
I haven’t told anyone this, but I am terrified that I will be turned back at Faro Airport. I’m not sure how I will handle that. Where will I go? Will they let me stay overnight and then put me on the next plane back? In Faro, I get in one of the lines for customs and immigration. All the lines are short, but some people take longer than others. I am the last one in my line. I figure it’s going to take a while and I don’t want to hold anyone up. The agent looks at my passport and visa. He says, “You live here?” I say, “This is my first time, but yes. I am applying for residency.” He says, “You just got a new president, why are you leaving now?” and we laugh. We talk about how crazy the last week was in the US and how good it is that Trump is leaving. The world has been holding its collective breath, too. He waves me through with a “Welcome to Portugal” and I am in. Just like that.
I turn to the baggage claim just outside the door and there’s my luggage! Both pieces, just waiting for me! My driver, David, is waiting for me. He handles the big bag (62.5 pounds, sorry David!) and I schlep the others. We chat on the 20 minute or so drive. He points out landmarks along the way. The football stadium (real football, not American football) that was built for the Euro 2004 championship games. Old Town Albufeira for the older folks. He shows me where “the kids” hang out. Before taking me to my AirBnB, he takes me to “the best view of Albufeira” which is a park by the cemetery. The sun is slanted low across the water and lights are coming on, twinkling in the distance. The view is postcard magical. He bangs a U-Turn and takes me back a few blocks. He told me at the airport that the address I have been given for my AirBnB is not strictly an address; more a general area. “We’ll see if we can find it,” he said. It will be a shared task.
We pull into the street and the apartment building is right there. (It’s barely a street.) We laugh at our success and he humps my heavy suitcase up two flights of stairs. I’m tired and shaky and can’t get the lockbox to work. He does it for me. I can’t get the key to work. He does it for me. We hustle my bags in and I tip him well. The suitcase would have done me in.
The place is cute, exactly as pictured and… freezing. A window in the bathroom had blown open and all the cold air has settled in. There’s a heater in the bathroom. I pull the cord; it doesn’t work. I look for a thermostat. (So American of me, I know.) Nothing. I message the owner, asking if there’s heat. He tells me there’s a heater in the bathroom (thanks, bub) and a space heater in the closet. I pull it out and it becomes my best friend. But I can’t get warm. I shiver and shiver. I hate the cold.
I am tired, cold, hungry, and scared. I have some leftover airline food but no means of getting a meal tonight. I open my cases — everything is intact. I explore the apartment, find the refrigerator (in the storage unit in the hall) and the microwave (in the cabinet under the stove). There are teabags in a bottom drawer. I pull out the electric kettle to boil water. It has a six inch cord. Every plug in the place is at least eight inches above a flat surface. Fun. I boil a cup of water in the microwave and pour that into a second cup with the tea bag. I realize that I will be cooking for the next two months the same way I cooked in a college dorm room. Unfortunately, there’s no vending machine filled with M&Ms and Suzy Qs on the next floor.
I have tea. I munch on a fig bar and some almonds. I go online and let people know I am arrived and safe. I find my fuzzy socks. It will all get sorted in the morning. The TV stand has little cubbies, one with a few books. The only one in English is The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. Jackpot! I climb into bed in pajama bottoms and a shirt and my sweatshirt and my fuzzy socks because-did I mention it’s fecking freezing? I start drifting off so I make sure the space heater is off before I settle in for the night. Shouldn’t burn the place down on the first night. Pretty sure that’s bad manners.
I wake up every hour for the first three hours, with leg and foot cramps, shivering with cold. Then I go down for the count. Five hours of solid sleep.
Everything does look better in the morning, but it’s still bloody cold. I open the blackout curtains and the sun streams in, helping to warm the place. Mr. Space Heater is cranking. Unless it is directly facing you, it doesn’t seem to do much so I keep it in front of me, not more than three feet away, not caring if that gives me wuss status. I’ve got nothing to prove.
I make more tea and come to terms with the fact that I need to take a shower, even if the bathroom feels like Iceland. I’ll skip washing my hair, since I have no shampoo. Today I will explore the neighborhood and try to find a grocery store to get supplies. That is my entire agenda. I am keeping my to-do list intentionally short this month. One day, one thing.
But I did it! I am here. I have a roof over my head. I have my stuff. I won’t freeze to death — probably. I’m good with that.
Originally published at https://barbaragrassey.com on January 15, 2021.