Adjusting to Living in Portugal: Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn!
Updated: Oct 11
“Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn.”–John Maxwell.
In his 2013 book with the same title, Maxwell writes, “in order to keep moving forward and achieve our greatest dreams, we must also learn from those losses. If we apply that knowledge and wisdom, the next time around, we’ll be that much closer to reaching our goals. (Inspiring Quotes, Thursday, September 23, 2021.)
Never has this been so true as it is now as I settle into my new life on Madeira Island, Portugal.
Before moving to Portugal, I had visited five times as a solo nomad; not as a resident. Visiting, rather than establishing a home, is different and requires a alternative mindset with new goals. I must learn Portuguese beyond one-word sentences; make lasting friendships to create a community for myself; and befriend employees at my favorite restaurants, the local pharmacy, grocery stores, post office, shops, and markets.
Setting down roots in Portugal, or for any non-native country, requires mounds of tedious paperwork, working through an extensive list of essential connections. At the top? Establishing my home address with a myriad of organizations, registering with a Portuguese health plan, opening a bank account, getting my United States CDC vaccination card replaced by an EU vaccination card, and more.
When I started digging into this list, I had no idea where to go. For example, assuming I need to go to the health department, what do they call the health department here and how do I get there? I don’t have a car. There are four confusing bus systems on this tiny Island 38 miles long. Taxis are outrageously expensive, and Bolt (Portugal’s Uber) isn’t cheap either.
Portugal does not operate like the United States. The simplest tasks take hours. Sometimes days and weeks. It’s easy to forget this fact, and end up with dashed expectations, dead ends, and forced to begin again.
Even finding my way around the grocery store is a challenge. Items are not necessarily grouped in logical order. Who puts household cleaning products next to the wine? Or cosmetics adjacent to the butcher case?
Add to that, the language barrier. When I’m speaking to someone who speaks perfect English, there is always ample opportunity for misunderstanding. Think about it: when the language puts the adjective after the noun (barn red), instead of the adjective before the noun (red barn), you understand we process information differently.
So, in eight weeks, I have had one challenge after another. But I will spare you from going down a series of ridiculous rabbit holes.
I’ll tell you about just one: my new guitar.
Well, actually, allow me to expand: my new guitar, the guitar shop which isn’t really a shop, and my Portuguese bank.
That expansion reveals I’m getting the hang of this Portuguese culture already! Nothing is simple. Everything feels chaotic and complicated. Nothing is easy.
Here we go:
I realized three days before my departure for Portugal, American Airlines - like many American and European airlines - had reduced the dimensions for the overhead compartment. My sweet Baby Taylor guitar that travelled with me for four years, over six continents, and through 46 countries, was too long… by a mere three inches!
Plan A: check it and pay an extra $200. However, the fine print declared my soft carrying case was not acceptable. I needed a hard case. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a hard case in time for departure.
Plan A foiled!
My heart broke at the prospect of Plan B. Sell my Taylor and buy a new guitar in Portugal. A quick google search revealed three guitar shops on the Madeira Island. So, I sold my guitar, safe in the knowing I could buy another one.
As soon as I arrived on Madeira, I googled those shops again and found they only sold classical guitars or brands I had never heard of.
Plan C: It so happened I was meeting friends in Madrid in a couple of weeks. Some of the best guitar makers are in Spain. I’ll get a guitar there.
After hours at my computer looking for a guitar shop in Madrid, I found UME Union Musical with hundreds of guitars to choose from. Some I never heard of. Some I recognized but were way beyond my budget. I decided to go with what I know and love: a Baby Taylor. I found one on their webiste; however, it only came with a soft case. Rats! I needed a hard case!
Over the next week, I emailed UME and discussed buying this guitar, along with a hard case. I quickly came to understand, the guitar shop I found online in Madrid, wasn’t located in Madrid. It was in Barcelona. Furthermore, it wasn’t a shop at all. UME was a company similar to a clearing house, shipping guitars to various locations in Spain after they had been purchased.
And a hard case? The short story: no hard case for the Baby Taylor, but they would kindly sell me one that would suffice, albeit slightly larger than the guitar, for 350 euros.
Ah, I don’t think so!
Plan D: I’ll find an actual guitar shop. Unfortunately, after another week of searching for another establishment that sold Baby Taylors, I found nothing.
Plan E: I'll ask UME if they could ship the guitar and soft case to Madeira Island, Portugal, and what was the cost? Their answer: yes and 45 euros. Viola! This solved the hard case problem and shipping was much cheaper that checking it. Such a deal and I took it.
I offered my credit card. However, this was “a special purchase” and they would only accept a bank transfer.
I accessed my bank (Atlantico) account online to begin the transfer. My bank doesn’t have a branch here on Madeira Island.
I know what you are thinking. Why didn’t you open a bank with a branch here? Don’t ask. It's a long story.
When I could not, for the life of me, facilitate the transfer, I called the bank and a very nice young man walked me to through the tiresome process, transferring 806.35 euros to UME. It took over an hour and at the end, he said, “This is so much easier with your debit card.”
I agreed but explained that I couldn’t get a debit card because the bank wanted proof of my address and would only accept a rental agreement or a utility bill in my name. Because I was renting from a friend, without a legal document, I had neither. The Portuguese Immigration and Borders Service (SEF) had accepted my address and it was on my Portugal Residency card. But that wasn’t good enough for Atlantico.
“You are correct. We do not accept SEF documentation as proof.”
“Yes, oh,” I said. “And note, you are losing money, because you charge 15 euros for the card and a monthly fee whether I use the card or not.”
“That’s correct, madam.”
I graciously thanked him for his help. No need to be the ugly American. Besides, I might need his help in the future.
Two days later, I received an email from UME, thanking me for my payment with an alert. They had received TWO full payments.
My heart raced with panic. Portuguese banks are considered trustworthy. However, they are not guaranteed by FDIC! What was happening and how was I going to handle this?
I exhaled in relief when UME asked for my bank’s IBAN number so they could refund the extra payment. Now, this correction would be painless.
When I chatted with the very nice young woman at Atlantico, she said, “Unfortunately we are having computer problems. And, it appears you have made two transfers because you set up daily transfers. And, I see another transfer went out today.”
“Three payments now?”
“So, it’s a computer glitch.”
I explained one of her colleagues walked me through the process online and it was to be ONE payment. “Can you stop the payments?”
“Yes, do not worry. I will take care of this, however, we must investigate each transaction and the fee is 40 euros per transaction.”
“So, you will pay me 80 euros for your computer glitch?” I said with a wry chuckle.
She ignored my question. “Madam, there is no guarantee UME will return your money. In fact, they are not required. Therefore, we must investigate. May I begin the investigations?”
This was completely ridiculous. It was their computer glitch so why investigate unless they investigated themselves?
“Nao obrigada. (No, thank you.) Please stop the daily payments.”
She said she’d take care of it.
I breathed easier and my heartrate returned to normal.
Fast forward two days: UME informed me they had received another payment… a fourth payment of 806.35 euros.
The very nice young lady at Atlantico had not stopped the payments.
Let’s see four times 806.35 is 3,335.40 euros!
Panic turned to frustration and fear. Perspiration ran down my forehead and stung my eyes. I only had 9,000 euros in the bank. Soon my account would be depleted and I’d be charged for an overdraft!
Thank goodness I only transferred 10,000 euros to Atlantico, as required for residency and kept the rest of my money in my Charles Schwab account in the US.
I wiped the sweat from my eyes to clear my vision, called the bank and got a third lovely employee who explained everything the young lady had said previously, including the need to investigate. He added a stunning comment: “Our computer system is often unreliable.”
Exhale quietly, Diann, and be nice. You need this guy.
“Can you stop these payments?”
“No, I cannot. You must do it yourself.”
“Can you walk me through the process?”
“Unfortunately, our computers are down. Therefore, I cannot see your portal. It will be difficult if not impossible.”
I convinced him to try and we began.
After an hour, he said he didn’t have the knowledge to proceed and needed to forward this problem to the IT department. “You must be patient because our IT department is creating an entirely new computer system. This has priority. IT will take more than a week to resolve this problem.”
“Well, that will certainly stop the daily payment because soon I will out of money. What is your fee for overdraft when the source of the problem is a computer glitch?”
Without answering my question, he said, “Can you hold, please?”
“Claro que sim.” (Of course.)
I made a cup of coffee, drank it and brushed the coffee stains off my teeth.
Fifteen minutes later, he said, “Can you hold longer, please?”
I made a salad with lettuce, cheese, almonds, avocado, onions, red peppers, fresh ginger and a boiled egg. I poured a glass of red wine and began eating and drinking.
When stressed, eat and drink… in moderation. You must remain lucid.
Just as I put the last morsel in my mouth, he was back. “I can do this. IT explained it to me.”
We proceeded for another 40 minutes until, at last, the task was complete. We had stopped the daily payments.
I took another sip of wine in celebration.
You likely know what came next. He gave a lengthy description of what can happen when overpayments are made. That is, I cannot trust companies to return the money. He insisted I request investigations. He also made it abundantly clear an investigation was not fool proof. No one could force UME to return the money.
God, I hope I can rely on UME. I’m on the edge of losing $3,850.85!
I thanked him for this information, at which time he gently interrupted me and said I needed a debit card.
Blah, blah, blah. You recognize this part of the story by now.
Within three days, UME had returned the overpayments.
I finished the bottle of wine that evening, reminding myself of Maxwell’s quote.
“Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn.”
I’m not sure I won anything, but I didn’t actually lose anything… nothing tangible, that is.
As for the intangible, I lost patience, time, and confidence in my bank. The first bank representative didn’t walk me through the transfer process correctly. Furthermore, their “computer glitch” and initial lack of follow through to correct the transfer greatly diluted my faith in them.
Although, indeed it was corrected. That says something, I guess.
Yet, how crazy is it that they won’t accept a Portuguese governmental document confirming my address? Lordy!
Anyway, what did I learn?
Adapting to a new culture is harder than I expected.
I promise myself, in an effort to avoid miscommunication, I will ask the same questions over again, rephrasing each time. (The phrase “in an effort” is necessary because there are no assurances.)
Finally, I must check back to see if our verbal agreements were actually put into action.
Honestly, I have to admit, I doubt the fault lies solely with the bank. After all, I don’t speak Portuguese. (Not yet, that is!) This is a challenge for them, too.
That’s just one story. There are more: my iWatch fiasco, my covid tests missteps, trying to make an appointment with a rheumatologist, and, most important, searching for my beloved facial moisturizer!
The truth, as I see it, is every successful step I take to work through systems, however small, is a win.
I’m proud of myself for overcoming the trials and tribulations… without making enemies. That is extremely important. I need people to help me maneuver through the mazes to come.
And, I’m not above performing little and not-so-little happy dances all along the way.
As for my dear guitar, seven days ago I received an email from DHL shipping company confirming it was on its way! Similar to FedEx, the email said I could track the shipment in four hours.
As of this writing, I still cannot track the shipment.
Let’s see, with twenty-four hours in a day, that’s 168 hours and still counting.
Ah, but I’ve learned to embrace patience and faith to reach my goals and fulfill my dreams.
I feel certain this will be a win. I will get my guitar.