Reinventing as an Expat: from NYC to Lisbon via Mexico
With nothing tying us to the US, we fulfilled a lifelong dream to live abroad. Here's how we made it happen
You know what they say… “When one door closes, another opens.”
When I think about it, my whole life has been a series of doors and windows of opportunity opening and closing. Sometimes they were wide open and welcoming. Other times it was a struggle just to get my foot in the door. Sometimes a window cracked open for a moment of opportunity, and other times the door closed on a particular chapter of life.
And so it was in March of 2020 when COVID closed the door on all of us. Closed? More like SLAMMED. My husband and I had been living in New York City for seven years at the time. We loved the city but work dried up, the last of our two beloved dogs unexpectedly passed away, and the glamorous life of NYC felt anything but. In fact, it was downright awful, and scary at times. There was less and less reason to stay in the city; it was becoming claustrophobic.
Over the years Jerry and I had talked about living abroad. Why not? It sounded exciting. Sometimes on snowy days we would curl up on the sofa and get lost in an issue of International Living magazine. “If we could go anywhere, where would we want to live?” It seemed like the choices were endless, so we came up with a short list of “must haves,” which narrowed the search immensely.
- City Life: A safe, walkable city with excellent transportation
- Culture: A diverse community with an abundance of the arts, fashion, food, and music
- Climate: Not super hot or tropical
- Wellness: Good healthcare and lower cost of living
- Language: A place we could function in English or Spanish initially
With nothing tying us down, we realized life was too short to put our dreams on hold, and so we decided to try living abroad. There was just one little obstacle though…the world closed its doors to Americans. Neither of our top two choices, Portugal nor Uruguay, were accepting visa applications. But we did find out that Americans could go to Mexico, a place we had been to many times and enjoyed.
We decided to head south to Mexico until we could get into Portugal. So many questions were swirling around my head. “Would we be able to get a residency permit? Would they suddenly close the borders?” We were lucky to get one of the few appointments available at the Mexican Consulate. With nothing but time on my hands I spent hours pulling together all the documentation needed, and 10 days later we brought a stack of paperwork to our appointment. So far, so good. If approved, we would hear back relatively soon. Sure enough, a few weeks later an email arrived telling us to come back to the consulate to pick up our visas. This was really happening.
From this point, it was game on. We planned on having one month to wrap things up in New York City and move to Mexico. We had a sneaking hunch we might have to stay there for six months to a year until the Portuguese Consulate resumed accepting applications. Lucky for us, our tiny one-bedroom apartment proved to be a blessing in disguise — we did not own much to begin with. After selling and donating most of our belongings, we kept only what we truly loved. Our entire life was condensed down to a compact 6’x6’ crate that would sit in storage on Coney Island until we were ready to relocate to Portugal. Owning fewer possessions was critical to giving us the liberty to move unencumbered. It felt like a new beginning!
The Journey Begins
Once we arrived in Mexico, a wave of emotions hit us. Relief. Joy. Excitement. We were now officially living abroad. We settled into a cozy condo in Los Cabos, a beautiful town at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. The town was safe and had miles of pristine sunny beaches, open-air restaurants, and all the amenities needed for daily life. Mexico turned out to be a perfect “starter kit” of expat life, easing us into this new way of living. Many things were familiar as an American, but my lack of Spanish at the time made setting up utilities, finishing the residency process and other tasks much more difficult. While most people in the service industry spoke English, outside of that circle they spoke very little, if any. It was a wonderful opportunity to become immersed in Spanish, and my language skills improved quickly.
Jerry and I were excited to embrace Mexican culture, so we found a residential community consisting of mainly middle class working Mexican families. The neighborhood was higher in the foothills, with beautiful ocean views and surrounded by towering saguaro cacti and palm trees. Every morning we would have coffee on the terrace while our friendly neighbors passed by and greeted us with a warm “hola.” Everyone we met was very friendly and genuine. Each day we looked forward to seeing them pass by with their furry friends, as well as a happy-go-lucky street dog we affectionately nicknamed LBD (little black dog). He was always on a mission, roaming the area by day, saying hello to all, and returning to his home at night. He quickly became a favorite of ours. LBD was not the only one roaming; there was a small herd of cows who ventured in and out of the community with their bells softly clanging as they passed by. On occasion I was able to walk through the desert arroyos with them, and they didn’t seem to mind the company.
Life was tranquil in Mexico, but we looked forward to getting to Lisbon and discovering our new home. I checked the consulate every day to see if they were open, but to no avail. Until one day, poof. The Portuguese consulate was accepting visa applications. Finally! Another window of opportunity had cracked open.
Bogged Down in the Details
Applying for residency in Portugal was a more complex process than it had been for Mexico. It involved more paperwork, getting a NIF tax number, an overseas bank account, securing a one-year apartment rental, and more. One unforeseen obstacle arose when the FBI informed me that they could not produce my criminal report due to my almost nonexistent fingerprints. WHAT? I panicked. No report meant no visa. Apparently, when you are older, fingerprints can be harder to read due to lack of elasticity in the skin. Who knew? It took $200 and the help of a criminologist named Raul to provide me with five new sets of fingerprints to resubmit to the FBI. To increase the chances of success, I followed the advice of an online article, which suggested drinking plenty of water a few days before and moisturizing your fingers constantly to plump up the skin. It worked, and the prints were accepted!
To sum up the visa process, it’s a waiting game. Patience is key, criteria can change, or things get delayed without notice. Remember, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Most Americans work with VFS Global, a facilitator that handles the paperwork processing for many countries. It pays to be meticulously detailed and precise with the paperwork. Despite the setbacks, a few months later we were approved for our D7 visa, which allowed us to apply for temporary residency in Portugal. One last hurdle was still ahead of us: getting our official residency status with an appointment at the Immigration office in Lisbon.
On April 18, 2021, we arrived at Humberto Delgado airport at 7 AM after a 6-hour red eye with over 300 pounds worth of luggage in tow. We had bags in our carts and bags under our eyes from no sleep, but we were in Portugal! We came to Lisbon sight unseen but knew it had to be nice. After all, it’s Europe. Lisbon is known for its charming cafes, adorable old trolleys, incredible history, beautiful architecture, and resemblance to San Francisco.
Did I mention the hills? They are steep and plentiful! I was getting into great shape living here, but sadly almost all of my beautiful NY shoes remained in their boxes, never setting foot onto the slippery cobblestones.
We rented a beautiful, sunny apartment with the assistance of a fantastic agent who streamlined the process by handpicking properties and navigating the complex Portuguese rental contracts. Robyn’s services were invaluable and worth every euro. Our neighborhood has a bohemian feel and is a melting pot of cultures, reminiscent of Brooklyn with its artists, quaint cafes, cozy wine bars, vibrant murals, and chill vibe. Built in the 1920s, the apartment came with high ceilings, beautiful French doors, stunning moldings, and a rare commodity: a dryer. One of the first things I noticed in Portugal was all the laundry hanging from the buildings.The second thing was the smell of grilled sardines in the air. When apartment hunting, I asked Robyn why none of the apartments had dryers, and I soon found out this is due to energy savings and bright sunshine, which means everything dries super-fast. I now find myself hanging laundry out to dry. Like a local.
It’s fair to say that Americans are used to big things. Big cars, big houses, big appliances, mega-stores, big plates of food, and so on. In Europe things tend to be smaller, more efficient, and environmentally conscious, which was a bit of a transition. For instance, my refrigerator is about the size of a dorm fridge. The oven…. let’s say it is bigger than an” Easy Bake Oven,” but there will be no 20-pound holiday turkey roasting in there. The eco mode on the dishwasher and washing machine takes over three hours. I confess, I do miss the convenience of having things delivered as well as having a doorman in the building — NYC spoils you in that way. However, it appears I have been appointed the building doorman by one bossy neighbor cat, Piou. He often waits outside the building for me to let him in or howls in the stairway to be let into my apartment, and then goes out the back door to the garden. He has little regard for humans, but we have an understanding.
It has been easy to adjust to the lifestyle. Life moves at a slower pace and some things (well, a lot of things) take longer, like getting groceries. This sometimes involves several stops in my neighborhood… the fish market, the butcher, the bakery, produce market, and general market. The proprietors now know me and are patient with my bad Portuguese and attempts at charades, which seem to put a smile on their face. Most everyone speaks English and if they don’t they will find somebody to help you. Lisbonites are some of the kindest people I have ever met.
The best part of living here has been meeting our wonderful neighbors, an eclectic mix of creatives from Lisbon, elsewhere in Europe, and the UK. We are like family and get together often. Our backyard comes to life in the spring, and gatherings occur on a regular basis. Everyone brings sumptuous food down to the garden along with plenty of wine. Once the sun sets it looks magical with all the twinkle lights and Aurore gets the party started as she dances around with a mini ’80s-style boombox to her ear. She is one free spirit. Nico, her tech-savvy husband, has managed to Jerry-rig a pretty good speaker system for us outside so the dancing goes on. Everyone here tends to stay up late and the food and wine just keeps coming. No one is in a hurry nor are cell phones present, and even the children hang out well into the evening. It is a nice way to live; it feels very normal and stress-free. The way life should be, the way it used to be.
It’s been two years since we moved to Lisbon. Many visitors have passed through, we made new friends, explored nearby countries, and I even started a new business with another New Yorker who moved here around the same time. After much research and work we launched Dental Destinations Portugal, a concierge service for Americans seeking high quality, affordable dental care while enjoying a fabulous holiday. Mimi and I discovered that health- and dental-care is fantastic in Portugal, and incredibly reasonable. In fact it ranks 13th worldwide. It was another one of those doors that opened up to a new chapter.
So was it all worth it? Does expat life live up to our expectations? Overall, yes. It has been a great experience and I wouldn’t move back to the US even though I occasionally feel homesick for NYC. However, while Lisbon is charming, we miss big-city life and discovered it is not quite the right fit for us. Our final move will be to Paris, which feels like home. It will be exciting to start a new chapter in this beautiful city, and I cannot wait for the adventures it will bring.
Looking back, COVID was the catalyst needed to make a change. It closed the door on an old chapter, but also opened up a new one. So, if you’re feeling stuck or unsure about your next move, remember that sometimes a closed door is just an opportunity for a new path. And who knows? It might lead you to a whole new world of possibilities.
It can be a complex and challenging process to reinvent yourself abroad, one that requires careful planning and preparation. Here are some general steps you might need to consider:
- Research: Before moving to another country, it’s essential to research the country’s culture, language, economy, job market, housing, healthcare system, and immigration laws. You can gather information from government websites, social media, forums, Facebook groups, and books. International Living’s website is a helpful resource.
- Visa and Immigration Requirements: You’ll need to become intimately aware of visa and immigration requirements of the country to which you want to move. You may need a visa, work permit, or residency permit to legally stay in the country. Each country has its own immigration rules, so it’s crucial to understand them and apply for the appropriate documents in advance.
- Finances: Consider the cost of living in the country to which you want to move. Make sure you have enough savings to cover your expenses, including accommodation, food, transportation, healthcare, and taxes. You will need to establish a bank account in your new country and convert your currency to the local currency.
- Employment: Look for job opportunities in the country to which you want to move. You can search for jobs online or contact recruitment agencies. If you have a job offer, make sure it meets the visa and immigration requirements.
- Housing: Finding a place to live in the country to which you want to move may be difficult and may require an initial scouting trip. You can look for accommodations online or hire a real estate agency to help you learn the neighborhoods.
- Transport: Do you need a car or will you use public transportation? Find out about driver’s license requirements before leaving your home country.
- Health: Make sure you have adequate health insurance in the new country. Learn about the healthcare system and find a doctor or clinic that can provide medical care if needed.
- Education: If you have children, get to know the education system and find a school that meets your needs.
- Pets: Understand vaccinations and documentation required for your new country. Also check airline requirements in order to bring your pets abroad.
- Culture: Be open-minded and willing to learn about the new culture. Respect the customs, traditions, and laws of the country to which you are moving.