Who are you?
My name is Joy Hanford. I am a Midwestern American. I am a children’s book author, an artist, a writer and a blogger. I am a wife and mother and a friend. I love to laugh, read and tell stories, pop and eat endless bowls of popcorn, travel and live my best life.Where, when and why did you move abroad?
I moved to Portugal, my husband’s home country, in the fall of 2010. We began in Setúbal, Portugal about 45 minutes south of Lisbon and four years ago we moved to the north of Portugal where my husband accepted a job at the University of Minho. We now live in beautiful, historic Guimarães.
What challenges did you face during the move?
We moved to Portugal with six suitcases and a three year old. I choose to rehome my then 13 year old rescue dog which was traumatic for me. I was able to find him his best home and going from wide open green spaces with lots of freedom to a sixth-floor apartment with a crippling fear of tight spaces (due to previous abuse) would have been too much for him.
I also moved to Portugal with no Portuguese and my husband commuted to Lisbon for the first two years so it was a lot of studying and taking the dictionary to the grocery store. Portuguese youth and my peers are all taught English in schools and for the most part are all bilingual, but where I was living was a commuter area so those who stayed in Setúbal during the day were of an older generation and didn’t speak or weren’t willing to speak English. This pushed me to learn Portuguese and speak it as best I could while learning from my mistakes. It took me almost a year to realize I was confusing the words constipated and congested, which was bit of a shock when I figured out how I had been telling my neighbors I was feeling when they asked me about my constant cold.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Guimarães is a college town and we have many students here from all over the world but mostly for short periods or Erasmus. There are some in my area, but mostly the larger expat communities are in Porto or when I was living in the south they were in Lisbon. Guimarães is a very popular tourist day trip from Porto so in the summer months you can hear every language spoken on the streets and my community is very open and welcoming to any and all people. The Vimaranenses, what you call someone from Guimarães, are very proud of their home and are honored when tourists and foreigners visit or chose to live here and admire and appreciate all Guimarães has to offer.
What do you like about life where you are?
I have yet to find somewhere to replace all I love about Portugal. The food, the sights, the sea, the people! I love where I live. Guimarães is a beautiful city. I pinch myself that I actually live here. I am very fortunate to travel Portugal tip to tail every year and it is hard to pick a favorite place. I am so fond of everywhere I visit, but I love our region, Minho. The people are so friendly and there is so much to see and do here so many places to visit and cakes and castles to sample. It is rare that we are home on the weekend, we are always dashing about seeing something new.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
I miss not seeing the children of my friends and family back home grow. I hate blinking and they are a few years older. I miss my family. I dislike how expensive plane tickets are and that I have to wait a few years in between visits. I dislike the distance between my two countries.
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
Portuguese, although materialistic, don’t sacrifice time for things. Here you live with less to have more time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life: Meeting friends for drinks, long holidays, weekends filled with cafés and family lunches, lazy afternoons on the beach. My American experience was the opposite: work now, play later. Portugal has a better balance to this idea: Work to live, but don’t live to work.
There is also a very different cultural attitude around illness. I have two chronic illnesses: Rheumatoid Arthritis and Ankylosing Spondylitis and I spend a great deal of my time seeing doctors and maintaining my health. It took me a good two years and a septic gallbladder to learn that in Portugal you have to show you are in pain as much as you say you are in pain. With my American sensibilities I want to handle every medical experience with calm decorum, but I have learned that if I only say how I am feeling and not show outwardly how I am feeling I will not be taken as seriously as was the case of my gallbladder, five years ago, when I kept being sent home from the emergency room because I was obviously not an emergency case seeing as I was so calm and couldn’t be in the amount of pain I said I was in otherwise I would be truly suffering. I have learned my lesson and although it is hard for me to get emotional, wincing or crying when being examined I now understand it is cultural and what my Portuguese doctors need to accurately understand my pain levels.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Write it all down. I can’t give any other universal advice other than that because all expat experiences are different, but writing it all down is paramount to understanding the difference between day three and year six. Navigating a new culture and often a new language is mentally draining and you will hit a wall eventually no matter how much support you have. By writing a daily journal you record all that you have accomplished to look back on when you are bruised from hitting the wall. You will forget so many little accomplishments that all add up to a great deal of comfort and understanding.
Also, don’t isolate yourself. It would have been much easier for me to sit alone in my apartment working while my son was at school, but instead every day I bought a newspaper and read it in the same café with my dictionary while having a coffee in my neighborhood and I met and made so many friends who helped me, pantomimed, protected and provided the support and understanding that made my days richer. It is easier to isolate yourself and not try for fear of making mistakes, and this isn’t just with language acquisition, but in general. Punch fear in the face and do it anyway.
What are your plans for the future?
Keep as well as possible while working, writing, blogging, raising my kids and loving my husband in beautiful Portugal. In Portugal I have affordable access to some of the best healthcare in the world. We are so very lucky to have the opportunity to live here and raise our children here. We are truly grateful for our community and the friendly, small town nature of Guimarães. I get to ask my kids if they want to play at the park or at the castle after sitting and lazily reading in a café for hours on a Sunday afternoon. I am lucky that my work lets me live anywhere and as much as I love my Midwestern home I choose here. America is my country, but Guimarães is my hometown.
You can keep up to date with Joy's adventures on her blog, Conversations With Hank.