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I Became an Expat in the Middle of the Pandemic—It Was a Lot Easier Than I Thought

An American ex-pat shares her story of moving to Europe during a pandemic.

Wanderlust is the reason we all travel, right? We daydream about jet setting to some far-flung island and savoring the best cuisine like a local. And if you’re anything like me, you build out a Pinterest board and watch travel-focused YouTube videos as if you’re planning the most Instagram-worthy trip with stops to cafes and restaurants that would make your friends back home swoon. But, you don’t take that trip that you thoroughly outlined on your social media mood board. You cancel all your trips, you begin stockpiling disinfectant wipes, you buy toilet paper in bulk, and probably work from your living room in your pajamas for months with no end in sight.

That was my (and your) reality for much of the past year. With the emergence of the coronavirus and subsequent confinement and lockdowns, social distance became a part of our everyday lives.

But travel is my way to learn about and connect with others. I’ve always booked a flight to a new city or country. I’ve crisscrossed the globe in search of connection and respite. And found both in every place I’ve had the privilege to experience, whether that was tapas in Spain, tacos in Mexico, conservas in Portugal, duck confit in France, raclette in Switzerland, stewed meat with rice and beans in Haiti, poffertjes in the Netherlands, matapa in Mozambique, seafood in Tanzania, fish and chips in England, or carbonara in Italy–all memorable souvenirs that have made an indelible mark on my heart. On my first trip to Lisbon, I explored the food culture here and the slow pace of life grew on me. I got a chance to see Lisbon’s beauty on the many walks I took that trip in 2018. I knew then that I wanted to move abroad in the future. And possibly move here.

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Lisbon, Portugal trabantos/Shutterstock

According to the State Department, 8.7 million Americans live abroad. There was an uptick in Americans who voluntarily left the United States for reasons known only to them. But the leading factor for me, and I imagine for other American ex-pats, is a desire for a better quality of life. And Portugal seemed to be handling the pandemic decently. 

In June 2020, I made the decision that I would spend the summer researching graduate programs in Lisbon. I eventually found a two-year program and spent the month of August getting my paperwork together: bank statements, copies of my college transcript, FBI background check, fingerprints, copy of my acceptance letter, copy of a minimum six-month rental agreement, health and immunization records, and–last but not least–a negative COVID-19 PCR test valid only with a 72-hour window.

This visa process gave me a taste of what my parents experienced when they emigrated from Haiti to Miami in the ‘80s. I spent many nights reading ex-pat blogs, as well as the Portuguese Consulate and U.S. State Department’s sites checking off my long to-do list. I submitted all my paperwork in mid-August and waited to hear back from the Portuguese Consulate. The second Tuesday in September, I got the call I’d worked so hard for: my visa was approved! I was really moving to Portugal in the middle of a pandemic.

1. Lisbon’s famous tramwayNella/Shutterstock; 2. Outdoor dining in Lisbon; August 2020Alexandre Rotenberg/Shutterstock;

Now I had to prepare my family. It was emotionally difficult but I knew I had to move on and pursue this goal I had talked about for years. Though I arrived in Lisbon in the fall, I returned home to Boston to get the rest of my belongings in December, as I don’t expect to return to the States for a while unless it is to visit with family when it is safe to do so.

When I first got to Lisbon, I found a pod of three friends who were also ex-pats and I’ve spent time with them since moving here. I am grateful for their friendship during this time, especially as our movement has been restricted in recent months. In February 2021, the Portuguese government implemented lockdown measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus which meant restaurants were closed for indoor dining and all non-essential businesses were shuttered. As of the writing of this article, the lockdown has been extended through the month of March. During this time, I have attended class via Zoom and kept myself entertained by trying new recipes for a cookbook I am writing and practicing my Portuguese with my grocer (much to his amusement).

I have international traveler’s insurance and have applied for local health coverage in Lisbon. I did a great deal of research and asked other ex-pats once I arrived in Portugal about how they managed the systems here, like obtaining a tax number, health insurance, and residency.

I currently live in Lisbon in a 19th-century style apartment building with just enough European charm and modern amenities–like an elevator and central air–to keep me content. I rely heavily on Google translate or ask if the person speaks English or Spanish; I sometimes have success in these scenarios. I am currently in a two-year Culture Studies Masters program with a focus on Management of Arts and Culture. I intend to start a nonprofit where I inspire youth from Boston and other cities across the U.S. to forge real relationships via travel and community building. As an alum of Upward Bound, I am grateful for all the trips I enjoyed during my summers in high school. I want to pay it forward by creating access to the arts and travel.

1. Apartment exterior in LisbonRadu Bercan/Shutterstock; 2. Apartment balcony across from the Castelo de S. Jorge Castle in LisbonSun_Shine/Shutterstock;

I plan to remain in Lisbon when my program is complete and find work or start my own business here. Lisbon is a fantastic place for creatives and building a network of artists who are open to collaboration. I am eager to experience the Lisbon I knew from a few years ago–one not in lockdown–but am appreciative of the opportunities this move during a pandemic has brought me: more self-confidence, the ability to step outside of my comfort zone, and the chance to be more proactive in reaching my goals.

erinwalsh9935 May 4, 2021

Hi! Thank you for this post! I'm a college student in the US and I'm deciding if I want to study abroad next semester in Portugal while the pandemic is going on. (nervous that Portugal will be more shut down than the US) Is there any chance you would be willing to talk to me about your experience? If so, please shoot me an email at [email protected]

MarkReesUK March 2, 2021

I envy you the move and wish you the best luck.

How did you deal with the US tax issue where you have to declare all your overseas income on your US tax return? Did you find that double-taxation was a problem?

caseylight March 2, 2021

We hosted a young woman from Lisbon for a school year in 2009. She is now 27 and a newly minted attorney. If you'd like to network with a local who was a temporary expat to the US please reach out and I'm happy to connect you. Intercultural experiences enrich and are life changing. Kudos to you for making the leap! I can be found on twitter @barbara_L_casey

cheeseguyventura March 1, 2021

Thanks so much for sharing. My gf and I had planned to visit last year. we'll be there this summer for sure. bon manje

johnhendricks8654 February 26, 2021

That sounds wonderful!  Portugal has been on my travel list for quite some time.  Good for you to act on your dreams!  Not enough people do that.