My year in Portugal
Living abroad as an author during the Covid-19 pandemic
In 2019, I decided to run away to Portugal to live out my romantic dream of being a writer in Europe.
I had enough money saved up, a little bit of income from the book I had already published, and I had just been made redundant from my full-time office job. I was feeling disillusioned with the 9-5 working life and the get up, go to work, come home, go to bed, rinse and repeat cycle. I needed a change of pace and scene. My boyfriend was also on board with moving overseas. But where?
After a lot of research, we chose Portugal because it seemed like a good balance between high quality of life and low cost of living. The culture, food, art, architecture and language appealed to me.
This was my plan: come up with a shortlist of cities in Portugal, spend a month or two travelling around them, then pick the place we liked the most to become our home base. From there, we would travel around Portugal and visit other European countries whenever the mood struck.
We got youth mobility visas, which allowed us to stay in Portugal for one year. We packed up our lives. And in late 2019, we left Auckland, had a holiday in Seoul, then arrived in Lisbon.
Our shortlisted locations were Évora, Coimbra, Braga, Guimarães, Vila Nova de Gaia, Tomar, and Amarante. We deemed Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve too expensive, so they didn’t make the cut.
Out of all the places we visited, I fell the hardest for Amarante—a picturesque little town in northern Portugal. But ultimately, we decided on Braga for practicality reasons—good connections with Porto and Lisbon by train, a decent size population, and all the amenities we could need.
We booked an Airbnb for a month in Braga to stay while we searched for a longer-term rental. But just a few days into our stay, we found a place—a furnished two-bedroom apartment in the same neighbourhood as the Airbnb, about twenty-five minutes walking distance from the centre of town. It wasn’t perfect, but it ticked most of the boxes.
Once we had moved in to our apartment, we started Portuguese lessons at the University of Minho. I think we attended two lessons on campus before Covid hit.
We had only just started settling in when the NZ government asked all citizens to return to New Zealand. But by that point, it was too late. All the flights home had dried up. Even if we had wanted to come back, we couldn’t. We had no choice but to stay in Portugal.
Covid derailed our plans to travel around Europe. We had to take our Portuguese lessons online instead of in-person, and because of isolation we didn’t really get to immerse ourselves in the Portuguese culture and language like we had wanted.
On the plus side, I got a lot of writing done. If it wasn’t for Covid, I doubt I would have been able to publish two novels in 2020 like I did.
In spite of it all, I really enjoyed living in Portugal. I loved the pretty walkway between my neighbourhood and the centre of Braga, the view from Bom Jesus do Monte, eating pasteis de nata and bifanas, travelling the country by train, our little holiday to Sintra and Tavira during a lull in the pandemic, the warm and friendly locals.
I didn’t love: The bureaucracy and the cash reliance and general inconvenience of everything. Our landlord came to physically collect our rent in cash every month. I had to pay my bills at a convenience store because I didn’t have a Portuguese bank account to use the Multibanco system (and I couldn’t get a Portuguese bank account because I didn’t have valid proof of employment).
Things I missed from New Zealand: salt and vinegar chips, meat pies, fish and chips. Being able to speak English all the time. Seeing my family.
At the end of our one-year stay, getting back to New Zealand was a major ordeal. There was a lot of drama over whether we would need negative covid tests, flight changes, having to book mandatory quarantine, and a new curfew in Portugal which meant our train to Lisbon got cancelled and we had to drop everything to leave one day early so we wouldn’t miss our flight.
Getting back to New Zealand was a relief in the end, because pretty soon it became nearly impossible to get through the NZ border. We were lucky to have made it over when we did.
The whole experience has rattled me. Before this pandemic, I never could have imagined a situation where New Zealand citizens would become locked out of their own country. I keep thinking, what if something had happened to a family member while I was overseas, and I couldn’t get back? I would have been beside myself.
The world is opening up again, but my lust for international travel and living abroad has depleted.
I’d still like to visit Japan, return to South Korea, and do a train journey around the UK, but I think it’s going to take some time before I’m ready to leave New Zealand again.