3 Unexpected Ways Moving Abroad Can Change You in Midlife

As we welcome December, I’m reflecting on what will soon be nine weeks as an immigrant in my new home in Portugal. My midlife move has exceeded all my expectations, and every day I’m in awe of this new reality.

Life here as a solo expat retiree has a different rhythm to it, even as I’m still figuring out my own cadence in a day-to-day routine that works for me. Not only is life different — which I expected — but I’ve noticed I’m becoming different too, in three unexpected ways.

TRUST

I am not a trusting person. My default setting is to rigorously question motive, intent, and process whenever anyone does anything remotely resembling “nice” for me. I assume there’s a backstory I’m not privy to — or I create one in my head — that’s fueling surface acts of kindness, assistance, or interest. I know. Now’s when you’re all thinking, “How can this peach of a gal still be single?” The number-one most important requirement for any kind of fulfilling relationship, romantic or otherwise, and I don’t have it. I can’t do it, because we all filter our interactions through a sieve of past experiences, and my sieve is caked with muck I’ve let accumulate.

Until now.

The unexpected — no, shocking — kindness of strangers here in Portugal is causing me to start to believe people can be good for no reason other than pure altruism. I’ve noticed I’m questioning less and accepting more when it comes to good deeds proffered. Part of my questioning is rooted in a belief I’m not worthy of kind generosity. I get that. So maybe I’m not only beginning to believe in the goodness of people, but also in the goodness of me. That’s a double whammy I wasn’t expecting. Trust the goodness of others and trust in my own goodness? It took moving to a foreign country for me to even get close to that, and I didn’t see it coming.

PATIENCE

For as long as I can remember, all the way back to elementary school, my mother has remarked on my lack of patience. “You just have no patience, Natalie. You need to learn to be patient.” I was an impatient little girl with no time for slow people, stupid answers, and things that didn’t work as I wanted them to. I grew into an impatient midlife woman with no time for slow people, stupid answers, and things that don’t work as I want them to.

Here in Portugal, things do not move quickly. Folks are relaxed about getting stuff done. Businesses shut down every day from 1-3PM daily for lunch. In my first 8+ weeks here there have been four holidays when business ceased for the day. Taxis and deliveries do not arrive on time. I spent an hour-and-a-half sitting with a gas company employee trying to get the account for my home switched to my name. Yes, 90 minutes — not waiting to be seen, but actively meeting with an employee whose job is to switch accounts. I’ve learned to only plan to get one thing done a day that requires external involvement. Then go home, have a cup of tea glass of wine, and gaze out at the ocean in gratitude. There is absolutely no choice but to be patient here. Cheers!

VULNERABILITY

Asking for help is something I’ve long struggled with, much like a man stopping to ask for directions (or consult Google Maps or a GPS system) while driving. A lot of it for me is not wanting to bother people. But I also don’t want to risk rejection, look stupid, or worse, vulnerable.

It was one thing to ask my young students to help me as a teaching and learning tool. It’s another to go to an adult and ask them to help me. If it didn’t involve killing a spider, I wasn’t keen on asking for help. When I was packing up my house to move, I got pissy with the man I’d been seeing for nearly a year because he hadn’t offered to help me. He was surprised and annoyed. “What? I didn’t know you needed help! Why didn’t you say anything? I thought you had everything taken care of like you usually do. I didn’t think you wanted help — you’re so independent. I’d be happy to help you any time! You should’ve asked me!” (Yeah…so, there’s another whole article I’ve drafted on the dumb ways we test loved ones. More on that later.)

My first two weeks in Portugal people seemed to come out of the woodwork with offers of assistance. My immense gratitude, need, and relief soon outweighed my discomfort at accepting their proactive offers of help. It was another month, though, before I noticed I’d become significantly better at actually asking people for help — like a ride to town in the rain — before they offered. This independence BS is overrated.


I’m not going to go as far as saying I’m becoming a better version of me. Nah. There’s a lot more stuff I need to work on. Hell, some of my many flaws may have even gotten worse. Oh well. But if you find yourself struggling with being patient, trusting, and vulnerable, maybe getting out of your comfort zone and living in a foreign country could be the reset you need.


** DISCLAIMER **

OK, never mind all the bullshit I wrote above. Since this post was written, my family has been dealing with a health emergency. My mother was hospitalized for possible stroke symptoms. All tests have come back normal for a 90-year-old, though. She is doing well and expected to go home soon, after four days of being an uncooperative patient. This incident proved to me the personal changes I outlined above only apply when I’m dealing with Portuguese people. Some family members — and some other Americans — can still get on my last nerve.

Hats off to my amazing son, who’s dealt with everything I’d normally handle with an impressive level of skill and diplomacy he certainly didn’t inherit from me. I’ve spoken to my mother every day, messaged her doctor, and checked her online medical record for real-time test results three times a day. Her home aide and my sister are there. I am not flying home at this point. I’m a nicer person here in my new home.

Source: fuckologyofficial

One thing that hasn’t changed at all is my goal to NGAF. I highly recommend it and intend to keep practicing it as much as possible.

Thank you 50 Forward Club
for the profile feature!

November’s planned Midlife Expat Learning post on food and shopping will be combined with December’s Christmas in Portugal article for my last MEL post of the year. Thank you for reading!

Midlife Expat Learning Posts

February: Residency visa requirements

March: Finding housing in Portugal

April: Taxes & money in Portugal

May: World Portuguese Language Day

June: Healthcare in Portugal (postponed). See Cutting expenses to move abroad

July: Voting as an expat

August: Visa application timeline and expenses

September/October: Moving, meeting folks, making friends

November/December: Food, shopping, Christmas in Portugal


All images are my own.

The Hot Goddess

Instagram: retired_rewired_inspired


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50 comments

  1. Lol! I love this! (Except for the part about your mom, I was sorry to hear that.) Change has its own time-line and we can become experts in one area of life and totally suck at another.

    Sending blessings and hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a joy to read, Natalie. I love that you’re finding your new home so welcoming and friendly. I think you’d find something similar here in the Maritimes in eastern Canada, but definitely not the weather! But I do think that living in a place that’s generally friendly and accepting in all things make us kinder and more open as individuals. More trusting. This life change you’ve chosen just gets better and better! Very sorry to hear about your mother, but it’s important that you were able to learn that others can step up.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, Jane! 💜 Yes, exactly. Living where friendliness and acceptance is the norm is truly transformative. And thank you for commenting about others stepping up. You’re right…I needed to learn that others can and will step up. Thank you dear Jane!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can so relate to this. I think North Americans in general are untrusting, impatient and independent. Our communities are not set up to work as a unit. It is usually everyone for themselves. In Europe, communities have a long long shared history that we, with only a couple of hundred independent years under our belt, have little understanding of. Enjoy the new you even if she only exists in Portugal.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is awesome. Love it. You’ve hit on my three biggest concerns about living abroad in retirement and it’s so interesting to see how things have worked out for you. So happy for you. I would love to think that I would become much more patient. Ahhh, what a wonderful thought, but something tells me that it wouldn’t be the case for me! If I had to wait 90 min with a gas company employee, something tells me I would not be talking so lovingly about the experience. Ha, ha. Glad to hear that it’s going well. You give me hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am not a patient person either, Natalie and I have been working on this FOR YEARS. I am also what apparently is called “hyper independent”. I saw a meme recently about how hyper independence is a trauma response. I told my clinician daughter about this and said “yeah, well how about it’s a natural response to being continually disappointed/betrayed/left on your own!?” And she said “you realize that IS traumatic, right?” Ummm…I do now 🤣

    I think you are doing just great. I have learned through travel that I find out much more about my self and the culture I was raised in when I experience a new one.

    Cheers,

    Deb

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Deb, thank you for this! ❤️ Wow. Hyper independence and trauma. I’d never thought of that but it makes so much sense and explains a lot about me too.
      I agree about travel teaching us about ourselves through learning about other cultures. That’s why I love it so much. Thank you for making me think. 🤗💜

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m glad that your new home and neighbors bring out the best in you Natalie. Sometimes, a new environment/ adventure/travel can help us see the world anew. It’s wonderful how your son is stepping up. I hope your mom is healing. Hugs…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a brilliant article, Natalie! Trust, patience and vulnerability… these are huge steps. And especially this “Trust the goodness of others and trust in my own goodness?” Keep opening your heart, there is still so much goodness in the world!

    ps. I’m glad your mom is doing well after having been hospitalized. How wonderful your son was able to step in and deal with everything you’d normally handle. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your heart-warming words, Khaya! ❤️ I wish I could say I’m making huge steps, but it’s more like baby steps forward followed by a jump back 😁. But that’s the nature of change, right? You are a beautiful example of all the goodness in the world. Thank you for your well wishes to my mother 🤗

      Like

  8. Trust, patience and vulnerability? Geez, those are three things I badly need. I hope my family takes it well when I tell them I need to move… 🙂

    But in all seriousness, Natalie, this is such an inspiring and heartening read. You are breaking the mold of life and it’s beautiful to see the amazing free-form spirit of this next you emerge.

    Glad to hear your mother and son are doing so well navigating the other ups and downs of life!! Sending big love to you!! ❤ ❤ ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Wynne, thank you so much for your kind words ❤️! I’d say you are light-years ahead of me in all three of those. 😊 Here’s hoping the next me gets it right…or a little more right. My mother is happy to be home, my son is happy to be back in his home, and I am happy to be here. 😁 Thank you for the love…sending the same your way. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

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