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The Why of It All
Why leave? Why Portugal? Why now?
I’ve been putting off this topic, although “Why” in all its variations is a question I (we) get asked on the regular since announcing our plans to move.
I don’t know why it’s hard to put it down in writing. Maybe because I’m afraid to look back at this post in a year or two and roll my eyes at my fluffy naiveté. Which is silly, because of course I don’t know everything.
In fact, the older I get, the more deeply I understand that the universe of what I don’t know is ever-expanding. And though Marido and I have been researching our brains out for the last nine months—reading articles and blogs and ex-pat forums and watching videos and asking all the questions we can think of—we are very aware of the gaps in our knowledge when it comes to Portugal and the EU and immigration.
For one thing, we haven’t yet set foot on Portuguese soil. Not even one small pinky toe. Sure, we’re well-traveled in general, so we understand a fair amount about most countries in the EU. We’ve talked to people—good friends and perfect strangers—and each of them say, “Oh my god, PORTUGAL. It’s my FAVORITE place in the world. You’re absolutely going to LOVE it there.”
They are probably right. I hope to heck they are right. But there was that time, shortly after I moved to California, when everyone I met was like, “Oh my god, you haven’t been to PORTLAND yet? You HAVE to go to Portland. It’s my FAVORITE city. You’re going to LOVE it there.”
I went to Portland. I did not love it there.
For whatever reason, Portland and I had no chemistry. We still have no chemistry (aside from Powell’s Books). Whatever it is that cities need to do to tickle my ivories and make me swoon—it just hasn’t happened with Portland and I.
Portugal is kind of like my mail-order bride. (Or maybe I am Portugal’s mail-order bride, since I’m doing the traveling.) Will I fall head over heels? I sure as hell hope so. But I absolutely understand that our mad scheme of buying a house and moving to Portugal 100% sight unseen is a massive risk.* So many things could go sideways.
So why do it at all?
I was raised to believe that, as an American, I lived in the best country in the world. For a long time, I didn’t see the irony in the way people who had never traveled outside the borders of the U.S. kept telling me it was the unequivocal BEST. I also didn’t understand how weird it was that there needed to be a “best” at all. Like there was some beauty pageant of nations, and the U.S. was the perpetual winner.
It wasn’t really until I was an adult and got myself a passport and began traveling that I gained an understanding of the wider world, and began to see the truth of our place in it, as Americans. I broadened my horizons, as they say. (Though they could still use more broadening. I hope I am chasing wider horizons until my dying day.)
I think everyone should leave their own country and visit as many others as they can. Not just cushy resorts in the Bahamas or pristine beaches in Thailand, either. I’ve been lucky enough to travel for work, which has taken me off the tourist track and into the homes and lives and routines and conversations of the people who live in far flung places. Australia. India. Japan. Scotland. Bolivia. Israel.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen amazing places and met great people on vacations, as well. But it’s the trips that weren’t just for fun that have gotten under my skin. Those trips have also made me aware of just how young and arrogant my country is. There’s something about standing amid the ruins of a Roman temple, or walking down the steps of an Indian well built in the 10th century that really brings that fact home.
Marido is a traveller, too. When we met in our twenties, he had already been around the globe. We share a certain wanderlust, and it’s taken us on some grand adventures together. We’ve talked, for years, about making a bigger commitment to this whole horizon-broadening thing.
For awhile we talked about house-swapping with someone in Amsterdam. Maybe they’d live in our house in San Francisco for a couple of years, and we’d live in theirs. Or maybe we’d get jobs teaching English and just leapfrog from country to country for a bit. We had lots of ideas and late-night conversations. But we didn’t do anything to make any of it happen.
And while we dithered, our roots in San Francisco burrowed deeper. We adopted a dog. Bought a home. Made a baby.
We took family vacations to Vietnam and Costa Rica. We stopped talking about moving away.
And then, in 2017, I was offered a creative director job at a company in Canada. In Vancouver, B.C.—the San Francisco of the Great White North.
Long story reduced to one small but heavy sentence: It all fell apart.
The job didn’t happen, for reasons that would fill a novella. But in our minds, a new door had opened. The possibility of an international move was suddenly very present, and more real than ever before.
I had been wrong—we didn’t need to be physicists or neurosurgeons. We were already skilled enough—and my resume was attractive enough—to make the leap. So long as we did it on the back of a job offer.
Canada has an intricate points system for immigration. It’s based on education, language skills (more points for Quebec-style French), work experience, and age. Being all old and washed up at 40-mumble years of age, Marido and I didn’t garner any points in that department. We thought we should win some bonus points for bringing a youngling into the country, but Canada doesn’t work like that.
Basically, in order to get enough points to be granted residency, I’d need to be sponsored by a company across the border. With tech booming in Vancouver, that possibility wasn’t at all far-fetched. So I began looking for other jobs there. We planned on making the move in the summer of 2022, when Filha finished elementary school.
Vancouver made a lot of sense. It’s not that far from San Francisco, and they don’t require French on the west coast. Maybe it wasn’t quite as large of a leap as we had once envisioned. Maybe we weren’t in love with Canada, per se. Still, it offered a different experience and a new perspective. We were ready to give it our best shot.
Then 2020 turned the world upside down.
It was July of 2020, and I was melting down in the upstairs bedroom of an Illinois farm house.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I sobbed. “I can’t do this.”
I wasn’t even sure, as I smeared tears across my swollen face, what exactly “this” even was.
In month #4 of the global pandemic, we spent 5 hot weeks with my parents on their farm in the northwest corner of Illinois. My mother, who was 77 at the time, had dementia. Has. She still has dementia. But the reality of watching her struggle with it every day, all day, for weeks, was just setting in for me.
Life had already become surreal since that day in early March when first my office and then Filha’s school shut down. Although I had always appreciated the occasional work-from-home day, nothing prepared me to work from home interminably, while at the same time trying to help Filha come to terms with “distance learning.” Marido, who works in live events, had lost all of his jobs for the forseeable future. All the weight of the income we needed to survive now rested on me.
And, as you all know, since we’ve been living with it for 14 months now, there was the ever-present, ambient anxiety of a novel virus that was infecting the entire world. Last July, it was still unfolding. We were reading news stories about refrigerated trucks full of bodies sitting outside hospitals in New York City. We didn’t know what was going on, or for how long it would continue.
It was all overwhelming.
Layer all of that on top of the daily heartache of my mom’s dementia, of losing her inch by awful inch, and you have a pretty good picture of my mental state that day in that wood-paneled bedroom.
It wasn’t just my mother’s dementia that was crushing me. It was my grandmother’s, my Nana’s. My mother was losing her mind, as did her mother before her. And there I stood, a generation behind them both, wondering if I was watching my own future.
“What if,” I asked myself, “what if I only have 20 or 30 more good brain years left? What if I lose myself at age 75? Is this life that I’m living right now the one that I want to live for whatever time I have left?”
The answer was, “No.”
This is what I told Marido as he sat on the orange shag carpet in my mother’s guest bedroom while I fell to pieces around him.
“Forget 2022,” I said, crumpling my 37th kleenex in my fist. “As soon as we get back to San Francisco, I am shifting my job search into high gear. We’ve got to go to Vancouver.”
He nodded and said, “I’m with you. We can do that. But… have you ever asked yourself, ‘Why Canada?’”
I was flummoxed. Because I hadn’t asked that question. Ever. Canada had been presented to me on a silver platter, garnished with a work visa and the promise of permanent residency. I took one look and said, “I’ll take it.”
But then when that particular platter disappeared, I kept the Canadian dream alive. It was easy. It made sense. It was *gestures toward northern border* right there.
“Why don’t we see what else is out there?” Marido suggested. “Why don’t we remove the limits and let the oceans be part of the equation? If we don’t have to go to Canada, why not somewhere across the Pacific, across the Atlantic? Why not somewhere else?”
Suddenly, hope hung between us, heavy with possibility.
My tears evaporated, and we started making a list of search criteria. It would be perfectly poetic if I had a photo to insert here of a crumpled sheet of paper, scrawled with hasty handwriting.
But we spoke the list into existence in that humid July bedroom.
It didn’t take long. We found we had been carrying it around inside of us for a very long time:
Safe. It needs to be a safe place.
A different pace of life. Slow and gentle.
It must be by the water—the ocean or the sea.
A different culture from our own. Let’s learn new customs. New languages. New ways of being in the world.
Temperate climate. No harsh winters.
Good school options for Filha.
Affordable. We don’t want to work as much.
Easily accessible: near a city with an international airport.
When we left that bedroom, it was with fresh determination. We didn’t know where we were going, but we knew we had changed our trajectory.
Marido went back outside. He was building a new chicken coop for my mom. I went to the cool of the basement to finish sorting through ancient containers growing hoarfrost and Lord knows what else in one of my mother’s three freezers.
That night, we reconvened. Marido came prepared with a new list—one of possible countries. Again, I wish I had a piece of paper to prove it. Or to help me remember, because I know it was short. There were maybe five countries on it. One of them was Costa Rica.
“I can’t be hot all the time, though,” I said. “I don’t think I can do Costa Rica.”
“Well, here’s another one,” Marido said. “This one came up a lot. It has everything on our list. How about Portugal?”
“Portugal,” I breathed. Fireworks went off in my brain.
“Have you ever been there?” he asked me.
“No,” I said, “have you?”
“Nope. I’ve been to Spain. But never Portugal.”
“I guess we’d better start researching,” I said. “But, can you imagine? Europe! We’d have access to the whole EU!”
“And Africa,” he said. “I mean, Morocco is right there.”
We spent the rest of the night on laptops, lobbing facts and photos and links back and forth. We started a google doc so we could keep track of everything we were finding. Within days it was dozens of pages long.
“We have to visit first,” I said. “Maybe we can fly to Lisbon at Christmas.” (I still didn’t completely understand the depth and breadth and of the whole Global Pandemic thing. Being locked within our U.S. borders was still a foreign concept.)
July. August. September. We researched and talked and questioned and researched some more.
In October, fully aware that we would NOT be flying to Lisbon—or anywhere—at Christmas, we decided to make the call.
“Is it crazy?” I asked Marido. “To move to a country we’ve never even visited?”
“No crazier than anything else that’s happened this year,” he said. “Let’s just say we’re going to do it, and start working on our visas, and making plans. If something comes up along the way to stop us, then we’ll re-evaluate. But if it all just keeps working out, then we’ll go.”
We pulled up the calendar, flipped to 2021, and laid our fingers on a move date: June 1.
The summer Filha was six, she participated in a lockdown drill. It was part of the schedule that day at camp, and Marido and I didn’t know about it ahead of time. She came home that afternoon and said, “Today we pretended there was a bad man with a gun, and we had to find places to hide.”
She started having nightmares about bad men with guns. When first grade began that August, she begged for a meeting with the principal. “We have fire drills, so I know what to do if there’s a fire,” she told him. “And we have earthquake drills. But my class hasn’t had a drill for the bad men with the guns. I need to know what to do. I need to know where to hide.”
When I was in first grade, my biggest concern was whether my mom had gotten the jelly-to-peanut-butter ratio right on the sandwich in my lunchbox. I never spared one thought for bad men with guns.
In second grade, the high school that sits next door to Filha’s elementary school had a bomb threat. The SWAT team swarmed her classroom. Her nightmares started again.
When COVID hit and the schools shut down, I found myself returning again and again to the thought: “At least with her home, I don’t have to worry about school shootings.”
Because I did worry. Every single time I have ever dropped her off at school, I have worried. I have imagined that this time, it’s our turn.
Gun violence isn’t the only reason we want to leave the United States. The list of things that break my heart about this country is long and deep. And maybe it looks like we’re running away, rather than staying to fight for the things we believe in most deeply.
But here’s the bald truth of it, for me: The United States is not the best place.
And while we’re at it: there is no singular “best.” My best is going to look quite different from your best. No matter where we go, no matter what our list of must-haves might include, there is no utopia. There is no perfection.
I am leaving simply because I have realized that this is not the only place I could live. I am leaving now because I want to give my daughter something different. And because I do not believe we have to stay where we started. I want my daughter to know this, too. I want her to know that this is not the only version of life available to her.
COVID turned our way of living upside down. Now we are pushing it allll the way over, to see where it will land.
The world is so vast, and none of us know how much time we get to spin around it. Whether I have 20 good brain years left, or 5, or 45, I want to live differently. I want to slow down. I want to speak a language other than my own, immerse myself in another culture. I want to learn and grow and explore and try and fail and do it again and again and again. For however much time I have left.
That is not all of the why we are leaving, but it is the why I have words for. The rest will come, in time.
*A further thought on that whole statement about our move being a “massive risk”: I also recognize the massive privilege in what we are doing. We are not being chased from our homes by war or famine. We are leaving because we want to. That is not something everyone can do, and it is not a decision—or a privilege—that I hold lightly.
A postscript with good timing
As I was wrapping up this post, a friend alerted Marido that our photo was running in Business Insider. A couple of months ago, a BI reporter saw my newsletter post about buying our house and asked if she could interview me. The story she wrote went live today.
You can read it here, if you like. Or, if you are not a subscriber, here’s a series of screenshots for a slightly jumpy (but completely free) reading experience:
Copyright © 2021 LaDonna Witmer