Nearly two and a half months have passed since our last update on Covid and our new lives in Portugal. Both a lot and very little has changed.
Our two weeks of self-quarantine in the southern Lisbon suburbs went smoothly and easily, with no symptoms of covid. Our flat was a small place, but the kitchen was kitted out nicely and the views over the pine-treed golf course were peaceful. It was a bit cold, and a bit cramped, but perfectly liveable and the bed was comfy. During our two weeks, we went out for walks nearly every day on the golf course, but started limiting them as the numbers of pedestrians were rising. About a week in, though, the golf course closed and then it was safer to go back to our long evening walks, with the golden light pouring through the pine trees and illuminating the carefully watered putting greens.
We attempted to negotiate a long-stay discount, but our host had her limits (which she later broke once she realised we were actually leaving!). So, we began the hunt for another place, and extended our search further and further from Lisbon. We contacted a dozen and began discussions and negotiations, but then a perfect flat pinged up as just listed: up by Peniche, in a tiny town called Baleal. The landlord spoke English, was super friendly, the flats he had on offer were big and beautiful, and the price was discounted by about 80%, including utilities. And he was willing to give us a two-month rental contract, so we could show to the police if we were stopped where we were going. And he was super kind, and spoke perfect English. On 30th March, we agreed to move in on 7th April.
On 31st March, we had done a big shop as we had finished our quarantine and needed to stock up. We even bought a chicken for roasting, which was a treat. As we lay on the couch feeling happily stuffed with roast dinner, around midnight on 1st April, we received a text from our new landlord that the state of emergency was going to be renewed on 2nd April. This time, it would include stricter rules including banning travel beyond 10km from one’s town of residence, as well as limited cars to two passengers including the driver. He arranged for a driver to come pick us up the next morning on the 1st, just before parliament would vote, and we immediately went to bed, woke up early, and packed packed cleaned cleaned, including all our new fresh food which we treated as contaminated with covid.
The driver arrived as promised (despite it being April Fool's Day) in a big 9-person van and we loaded up, leaving our peaceful golf course and enjoying a 1.5 hour drive through Lisbon and the countryside to the north of the city, seeing more of our new country, even as we marvelled at how quiet everything was. Approaching the coast, the ocean was spread out before us in a silver sheet and we realised we had made it with all of 12 hours notice to change where we were living - no stops, no checks, and we were safely at our new shelter where we could weather the covid storm.
Our home, here in Baleal, is a spacious 3-bed house with a big table for working, two sofas, a large kitchen with everything one could need, a pool, and a back gate that opens out onto the bluffs and beach. We can step out and suddenly see miles of beaches and surf, and breathe the cleanest of air. Social distancing isn’t a challenge within the 'one hygienic walk per day allowed' with wide open spaces and strong winds most of the time.
We are here through the first week of June, and then will be moving to Redondo, in deep Alentejo out by the Spanish border, heart of the wine country and far away from everything. There is a good chance we could have stayed here through the end of June, but as the lockdown continues to ease and surfers return we think our landlord will want the place back, and we equally wanted to get the Alentejo and see if we can handle the extreme summer heat we've been warned about. Living in Madrid, and years in South East Asia and India should help....but the plan to move to Portugal is to spend a lot more time outside...so who knows!?
Our lockdown here has been peaceful: We have explored home delivery options, as local restaurants figure out how to serve customers without customers being able to leave their homes. It’s an ethical dilemma though: we are asking small business owners to leave their houses and businesses to come to us, exposing themselves to higher risk, but without customers they would really struggle. We also need to eat… Everyone wears masks and stands back from the door, and we’ve had a few socially distant conversations which is a pleasant feeling: conversation with another human, mask to mask! Our quasi-solution is to place large orders, so one delivery lasts us a few weeks.
For now, we are ignoring the news except for the bare minimum, and focusing instead on MatchaAlternatives.com, taking long walks on the deserted beaches and our move to this fine country. We have also been cooking a lot, as Masterchef UK was on and we are feeling inspired. Living by the sea has now been bumped up our list of desirable locations. We will likely explore the Alentejo Coast and the Costa Vincentina more thoroughly now, though the salt spray coating the windows and camera lenses and cold winds makes us think living a little further back from the breakers would be a good idea.
The lockdown began to lift at the start of May, which means that May has seen a spike in life stuff for us, with bureaucratic matters at the top of the list as we start to establish ourselves here. Summer has also started to timidly arrive, with us using the heaters less and less and discovering warmer days outside our cold house. Last night we had dinner on the beach, and this week we even got a sunburn.
Since May started we…
Obtained our NIF numbers: these are our tax numbers, and required to do literally anything in Portugal. Even order a delivery, or get a SIM card. To get them, you need to be resident, which we aren’t. So we needed to go through a lawyer, who needed certified copies of our passports, which required a notary. However, the notary required our NIFs to proceed. In the end, we went to the Peniche post office and for the eye-watering amount of 50€ we had a certified photocopy of our passports. A few days later we received our NIFs, and now we can do a lot of things, namely buy a vehicle.
Test drove a Nissan Navara which we loved, and made a starting offer on. The dealer did not reply, and then when we chased said he’d sold it to someone else. Hurumph.
Made an enormous spreadsheet of possible vehicles to buy, and then test drove a favourite in Evora. It was a Mitsubishi L200 double cab, and we put down a 500€ deposit on the spot. We should be receiving it in the next week once they have finished repairing any and all dents and scratches from its previous driver as the dealership has its own garage.
Thought and Googled a whole bunch how to buy a car and insure it here legally without a permanent address. Thankfully, a friend has offered us the use of his address and the insurers are aware and happy with this including our UK residency solving our problem.
Rented our next accommodation: come June we move to Redondo, which a (different) friend has referred to as the ‘deep south’ of Portugal. We are renting initially for a month, and are hopeful that it will be a good fit and we can rent there for the duration.
Visited the Alentejo, our region of choice, for the first time. We went to Évora to test drive the truck, and also visited a farm for sale outside Arraiolos. The farm was a two-house, three-barn Monte Alentejano (the name for typical Alentejo farmhouse buildings) with 1.4ha in a floodplain not far from a main road. The house was supposedly three bed, which was technically true: if you put a bed in each room, it becomes a 3-bed. The architecture of montes is tight: low ceilings, and small rooms with thick walls (1m!). It definitely gets hot in the summer, and they are built for that. The farm animals had far more space in the barns than the humans have in the house, too, and a few of the barns were illegal (without planning permission which is common). Very very useful to see, but not useful to buy... We spent the next day, as we still had the rental car, exploring Nazaré , home of the world’s largest waves, and visiting the horse capital of Portugal, Golegã.
Visited the Alentejo for a second time: we viewed a second Monte, this time in Vimieiro, which was advertised as one 45m2 1-bed, and one 6-room 145m2 house, plus outbuildings, and 2ha. All true, except for the 145m2 house, which was a fantasy! But apparently it’s listed on some government document somewhere so they are selling it as if it exists. Visiting it taught us about the 40 marble quarries that are dotted around the Estremoz region, which is a big question to ask for future houses (blasting several times a day isn’t all that appealing). It was also listed as detached, but it was terraced with neighbours on either side. On the plus side, it has lovely views, including over the snail factory in the valley. (Yes, you read that right) We haven't yet bought snails to try, though they are for sale in big sacks just about everywhere.
As we’ve explored, we’ve discovered the landscape we have been looking and dreaming about: rolling cork forests with meadows throughout, peaceful and fragrant. Seeing horses and cows grazing between the trees feels almost absurdly idyllic.
When I pause for a moment, it’s startling how quickly we’ve adapted to extreme hygiene. For example, when the vegetables were delivered yesterday from a local farm, we let them sit for around 8 hours, then before bed I used my right hand to touch them, and kept my left hand clean, holding open fresh bags and repackaging them so I could put them in the fridge. The bottom drawer is now the ‘covid zone’, and we won’t use the vegetables for a few days, just to be safe. And when we do, we’ll of course wash them thoroughly.
When we go out for the day, we pack a picnic in the morning and three bottles of water, plus hand sanitizer and masks. At the tolls, if we need to push a button, we use the end of the hand moisturizer bottle. Likewise, handling money or change is a lesson in contamination. When we pick up the rental car, we wipe down the gear stick, wheel, handles, and brake. We are looking forward to having our own vehicle so we don’t need to sanitise every time we want to drive! (We've also made a great friend in Duarte the owner of the car rental place / small dealership just 100m from us too, giving us lots of advice on buying a car here. Amazing!)
Heading out for a walk, we open the garden gate, which everyone has touched, with a tissue tucked outside in our table leaf. Everyone waits their turn if there’s a narrow point in the path so no one gets too close. It feels almost natural now. The beaches and waves have begun to fill up with sunseekers and surfers. People seem to be respecting social distancing for the most part, 3m is the rule on beaches, and mask wearing is mandatory in any enclosed space, and in towns.
When we receive packages in the mail, one of us gets ‘covidy’ to open it, and then the other person takes out the items inside which are almost certainly safe, due to shipping times. The box then goes in the cupboard to self-decontaminate.
While restaurants have now re-opened, we haven’t dared eat at any yet even though we see others relaxing now, and we’ve also stopped getting takeaway deliveries. We did try a few but only things we knew had been cooked and we could re-heat to get it hot hot hot. We don’t trust people to be as careful as we want. If someone’s making a burger and doesn’t realise they’ve itched their nose, that bun or lettuce, which won't get cooked, could be contaminated and then we have covid - life’s plans get put on hold, and in the best case we have medical bills and step up isolation hugely, and in the worst case we have lung scarring or die. It’s just not worth the risk.
We did, however, do our first grocery shop in over a month: restocking on wine, cheese and cereal, and it felt happily surreal to browse the aisles. Only 10 people are allowed inside at once, and people were trying very hard to avoid one another, but it still felt daring and thrilling to be shopping.
The thrill wears off quickly though: wearing masks for too long is exhausting as we don’t breathe as deeply. I’m sure we’re not alone in this! This is something we’ll need to get used to, though, as covid will be with us for the foreseeable future. Portugal has around 31,000 cases, while the UK has 266,000 and the US has 1.7 million. Portugal has also continued an enormous amount of testing, the most per capita of any country with a population of more than 2 million people (except for Lithuania I think). Yesterday we received two masks in the post, courtesy of the local council and our masks in fact come from Hong Kong as a wonderful sister there offered to send us some, one less headache! Thank you Alison!
Portugal is being hailed as one of the best Western countries in its handling of it as the country went into lockdown very quickly, closed everything fast and has treated the disease with respect and caution. We are fortunate to be here. Taiwan I think wins hands-down for its containment of the virus overall and New Zealand has zero cases now, whereas our two home countries where our families are, in the UK and USA.....scary. The Portuguese people have also understood what is needed from them, with a large movement to #ficaremcasa and #stayhome, all over Facebook and even on road signs. Understanding that we all may be asymptomatic carriers is key, as we're not wearing masks just to protect ourselves, but to protect others. People seem to have internalised that here, for the most part.
Overall, we are so grateful to be in our small sliver of Portugal, so warmed by the welcome of everyone we’ve met, and are so incredibly fortunate to be in one of the best places on Earth given this crisis. Thank God we cancelled a host of plans and changed our flights....twice...to get here in time. What will the future look like? Lots of speculation, and zero certainty – but with the hope that things will soon start to get better.
And of course: stay safe, stay isolated, stay healthy - both for yourself, and to protect those around you.
~ Elizabeth & Vientiene