Expat loneliness - Does it get any better?

Posted from my blog:

The rains have started here in Portugal. It's funny, when I first moved here two years ago, all I kept reading about was how good the weather was and how much the sun shines here. Once the rains start it just gets damp, humid and grey and it rains for days at a time. Most apartments don't have central heating or very good insulation, so it is always cold. Last year my clothes got mouldy in the closet from the damp humidity. I am dreading the upcoming winter and I have a strong urge to run away to somewhere warm, where my bones don't feel cold.

I was only going to give Portugal a year, that was the plan. After 4 months of being here I fell in love and I have now been here two years. My boyfriend is Portuguese, and owns a bar, Patio do Sol, in the suburbs, about a 20 minute drive from Lisbon. I hadn't been in a real relationship for almost 6 years so I fell fast and hard in love. I have always had a positive and sunny disposition and outlook on life, and always been strong, and fiercely independent. When you move to another country and don't speak the language several things happen. First, you feel loneliness, even when you are surrounded by other people. Take last weekend, for example. My boyfriend and I attended his niece's birthday party. Everyone spoke Portuguese, of course. There were a couple of people there that knew me and spoke English to me directly, but when trying to be a part of a group, or be involved in a discussion, that is where it I laughed when other people laughed, even though I didn't get the joke, which made me feel a bit stupid and out of place. Then, you can't express your personality, your wit, your intelligence, and sometimes people just look at you in a kind of pitiful way, which makes you feel worse. It's also a hit on your confidence of sorts when you cannot express yourself completely and deeply.

I don't have my gaggle of different girlfriends or family here that I can just go get together with when I need support or just to talk. I have always been able to make friends easily because I am open hearted, open minded and honest, and pretty cool and funny I might add. Despite this, I have had a hell of a time connecting with Portuguese women. Most of the women I have met are warm hearted and nice enough, but perhaps because of the language barrier we just don't seem to get further than the usual..."Hey, nice to meet you, would love to hang out sometime" kind of thing. In two years there is just one woman, the girlfriend of one of my boyfriend's best friends, that I have spent any "girl" time with, apart from my American colleague who has become kind of a little sister to me, and who is leaving to go back to the US next month, leaving me in somewhat of a panic.

I cannot remember the last time I actually met someone here that inspired me, or made me think..."Wow, what a cool and interesting person, I hope I get to hang out with them again." And all this has been getting me down, in a big way.

Don't get me wrong. I have had some unbelieveably great moments here, and my boyfriend has been trying very hard to make me feel comfortable and at home. In fact, sometimes I feel I am not being fair to him because he tries so hard and I am somewhat dismissive, almost as if he is to blame for my unhappiness, when in truth I can see myself growing old with this man. And yet, for some reason I feel confined, suffocated, like all this is too small, and I feel claustrophobic, depressed, sad, insulated and lonely.

I have been nomadic all my life and have never stayed in one place too long, but I have always very quickly adapted and made the best of the place I happen to be. Here I find myself feeling split in two, with one foot seemingly in the place I spent most of the last half of my life, San Francisco, and one foot here in Portugal, this foreign place where I still haven't grasped the language and can't seem to find food I love. Torn between two worlds, feeling like I am living in some strange "limbo land". I hanker for "home" but the longer I am away, the more that is all a memory, so "home" in that sense has become something that it isn't.

As I try to assimilate into this life and this culture, there is so much I miss from my former life, apart from the obvious family and friends. I miss Sunday brunches, eggs benedict and mimosas in the Mission. I miss the varying Asian cultures and all that comes with them, from the Vietnamese nail salon ladies, Pho, Dim Sum, Korean BBQ, Chinese take-out, exotic sushi that doesn't cost an arm and a leg, to Pad Ped Pladuck, my own Indian culture, hipsters, innovation, a "can-do" attitiude, thinking outside the box, progessiveness, going out to the ball park, Halloween, hippies, dressing up in costume just for the hell of it, nerds and geeks, hip hop and hyphy, Mexican taco trucks, a good cosmo or bloody mary, creative salads, avocados and asparagus, silent disco parties on the beach, good customer service, polite waiters, Thanksgiving...I could go on and on. And yet, here I am, halfway across the world from all that I miss, trying to assimilate to a new culture that doesn't feel half as evolved, and yet with an older and more richer history than the comparative adolescent that is America.

I think I've got cojones, simply for changing careers at 40, leaving at the top of one career to go work with kids 20 years younger than me in a completely different industry, starting near the beginning...a humbling experience in itself,  to a country where I knew nobody, didn't speak the language, just took a risk and jumped in, just to shake things up a bit, only to prove that just because you are in your 40's, that shouldn't stop you from starting again, from staying away from the norm, from taking risks, not being afraid of change, getting out of that comfort zone and feeling out of it, every day. Maybe this loneliness is just temporary, and maybe I need to go through this as a process, in order to learn something, or grow some more. Whatever it is, I am not giving up, and despite Portugal and all the differences, the sometimes negative, fear-based, non-inventive attitude of it's citizens, I am not going to let it change me. Some people go their whole lives staying with what feels comfortable. Not me. Bring it on.

Ah, the expat life. Is it just a trap for dreamers? I was bought up on a chicken farm, and if you let the birds out of their cages for a short while, they would go back in quite happily. But it they were out for a day or two, no way were they going back in there voluntarily. Now when I return to the UK I can't take it. The braying politicians, the rotten public transport, the grisly food and expensive grotty wine, I don't fit in anymore. But I don't fit in here either, I'll never be Portuguese. Then I realise that one of the best things about being expat IS the disengagement. I can stroll down a Lisbon street and not fulminate at the crumbling buildings or the grafitti. It isn't mine. I can sit at this table with this glass of wine and just be me. There is no perfect point of balance on the continuum between belonging and being free. Remember the inscription on Solomon's ring, "all this must pass" and just enjoy the ride.

Hi I know exactly how you feel. Look out for and join International Women in Portugal - it has made a huge difference to my life.

Great account of a deep felt personal journey.
I am a Portuguese that moved from Lisbon to Minneapolis, to Aberdeen, to Lisbon, to Singapore, to Cascais, to Guangzhou and to Cascais again.
As a nomad I feel the thrill and sometimes the loneliness....but the experiences we get in life by being on the move are amazing...not to mention what our heart has to share...
It would be awesome to meet you and your partner... to explore memories...
Memories from parochial minds in Portugal to multiethnic immersion in US or Singapore societies and cultures, from Portuguese wives to Indian and Chinese loves ...
I am always prepared to take stock and create a future.. here or wherever.... leaving my paradise  just in front of one of the Cascais beaches.
Take care

I have lived in Oporto, Portugal for 10 years. Unfortunately, it has gotten worse for me, and I speak Portuguese, not perfectly, but enough.

No, it won't get better. Though, I'm Portuguese (w/foreingn blood) I don't appreciate the Portuguese mentality, so to speak...
When I was much younger, I had the chance of staying abroad (Germany/Sweden) but, I hadn't finished my college degree. Love may be a many splendor thing! However it may fade in time. Then what?

If one already has a business career plus, good "breeding", one becomes invisible/a stranger in a foreign country  (worst when you don't know the language: a "mute"). Portuguese jokes are completly different from American/English ones., etc. , etc.
As a child I lived 7 years in the States. When I came back to my "home town", it felt like travelling in time: dark ages.....

Unfortunately, you speak the truth. All I have here is my husband. He could not have come from a worse country for a foreigner. Somebody, I met in America had lived in Portugal for 10 years, and she told me that you could never be Portuguese if you are a foreigner. At the time I didn't know what she meant. Well I sure do now. I have tremendous regrets for wasting my life in this beautifully horrible country. I absolutely cannot relate to the people here, and I'm at a point where I don't want to after the 10 years of hell they put me through. The people here are unfriendly and unkind.rough, and have zero culture.  I WOULD NEVER COME HERE AGAIN IF I HAD IT TO DO ALL OVER AGAIN FOR SURE!

Hi again!
I'm not a foreigner but I feel the same. One should "check " the would be husbands' backgrounds before the "plunge"... Portuguese can seem or even be very helpful in many occasions but they're extremely envious people,to say the least. They're always checking on you...what you do/where you go, etc., etc They'll easily bad-mouth anyone gor nothing, simply out of rage and envy. Yes, indeed those birthday parties where one feels a cast away.....

Thank you Dirk, I share your opinion. I don't think it's a trap for dreamers, but a reality for anyone who just wants to get out there and do something different. Its all about the courage. It works for some, doesn't work for others. It's the being out of your comfort zone in order to grow. Just trying to "enjoy the ride" :)

Thank you so much Leo Joan...I will look into International Women in Portugal, and hope I get to meet some interesting, inspiring women.

Hi Phillip2015, totally agree with you. I don't know if Portugal is necessarily the place I will "end up", perhaps, or maybe not. It's a good resting place for where I want to be right now, and sometimes in life you just have to trust that you are exactly where you need to be at any given time. I am learning to do that. Stay in the present - in the past I was always on the move, one place to another, and i still have that nomad inside. But for right now, even though Portugal doesn't fulfil me in many ways, the summer is coming, and there are few countries in Europe that can match the beautiful coastline of Portugal :)

Hey Carol,

Do you still live here in Portugal? Where are you from originally? I am interested in why you find the Portuguese to be so unfriendly...I have found that too, but not as a general stereotype - there are obviously exceptions in every situation.

Hi Anzarina,

Lol. Yes, it does kind of feel like the dark ages here sometimes simply because of people's attitudes. I mean I lived in the US before I came here - mostly in progressive San Francisco, and of course sometimes it feels like I have gone back in a time warp, and that is when I wonder what the hell I am doing here. I am not afraid that love won't last, because everything is impermant, life itself is impermanent and I embrace change always and try not to resist it. I don't live in fear that things will not work out, because we always have options when things change in our lives. I am not sure about the envy thing. My boyfriend is Portuguese and owns a bar here - he is well travelled and extremely open minded - more so than any other Portuguese man I have met here, so he's definitely a bit different, otherwise I don't think I would still be with him, lol.

International Women in Portugal is in Lisbon, and has over 200 members. It seems to be a good answer for people who live in Cascais where most of the activities take place.

Interntions is another club that might work for you in the Lisbon área. If you want to stay in this country you must keep trying. Still another problem here is getting services without people trying to steal from you or being discourteous to you, because you a foreigner. Believe me, big problems here are inescapable if you are from another country.

Eileen Vicente

Oh yeah its terrible often the lonliness :/

The loneliness is horrible. I've lived here ten years, and I just deal with it. Try going to groups like InterNations. If you live in Lisbon you are in luck, because there are many more groups there. For example, if you are a woman, you could join the International Woman's group. Also, take a course in Portuguese, because there are foreigners there. In addition, there are groups of your origin. For example, Americans in Portugal is one. There is a group in Oporto and one in Lisbon. You have to keep going to Expat groups until you find one where you fit. Call your embassy for information about where to find groups and look on the Internet under expat's groups or International groups. As far as the locals are concerned, don't bank on them as personal friends. Esentially, they are just very surface, and ordinarily remain as such. Good Luck! Eileen Vicente

Sorry, I've lived here 10 lonely years, and it hasn't changed. Oporto is horrible, because of a lack of friends, and it rains way too often. The rain destroyed my clothing and my piano. If I had it to do over again, I would choose another country. Don't ask me which one though. The world is not that user friendly these days. For sure I'd pick a country where my poor lungs would not have another bout of bronchitis!

I appreciate this frank discussion.

I think that language is the biggest barrier.  While one on one I can hold my own in Portuguese, I too feel uncomfortable in group social situations, where I can't follow or contribute to the conversation.  I wonder if I'll ever improve!

I find that other immigrants can make for some fast and intimate friendships.  But many times they are transient, leaving after a few months or a year.

I think another problem is age.   Unless you're in your 20's it's not so easy to make friends even in your own country. 

International Women in Portugal was mentioned, as was Internations.  I joined both, but found that the former has most of its events in Cascais and during the week.  I live in Lisboa and work weekdays.  And the latter tends to be a meat market for 30-somethings.

I think the best strategy, at least one I'm trying to follow, is to join up with groups of people who share interests, hobbies, sports.   And to try to speak better Portuguese  :-)

Good luck to everyone here xxx

Hi! Well, I have lots of hobbies, and I'm conversational in Portuguese, and it doesn't work. Trust me when I tell you it is very difficult to live here. If I were you, I'd give the country another year, and if it doesn't get any better, try living somewhere else while your young enough not to waste your years. I'm sorry to sound so negative, but if I had it to do all over again, I would never have stayed here for a minute. Yes, it's cheap to live here, yes there are groups, but they are few and they rarely have filled my needs. InterNations, for example, started out OK in Oporto, but now it is a group for drinking buddies, or as you put it, a meat market. We no longer attend, because it sucks totally. What I have found is that you have to accomodate the groups, the courses, the gyms etc., because it is the only way you can survive without living in solitary confinement here, maybe. Sadly, it's just the way it is. I really hope you have better luck than I have been having. Sorry! I feel it's better to be totally honest then to paint a rosey picture that does not exist.

I should clarify that I'm generally happy here, I'm here for the long run, at least that's the plan.  It probably helps that I work outside the home and am involved with creative projects that keep me busy, running around town and involved with like-minded people.  I think it also helps to be in the center of Lisboa, where there is so much going on and the weather (except for the rainy winters) is generally very nice.  I continually pinch myself when I walk around this city.  But yes, it's definitely frustrating to deal with cultural differences and not be able to express oneself 100%, and it does lead you to wonder from time to time if you're up for the challenge.

Yes indeed, when I lived in the Lisbon área, it was a lot better for me. Try Meetups. It's another group, and they are having classes in Portuguese. You never know, it right be the right group for you.

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Good idea about Meetup, thank you!

Let me know if meetups works for you! Good luck! EV

I wonder if Algarve is much better ?

Dear Pam, I hope things are better for you here in Portugal. I know exactly how you feel because even though we have been living in Portugal for the past ten years my wife feels exactly the same as you do. Perhaps, you can speak to her and get some advice, here is her email, vicenteeileen404[at]
Good luck

Hello, during these past weeks I have moved to Carcavelos, and my new place is about 300 meters from the beach. I must say this is a game changer and I am loving it. Still not sure about how it will be in the winter as so far I have hated the winter here, but this is a new adventure, and being able to walk 6 minutes from my home and be on the beach is just priceless.

I am still in the States but, I am thinking about going to live in Portugal and teach English or anything to just say I did it.  After reading your post I felt like you were reading my mind.  I am 56, female and have never traveled out of the states.  I would like to get out of my comfort zone but, I have doubts.  I feel that if I don't do it now I never will.  I just have to say that I have not even left the States yet and I already have some of your same feelings.  Which lets me know that I am not alone in my feelings and you have given me the courage to just do it.

Charlie Hardy

Wherever you are I think it is important to realise that life is never perfect, there are pluses and negatives. Find a place that has a great balance. When travelling, I personally get bored of other expats who often tell of stories that are far more interesting to themselves than anyone else, often interspersed with games of one upmanship with other continuous/semi continuous nomads. It is good to have a real interest in something interesting like a pastime, then you can really engage better with similar individuals that you stand a better chance of having mutual respect for. No-one is really interested in someone with just travel stories after all who often just skim the surface of other cultures without getting really immersed by adopting traditions and/or learning languages.

Hi Pam,

From personal experience I can tell you that in a non-English speaking country you're not going to make a lot of friends unless you learn the language well enough to carry on at least a basic conversation. It's just not going to happen!!!

You will find yourself locked within the expat community, if you can find enough English speaking expats around you. Another thought that I'm sure never crosses the mind of most expats moving to non-English speaking countries, and could eventually pose life-threatening problems for those who resist learning the language; what on earth would you do in an emergency situation such as a medical emergency if you didn't speak the language well enough to tell the doctors and nurses what was wrong with you??? Your life could hinge on being able to find someone in the hospital who could speak both English and Portuguese fluently.

I learned Portuguese in Canada in 2001 at the age of 51, and arrived here in Brazil almost completely fluent on Jan. 10, 2002. Since that time my Portuguese has improved to the point where I read, write and speak it better than the vast majority of born Brazilians and do complex ENG<>PORT translations to make a bit of extra money. The language isn't all that difficult to learn, especially for those who've had any previous experience at all with Spanish or any other Latin based language.

I'm sorry, but if you've lived there in Portugual for two years now, and in a relationship with a Portuguese man, exposed constantly to the language and haven't already learned enough to get by, then you're simply not trying. Obviously your boyfriend is also an English speaker and the two of you are just taking the easy way out and communicating in English. This is only going to perpetuate your communication problems and sense of loneliness unless you force yourself to begin learning Portuguese.

I've been an ESL teacher for 28 years, 15 in Canada and 13 here in Brazil, I now also teach Portuguese to English speaking expats here too. I see problems just like yours here ALL the time. Invariably it is always someone who simply doesn't put themselves out, and just expects that they'll be able to communicate wherever they go in English. They buy into the BS line used by English schools that this is true, since English is the second most widely spoken language on earth. WRONG, and also a lie... English has long since lost its No. 2 position to Spanish and now sits in 3rd place. Also did you know that Portuguese is the 5th most widely spoken language?

Maybe my posting LEARN OVER A THOUSAND PORTUGUESE WORDS IN A FEW MINUTES will help you and give you the incentive to start learning the language, even if you have to force yourself to do so it will be well worth your efforts. Start at home by making sure your boyfriend only speaks to you in Portuguese, watch DVD's in Portuguese without subtitles, listen to Portuguese music, and read Portuguese newspapers, magazines and websites. The more you expose yourself to the language the easier you will find it to communicate with others. If you don't, then you already know what the future will hold for you, more loneliness and isolation from everyone around you.

Expat-blog Experts Team

Dear James, You don't say whether you've ever been to Portugal, but even those like you with admirable mastery of Brazilian Portuguese struggle to understand the spoken language here at times.  Add to that a culture where many Portuguese people PREFER to speak English when dealing with a foreign-born person, and it is not as simple as you make it sound.  Nor is it for lack of trying that some of us are not fluent yet.  Acquiring vocabulary is the easy part, no need for your link or any "incentive" to learn - we already know how important it is.  Congrats to you on your fluency, but please don't judge others, we all learn at different paces.

The older you are the more difficult it is to learn a foreign language. Even listening skills can be a challenge, since the hearing of a foreign language with many unfamiliar sounds gets closed off when we are babies. So nobody trying to learn a foreign language should be judged. Yes, we all learn differently. I am an English/Special Ed. teacher with a linguistics background. Therefore, I'm well qualified to know what a foreigner goes through when trying to learn a new language. By the way, I have also traveled and lived in a variety of countries.

I'm afraid you have really hit the nail on the head, James. English speakers plead all sorts of special reasons why they cannot learn a foreign language, whilst ignoring he fact that their own countries are full of people from other countries who have done just that. Learning a language is just like becoming proficient in a musical instrument. The truth is brutally mathematical. The more you practice, the better you get.

Nice drawing!. I think you have to love the culture and the language to do a really good job learning the language of the country.

Hi Dirk,

Oh so true!

I've had literally thousands of ESL students over my 28 plus year career and I've also taught Portuguese to a number of English speaking expats since coming to Brazil over 13 years ago now. The only ones who have not picked up the new language enough to at least carry on normal conversations that would get them through almost any normal situation are the ones who simply didn't put in the effort required.

Anyone can learn a new language, and at any age, that excuse is pure rubbish. In fact, the younger one begins the better, but I've also seen numerous senior citizens learn, and they've done far better than younger individuals who were just not motivated. I don't know if Eileen Vincent has tried teaching any seniors but I can say from my own experience that her statement hasn't been proven out. I was nearly 52 when I learned Portuguese from square one, I picked it up quickly because I exposed myself to it as much as possible, literally creating my own immersion program.

While all Portuguese speaking countries have their own pronunciation and accents the language is the same language; moreso now that the CPLP harmonization of the language in all of them has been readily adopted. I've had no trouble whatsoever understanding and conversing with anyone from Portugal or Acores, even though I can certainly distinguish that their accents are very different from Brazilians. Before coming to Brazil I probably had more Portuguese friends than Brazilian ones, and I never saw any of them having difficulties in communications with any Brazilians either.

So far I see just excuses why people don't learn the language, but the bottom line is always motivation, practice and exposure. Living in a country where you use the language every single day rules out the absence of practice and exposure...  what does that leave you?

I also find it ironic that if you go to the USA, many Americans have strong feelings that expats should be forced to learn English, and that they certainly should not be entitled to citizenship if they don't. Yet, these very same people move abroad and don't feel that others should have the same expectations for them.


James, I used to speak Spanish to all my Spanish speaking clientes, and NEVER pushed them to learn English. I know many people who feel the same way I do. By the way, even the phone books in America are written in Spanish. America accommodates foreigners in reference to foreign languages more than any other country I have been to or lived in, and I have been to and lived in many, so please don't spread rumors about the USA. One can say many bad things about America just as one can say bad things about most other country, but one thing is for sure, we are much more tolerant than most when it comes to helping foreigners.

Hi Elieen,

Sorry, I've been to over half of the US states and it has not been my personal experience that most Americans are so accepting of the Spanish speaking Americans, and they certainly are not at all so gracious to those who speak other foreign languages.... especially Arabic. So please don't lecture me on your fellow countrymen. Sure in some places they have gotten used to being surrounded by Spanish speakers and do make an effort, and yes they do teach Spanish in the schools, although it is not as popular a course as it should be, or as is French being taught in Canadian schools. By and large the average American wants to see all Spanish speakers "go back to Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, where they belong" (their attitude - not mine) and they're all furious with President Obama's efforts to legalize them. I've even seen signs in public places demanding that clients speak English, and staff won't even serve them unless they do. So please spare me.

That said, it still doesn't change the fact that any expat who decides to move (long-term) to a non-English speaking country with the expectation that they can get by only using English is making a grave error. Those who don't learn the local language simply aren't trying, or out of pure arrogance believe that the locals should deal with them in English... and you can't deny that fact. It is an idea that is even (falsely) promoted by English language schools worldwide that English is the second most widely spoken language in the world, which it hasn't been for years now, and that you can communicate with people everywhere in English. Great propaganda for them and their courses, but completely untrue.

Not learning and using the local language in any country is always going to set you apart from the local population and only going to cause you problems of some kind sooner or later.


I grew up in the USA and I spent the first 65 years of my life there. It 's hard for me to believe that it has changed so much that they no longer give driving tests in Spanish, and also that they no longer translate for ill foreign patients in all the hospitals. Are you saying that they no longer have phone books in Spanish and English either? Has it changed that much there? As far as the Arabic language is concerned, I well understand why people are not user friendly towards the language or the people.  I do remember 9/11, and I also know that the Muslims have not been very user friendly worldwide since that time. America is a huge country, and the only country that borders on it is México which is why so many things are written in both Spanish and English. There are many Spanish speakers that never learn English in America, because they do not need to. Tell me why Americans should learn every language in the world? Tell me why they should learn to speak Arabic?

By the way, I studied linguistics, on a master's level, and it was at that time that I learned that the older one is the more difficult it is to learn a foreign language. I really don't appreciate it when people give out false infromation. It just makes more problems for sure. It is not always that easy for some to learn a foreign language!  I have taught many foreigners English and many other subjects as well. I'm a certified English teacher. In addition, I have my Master's in Special Education, and I have lived in at least 25 places in the USA, so I think I know what I'm talking about in reference to the USA and the way people are treated there. I also know the way people learn a foreign language and why they don't. I think it would be a good idea for you to do a bit of research about how people learn a foreign language, before you tell people that it's just a matter of practice and attitude. We are all different, which is something I think you need to learn very badly!


Perhaps you didn't notice or read in my previous postings, but I have been a teacher for over 28 years and have not only a degree in English but also a B.Ed. too. I also know from personal experience what I'm talking about too. Let's just agree to disagree... you see things one way, and I see them completely differently. It's clear that neither of us is going to "convert" the other.



Sorry, I have lived here for 11 years of lonliness, and every year I hope it will get better, but it just gets worse! Go  home ASAP, before it's too late.

Good luck!
Eileen Vicente

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