I first met my husband in 2013, the year I decided to be alone.

I'd had enough of the whole "Hello, I Love You, Goodbye" routine. I needed to say no to any complications or interruptions to what I had envisioned as my "lifelong and faithful relationship with travel".

So I decided to escape to the ocean and just be by myself for a while. But then I met a guy. (Don't we all?) And we proceeded to wreck our travel plans by predictably falling in love.

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We had only spent less than 48 hours together in my favorite surf spot and said our hasty goodbyes. He said he would be in touch. I was  dubious. As travelers, we've only learned too well the necessary and bittersweet ritual of dropping someone off before they fly out of our lives.

So I picked up where I had left off, halfway through my "year of solitude". But a few weeks later, he told me on Skype that he had planned to come back and see me- in less than a month!


By then I had already made my travel plans: A month on the surf island of Siargao in the Philippines, then to Malaysia for a women's conference, and who knows where to next. South America, most probably. Surely he wouldn't want to come with. I laid out all my plans and gave him a chance to back out, find it all too complicated and call the whole thing off.

But he said he wanted to go with me. And he did. And he never left.

Fast forward to today, with a baby in tow and finally finding home in Portugal, we had just celebrated our first year wedding anniversary.

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It still feels like a dream, but it's my reality. I've booked the ticket, fallen in love, and haven't looked back since. Everything I had ever hoped for, finding the guy to surf and travel with, living in a new country, and having this laughing little girl in my arms ever so often, has come true.

But what happens after happily ever after?

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Finding Home

It took us over a year of moving from place to place before we finally set down our 2 luggage life (plus surfboards). I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks. In Thailand, the food and the temperature was too hot. In Indonesia, it was too laid back. In the Philippines, it was too humid. In France, it was too expensive.

I would never have pointed to a map, picked Portugal and called it home. Love brought us here. My husband, who is half Portuguese and had spent most of his childhood summers in Portugal, thought it would be the best place for us to take root as a family. And he was absolutely right.

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Portugal was the embodiment of almost everything we love: endless waves, deserted surf breaks, people growing their own food, longest summer in Europe, fantastic wine, Fado music, charming old cities, heartbreaking sunsets, delectable seafood and rice, all that glorious rice. 

Visa Agonies

Finding home was only half the battle. Making my stay official was a totally different beast altogether. Let's start from the beginning. In 2014, I was in the Philippines, a few months shy of giving birth to our baby daughter. My husband had just proposed in Bali and we were planning to get married in Manila. You'd think that finding the love of your life is hard. Getting married to them (if they are of a different nationality) is close to impossible.

When we attempted to get a marriage license at the local city hall, they had asked me for a residence ID to prove that I had been living in the Philippines for the last 6 months at least. Sadly, I had not. They turned us away to another city hall, perhaps from the place where I had been born, completely in the South, without even a glance at my burgeoning belly.

It was a similar story at the French embassy (my husband is half French). We had a few options, to have my husband fly back to France, secure the necessary paperwork then get married in Manila. Or for him to fly back to France, secure the necessary paperwork, come back to Manila, then for both of us to fly back to France where we could get married. Both options would set us back a few thousand euros either way.  Not to mention all the embassy appointments, government offices, document and translation services- while 8 months pregnant.

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Let's just say that obtaining a long stay visa to go to France was more painful than childbirth. 

We had no choice but to have our baby delivered in Manila and have my husband fly out back and forth from France to get all the visa requirements ready. When our daughter was 2 months old, we thought it was safe enough to fly to France. A few months later, we got married at the city hall of Versailles.

My husband was on panic mode on the day of our wedding. He had failed to arrange for a translator for the ceremony and was worried that they would declare it void since I could barely understand French. He coached me several times. "All you have to do is say 'Oui' when the mayor asks. Say it with me, 'Oui', 'Oui', 'Oui'"

France Wedding

I nearly botched it when the mayor asked the French version of "Do you promise to love, honor, cherish and cook for this man for as long as you both shall live?" I zoned out while he waited a few seconds for my reply. My mother in law nudged me and said, 'Oui'! 

When it was time to sign the marriage contract, the mayor just smiled knowingly after he had clearly explained in simple French, "Please sign inside the box." I had signed on top of the box. My husband laughed nervously beside me but nobody screamed fraud. 

You would think that our marriage had ended our visa woes. But it faithfully followed us to Portugal where we realized the complication of applying for a residency permit for a Filipino citizen who was married to a French Portuguese in a French wedding ceremony. More paperwork, translations and trips back and forth from France and Portugal. 

A government official in Portugal declined our request because it would simply take them so much time and effort. He advised us in English to go back to France and file all the paperwork from there. And in a conspiratorial tone, he spoke to my husband in Portuguese, "You should have just married a Portuguese woman."

(And if you're wondering why we didn't just apply for the visa from the Portuguese embassy in the first place. Well, there's none in Manila.)

Moving In

Being a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural family made us the odd ones out in our little village in northern Portugal. First of all, they couldn't believe that we were actually moving in instead of out. Our region is usually deserted with many houses going up for sale and a lot of young people moving to the cities or across the border to Spain or France.

What strengthens the bond between me and my husband is simply that: we are the outsiders. He didn't speak perfect Portuguese and when he did, he would do so with a Brazilian accent. Nor did he look the part. I, on the other hand, am often mistaken for Thai, Chinese or Indonesian. Same same, but different.

Portuguese Dance Minho Region
Photo Credit: Tanya Hotchkiss

Lost in Translation

We moved to Portugal a few months after I had gotten my long stay visa through France. And part of the deal was to have a "working knowledge" of the language. So I'm learning French while living in Portugal where everyone found it odd that I couldn't speak Portuguese.

I could manage to buy bread or some frango wings from the butcher. But I could hardly answer back when someone asked me if I wanted some sugar with my coffee. Most Portuguese do speak English even though a lot of them are too shy to do it. So I could get by with my fluent English and skimpy French and Spanish. I could understand certain words from simple deduction.

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Mercado is market, batatas are potatoes and sapatos are shoes. But sometimes the rules change completely and I realize that preservativo is not some kind of preserved jam. It's not even a food product. The only thing it preserves is a low birth rate. And whenever I have a cold, I go to the pharmacy for some medicine and whisper, "Para constipações."

Photo Credit: Jason Carvalho

I often try to practice my Portuguese when I'm at the bakery. I had been ordering the same natas (egg tart) for weeks when I thought I should try something new and exciting. So I pointed out a flaky pastry that I had imagined would have something sweet and fruity inside. I used the 3 Portuguese words I knew along with some sign language and asked what's in it. The woman said something which sounded like pêche, the French word for peach. I ordered it and proceeded to take a big bite of what I thought was my peach tart. Only to have to spit it out because it tasted suspiciously like fish. And that, my Sole Sisters, was my charming introduction to Portuguese Salt Cod Cakes made of peixe, which means fish in Portuguese.

Get a Job

After a few months of living in Portugal, the vacation vibe wore off and my husband and I had to think about feeding ourselves beyond the seasonal tomatoes, potatoes and Portuguese cabbage that we had planted in our backyard. What were my options? Aside from blogging and other online ventures, it has crossed my mind to actually get a real job with real colleagues. It sounded like the best solution to everything that I faced: earning money, adapting to a new country, learning Portuguese and making friends.

The first thing that occurred to me was to teach English. I thought I'm perfectly capable of teaching a language that I had spoken since childhood, right? How hard can it be? And to make things easier, I looked for an English teaching job for children. So I went to the school, explained my situation and asked for a job. The secretary smiled at me politely and informed me that there was an English teaching job available. I got excited. I knew it was going to be easy. Her next question was obvious, but not to me at the time.

"Can you speak Portuguese?'

Back to square one...

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As I write this, my husband and I are thinking of a business venture. We've considered putting up a bed and breakfast / surf camp / wine appreciation venue. We're calling it Waves and Wine. The tagline? Get barrelled! We might have been under the influence of a few glasses of vinho verde when we drafted the business plan...

Making Friends

Coming from the Philippine islands, I'm used to an open door policy when it comes to making friends. We call everyone "friend". I have a few thousand facebook "friends" myself. That guy whom I've bumped into at a few parties? He's my friend. That girl whom I've surfed with a couple of times and we know each other's faces but never each other's names? She's my friend.

That's not the case in Portugal. Apparently, you need to know someone for a certain period of time before you can officially call them friend. Give or take a few decades.

Bridging the Gap

Before moving to Portugal, I had been pretty sure of myself. I'm well-traveled, sociable, confident, adaptable, witty, and funny. After a few months of living here, I began to see myself as how I thought the locals saw me: utterly foreign, helpless, a misfit, the girl who could barely even ask where the restroom is. And what's that funny accent when she speaks English?

Up until early this year, I had been thinking of myself as a traveler, as part of an elite group of people who go elsewhere because they wanted to and because they can afford to be displaced. Recently, I have started to think of myself as an immigrant, as someone who had to go elsewhere because they have to.

I've always been in my element being a foreigner. I've felt at home even without a home. I had never wanted to be attached to any place, thing or person. But why do I suddenly feel that tugging need to belong? To settle down and take roots. Or at least be able to walk in a cafe and have a familiar face call me by name.

Lois North Portugal
Photo Credit: Tanya Hotchkiss

Becoming a Foreign Local

The one thing that probably sets me apart from the people that I meet on a daily basis is the fact that I smile a lot. Being a foreigner does allow me to walk around in this little bubble seeing only rainbows and unicorns everywhere I go without getting caught up in life's little dramas. Pico Iyer says it so well,

“One curiosity of being a foreigner everywhere is that one finds oneself discerning Edens where the locals see only Purgatory.”

And before I realized it, I stopped sticking out and started to blend in. I stepped up and made the first move. I lost my fear of rejection and started to greet everyone I met "bom Dia!" without wondering if they would return the gesture. Most of them do. I overcame my fear of embarrassment and started speaking more Portuguese. I even managed to make a few friends by just reaching out to people and making connections.  I have also managed to learn how to cook feijoada and rissois.

The Truth and Nothing But...

I did promise to tell you the truth. And here it is:

Moving abroad to follow your heart may be the most important decision you will ever make. It can become a fairy tale or your worst nightmare. I've had the blessing and the curse to experience both.

There will be days when you will regret your decision. You will imagine what life would be like had you decided to listen to your fears. Your friends did warn you to never fall in love, didn't they? It was the last thing they told you as you boarded the plane. But you never listen anyway.

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Some days will be more difficult than others. You never know what could trigger a sudden breakdown. Whether it's the smell of garlic that reminded you of your mother's arroz caldo. Or your sister posting pictures of the little nieces who will never be as close to your daughter as you and your cousins are, having spent all your childhood summers together at your grandparents' farm.

Sometimes you will meet people who will make you feel like a foreigner. Wherever you go, you can always find someone who will dislike you for the mere fact that you look or act differently. Ignore them. You will soon find your tribe and they will be foreign just like you. They will come from places that you can't even pronounce and have funny accents with weird conjugation. But you will treat them like your closest of kin simply because they can laugh at your jokes.

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And you will lose some friends. But the ones worth keeping will always choose to remain in your life. Some may even come visit you one day. And you will make new friends. The new ones will never be able to replace the old. But trust me, you will never run out of people to love.

And the person you fell in love with? He will change too. You will begin to unwrap layers of each other and some of them you may not be too crazy about. It's one thing to be on a tropical island when the biggest decisions you have to face are "Should we get up now?", or "What should we eat for breakfast?"

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It's another thing to find answers to "Which country should we raise our child in?" or "How can we even afford all this?"

Falling in love and moving abroad will frustrate you, it will break you down. It will make you realize how little you own and how small you are. It will force you to question everything you thought you knew about yourself and everything you had believed to be true. You will step into your adoptive country wide eyed and open hearted and emerge a totally different person. You may one day look at yourself in the mirror and not recognize the person you have become.

But you will be better for it. 

You will strive and thrive and adapt. You will learn to let go and live without things that you thought were part of you. You will learn to love parts of yourself that you never knew existed. You will learn to cook. You will take the subway. You will learn to put together an IKEA bed. And you will grow, yes you will! You will grow more in courage, wisdom and spirit than you ever could had you stayed behind.

And maybe you will never return. But chances are, you will. And the person who left will never be the same person who will come back. That is the truest of all journeys, what goes on deep inside each of us.

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Have you had similar experiences in living abroad? I'd love to hear your story!

Still Smilin',
Sole Sister Lois

Lois has traveled extensively and has lived in Asia, the United States, and Europe. She is currently based in Portugal with her husband and baby girl. She is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of We Are Sole Sisters and has written the ebook "Where Should I Go in Southeast Asia?" based on her travels in the region for 6 months on less than 2,500 USD.

3 Responses so far.

  1. When I fell inlove, I did return to my home country. but with my fiance. To meet my family and ask permission to get married. :) I also did learn Portuguese online so that when we go back to Portugal, I cn say a few Portuguese lines to his family (and say my vows in Portuguese, as a wedding surprise). I enrolled in Preply.com ( http://preply.com/en/portuguese-by-skype ) with Skype and it was amazing! :)

  2. Bigwas says:

    What a journey you have been.....

  3. How amazing to be able to say your vows in Portuguese Lei! I wish I could do the same. Maybe on our 25th anniversary ;-) Thanks for the reco, although I do prefer face to face learning, I will check them out.

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