16 de May, 2022
Jamie Dixon landed in this mountainous coastal town nine months ago, swapping his luxury trailer in Malibu for a two-storey penthouse flat that is twice the size for a fraction of the rent.
Her escape from her native California came amid rising living costs, wildfires and a diminishing sense of security after a neighbour’s house was robbed. The fitness trainer turned startup employee decided it was time to reinvent herself in a foreign land, but like many American expats, she didn’t want to feel too far from home.
In this rich enclave some 24 kilometres from the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, she has found her piece of California on the west coast of Europe: ocean breezes, mountain views, warm spring days on palm-fringed promenades and the glow of sunsets seeping into the night.
“Things were getting too much at home, but I didn’t want to leave everything about Los Angeles behind,” said Dixon, 37. Dressed in yoga pants and trainers, she sipped white wine at an organic cafe overlooking waves breaking on Big Sur-like cliffs, a short walk from the rental she shares with her actor husband and 7-year-old daughter.
“With Portugal,” she said, “we could keep the parts we liked and leave the rest.”
Dixon has plenty of company in a country that has become an international destination for tourism and residence.
This once maritime empire known for port and fado can look a lot like California. Except that it’s much more affordable on a US budget. That’s one reason why the slender Atlantic nation has attracted – and even advertised for – Americans who are packing their bags.
In the last decade, the total population in Portugal has decreased, although the number of foreigners has grown by 40%. The ranks of US citizens living in this land of 10 million increased by 45% last year. Within the mix of retirees, digital nomads and young families fed up with issues such as housing and health costs, Trumpian politics and pandering policies, Californians are making themselves known in a country that was once considered Spain’s forgotten sibling.
“I’d say 95 percent of my clients now are American,” said Andre Fernandes, a 38-year-old realtor from Porto who, seeing the increased interest in his homeland, returned from New Jersey three years ago and went from installing sprinklers to selling homes. “In the last week, I’ve called or emailed people from California, Arizona and New Mexico.” One recent client, he said, was a Netflix writer.
Portugal emerged from the financial crisis of the mid-2000s as one of the poorest nations in the European Union. With the economy in tatters, Lisbon lawmakers drafted immigration laws to aggressively court foreign professionals, from the wealthy, who could essentially buy residency by buying land, to remote workers , who could secure a path to citizenship by earning money abroad but spending it here. More recently, the country, which for the past seven years has hosted the Web Summit technology conference, has become a tax haven for cryptocurrency investors.
The government estimates that foreigners have invested more than $6 billion in Portugal since 2012 through property purchases alone. The closely related tourism and rental industries earned more than $10 billion last year and, before the pandemic, accounted for 15% of the country’s GDP. (During the same period in the US, tourism accounted for less than 3% of the economy.)
For Dixon, a fourth-generation Californian, the visa process was textbook. She and her husband, Joey Dixon, had to open a Portuguese bank account with savings equivalent to about $21,000 – about twice the minimum wage – and close a one-year lease.
Joey Dixon, who appeared in “Yellowstone” and “SWAT,” is starting an acting school for other Hollywood transplants. His wife, who at first experienced bouts of loneliness, now comes home with plastic containers of homemade soup on the doorstep of her downstairs neighbour, an older Portuguese woman, and has befriended a nearby couple and their son who has moved from New York and started a moving company.
A few blocks down the street, the Dixons met a couple from California – one of whom works for Adobe – who recently made the move. A family from Seattle is expected to arrive this month and occupy the first floor of the Dixons’ three-story building. Seeing an influx of Americans, their daughter’s school recently hired an English teacher and now has bilingual instruction.
“My Portuguese is still bad,” said Jamie Dixon, who has taken lessons, but uses her favourite phrase to describe her attitude to the slow journey of integration: no big deal. She hopes to speak well enough in five years to pass the citizenship test, which would give her family European Union passports. With them comes the freedom to move and work across much of the continent.
“You just don’t know where America is going these days. Are we going to fight each other forever? Are we in the Cold War with Russia again?” said Dixon. “Getting that second passport would be a relief.”
But resentment among newcomers is growing. Californians cannot always escape – and sometimes are at the root of – issues about gentrification, income disparities and immigration. The very term “expatriate” has become loaded in Lisbon, a city that attracts tens of thousands of working-class immigrants from Brazil, Ukraine, Romania and India. In Facebook groups and café gatherings, affluent Westerners debate how to define themselves. On the streets, Portuguese activists protested against evictions and skyrocketing rents caused in part by foreigners with banks that count in dollars and pounds.
“There is no doubt that foreign investment has greatly helped Portugal’s economy and made cities more beautiful,” said Isabel da Bandeira, an activist who co-founded Lisbon housing rights group Aqui Mora Gente. “But this process has also hurt long-time residents who no longer recognise parts of their communities or cannot live in them.”
On the other side of Lisbon, the country’s largest urban centre with 550,000 people, it’s hard to miss Californians. The city, where tourism has grown over the years to the point where entire streets in its historic core are made up exclusively of hotels and Airbnbs, has attracted wealthy newcomers from around the world, including the UK, Cape Verde, South Africa and Russia. But more Americans are buying expensive properties than any other foreigners, outnumbering the Chinese.
An article last year in the Lisbon-based newspaper Diário de Notícias extolled the ties between California and Portugal. “It is essential to put Portugal on the map for Californians,” said Pedro Pinto, Portuguese consul-general in San Francisco, in the article, as he suggested that a direct flight from Los Angeles to Lisbon “would be in great demand” (there is already one from San Francisco).
California has long attracted the Portuguese. Spain and Portugal claim 16th-century colonial explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who was the first European to land on California’s shores, as one of them. In the mid-19th century, hordes of Azorean farmers arrived in Central California. In San Jose, the Little Portugal neighbourhood pays tribute to the region’s immigrant history. But today, the transplants are going the other way and are of a different variety: upper middle class or wealthier with online jobs or well-managed retirement accounts.
After years of divisive politics, failed wars, widening wealth gaps and squabbles over national identity, Americans are perhaps more flexible in their patriotism and willing to make a home beyond their borders. For residents of California, where the best and worst of America seem to constantly collide, the shores of Portugal have offered a respite.
From the retirement villages of Mexico and Central America to the red-white-and-blue enclaves scattered across Asia and Europe, Americans have long had a curious and sometimes controversial relationship with the world and its cultures. They are often seen as wanting to cast other nations in their image, a criticism deftly distilled in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American. They want the exotic as long as there is a whiff of the familiar.
In Portugal, some recent expats from California have taken it upon themselves to give the speech on how to evoke a bit of their home state while living abroad.
Jen Wittman, who moved with her husband and 13-year-old son to Lisbon in March last year, runs a Facebook group called Californians Moving To/Living In Portugal. In a migrant community where dozens of Facebook pages serve as a library of instructions on moving, Wittman said she created hers a year ago after seeing Californians “being ridiculed in other groups for very Californian issues, like where to get good avocados and Mexican food.”
The avocados were easy to find. Mexican food, not so much, although there is a couple from San Diego who have a homemade tamale and Mexican import business.
“I feel like we as Californians have more particular things we want. We want sun, water, amenities, fresh and organic food,” said Wittman, 47, a former chef who runs an online consulting firm for small businesses with her husband. “We also tend to have higher incomes than other Americans, so people get annoyed when we ask our budget questions in other expat groups.”
A resident of Playa del Rey for 20 years, he left for Lisbon after a stint in Sonoma County. For Wittman, it was the death of her mother and a desire to rethink the future that spurred the move. She also wanted her son to take free college classes in EU countries once the family obtained citizenship. In Portugal, she said, she feels safer, has more affordable health care and has gained distance from America’s political divide.
Rent for the family’s furnished three-bedroom flat, tucked away on a cobbled street next to a 13th-century stone cathedral in the Alfama neighbourhood, is €2,100 – less than US$2,200. With lift access, a renovated kitchen and views of cruise ships on the Tagus River, it’s a bargain on your budget. Wittman, used to quick workday meals at home, now has leisurely lunches at her favorite Portuguese restaurant, where a plate of salad, chicken thighs and potatoes is served with wine, espresso and mango cream for 10 euros, or about $11.
His neighbourhood, one of Lisbon’s oldest, where every other flat now houses foreigners, has been the centre of protests against evictions and gentrification. Wittman, who mixes mostly with foreigners, said she has not received hostility from locals. Instead, she has also felt the pinch of Portugal’s growing popularity.
“We got a deal because of COVID and few people visiting the city,” said Wittman, who still retains some of the Midwestern accent of his Indiana upbringing. That was before a lease extension offer came in at €3,650. “Now that our time is coming, we can’t find anything affordable in the city.”
This month, the family is moving to the suburbs across the river, 40 minutes away.
Luis Mendes, a geographer at Lisbon University, said the effect of Americans and foreigners in Portugal is mixed.
“There is no denying that places like Lisbon have become much more attractive to young, creative people with money to spend. The effect on the economy and the appearance of the buildings – no longer empty – is astronomical,” said Mendes. “But the average Portuguese can no longer afford to live in the centre of Lisbon. Rents have gone up five times in a few years. Even basic things, like buying groceries, make longer trips outside the city centre than they used to.”
The trend has hit not only “lower-class lifelong residents, but also gentrifiers who see a €1,000-a-month rented flat turned into a €120-a-night Airbnb,” said Jordi Mateo, a professor at NOVA University of Lisbon.
The government has acknowledged the crisis. Starting this year, the country’s popular “golden visa” program, which offers residency to foreigners who buy homes for €500,000 or more – Americans dominate the program – is no longer accepting applications in major cities. That includes Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve, the southern coastal region popular with retirees and lovers of surf culture.
In just a few years, evictions have more than doubled in Lisbon. The city’s former mayor, Fernando Medina, launched an initiative to rent out hundreds of Airbnbs to use as housing for local workers only to see his ambitions fail because landlords could earn more on the private market. “Lisbon, don’t be French,” said a recent comment on the Facebook page of the activist group Stop Evictions, a reference to the exorbitant costs of destinations with many expats in France .
Although the country’s popularity grew rapidly during the pandemic, with prices for locals and newcomers doing the same, those who arrived early somehow fared better.
Therese Mascardo, a 39-year-old therapist from Santa Monica, flew to Lisbon in 2019 after trying online sessions to reduce her daily four-hour commute to Orange County. Frustrated with Trump’s presidency, mass shootings and a car-bound lifestyle, she said she was looking for “the antiquity and charm” of an old European city that was walkable. Mascardo was attracted by the fact that right-wing parties have not made the same inroads in the country as in other parts of Europe.
Today, she can afford to work just two days a week – on a California schedule – while creating a brand of online social media therapy content in her spare time. She has money to spare after paying her monthly rent of €1,000. One Sunday a month, she leads a rotating museum tour for scaled-down digital nomads in the city.
From the streets in front of his three-bedroom flat that sits between the Estrela and Lapa neighbourhoods, Mascardo, who grew up in Orange and studied at UC Berkeley, can look down and spot the 25th of April Bridge. Modelled after the Bay Bridge, it is painted the same red as the Golden Gate and reminds her of home.
But despite semi-annual trips to Los Angeles, where she buys cheap Vinho Verde and stocks Anthropologie candles and Trader Joe’s pea chips for the return, she has no plans to leave.
“I love my weekly walk to the farmers’ market and being within a 15-minute walk of most of my friends,” Mascardo said. “I love the kindness and hospitality of the Portuguese people, especially when they graciously tolerate my nascent Portuguese language skills and kindly offer corrections and tips. I love that people eat bread here and are not always talking about the restrictive diet they are on. I love that dressing up is the default mode of existence here. I feel happier and not just striving to be happy.”
Jamie Dixon feels the same way.
Walking recently along Republic Avenue, the cliffside road near her new home, lined with cafes overlooking the sea, she was for a moment convinced she was back in Malibu, in a kind of Point Dume on the Atlantic. But as she crossed the road and glimpsed the Portuguese signs, she was reminded that it takes time and patience to build a new life in a faraway land.
“I miss meeting people when I go to a restaurant or bar. I miss playing in the desert. I miss Palm Springs. I miss how easy it is to pay bills or renew my license. I miss being fluent,” Dixon said. “It’s taken months to feel like we’re barely adjusting. But I feel safer here going out on my own. I’m excited that my daughter will speak other languages.”
She was on her way home to pack for a family trip to Mallorca, something that would require a week off and thousands of dollars when she was back in the US. From there, it would be a quick cheap weekend trip.
“I thought LA was the end-all, be-all and the only place out there,” she said. “But sometimes you need to take a leap and realise that America is not a forever home.”