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Sarah Nagaty: The truth about whether Lisbon really is an expat haven

As much as I love Lisbon, I have to admit that it is not for everyone. I have been holding onto life in Lisbon and I will keep holding on for as long as I can because it has been a real second home for me.

However, if you are neither Portuguese nor a well-off expat, it can be difficult to live here

Work opportunities are really limited in Lisbon. That is why many young Portuguese people migrate abroad. Unless you are in the IT industry, it is a challenge to find a job with okay pay. If you are a local, you might have the support system locals have everywhere. When I had a poorly paid job back home in Egypt, I lived with my family. When I couldn’t find a job, I had a long list of people to ring up and ask if they had any leads on jobs in my hometown, Alexandria.

This is not the case if you are an expat.

You don’t exactly have that kind of network, which is exciting in a way as you get the thrill of exploring a new territory and making it on your own. But, if you are in a country where locals also struggle to find jobs, it isn’t going to be any easier for you as a foreigner (previously mentioned exceptions aside).

Do you know why I am still in Lisbon?

I have been trying to land a job in Lisbon for a whole year now. I have what many employers, friends and university professors have described as an “impressive CV” and “exceptional experience.” However, this hasn’t translated into much in a job market, which pays poorly compared to housing expenses and which relies heavily on personal connections.

Why am I still here? That is how much I love it here.

I am willing to put up with precarious freelancing if that means getting to stay in Lisbon. Is it sustainable in the long term? Sadly, no. However, getting to live where you want to live and not where you have to live is actually a matter of privilege. While I am managing to sustain this privilege till now, I don’t think I will keep doing that forever.

People like me need to go to where a job offer is. I need to learn to accept that.

I believe that cities have the ability to resemble who we are deep inside. There is the “me” the outside world sees and another “me” which only I recognize. This inner “me” is not something we can always put our finger on. It is the general feel about who we are which we carry everywhere and that is only accessible to oneself.

Lisbon is the city which feels like the inside of myself the most: I feel that part of me resembles its colorful buildings, unpolished local tabernas, and the rhythms of its everyday life. It is difficult to let go of that resonance with your environment when you find it. 

Lisbon’s buildings with the Cathedral at the background

Why do I think it isn’t for everyone? 

Because people who speak of Lisbon as this expat haven either have their own business here, are living off an inheritance or have remote jobs which they obtained in their home countries and that allow them to cope with the cost of rent and bills, which are incredibly expensive on a Portuguese salary. Some of my friends can pull Lisbon off as they don’t need a Portuguese job, which pays 800 euros per month while the cheapest apartment costs 1,000 euros per month.

I am not sure I can pull it off in the same way.

So if you are in tech or if you have savings or if you can work remotely and salaries are higher in your home country, it would be crazy not to consider moving to Lisbon. It is an invaluable experience whether for the weather, the beaches, the friendly vibe or how beautiful it really is.

However, if you are like my Italian friend who studied translation, and whose family is barely making ends meet in Bologna and can’t really send her a stipend every month; or if you are like me with experience in humanitarian work and academic research which has a small market in Portugal; or if you are like my Brazilian friend who has extensive experience in sales and customer service but has to have two jobs to survive, then Lisbon is not a haven.

You are either stuck with a job which pays very little, and which means that you need two or three jobs to survive, or you just have to make peace with a year of job hunting without much of an outcome. 

I am not painting a pessimistic picture here at all.

This is the truth, and the truth is that Lisbon is hard for many people. I, among other people, have chosen to be here despite all of that. However, I have just realized that over the past few years, I have been writing predominately about how great a place Lisbon is for expats.

In fact,  Lisbon is actually easier to live in for some people than it is for others. And one needs to think carefully about whether moving to Lisbon fits their profile and options in life. 


See more about Lisbon here in Dispatches’ archives.

Read more from Sarah here.

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Sarah Nagaty has a PhD in cultural studies, She’s lived in Portugal for six years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

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