Lifestyle & Culture

Sarah Nagaty in Portugal: What do expats miss most (and least) when leaving Lisbon?

I noticed that most expats who leave Lisbon for one reason or another carry this sense that the siren is calling them back to return. Many do not actually return to live, but most of them, I would say, at least visit frequently. They feel the need to keep some ties with Lisbon, or maybe it is Lisbon that is keeping them tied to it?

I am an Egyptian living in Portugal. Naturally, my social circle consists largely of other foreigners. Some of them are quite determined to make Lisbon their home for good, while others think of it as a temporary home, a transitional phase in their lives. So far, I had to say goodbye to three close friends from different parts of the world who had to leave Lisbon for different reasons. It was quite sad to see them go especially when two of them actually would have preferred to stay in Lisbon for longer, but with the outbreak of the pandemic, they found it best to return to their home countries.

I believe they will all come back, though. They could not get Lisbon out of their systems as far as I can tell.

As for my acquaintances, there are always as many expats leaving as those who are newly arriving.The common factor, in all those arrivals and departures, is that most of those who come to Lisbon are attached to it for the sake of it.

To understand this Lisbon/ expat dynamic, I asked three former Lisbon expats what they miss the most (and least) about the Portuguese capital:

Fatima, a 32-year-old from Bahrain

As someone who always dreamt to become a film director, Fatima left Lisbon to study film in the United States. I met Fatima only once, but I remember how heavy she felt about leaving Lisbon. It was the right decision for her career, she thought.

When I asked Fatima about the thing she misses the most about Lisbon, she started answering quickly before I even finished my question:

“All of Lisbon to be honest: the friendly people; the beautiful beaches; the cobblestone streets; the yellow tram; the Portuguese custard tarts; just everything.”

Fatima had to take a moment to think about the thing she misses the least about Lisbon. She, then, answered, “I do not know. There is nothing I do not miss about Lisbon. Mmm maybe how cold apartments are in winter.”

Even though apartments being quite cold in winter is  true of Lisbon, I felt that Fatima was not that bothered by it and that she just mentioned it to give me something. Fatima is determined to retire in Lisbon when her retirement comes.

I certainly do not meet that many 32-year-olds with retirement plans.

Christian, a 25-year-old from Malta

Christian is one of the aforementioned three friends who left Lisbon when the pandemic started. He was doing his master’s of arts degree in Lisbon and was looking forward to finding a job in the cultural sector. However, the pandemic made this a bit difficult. On the other hand, he was offered a job in the field of culture in Malta, so he returned home.

Christian is the biggest Lisbon fan I know.

When I asked him about the thing he misses the most and least in Lisbon, he answered me with his usual enthusiasm saying:

The thing I  miss the most about Lisbon is the music scene. All the gigs and the magic of  music there! Mostly in a place like Tejo bar. I loved how people got together to dance and sing. In Lisbon, I would hear Fado in one street, then in the next one I would hear Samba, and so on. It is quite rich musically.

Thanks to Christian, I also became a big fan of Tejo bar myself. It has limited seating, but it is cosy and intimate, needless to mention the great live music.

The thing he misses the least was no surprise to me:

“I do not miss having to go uphill.” Christian then paused for a second and said: “In a way it is a love-hate relationship. Going uphill in Lisbon usually takes you to a beautiful place. However, it is not that nice to go uphill with groceries in the sun to return home after a long day.”

The reason I was not surprised with what Christian said is that: a.) Lisbon IS quite hilly, and b.) I have not seen a land more flat than in Malta.

Carlotta, a 28-year-old from Rome

Another friend of mine is Carlotta, the Italian from whom I learnt not to settle for any pizza and to know which pizza to always order at our favourite place Retrogusto84. I would have liked to pick up her quiet voice as well, but this ship has sailed.

I think it was Carlotta’s replies to my questions which moved me the most. I know how much she loves Lisbon. She is an embodiment of that thing I mentioned in the beginning of the post of how some people love Lisbon just because!

Carlotta was in the same MA program as Christian and had the same plans to find a job in the cultural or the artistic sector and stay in Lisbon for a while. However, and for reasons similar to Christian’s, she returned to Rome to manage her family business. 

In her calm, nostalgic voice Carlotta told me many things she misses the most about Lisbon:

I miss this feeling of this floating freedom. It is maybe tied a lot to the light there and to the atmosphere when the sun is going down, those colours, the scent of the air, and the closeness to the sea.It is all tied to a specific feeling which I have when I am there which is very relaxed and spontaneous…I feel balanced.

Carlotta spoke my mind when she expressed with so much emotion what she misses about Lisbon. She adds: “I also miss the viewpoints in Lisbon a lot.” In Portuguese, a viewpoint is called a miradouro. They are indeed spectacular, and Lisbon has many of them.

Carlotta continues:

Another thing is how friendly people are. As soon as you start learning Portuguese and show some openness to learning the culture, people love to show you around and they really appreciate your attempts to learn the language. These things made me feel at home and that this is a familiar city.

On the thing she misses the least, Carlotta, goes with Fatima in how cold she found Portuguese houses to be:

I really really do not miss how badly insulated houses are in winter. At least mine was terrible. It was quite humid inside. I was cold most of the time during winter.

Lisbon is the kind of place people move to because they feel that part of them resembles the city in its rhythm, openness, and simplicity, or because they wish to resemble the city in those things, i.e. they want to let go of something and they hope to gain something else. It is often an ineffable emotional connection rather than a calculated one.

About the author:

Sarah Nagaty is a PhD researcher of cultural studies in Lisbon. She’s lived in Portugal for three 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.

See all of Sarah’s Dispatches posts here.

See Dispatches’ Lisbon story archive here.

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