Portuguese American Journal

“Sim, mas…” An introduction to my life in northern Portugal – by Joy Hanford

By Joy Hanford, Contributor (*)

When I describe my life to friends back home in Indiana it sounds too good to be true. I live in Guimarães, in the North of Portugal. It is a stunning, special place that just so happens to be the birthplace of the nation.

Medieval, honest, and ancient, my days are filled with asking my seven year old if he would like to go to the park or the castle to play after school. I don’t wear a watch; just simply use the church bells every 15 minutes to tell time. My weekends are spent exploring the equally unique and stunning villages and cities that make up the Minho region or the nearby regions of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro, famous for it’s Douro Valley, the only place in the world that can produce Port Wine.

Finding my way here from America’s heartland was a combination of love, luck and scholarship, having met my husband as he studied Cognitive Science and Psychology as a Fulbright Scholar at Indiana University, Bloomington. And after four years living in Portugal I understand and can apply the quote made famous by Gertrude Stein to myself. “America is my country, but Guimarães is my home town.” Now if I could only convince my neighbors of this.

As a foreigner one of my most fluent and articulate conversations in Portuguese is what I fondly call the “Sim, mas…” or the “Yes, but…” conversation. It is a common interaction I have almost daily with a fellow dinner party guest, a stranger at a café, a vendor at the farmers market, a gentleman at the post office and it generally goes a little something like this:

Largo do Toural, Guimarães, Portugal.  Photo by Joshua Grunda

Largo do Toural, Guimarães.
Photo by Joshua Grunda.

Portuguese: I notice that you are a stranger. Are you British?

Me: No, I am an American. I am from a state near Chicago.

Portuguese: American? How long have you lived here?

Me: Four years.

Portuguese: Four years! But what are you doing here?

Me: I live here. My husband is a scientist here. My son goes to school here. My daughter was born here.

Portuguese: Yes, but you are American. Why would you want to live here?

Me: This is the exact life I want to live. My family is happy. I live in a beautiful place. There is always something new to see. Every small town has a café and a new cake to discover.

Portuguese: Yes, but is that enough? In Portugal we have so many problems. In America you have so many opportunities.

Me: I love America. And yes, you can make all your dreams come true, but you also work very hard in America and it is not a priority stop, relax and take a break. Here in Portugal there is so much time for family and friends, because it is a part of your culture.

Portuguese: Yes, but then there is also the pressure of family. You don’t have these same commitments in America?

Me: Every family is different. For me living in Portugal is the same distance away from my family if I lived in California and I adore Portugal. The food is perfect and the wine, even from down the street, is the best I have ever had.

Portuguese: Yes, but do you work?

Me: Yes, of course I work. I am very lucky that I am a writer and an artist. I create children’s books and illustrate them. As an artist I can work anywhere so I choose Portugal.

Portuguese: Yes, but America has so many other options. So many people want to live there why do you choose here?

I always struggle with the strength of the debate because it is almost as impossible to convince some people of the merits of our lives in Portugal, as it is to compare our two different cultures. How do you not find appeal in the fast paced-ness of America? Always able to find what you want whenever you want it, always working at peak performance, achieving and inventing a new normal on a daily basis. It is the land of big cars and big houses, Hollywood and How I Met Your Mother, the best of everything.

Largo da Oliveira, Guimarães.  Photo by Joshua Grunda.

Largo da Oliveira, Guimarães. Photo by Joshua Grunda.

Portugal has different priorities. It is closer knit, with strong ties to family and home. Portugal is, by American standards, a socialist country; taxes are higher and with solidarity in healthcare, education and social benefits.

Luxuries are priced accordingly. An iPhone can cost as much as an average middle class person’s monthly salary, but conversely, needs are priced for the people. Food costs are much lower.

My first day in Portugal I stopped by a roadside vegetable stand and ordered ¼ of a pumpkin, a turnip, 4 carrots, a bunch of kale (complete with dirt and snails), 4 potatoes, a leek and two onions and cried when the bill came to €1.89 (about $2.50), because I was so used to the price of produce in America (the farmer thought I was crazy). A formal dress shirt can cost €100 and up, but the machine to wash it in can cost as low as €200. Gas is roughly $7.35 a gallon.

And on average every Portuguese citizen, no matter the job title, is offered 4 weeks paid holiday a year. When I was new to Portugal and learning how converse the structures of our two cultures were someone explained it to me as, “Um pequeno salário mas uma vida grande” which means “a small salary, but a big life”. Call it the artist in me, but this was utterly intoxicating.

Largo Republica do Brasil , Guimarães. Photo by Joshua Grunda.

Largo Republica do Brasil.
Photo by Joshua Grunda.

My life in America verses my life in Portugal are so different there is no fair comparison to end the “Sim, mas…” debate. Food, wine and climate as I mentioned are truths, but what about the independent spirit, seeming land of opportunity and surplus of jobs? Of course this is true, the American dream is a reality, but what about valuing your quality of life outside of work?

Americans are some of the hardest working people on the planet. Yes they have, but they also sacrifice. I love America and am so blessed to have grown up in a culture that has taught me I can do anything and make my dreams reality. This independence and confidence has served me well. And normally when I have finished my coffee or picked my purchases I end the “Sim, mas…” conversation with, “The world is filled with stress and worries no matter where you live. There is no perfect system. I choose the worries here. I choose my stresses here. For me they are better, especially discussed with neighbors like you.” And we smile and I know the next time we meet our conversation will be centered around politics and local events or the color of my children’s eyes (blue like their mother’s). I will still get a “Sim, mas…” conversation from them every once and a while, but after the initial line of inquiry we are both in agreement. Life in Portugal is not perfect, but it is our choice.

As an outsider I have the luxury of seeing Portugal with a novel eye, but they cannot argue against all the better parts of daily life. The food is some of the best in the world. The wine is unmatched. The coffee, a blend of beans and flavors from all over the world. There are some spectacular sites to explore and festivals to enjoy. And it is my pleasure and privilege to take the opportunity to sightsee and taste all the wonders Portugal has to offer. And even when I am in Guimarães running errands on the street where I live the conversation is always engaging.


JoyHanford* Joy Hanford is a Midwestern American writer, artist and children’s book author who just so happens to live in the North of Portugal.  When she was a little girl, she know exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up then she forgot then she remembered.  She spends her week filling pages in her sketchbook with stories and adventures, and her weekends searching for dragons hiding in castle corners.   You can peek into her life by visiting: www.conversationswithhank.com. Her books, available in both English and Portuguese are available at Amazon, iBooks (an animated version) and Google Play Store.