Over the near six years that my family and I have been here in Portugal, I’ve seen the popularity of the country grow in quite the meteoric way and the distinct phases of migration that have gone with that fast-growing, global attraction.
There’s a marked contrast between those easy-going pre-Brexit days, that were the hallmark of our arrival, and these seemingly frenzied times, where every week sees a new poll topped or award scooped by Portugal, its delightful culture and beautiful people.
As it turns out, I have to take some responsibility too for exciting and inspiring others to come and live here as we have done, sharing my passion first as a podcaster and latterly a ‘YouTuber’, as well as sharing experience and insight in a consultancy role, with individuals and groups.
I have coached would-be immigrants, welcomed new arrivals, and even said goodbye to those who came and ultimately decided this was not, for some reason or other, the life for them. I am the man with the ‘Portugal plan’.
A comprehensive view then, you might think, of the whos, whys and wherefores when it comes to choosing Portugal as a place to spend the rest of one’s life, or at least the foreseeable future.
However, what was once a fairly straightforward matter of contagiously sharing my passion has become a growing concern and sense of responsibility, which was first triggered, I think, by a chance conversation with an American woman on a Caldas da Rainha street.
Having shared with her my vested interest in helping people move to Portugal, she suggested that perhaps I could be paid to STOP talking about how great this country is, and thereby stem the flow of inward migrants. “Shut up, Carl!” was her message.
What was clearly a comment uttered with her tongue at least a little way in her cheek, the post-pandemic surge has brought with it more thoughtfulness on this subject of migrant impact and the part I play in encouraging and maybe even managing it, in some small way.
As acrid arguments continue in some quarters over which word is best used for us humans from elsewhere entering Portuguese society, whether it be ‘expat’, ‘immigrant’ or ‘foreigner’ to name just a few serving suggestions, I think there are bigger bacalhau to fry, as it were.
In my daily life entertaining and working with, let’s say, foreigners, I tend to encounter Americans, Brits and generally northern Europeans, who I increasingly realise are a minority or niche gaggle. That said, they are sometimes a noisier niche than most, yet, to their credit, a usually introspective one – concerned about their impact and keen to integrate positively.
In truth, this ‘grey-haired’ influx, made up mainly of retirees, is relatively small in the scheme of things with most migrants – looking at the 2020 numbers – coming from Portugal’s former colonies along with those forming the much-needed, generally low-paid work-force that this economy now requires.
And herein lies and ferments that growing concern, previously mentioned.
The community I most readily identify with, which can be judged as relatively small, well-meaning and hopefully economically useful, is perhaps also one of those dreaded echo-chambers, a comfort zone, in which I find myself increasingly uncomfortable.
This awkwardness is, of course, occurring in a context where it isn’t unimaginable, not long from now, that one in 10 Portuguese residents will be an immigrant.
Let me say at this point that my unease is NOT formed from a virtue-signalling, expat shame position. It comes more from the flabbergasting realisation that we – all of us incomers into Portugal at this time – are part of a huge and rapid population-inflating experiment, the likes of which has not been seen, certainly since the post-colonial war emergency.
For sure, we have a duty to integrate as best we can with a mindful respect for the culture that attracted and now welcomes us, knowing that we will inevitably change it with our very presence and volume.
So, with this in mind, I actively support newcomers to integrate thoughtfully and ultimately make a positive impact – a sensitive and appropriate impact – on the new culture into which they’re coming.
And I suspect this won’t happen by chance or accident.
A societal change as dynamic and influential as this requires us to not only reach out to our Portuguese hosts, but I believe also to fellow foreigners in communities we might not ordinarily encounter.
My thought process is that we are not only stronger together, as much of a cliche as that is, but our strength will grow from understanding each other better as fellow foreigners and the collective impact we represent.
We do not have to look far to see the perils of wilful or passive misunderstanding, which can exacerbate division and challenge peace in a fast-changing society. Politicians may even use this as capital to disguise their own shortcomings with fingers pointed at migrants.
Let’s not let that happen. Let’s get to know each other and work together in our efforts to make a positive impact in the coming, possibly turbulent years. Might we even come together as a representative body, reflecting the views and concerns of migrants in Portugal in relation and in consultation with the Portuguese government?
If not any of this lofty level of multinational networking, how about we just all come together from all of our respective national backgrounds and have a massive party that celebrates the food, drink and music of each country, which may one day become an annual multicultural festa – Portuguese style?!
By Carl Munson