I had fantasized for years about what it would be like to live in Europe, to walk past Roman aqueducts, to kayak down a river dotted by medieval castles, and to enjoy another language and culture.
In August 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, my family and I sold everything we owned, including our car, my treasured kitchen-aid stand mixer, and packed what was left into 2 suitcases, 2 camping backpacks, 2 carry-ons, and put our 3 year-old and 10 month-old into a double stroller. We boarded a one-way flight to Portugal and took our great leap into the unknown.
Here’s an update on what’s happened over the last 3 years.
1. I learned Portuguese from scratch
I’m embarrassed to admit that I landed in Lisbon knowing only one word in Portuguese: obrigada (thank you).
We needed to get our language skills up to speed, so we signed up for a 4-month-long language course. I thought I had signed up for 4 hours of classes a week, but I had misunderstood the description and only later realized that I had signed us up for a course that was 4 hours a day, 20 hours a week!
During those 4 months, we squeezed in Portuguese classes, work, and caring for our 2 kids. It was stressful, but this intensive course was exactly what we needed to talk with our kid’s school teachers, buy a car, and, over time, start making friends.
I can now comfortably read Roald Dahl’s Matilda in Portuguese and converse well, but… I still don’t feel quite like myself when I speak in Portuguese. I’d like to think I’m pretty funny in English, but often, my sense of humor doesn’t seem to translate well in Portuguese. There are so many subtleties in word choice that I’m aware of when I speak in English; I just don’t have that level of fluency yet.
2. No one asks what I do for work
By this point, I’ve gone to tons of social events – birthday parties, picnics, and potlucks. And in the 3 years we’ve lived here, no one has ever directly asked me what I do for work.
In the US, this is the first question most people ask at social events. I asked a Portuguese friend why people don’t ask about your profession at a party, and she gave me the side-eye and said, “If you’re at a party, why would you want to talk about work?” Touché!
Since I was no longer introducing myself as, “Hi, I’m Ashwini, I’m a palliative care doctor,” at every social event, I found myself no longer pigeonholing myself and my identity based on my profession.
3. I learned how to problem-solve
When we moved to Portugal, I planned to work via telemedicine, doing primary and urgent care visits and palliative care e-consultations. After a couple of months of doing this, I realized I missed the patient-physician connection I experienced in palliative care.
I also knew my Portuguese was not good enough to start the medical licensure application here in Portugal. So, I had to step back and identify what I loved about palliative care and figure out how to incorporate that into my life in Portugal.
That’s when I looked closer at my backburner idea about creating a coaching service to support caregivers. I had noodled on this idea for years, and with my husband’s encouragement, I started to brainstorm what a caregiver coaching service could look like. I learned how to establish a business, identify who I wanted to serve, build a team around this idea, and eventually built EpioneMD – where we coach caregivers to advocate for their loved ones and help them navigate a broken healthcare system.
As a coach, I don’t practice medicine. But I’ve been able to use my medical knowledge, training, and experience and apply it differently. I can now help caregivers in a way I couldn’t in traditional medicine. If I had never left the US, I would have never had the space, time, or need to create EpioneMD and find a different way to support caregivers.
Many of my physician friends ask me, “Coaching is great. But what if you want to return to clinical care? What will you do then?” I’m still doing my CME/MOCs, I’ve kept my state medical license active, I’ll take my recertification board exams, and if one day I want to go back to clinical care, I feel more confident now, that I can figure out a way, problem-solve, and learn.
4. We’ve gone from knowing no one to building a community
We arrived in Portugal knowing no one. Not a single friend, family member, or colleague. The COVID-19 pandemic and working from home didn’t help. I missed my family who gave us a break from parenting, if only for a couple of hours. And I missed chit-chatting with friends between patients, even if it was just about the Superbowl.
The Portuguese people are incredibly warm and generous. The first time we visited Portugal, we were flustered at a Lisbon metro stop since we couldn’t figure out how to buy a metro pass. It was getting dark, and we were the only ones there when a young man in a hoodie approached us while pulling something out of his pocket. I immediately thought, “F&*%, he’s got a gun, and he’s gonna rob us!!!”. Instead, he pulled out his phone for Google Translate and helped us buy our metro passes.
They’re also reserved, but our kids helped us make friends. We showed up at every birthday party and proactively cultivated relationships with the other parents. It’s only now, after 3 years of living here, that we’ve built a community of Portuguese and English-speaking friends that we regularly meet up with.
5. There’s a lot to see, and everything’s new
There’s a lot to see in Portugal, and our weekends are all about exploring. Do we feel like relaxing on the azure beaches of Sesimbra, taking the train through the terraced Douro Valley, or hiking through the Roman ruins of Conimbriga? Everything is new, so there’s always a festival to check out and a medieval something or other to visit.
It’s also super easy and inexpensive to travel around Europe. A long weekend in Paris for 79 euros without jet lag? Yes, please! We’ve done the Caminho de Santiago twice now – the first time along the Portuguese coast, the second time along the northern coast of Spain. And we’re thinking about doing it again next summer.
6. I’ve ditched my “to-go” coffee for sips of coffee on the rua
The pace of life here is slow. I’ve ditched my “to-go” coffee and my travel coffee mug. I order a meia de leite, and sip the noticeably smaller cup of coffee while sitting on the rua (outdoor patio) and people-watching.
The weekends are sacred here, and most kids’ activities occur during weekdays. The weekends are about playing in the park and being with other people who are also in the mood to relax. I LOVE this.
But this slower pace of life also means…. banks are closed on weekends, there’s no plumber on a Saturday when your dishwasher starts to leak, and forget trying to get anything done in August – whoever you need is on vacation.
My biggest takeaway
In taking this leap into the unknown, in moving to Portugal, I’ve learned it’s all about the process. Learning a language, making friends, building a business, none of this happens overnight. It’s taken me 3 years to feel like I’m building a life in Portugal filled with meaningful work, family, and friends.
In this process, I’ve developed two mindsets that I didn’t have before: that everything is figureoutable and that I’m really good at learning (I think all physicians are!). I’m still learning Portuguese, I’m still learning about business, and I’m still creating my life in Portugal – and I probably will be for a long time.
But here’s the catch: I wouldn’t be here if I had never taken this leap into the unknown. Hippocratic Adventures wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be sharing this with you.
So, are you ready to take your own (calculated) leap into the unknown?
👉Then grab your FREE e-book How to Start YOUR Adventure here! Start going through the workbook, noodling on the questions, and then keep us posted on your adventure!
Now, I’d love to hear from you!
- What resonated with you the most?
- What’s your biggest takeaway?
Let me know in the comments below.
Ashwini Bapat, MD, is a palliative care doctor, a co-founder of Hippocratic Adventures and EpioneMD Coaching. She lives in Portugal with her husband and 2 kids. When she’s not blogging, you’ll find her swimming in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, frosting a cake, or watching the Korean reality show “Single’s Inferno” with her husband.
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