Hitting a Wall, The Ups And Downs of a New Life in Portugal by Alastair Leithead

The occupational hazard of making a life-changing move is that it’s going to be life-changing, and that means taking the bad with the good. Giving up stable, long-term careers at 50 and heading into the Portuguese countryside with an ambitious dream to reinvent ourselves and create something new was always going to have its ups and its downs.

Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t have it any other way – I certainly don’t regret making the move. Portugal is a wonderfully welcoming country attracting tourists, digital nomads and all sorts of people moving all over the world wanting a new start in a new place. New-found love is often blind, but an unfamiliar language, bureaucracy, and an understanding of how things work in an unusual place shouldn’t be underestimated.

Not everyone decides to take on the additional challenge of being off the power and water grids and remote enough that there aren’t many people to call when things go wrong.

Working out how stuff works and how to fix it has actually been a brilliant part of our new challenge – I just wish I was getting better at it! I still super-glue my fingers together, spend more time looking for tools than using them and make careless mistakes easily avoided by spending more time thinking and less time doing.

But my first big down after three years of learning to live like this in rural Alentejo came a few weeks ago, and the surprising thing was that it sneaked up on me. I just hit a wall which sapped me of energy, drained me of enthusiasm and ground everything I was doing to a halt.

It could be the impossible list of things we’re trying to achieve: the increasing pressures of our tourism lodge building project and producing a wine podcast, or the final realisation I haven’t got a proper job anymore and I have to set my own deadlines. And that is quite a scary mindset to get into. Thankfully I have writing – the space and place to put it into words.

When I over-shared on my blog Off Grid and Ignorant in Portugal the self-diagnostic process not only helped me realise what was going on, but it also generated an overwhelming response from readers who found what I said all so familiar. The pressure is often to Keep Calm and Carry On in the style of the British meme, and it’s not always easy to shake off the dark shadow and get back in the groove. Being grumpy, de-motivated and unproductive were the symptoms, needing to tick things off, taking on too much just to be busy, and a delayed reaction to being de-institutionalised from a life-long career were the cause.

I like my daily “to-do” lists, but some of the best advice I’ve received is to also celebrate the successes with a “ta-da” list. One reader sent this unattributed quotation:

“She turned and looked at her old life one more time
Whispered I will never see you again
I do have a new life to be lived
She took a deep breath and walked towards all that waited & needed her.”

Some old friends and their kids – wonderful musicians that they are – stayed with us and injected an energy and optimism into the Valley of the Stars which was sorely needed. They performed an amazing version of John Mayer’s song Stop this Train – it’s worth reading all the lyrics but in summary, it’s about life speeding up as you get older and punchline is “Don’t stop this train.”

With building work going well, our train is certainly not stopping and after a few weeks away I’m very glad it’s not. I’ve returned reinvigorated by the big picture, seeing once again the beautiful place where we live, the incredible progress we’re making and the wonderful country we’ve decided to call home.

Alastair Leithead is a former BBC Foreign Correspondent and freelance journalist now living in a remote rural part of Alentejo. He writes a blog called “Off-Grid and Ignorant in Portugal” and is writing about wine “The Big Portuguese Wine Adventure.”

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