(Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Life as an accidental émigré

The coronavirus pandemic has birthed a new historically-specific group: the lockdown refugees

On days like these, I take a nap under an orange tree, gather the fallen fruit before anyone else does and head indoors to squeeze some juice. The season of the nêspera has passed, but not before I tasted a freshly-fallen loquat, its gentle, distinctive flavour oozing from its juicy flesh. As spring turns to summer, I’m still surprised when I round the corner into the next praça and see the mauve of the blooming jacaranda trees against Lisbon’s elegant white apartment blocks.

These are some of the joys of discovering a new country, of living in southern Europe year-round, each season revealing a new aspect of the city to which I came last December with one suitcase. My plan was to secure residency before the Brexit deadline and return to Britain within a couple of months to collect more possessions. Since Portuguese residency allows an annual absence of up to six months, I still hoped to spend part of the year in Blighty. My departure was effectively an act of self-preservation: with my work gone and the prospect of a British winter confined to a London flat, I knew I couldn’t do another lockdown and expect to stay well.

My coping strategies for the grief I feel include turning to history, especially my own family history

Six months on and I’m still in Lisbon, having postponed my return several times due to UK travel restrictions. My flat, furnished and crammed with my books, has been let temporarily twice over with the help of my neighbours, generating the income for my nomadic way of life. My car sits on the road outside, its MOT expired, while a second property — which I’d painstakingly renovated as a “forever home” — stands unmaintained in the West Country damp. And now that I’m embarking on the emigration process proper, I am tussling with the problem of how to submit tax returns in two countries while the information I need is in a filing cabinet in south London. Meanwhile, two seasons have passed and as temperatures soar, I’ve acquired a whole new wardrobe, my feelings shifting between longing for old possessions and delight in acquiring a rainbow of cheap summer dresses from Lisbon’s Chinese shops. Sometimes there’s a pang as I remember I have a garment like that at home. Then, taking a deep breath, I head to the cash desk — I will Buy Back Better.

Such is the oscillating emotional state of the accidental émigré, a constant ebb and flow of pleasure and pain, satisfaction and anxiety. On other days, the days of grief, my coping strategies include turning to history, especially my own family history. Both my parents were buffeted about by the Second World War, my father leaving his native Austria to return to America where he’d been a prisoner-of-war; my mother fleeing bleak post-war Britain for the bright skies of California. And yet, I remind myself, they ended up in an English village, having endless cups of tea and living a life of exemplary stability.

Another source of comfort comes from the knowledge that, with an estimated half a million Brits owning second homes in the EU and a larger, unquantifiable number with family and friends abroad, I can’t be alone. Surely some of them will speak out in defence of travel and practical internationalism any day now.

Do I miss Britain? someone asks occasionally. No, I say. From the moment I emerged from the metro and saw Praça a da Figueira lit with Christmas trees, I’ve felt strangely at home in Lisbon. I’ve long struggled with the British winter and am well travelled in some of the world’s warmer countries, in both the meteorological and cultural sense. But never before have I found a place where it felt right to stay — Lebanon was too unstable, France too monocultural, Spain too … Spanish. The Portuguese capital combines elements of many cities I’ve loved: there’s calm and vitality, Atlantic clouds and bright sun, friendly locals and people from all over the world. For a travelling Goldilocks, Lisbon is just right. More joy.

I do miss Britain, but it’s one that seems to be receding into the past

But grief returns as I watch from a distance the country I know and love change almost beyond recognition. Yes, I do miss Britain, but it’s one that seems to be receding into the past: a gentle, liberal society that operated on the principle of “live and let live”. The land of my youth was composed of debates that encouraged respect for different opinions; there was music everywhere, from the church choir to the heavy metal disco. As I write, it’s still illegal in England to have more than six people in your home, music venues can open with only limited capacity, amateur choirs can’t meet and nightclubs remain shut. Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s ongoing calls for hotel quarantine for all arrivals in the UK is heightening my anxiety about my latest plans to return. Hotel quarantine is a financial and psychological impossibility for me. How will I get back, if the combined forces of Government, Science and Opposition succeed in closing the country before I can get home?

The government’s recent demotion of Portugal to the amber list has not gone down well here, with the President dubbing it “heath fundamentalism”. Some comfort comes from the knowledge that my adopted country is as unimpressed with this kind of thing as I am. And indeed, the half-year I’ve been here, living in accommodation designed for travellers, remote workers and students, has been decidedly international. I’ve met many Erasmus students — Lisbon is bursting with universities — and remote workers, part of the new generation of European professionals who take the ability to move around their continent for granted. Focused, confident, and determined to live life to the full, they tend to stare or laugh when they hear of the UK’s ongoing travel restrictions.

There have been a few, rare characters with the resilience to travel during a pandemic: I’ll never forget the elderly French women escaping another Paris confinement and the young Swiss couple who, having left Zurich in June 2020, were walking their way to the southernmost point of Europe, camping along the way. Then there were Brits who, stranded on the continent by the pandemic, were about to fly home until, hearing of Tiers and the cancellation of Christmas, they changed their minds. A couple managed to get Portuguese residency at the eleventh hour and now plan to stay for good.

Meanwhile, the business of integrating certainly takes my mind off things. Thanks to a notoriously cumbersome bureaucracy further slowed by Covid measures, it took three months to acquire my NIF — Número de Identificação Fiscal — the fiscal number required for any significant transaction, despite having the process managed by a Portuguese friend. The language, easy enough to read if you’ve studied Spanish, Italian or Latin, is characterised by shushing, nasal and close-vowel sounds which make it difficult for an English-speaker to understand. But for someone who loves language, my unexpected emigration provides the opportunity to recall the exact moment I learn a new word in a way a toddler never can. When I heard the word for “dirty”, I have a vivid image of a Portuguese friend saying “sujo” as she pointed to the contents of the dishwasher. 

With its precious first-times and unique sense of hurt, my fellow accidental émigrés and I are part of a new, historically-specific group: the lockdown refugees, the class of 2020.

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