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‘I'll Only Return to the US in a Coffin’: After Moving to Portugal with Her Husband, This American Says She’ll Never Go Back to Her Country

They always planned to move to another country when they retired, but when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Cynthia Wilson and her husband, Craig Bjork, felt compelled to delay their plans.

The couple, who married in 2009, had already chosen Portugal as their destination after Googling ‘best places for Americans to retire’ and discovering that the European country—which Wilson had never visited—was at the top of the list.

‘It’s funny because I’ve visited about 33 countries, almost all in northwestern Europe,’ says Wilson, a native of Seattle, Washington, to CNN Travel. ‘I’ve been to countries like Estonia, but I knew almost nothing about Portugal.’

‘A-ha’ Moment

Cynthia Wilson and her husband Craig Bjork moved from the US to Marinha Grande, located in the Leiria district of Portugal, just over two years ago.

Luckily, Wilson’s husband, a former US Marine, ‘knew all about Portugal.’

‘For me, it was an a-ha moment,’ says the former chef and restaurant owner, explaining that Bjork had been stationed in Lisbon in the late 1970s and ‘had told me stories about his life there.’

The couple, who met in their 50s, initially connected through their shared passion for travel, and Wilson says this became ‘an endless conversation’ ever since.

‘We started talking about our travels,’ she recalls. ‘And we still talk about our travels.’

Once they married, Wilson and Bjork, who were living in Kansas at the time, began to seriously consider the type of life they wanted to have when they retired.

‘We both saw our parents spending all their savings and pensions on medical care,’ says Wilson, explaining that they did a lot of research on the cost of living in Portugal and found it to be more favorable.

‘And in Portugal, we could keep our money for travel. We were required to have private health insurance as part of our visa process. But we would also have access to the national health system, especially for hospitalizations.’

Wilson and Bjork, who used to run a food truck called LumpiaPalooza and Cafe Parsnipity in Wichita, Kansas, initially gave themselves six years ‘to plan and dream about moving to Portugal.’

However, they chose to speed things up ‘instead of going into debt to keep our business afloat’ during the pandemic.

‘We decided to retire two years early,’ Wilson explains. ‘So we applied for retirement in 2020 and started working on the paperwork.’

The couple applied for a D7 visa, also known as a ‘retirement visa,’ which requires meeting specific requirements, including proof of buying a house in the country or a lease contract of at least 12 months.

Community Spirit

The couple celebrating Wilson's first birthday in Portugal with friends

They dedicated much time and energy to choosing the city where they would live, eventually opting for the small town of Marinha Grande, located on the Silver Coast, famous for the surfing beach Nazaré.

Wilson explains that they were committed to moving to a place where they could integrate into the local community and spend time with Portuguese people instead of other Americans.

‘Many people who move to Portugal like to call themselves ‘expats’ and spend time at meetups where they complain to other expats about how no one in Portugal speaks English, how they can’t find that exact brand of canned beans, and accuse the ‘natives’ of being impossible to know,’ she says.

‘This wasn’t the life we wanted. We wanted to be immigrants, people who move to a new country to become part of the culture and community of that country.’

Once their visas were approved and general Covid restrictions were lifted, the couple moved to Marinha Grande, which has a population of nearly 40,000 people, in January 2022.

Initially, they stayed in an Airbnb, which cost them about $800 a month, and soon found themselves hosting some of the friends they had communicated with through a city Facebook page before the trip.

‘I cooked dinner at our Airbnb two or three times a week for our Portuguese friends,’ says Wilson, adding that they were warmly welcomed by the locals, who seemed intrigued by them.

‘People never saw us as Americans,’ says Wilson. ‘I think they couldn’t really identify us at all. They rarely considered us Americans, and we were fine with that.’

As the couple began to settle into their new life, Wilson, who describes herself as a ‘perfectionist,’ struggled with having so much free time.

Early Retirement

Wilson and Bjork have been living happily in Portugal since 2022

‘Retirement has been hard for me,’ she admits. ‘Because I’m a ‘type A’ person. All my life I’ve worked, worked, worked. I have a list and I live by that list.’

‘And now it’s like, I don’t even know what day of the week it is. And that’s been a struggle. But I’m in the right place to deal with that. Because it’s quite OK here. No one looks at me with disdain for not running around trying to achieve, achieve, achieve.’

Wilson and Bjork are currently taking Portuguese classes provided by the government. However, Wilson admits that learning a new language hasn’t been easy.

‘Portuguese is very hard,’ says Wilson, explaining that she speaks Japanese and Spanish, as well as ‘tourist-level German, Danish, and French.’

‘I’m very good with languages. But Portuguese is a challenge to learn. We don’t find it easy. We find it manageable. Some people, especially people our age, don’t find it manageable.’

The couple also had to change their approach to people, particularly when needing to ask them about things like shops, after noticing that their direct approach wasn’t always well received.

‘My Portuguese friends taught me that you first need to acknowledge people’s humanity,’ says Wilson.

‘And you do that by saying ‘Good morning, how are you?’ And they say ‘I’m fine, how are you?’ And once you do that, it’s like a magic key that opens the door to good service.’

Wilson explains that she finds this attitude refreshing, as the focus is solidly on people and interpersonal relationships.

‘Their ethic is not job first or money first,’ she adds. ‘Their ethic is family and leisure… And it’s refreshing to see people value relationships above a rat race. The rat here died, there’s no room for that.’

Wilson has warmly embraced the Portuguese lifestyle, particularly the focus on food, which has long been a big part of her life.

‘People eat together all the time,’ she says. ‘Sunday is considered family day. So there’s a big family meal where moms and dads and everyone get together to eat.’

‘Portuguese women my age are always cooking. We spend a lot of time with them learning about Portuguese food.’

Although Wilson and Bjork had originally planned to use Portugal as a ‘jumping-off point’ to travel around the rest of Europe, they’ve found themselves too busy dealing with all the tasks involved in moving to a new country to venture far.

‘There’s a lot to do,’ says Wilson. ‘From government things, getting your residency card. Then you have to transfer your driver’s license here and find a car [if you drive].’

‘You have to buy everything [for the house]. And you have to sort everything out for healthcare and to get access to public services. It’s really a big process.’

The Affordability Factor

Bjork at a Sunday picnic last summer with friends Dulce Silva and Sérgio Carvalho

When asked if she and her husband find Portugal more affordable, Wilson notes that it all depends on their own experiences, highlighting that their Portuguese friends ‘react a bit’ when they comment on how much cheaper things are, which aren’t necessarily cheap for them.

‘We made that mistake,’ she admits. ‘When we first got here, we would say ‘Oh, this is practically free.’ And we had to stop saying that because we were offending them.’

Wilson emphasizes that what seems affordable to them might not be very affordable for a Portuguese worker earning the minimum wage.

‘A lot of people earn the minimum wage,’ she adds. ‘So… yes. For Americans, it’s cheap to live here if you don’t live in Lisbon, Porto, or the Algarve.’

‘Those places are the equivalent of trying to live in San Francisco or Manhattan. Those are expensive cities. So if your desire is to live in one of those places, you’ll pay three times more than what we pay, probably, in rent, food, everything.’

During their stay in Portugal, the couple adopted two street cats, grandly named Doce Florabela de Portugal and Rainha Jóia Fofa Maria da Silva, through a nonprofit organization called The Kitten Connection.

Wilson has been preparing food for a fundraising event that the organization is planning and has also been giving regular cooking lessons to a local teenager.

‘He loves Asian food and it’s not that easy to find that in Marinha Grande,’ she explains. ‘So I came up with this idea that he could learn to cook it with me.’

She and her husband regularly host dinners, including an annual Thanksgiving celebration, and participate in local events like children’s concerts and sports games.

Being part of such a close-knit community has been a dream come true for Wilson, who says they almost always run into someone they know when they leave the house.

‘We’ve been here for over two years and we’re happier with the decision we made,’ Wilson says.

‘We have many Portuguese friends who have helped us every step of the way and who have opened the doors of their homes and their hearts to us.’

‘Zero Problems’

Before moving to Portugal, Wilson was very tired of the political climate in the United States and was particularly concerned about gun violence.

‘I tell people ‘We fled the country,’ she says. ‘The way everything was unfolding… we felt outraged and upset every minute of the day.’

Since moving to Portugal, Wilson hasn’t returned to the US and says she has no plans to ever go back.

‘I’ll return to the US in a coffin. Period,’ she emphasizes. ‘There is literally nothing that would make me feel obligated to return to the US.’

Although Wilson misses her family and friends, she says she’s a true adventurer and never intended to spend the rest of her days in America.

‘Some people have asked me how I could leave my children or what my children think about this,’ she says, noting that her children are adults with their own lives.

‘And I always traveled all my life without them, leaving them and my husband to go travel for two weeks every year. Just because that was important to me.’

‘I’m a bit of a bohemian person. So my kids expected nothing less than [me] making these trips, as if it was something strange.’

Wilson and Bjork say they’ve had ‘zero problems’ since moving to Portugal and couldn’t be happier.

In fact, things have gone so well that others are sometimes skeptical when they share their experiences.

‘People say ‘You see everything with rose-colored glasses.’ But it’s as perfect as I describe it,’ says Wilson.

‘The process went off without a hitch for us. Not that it happens that way for everyone—I know that. But I’ll celebrate what we achieved. And what we’ve had is a great experience.”

News extracted from CNNPortugal