Living in Portugal: Lost in Translation or Cultural Differences?

Jan 02, 2020 | Posted by Bobby in Bobby Voicu's Playground

You can also find book recommendations on migration at the end of this blog post.

At the end of 2018 I moved from Romania, where I lived pretty much my whole life, to Portugal. They’re pretty similar cultures:

  • Both generally European (Portugal “more European” than Romania)
  • Both had a dictatorship that finished in the last 50 years
  • Both have problems with corruption (less in Portugal)
  • Both have a lot of bureaucracy
  • Latin language.

You’d think there would be no problems adapting to the Portuguese culture. And it’s true, in many ways we had no issues. I can actually speak enough Portuguese right now so I can ask for directions and mostly understand the answer. And my fiancée spoke the language quite well already.

But there are some issues I’ve never thought of. Case in point:

I say: I want central heating in the house.

They say: the house has central heating.

I mean: I want electric central heating with radiators in every room of the house and 24 degrees Celsius everywhere in the house.

They mean: We have central heating with fireplace and wood, with heating recuperator, MAYBE radiators, and 17-19 degrees in the entire house because it’s never that cold outside.

We say the same thing. We mean almost the same thing. Yet, it’s really different.

I was thinking of a completely automated heating system and being able to wear shorts and t-shirt in a house. They meant that there is a system to be used, even if not automatic, and it’s not as cold as it is outside. And yes, you might need to add another layer of clothes, but “the winter in Portugal is just 2 months and it’s not that cold anyway”.

It took me some time to understand the difference in perception.

We were using the same words, but our understanding of them was different enough to generate confusion.

The solution?

  • Ask for DETAILED information on everything. Sometimes people will look at you thinking you’re crazy, but keep in mind it’s your money at stake if you make a mistake
  • Ask often “What do you mean by X?”
  • Find someone from your country that has been living in the new country for a longer time (years, if possible) to “translate” the cultural differences. And to translate the language.
  • If the above is not available, find someone native that also speaks your language (or English). They might be capable of explaining the differences
  • Ask A LOT of questions about your chosen country. Ask everybody you meet, frankly, especially in the first year or so.

Well, this is not the perfect solution, but it is A solution. Changing countries is a difficult endeavor in itself, but the small things add quickly to the pressure and lack of comfort.

On the other hand, we were walking the dog around the neighborhood yesterday. One neighbor stopped us and invited us into his yard to give us some oranges and tangerines right from the tree. About 5kgs worth of them. The difference to Romania? If something similar happened, we would’ve left with 5kgs of apples. A little nuance in cultures, for sure, but I would’ve been happy with the apples as well.

Oh, and the photo on the top is not the view from my home, unfortunately. It’s a view from Foz do Arelho, across the Obidos Lagoon, to the Atlantic Ocean. An amazing place to visit. Just sayin’…

Migration books recommendations


  1. Ramona

    January 03, 2020 at 10:55 am

    Oh, the ‘warm’ winters. We had such an issue 8 years ago in Spain. My sister in law told us to not carry too much ‘winter’ stuff, as winters on Costa del Sol are very warm and people are still surfing on the sea. Well, never in my life have I suffered from so much cold as then. It was about 10-16 degrees Celsius outside, which, compared to Romania, was a blast (as we left from -20), but in was about 15 in the house as well.

    Marble floors, nothing to keep you warm, one electric radiator so that we don’t actually die of cold. It was horrible. Even my husband, who’s never cold, suffered a lot 😀


    • Bobby

      January 03, 2020 at 11:04 am

      I know! Lots of people I talked to said that the worst cold they ever felt was in a Southern European country during their “warm winters”. Inside the house 😀


  2. Elena

    January 05, 2020 at 11:25 am

    Oh, yeah, I still remember the cold I felt in Portugal, inside the house.


    • Bobby

      January 06, 2020 at 5:14 am

      I remember you telling me about it when I told you I want to move to Portugal :))

      Truth is, I didn’t really believe you. Oh, how wrong I was! 😀


  3. Mihai Stescu

    January 06, 2020 at 7:12 am

    Unfortunately our idea of comfort temperature has been deeply affected by the cold communism years.
    I work in HVAC field and I can tell you that all western producers of temperature regulating systems state as indoor winter comfort temperature the bias of 18-20 degrees (Celsius). So 24 degrees, as we sometime set the heating system in Romania is seen as luxury or maybe waste of energy.
    Yet, everyone of us is sensing different the temperature and got different grades of comfort. That combined with an unclear description would indeed lead to situations like you mentioned. Good lick with your new home, I am sure you will eventually sort it out. Cheers!


    • Bobby

      January 06, 2020 at 12:54 pm

      You might be right 🙂 On the other hand, I’m ok with 20 degrees, but my better half is genuinely cold at that temperature.

      As for sorting it out, we will. Fortunately, we’re not in a hurry, since the summer is coming here already 😀


  4. Cesare

    January 13, 2020 at 9:56 pm

    Really? Did you expected Romania 2? Lol.
    I mean, every country has his own peculiarities. Even different parts of the same country have them. If you go to Porto you’ll see that it’s a bit different compared to Lisboa.
    As a Portuguese, well, i don’t have central heating, none of my close friends have it either. It’s more common in principal cities like Lisboa, etc, and not so much in less populated areas i guess.
    I survive with A/C and heaters on some areas.
    But be prepared for the summer. You’ll be asking for central freezing, not heating. Maybe that’s why we are more into A/C i guess.


    • Bobby

      January 14, 2020 at 12:11 pm

      Hi Cesare!

      No, man, I didn’t expect Romania 2. If I did, why would I move to Portugal to begin with? 🙂

      I’m just talking about a communication issue here. It’s not about each country’s customs, it was just about the way we are wired by things around us to understand some words in a specific way. And it’s not the same way across the board.

      As for the summer, I’ve lived through one here. And, let me tell you, at least compared to where I live now in Portugal – somewhere in Centro – Bucharest is much hotter during the summer. And we have both in Romania: true central heating and AC, so it can be done 😀


We'd love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.