Moving to the country… gay and single

This move to the country is full of surprises (read obstacles?). Not only is the actual purchase of the farm still being held up by all sorts of paperwork and permissions that need to be in place before the transaction can go ahead. But also on the personal front, I had a “surprise”.

Yesterday came the big “It’s not you, it is me” discussion. Or in short, if I previously had the illusion that although I wouldn’t move to the countryside with my boyfriend, I thought I wouldn’t move as a single.

So any plans for romantic reunions on weekends, orange harvests together and spiritual support from afar while building up the farm have been put on ice. Of course, everything is still a little too early to say  exactly how it will turn out, and my feelings are a bit confused at the moment.

Aside from the emotional component: On the one hand, I imagine that it would have been a lot easier to carry out such a project as a couple, rather than alone. Even if your partner may not there with you, there is “spiritual support” somewhere.
On the other hand, I also know that I am definitely a lot “freer” and can do more of what I want. But how this all will pan out in practice will probably be something to see.

Of course, there is the not insignificant component of being gay. And while there are plenty of gay men in the city, at least in the countryside “single men” are supposedly in short supply. Frankly, I had to stop googling “single gay men in the countryside” in frustration after all the results predicted a completely lonely life…

Well, “only time will tell” as they say.

Speaking of time: So far there is no news from the bureaucracy front… so there, too, we will have to wait and see.

Lisbon, Tourism and Gentrification…

.. or why is it time to move to the country?

One of the questions my friends keep asking me is why I don’t just stay in Lisbon. A good question, and here is an attempt to answer it…..

Without a doubt Lisbon is a great city. If you live here, you can be on the beach in a few minutes, the nightlife is top and great food and cheap drinks are available at every corner. Actually a great city to live, one should think. For me personally, however, there are some very decisive factors that slowly convinced me against living in Lisbon: Firstly, my current life goals. And on the other hand, the impending and very much foreseeable consequences of the increasing gentrification here in Lisbon.

Unfortunately, not a day goes by without another report in the newspaper or the news about the effects of gentrification. That’s a pity, of course, because tourism and investment can, if done right, be really good for a city or region. Of course it’s hard to keep a sustainable and slow-advancing middle ground, especially in a country like Portugal, which needs tourists’ income urgently. On the other hand the mass tourism and the gentrification (I connect the two here, even if they are, of course, somewhat different things) destroy exactly what makes the city so attractive. And it’s happening super fast…  Even in the two years I’ve been here I realise every day how hard it is for the folk here. There are certainly more competent sources that give the full account of the consequences, but I notice how strange (i.e. annoying) it is to live in a house in which there are 14 apartments… but only 2 have people really living in them all year round. And more and more restaurants in the area are replacing traditional cuisine with pre-cooked (and Spanish!?) paella…. and the list could continue for a bit.
Gentrification is something I didn’t like about London, and one of the reasons I decided that London has had its day and it was time to leave. However, the gentrification (and also the hype around the city) there seemed to be progressing at a snail’s pace – at least when compared to the pace here in Lisbon!

On the other hand, of course, my personal priorities also have a decisive influence. As an openly gay man, I quite simply assumed, without further questioning, that life in the countryside is rather complicated. And therefore, life in the big city, with all bars, discos and clubs was actually the only viable alternative. Meanwhile I take a more nuanced view: Of course there are a lot of possibilities to meet other gays in the city (and not only gays, of course). On the other hand, however, I also see that, unfortunately, and especially in cities, many people are totally lonely (not only gays of course). And that’s why I think it would be interesting to try “country life”. We’ll see if it works. But I could at least imagine that in the countryside there are fewer “opportunities” to go out and get to know each other, but that contacts become deeper as a result. We will see how and whether this thesis works.

In short, there are these two big reasons to try it now completely outside my “comfort zone”: out of the city, and off to the countryside….. how will it continue? Don’t forget to check back for more updates – soon!

Buying property is hard to do… (or the trouble with the deeds)

… and why I’m still “urban” for a little while longer.

Portugal is a lovely country: it has plenty of sunshine, the people are lovely and the coffee is great. And it has plenty of property to buy, especially if you look outside of the big cities like Lisbon or Porto. Sadly, much of the rural property is abandoned, often in dire need of repair and restoration. Which  is probably exactly why an increasing number of foreigners tend to buy these places and turn them into anything from B&B’s to workshops, farms, small holdings and palatial residences.

Yet, despite the abundance of empty property, actually buying a place is much less straightforward than you’d think. In fact, buying a place in the sun can turn out to be quite an adventure in itself. If you ever look around on the internet for purchasing advise, it seems it comes with a big “be aware and get advice” in blinking bright neon lighting all over it…. and for a reason!  While in the beginning I dismissed all the talk about the trials and tribulations of buying a place in the sun as something that happens to holiday makers who buy a flat from a ruthless developer, I soon learned that not all of the problems are because someone is trying to fool unsuspecting foreigners. But also, and this is probably especially true in the case of rural property, many problems are simply the result of the way business is done historically here, with no bad intentions at all…

In my case, the first hurdle was dealing with the real estate agents. This was somewhat unexpected, as in the UK, estate agents tend to be highly motivated folks, who are literally chasing after any potential buyer. In Portugal, my experience couldn’t have been different: I was lucky to get a reply to an email inquiry maybe 1 out of 10 times, and then mostly stating that all the information was on their website (even though I usually asked for information that was actually not on the website to begin with).

buying direct…

The solution came in the form of pureportugal, a website where most of the property is advertised by the owners. This meant that I could email questions to the people selling the properties – and usually got an answer really quickly. The downside of this though is that now I am dealing directly with the owner, rather than someone necessarily experienced in selling property, which explains the problems with the deeds that followed. That said, from countless stories on the internet, it seems even a slightly clueless but well-intentioned owner is better than a disinterested estate agent. So maybe this is a blessing in disguise.

of deeds, licenses and men…

So, here came hurdle number two: the trouble with the “deeds” and “licenses”.  This is probably the most complicated and confusing part of the property purchase to navigate. Basically (or rather as far as I understand by now….), the land is divided up into either rustic land or urban land. That means, rustic land is land that is used for agriculture and has no buildings on, like a field, olive grove etc… Urban land is land with a building on (or it could have a building on it).

The next problem then is what sort of building: buildings can either have a license to live in, a license to use the building for agricultural purposes (think shed), or to use it for touristic purposes (like a B&B). Seems fairly straightforward, but it is anything but… As you can imagine, many of the places in the countryside have never really changed hands, and therefore many deeds and licenses are hopelessly out of touch with what is actually “on the ground”. Some farmers may have build a shed on land that isn’t supposed to have one, while others may have constructed houses or annexes, or even swapped land with neighbours etc…

This isn’t really helped by a stifling and complicated bureaucracy, which means that many people just never caught up with having the right deeds and licenses in place. Or the deeds are entirely out of date, like missing out buildings altogether or showing much smaller buildings than the actual buildings are etc…

The problem, however, comes when the place is sold – as then the licenses and deeds should be correct, or otherwise, the purchase might end up having to correct all of this, including incurring fines and even potentially having to demolish buildings. And, of course, any alterations can’t be done before the correct licenses are awarded.

This entire subject area is so complicated, that just about everyone I ran into who bought property here had some sort of horror story to tell. In that sense, I think I am quite lucky to have a lawyer who seems to have checked all this out and insisted that all of the licenses and deeds are 100% correct before the final purchase. Of course, things were not quite correct, …

the choice

Basically, at that point, I had to make a choice: I either look for another place, or I stick with the place that I like and wait for the process to complete.  Reading how other people have literally ‘abandoned’ plans to purchase upwards of a dozen properties because of the problems with the deeds and licenses, I decided to try and stick with this property. After all, the property I have set my eyes on seems to offer everything that I wanted, and in a location that is amazing. Having made that decision, my lawyer suggested putting a time limit into the contract: so if the legalisation hasn’t happened within a year, I can pull out and look for another property. With this reassurance, I decided it was a gamble worth taking, and, fingers crossed, I won’t need to go to plan B, visit lots and lots of other properties and hope that they have the right paperwork…. and start everything all over again. As luck would have it, shortly after deciding to stick with plan A, I was also lucky enough to be offered another contract for work, which meant that I was stuck in Lisbon until the summer anyway. In that sense, it seemed like a good choice to hold on and wait. Which also explains why I’m still in the big city, rather than in the countryside.

Unfortunately though, the process of legalising an existing property is indeed fairly exhausting – and time consuming.  My place as a buyer is very much that of a spectator in this steeplechase, but I really feel for what the vendor is going through. He has faced any possible hurdle that I could imagine: from the dossier being sent to the wrong department, forgotten to a barrage of visits, questions and requests, and the authorities are definitely not making this process any easier.

The side effect of this is, however, that the vendor and I have now become pretty close friends: Over the last few months, we have regular meetings for lunch, going on excursions together and having small updates about the trials and tribulations of the legalisation process. I have also learned lots about the local area, as the vendor loves to talk about traditions, hidden places and other trivia from the area. In that sense again, I’m quite glad I actually know whom I am dealing with, and not dealing with an anonymous other through an estate agent. I can only imagine how much more frustrating and complicated that would be!

Of course, when I started this ‘adventure’, I hoped to avoid all of this legalisation madness… but, it seems it simply is, more often than not, part and parcel of buying property here. You can be lucky and find the one with the right deeds and licenses, but it seems 9 out of 10 have some sort of problem with this. Or, as my fellow sojourners said: it’s just the way it is. Luckily, after several twists and turns over the last eight months or so, we are hopefully on the home stretch with all the paperwork. So at the moment, I’m keeping my fingers crossed… and stay tuned for updates 😉  …

Urban flight: Is the countryside the new cool?

From London to San Francisco, from Sydney to New York: living in big cities has become increasingly stressful and expensive. But is urban flight, especially beyond suburbia and into the deep countryside, a real alternative?

By chance I recently came across an interesting talk by German politician, self-declared nerd and big “urbanite” Simon Kowalewski. Hardly the sort of guy you’d imagine that starts advocating leaving the city. During his talk at re:publica, a leading tech and digital culture fair in Berlin, he offered some interesting insights into why he is thinking that the future could be in the countryside.

Unfortunately, the full talk is only available in German (YouTube). But here are a few points he covered, upsides first:

1) Prices. The obvious one, of course. In his talk he notes that  the price of buying a square metre in a rural part of Germany is less than renting one in Berlin for a month.

2) Environment. Another obvious one, maybe. The environmental impact of living in the countryside can be much lower than in the city. Why? Because it is much easier to install environmentally conscious solutions, such as solar panels.

3) Health, above all mental health.  According to his talk, all sorts of mental health problems are much more common in cities. (This is actually a well documented phenomenon, with a variety of reasons)

The downsides?

1) Transport, at least sustainable transport. Of course this is an enormous issue in the countryside, where buses and trains don’t run on two minute intervals. No easy solution here, unfortunately… at least not until electric cars get better!

2) Internet…actually, not so much according to him. Although I guess German connectivity might be particularly good in the countryside/bad in urban areas. While there are certainly solutions, connectivity can be a problem in Portugal (and other countries).

3) Health… or maybe not. Another one where the apparent downside might be more of a myth than a reality. Busy inner city hospitals and doctors with lists covering many thousands of patients are indeed something more common in urban areas.

4) Politics… or rather the legend of the “backward countryside folk”.  Here, he makes an interesting point during his talk: he notes that at least as far as serious and organised right wing politics is more common in urban areas. On the contrary, in rural areas, while people may feel “left out”, they are less likely to be hard core xenophobes.

So, does rural living really present an alternative for him? Well it certainly seems so. As at least in his conclusion the positives outweigh the negatives, and many of the negatives are more myth than reality.

What do you think? Would you consider living in the countryside?