The Expats of Portugal’s Algarve

I awake to wind. “Its the bad wind,” they tell me over breakfast: “The Spanish wind. The Levant.”

The wind rumbles out of the east and enters our small valley farm with a constant dirt-churning rush. The eucalyptus trees roll like the waves of the ocean, the chickens and turkeys hide within their roosts, and the plants of the farm bend under an energy and fury that seems both impossible to resist and destined never to end.

Farm

Keeley, the owner of the farm where I am staying, is a British expat living here in southern Portugal. She often swallows her “Ts” when she speaks and, laughing, we sometimes both need to ask the other to repeat a word or sentence. “Why don’t you just speak English??” I wink at her and ask.

Although she is definitely part of the “new” economy of Portugal’s Algarve province, with its carefully curated tourist marketing and rapid growth, Keeley is also part of a smaller subset of expat. Rather than choosing to merely visit the Algarve as a tourist or seasonal snowbird or even to live full-time in the new coastal urban zones catering to the region’s booming tourism, Keeley has chosen to live off the land with her Portuguese partner Rui as a small scale organic farmer. I observe her here in this context as a WWOOFER volunteer staying on her farm.

Keeley decided to move to Portugal because she was tired of working full-time as a teacher and living a “traditional and predictable life” back in England. She now works part-time in the village international school and full-time as a non-traditional Portuguese farmer. She is knowledgeable and curious and loves nature.

Her partner Rui knows nothing of technology, but can build or fix anything and works all day, first at his job repairing and painting boats, and then working on the farm. One day after work, he dons a rubber suit and spends the entire evening digging out weeds, muck, and filth out of their little stream with enthusiasm I doubt I could ever muster after a full day of work. His English is perfectly understandable and he understands everything I say to him, but his grammar is often terrible. “Brian,” he says to me one day, “we carry these thing here to make box more to big to withstand goddamn wind,” and, “Brian, you help me to carry these thing over to here. We make big pile of the shit away.” I nod and get to work.

Accordion

Like many traditionally middle or low-income regions around the world recently exposed to international tourism and capital, the Algarve is a region of economic contradiction. Sometimes I think that Portugal itself is a land of contradictions. Even though this country sparked Europe’s colonial expansion and helped changed the world, it did not experience widespread domestic development or industrialization. This may be because Portugal’s overseas empire began centuries before the industrial revolution or modern capitalism and free markets had even been conceived. Making matters worse, much of the wealth that flowed into Portugal in the 16th and 17th centuries was concentrated into the hands of a feudal aristocracy or went into modernizing Lisbon. The rest of Portugal’s overseas wealth was expended by the high cost of maintaining the vast overseas empire.

Thus, unlike England, rural Portugal was not transformed by empire into a network of steel mills or textile factories or rapidly urbanizing towns. In fact, real modernization and large-scale industrialization did not occur in Portugal until the 1960s, and even this growth was halted in 1975 by political upheaval. Economic modernization did not resume until integration with the European Union in the 1990s. The result today is that while modern Portugal does appear to be a “developed” country with a world-class capital city, international corporations, a European style social safety net, and hundreds of years of wealth and history displayed in buildings all across the country, this development is paired with a vast rural landscape of low productivity and traditional lifestyles where little has changed in hundreds of years.

I see an uneasy truce between traditional and modern Portugal all around me in the Algarve. Home to Portugal’s booming tourist and expat industry, condos, resorts, and glittering restaurants line the coast like a wall of brand new dry wall slapped over the interiors of an ancient house. Behind that wall lies an interior patchwork of generations-old farms and cork plantations where life seems to continue as it has for centuries.

But even here, in the rural Algarve, there are harbingers of change. The traditional farmers are aging (97 percent of Portuguese farmers are over 55), and their children are moving to the cities. Often replacing them are expatriates like Keeley: people seeking to escape “traditional” lifestyles, to embrace artisanal production, or to establish a foothold in growing niche agricultural markets and organic farming.

Old Men Bus Stop

These expats are very important for Portugal’s rural areas. A study from the University of Coimbra writes, “If these immigrants had not installed themselves along the frontier regions [of rural Portugal], many of these areas would be completely unpopulated and abandoned… Pensioners and people with high spending power… who opted to settle in the more depressed areas of Portugal and invest in business that promote[s] local produce have… stimulated the region’s economy… and made ‘repulsive’ areas gain a new geographical ‘dynamic.’”

Portugal seems to find itself in the odd situation of having its native population fleeing the countryside to go to the cities to be replaced by rich expats fleeing their own cities for Portugal’s countryside.

Thus, as much as she has come here to embrace tradition and escape modern work-centered lifestyles, Keeley embodies modern changes in the Algarve. Because of this, and despite having a Portuguese partner or speaking fluent Portuguese, it is obvious that Keeley both confounds and amuses the locals. For example, rather than hiring seasonal Portuguese workers or immigrants, or more traditionally, rather than working the farm with her children and grandchildren, Keeley brings in foreign WWOOFERs like me who want to work her farm for free. She houses her volunteers in a yurt that no one in her region of Portugal has ever seen before, and, ignoring the stares of the local idosos, she attends the weekly farmers market with her homemade curries and local honey as though she and her goods have always belonged there.

There are others like her, there in that market, nestled among the old people selling their figs and eggplants and vine ripened tomatoes: there is the young English woman who sells pies and cakes; the couple from Germany with their exotic mushrooms that only the other expats buy; the family whose dad is trying to corner the local market of handmade olive wood utensils and cutting boards.

Although the Algarve has developed rapidly in the past twenty years and has lifted much of the region’s population out of poverty, this economic activity is both highly seasonal and highly concentrated along the coast. Due to the Algarve’s small physical size, many of the people living inland are able to commute to the coast daily for work (as Rui does), but the seasonality of tourism and the heavy reliance on a single economic sector make the region especially vulnerable to everything from the whimsy of tourism, the weather, and even global economic cycles. For these reasons, the Algarve has both the country’s second highest per capita GDP and its highest unemployment rate.

Farmers Market

As the native population moves towards the coast to support the tourist sector, the inland traditional farms are slowly being left behind. The farm where I stay with Keeley and Rui was abandoned by Rui’s family after his grandparents died, and it was totally overgrown by the time he and Keeley moved there. Similarly, other farms around them are being either abandoned or sold to other expat families at an ever-increasing rate. Like many such phenomena of globalization, this has both good effects (the land is being used again for agriculture and other beneficial economic activities) and bad effects (the traditional rural Portuguese way of life is slowly disappearing as wealthy Europeans buy up the relatively cheap land).

I find myself in the middle of these tensions between the old and the new. Far from the village market or the coastal condos, I wake daily on a farm in the rural Algarve and find myself physically removed from the 21st century by a maze of dirt roads that confuse even the locals. I rest under the little porch of Keeley’s standalone bathhouse during the long hot afternoons. The evil Spanish wind moves giant windmills that dot the horizon and worried locals whisper with Rui in the evenings at the possibility of fire. But even here, the yurt, Keeley and I’s native English, the wifi, and the ever encroaching expat neighbors, who are already planning to pave the road, all frequently give away the illusion of rural isolation.

Meal

Nonetheless, it is a beautiful mix of old and new. Days here among the old farmers who neighbor us begin with shots of medronho to wake the body and shake off the morning cold. Lunch is heavy and slow – the better to encourage an afternoon nap. Dinner always brings the neighborhood over. The old man next door comes with a plastic two-liter jug of his homemade wine. The other neighbor never goes out to see friends without his accordion. Everyone seems to be a raging alcoholic and glad of it. Dinner goes long into the night and always ends with dancing and tall tales. Keeley, Rui, and I are typically the youngest people present.

This is the rural Algarve on the crossroads of change. We are 15 kilometers from the condos and development of the coast, but for now at least, it still mostly feels like an entirely different world. Tomorrow is market day. The locals just dug up all their potatoes, Keeley has made a dozen jars of onion and mango chutney to sell, the fields need tilling, and all around us the scent of eucalyptus is blowing through on the Levant.

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