Meet the Expat – Lena Strang, living in the Algarve

Lena Strang is a Scandinavian now living in Portugal after over 30 years spent living and working in the UK. And she’s also won the Judo World Masters title five times!

“As I never had the opportunity to speak Swedish in England I was beginning to forget my mother tongue. There are increasing numbers of Scandinavians here and I often find myself speaking Swedish. It’s strange that it’s in the Algarve that I’m rediscovering the language and my original roots.”

Lena at Lagos Marina in the Algarve

Where do you live now, and where did you move from?

I was born in Finland as part of a minority group that speak Swedish. I had a real passion for English and knew early on that I wanted to work with the language. I studied English Language and Literature at a university in Finland. After finishing my studies I relocated to the UK, did my teacher training at Birmingham University and taught English at secondary schools in the Midlands for over 30 years.

After 15 years as Deputy Headteacher I had a decision to make. Apply for Headship or take early retirement? It was the latter and I haven’t looked back since. I bought an apartment in Lagos in the western Algarve in anticipation, started going to Portuguese classes and when retirement finally materialised, I began to spend half the year in Portugal. Summers are spent in southwest Wales that reminds me of the Algarve, minus the weather.

Is this the first time you’ve been an expat? If not, where have you lived before? If so, what was the leaving process like?

I suppose I’m a multiple expat. I adjusted well to life in the UK and acquired British nationality. I also have my Finnish passport, which is handy in these times of Brexit uncertainty. I worked in Jamaica for a year on a Commonwealth Exchange programme. It was challenging but gave me access to a whole new culture and way of life. Before adopting Portugal as my new country of residence I did a lot of research and have continued to find out as much as I can about its history and traditions.

Do you still work? How do you spend your time?

In the UK, apart from working in education all my life, I also did judo competitively.  I achieved my 3rd dan black belt and was a member of the British National Team. I think with a stressful job it was judo that kept me sane! I’m also pleased to have won the Judo World Masters title five times. Nowadays I settle for less exacting yoga, gym work and swimming.

I was supposed to be leading a quiet life in Portugal but it was not to be. For the last six years I have been working for a monthly community magazine called Tomorrow Algarve, interviewing local people about their lives.

I have also written a book based on some of the interviews I’ve done over the years. Touching Lives: Extraordinary People and Places in the Western Algarve is published in English and Portuguese. In the autumn a second book Crossing Cultures in the Western Algarve will be launched in both languages.

World Masters Championships, Vienna

What do you miss most from home?

Home for me is where I am at any given time. I feel at ease in the UK and in Portugal. As I never had the opportunity to speak Swedish in England I was beginning to forget my mother tongue. There are increasing numbers of Scandinavians here and I often find myself speaking Swedish. It’s strange that it’s in the Algarve that I’m rediscovering the language and my original roots. I certainly don’t miss the cold winters in the north but like the fact that I’m increasingly connecting with the country where I was born. If I miss anything, it’s driving along the leafy Warwickshire lanes and taking in the undulating hills of the Cotswolds!

What do you appreciate the most in your adopted country?

I think this most westerly part of Europe is fascinating with its rich history and culture. People are friendly and accommodating. The food, particularly the abundance of freshly cooked fish, is glorious. I do appreciate the quality of life, the mild climate and plenty of sunshine!

How did you make new friends in your new home?

I’ve made lots of friends through my work as a journalist, attending yoga sessions and doing a variety of activities.

Carnival fun in the Algarve. Lena is the musical clown in the blond wig.

Have you started learning the language? Any tips on the best way to do it?

I studied Portuguese before relocating to Portugal so I had a reasonable basis to begin with. I’ve attended lots of conversation classes but the best way to practise is to have local friends.

Do you obviously stand out as being foreign? What’s your experience with this?

Yes, I do stand out, as I don’t look very Portuguese. I find it annoying if I’m addressed in English by locals and always take pains to explain that I prefer speaking in Portuguese. I suppose I’m a bit of a ‘language warrior’.

Any tips for beating home sickness? 

Cheap flights home. Family and friends are likely to want to come to visit. Skype is a wonderful invention.

What’s the most common question you are asked about being an expat?

Where are you from? How long have you been here? How did you manage to learn the language?

How does the cost of living compare to where you were before? Anything that really surprised you as being particularly cheap or expensive?

Fresh vegetables and fruit from the local markets are cheap, tasty and wholesome. Wine is at a giveaway price.

What are your future ambitions?

I love travel and facing new challenges. I’ve scuba dived on the Great Barrier Reef, done island hopping in the South Pacific, visited remote villages in north China, sailed down the Amazon and about to visit friends in Kazakhstan.  My ambition is also to get to know the rest of the Portuguese-speaking countries. There is still plenty on my bucket list!

Visiting a village in north China

Are you settled here now? Or do you plan to move on one day?

I like to have the best of both worlds. I spend the winter months in the Algarve and the summer in the Midlands and Wales with the occasional foray to Scandinavia taking in the midnight sun. I have invested so much in Portugal in terms of the language and adapting to local customs that I see my future here.

Would you share something embarrassing that happened to you as an expat (but that makes you smile when you look back)?

Pronouncing some words incorrectly which have a totally different and sometimes rude meaning!

And finally, if you could give one piece of advice to someone considering moving to where you live, what would it be?

It’s easy to live in an ‘expat bubble’ in the Algarve, manage without knowing a word of Portuguese and shop for British products at Iceland. What’s the point of living abroad then, I wonder? I would strongly advice anyone considering a move here, to acquire at least the rudiments of the language, learn about customs in the region and try to make local friends.


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