How a Portuguese laddie became a new Scot

Yesterday, the Tory government published its white paper on EU migration post-Brexit. As a result, I spent my day arguing positively for immigration on social media, sharing fact-based articles showing that EU migration has had a very positive impact on the UK’s economy in the last decade. However, one tweet in particular was particularly popular, in which I specifically mentioned my personal experience with Scottish attitudes towards immigration.

Twitter is meant to be short and brief, leaving little room for telling long, nuanced stories. But the story behind this tweet is one I find worth telling, and I think it reflects incredibly well on the fact that there’s a bright, open future ahead of Scotland. I hope you find what follows to be worthwhile.

Where I come from

I was born in 1991, in Faro, the largest city of the Algarve – Portugal’s southernmost region. Like many people my age, I faced the blunt of the 2008 financial crisis when I went to university the following year, and when the Portuguese right-wing government adopted increasingly destructive austerity measures, little hope was left for middle-aged people, let alone us young ones trying to make a life of our own. I was determined that I would emigrate after I finished my Master’s Degree in Medieval History of the Islamic Mediterranean, especially because in 2012 I had started dating the most wonderful man in the world. He was studying to become a dentist, and he too had no real prospects of staying in Portugal.

In 2014 I finished my Master’s and he finished his Dentistry Degree, and so we moved from Lisbon back to the Algarve, to live with my mother. She owned a wee restaurant in Tavira, and my partner got an offer of work at a local practice, so we packed our bags and in early 2015 started saving up money to go abroad.

It wasn’t easy. Working with my mother, despite the love between us, was incredibly stressful. I was earning about €100 (around £75) a week, because I didn’t want to take wages from her as she was struggling at the time; I chose to rely exclusively on tips. My partner was working 5 days a week, full-time, as a dentist, and earning about €600 (£450) A MONTH. Yes, you read that right. That is the Portuguese reality, with a minimum monthly wage at the time of €550, a lot of people survived however they had to.

The upside of staying with my mother was that we didn’t pay a rent. We helped out with bills and food, but could put the rest apart and save up for the big move. Emigration was the light at the end of a dark, hopeless tunnel.

Where life took us

At my mother’s restaurant, 95% of our customers were tourists visiting the Algarve, or people born in another country who now resided there. And from those, about 60% were from the UK & Ireland, with the rest coming mainly from the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavian countries. Given that my mother speaks very basic English, she was quite happy to have me as a Front of House waiter – I can hold a conversation in a few languages besides Portuguese and English, including Dutch. And I will tell you why that is relevant.

From a very young age, I had thought about moving abroad (the reasons for that merit its own blog post, but let’s just say that I never felt like I fitted in Portugal). I always thought it was either going to be the UK or a Scandinavian country (Yes, I hate hot weather). But my partner wasn’t so keen about the idea of a cold country, and so we compromised on somewhere a bit less extreme – the Netherlands. We started teaching ourselves Dutch with apps like Duolingo, my partner prepared the paperwork to register on their General Dental Council equivalent, and we started preparing mentally for the move, reading about the country and all of that.

Now, on one particular evening, we had a couple of customers who had flown in from Amsterdam. I proudly practised my Dutch, and they were interested in knowing why the hell had a Portuguese waiter learned to speak Dutch. I told them I intended to move there. I will never forget their response. They exchanged a quick glance, and then the lady said to me, in English: “We have a small country. Not everyone has to go there, you know. The sky is blue everywhere.”

Yes, she sounded that much like a cunt. I was lost for words, telling my partner what had happened, and for the rest of the evening I was ruminating on how horrible she’d been. (She’d also left me a €1 tip on a €60 bill, to top it all off)

Because life finds a way of spicing things up, and as I grew increasingly depressed about the idea of the Netherlands, we had a table of three magnificent Scottish folks later that week. They were our only clients that night – a middle-aged couple with a female friend of theirs. Since it was a small and very intimate restaurant, they warmly started making conversation with me, which I was always happy to do with our customers. It started being about food and how they liked their steaks cooked, and me telling them about how we typically cooked them in Portugal, developing to them asking more and more questions about myself, why I spoke English fluently, my degree, and all of that. My mother was in the kitchen, cooking, but my partner was behind the bar that evening, and he joined in too. One of the ladies had a niece who was a dentist in Scotland, and as we became more familiar with each other, they started asking my partner a lot of questions about being a dentist in Portugal, including wages and work conditions, and were quite shocked to hear the truth.

That’s when they started telling us how Scotland needed young folk like us, how I would love Edinburgh and maybe even go to Uni there, and how my partner could lead a much more dignified life with wages that reflected the skill required for his work. I cannot tell you how lovely they were. The warmest, friendliest group of people, who were genuinely interested in hearing our stories and wanting us to have a better future. Before they left, they actually made a reservation for the night prior to leaving Portugal, so I got the name of one of them: Mrs. Pamela Speirs, from Glasgow. (I haven’t spoken to her since, but I would love her to know the impact she’s had on our life, so if you have any idea who this might be, do tell).

When we got home that evening, me and my partner looked at each other, and we didn’t need to say much. The Netherlands’ plan had died – Scotland it would be.

Now, this didn’t all happen in a vacuum. As I said before, we worked with a lot of UK & Ireland folk, and I had already began forming a few impressions. While our English & Welsh clientele tended to be more reserved, less generous in tipping, Scottish and Irish customers were the absolute opposite. They were always incredibly polite, very appreciative of my dedication to good service, complimentary about my mother’s food, and deeply generous when it came to tipping. (As with any generalisation, there were exceptions to all have this, I’m just outlining my overall impressions)

After that night with the Speirs and their friend, I started telling Scottish folks who came to the restaurant that I was planning to move to Scotland, and not once did I hear a negative comment. To the contrary. Mrs. Speirs’ attitude seemed to be replicated, as if all the Scots had been passed the same memo – telling me how Scotland needed young folk like me and my partner, that I would love the country. Some joked that I should take a picture of the sun with me, however, lest I forget what it looks like amidst the constant dreich weather. They talked to me about their own sons and daughters, nieces and nephews and how they were all doing so well back home, and how they already had so many foreign friends who had moved there and were happy.

A few more months of work until we felt like we had a financially robust safety net for the move, and on the 10th of November 2015, we took a plane from Faro and landed in Edinburgh.

What these three years have meant

Some of you might say that I couldn’t have chosen a worse time to come, due to the Brexit shitestorm. But I disagree . As the Brexit campaign exposed the terrible winds of xenophobia taking over England & Wales, it also showed how Scotland was a very different country. Of course, I am a white European, so I am still very much a privileged immigrant – Black and Asian people may have different experiences to tell from mine, especially since Scotland is a very white country.

But the thing is that I felt like the vast majority of Scottish folks didn’t swallow the anti-immigration rhetoric coming from down south, and that was confirmed with the overwhelming vote for Remain. While some of my friends in England despaired at the result (I admit that, in the morning of the referendum result, I felt genuine grief for how small and self-centred the UK had just become), I was energised by Scotland’s adamant rejection of that kind of nationalism that wants to put up impassable border and scapegoats the “other” for faults that aren’t theirs.

AUOB March Edinburgh

Taking part at the AUOB Independence March in Edinburgh, October 2018

In these three years, I have joined the Scottish National Party (and recently Plaid Cymru, the biggest Welsh pro-indy party), I have marched amongst my new Scottish brothers and sisters, I have voted in Holyrood & council elections. I have worked, I have lived, I have adopted two beautiful cats, and with every day, Scotland has seeped deeper into my bones. I have travelled widely across “this wee country of oors“, as I like to call it, met many a different folk, visited countless historical sites via my Historic Scotland membership.

Staple Scottish foods have become part of my diet, and I’ve fused many elements of my Portuguese roots with my newfound Scottish ones – I assure you that my Cranachan recipe with a hint of Port wine is to die for.

None of this would have happened if I didn’t feel like I had the Scottish people behind my back in these troubled times. Xenophobia is sweeping all over the West, but somehow Scotland has shone a light against that darkness. Our nationalism, if it can even be called that, comes from a place of acceptance, of a want for justice, of seeking a better future for the young folk that can do better without the cruelty of countless Tory governments we never voted for.

Of course, Scotland is not a place of exception. It has plenty of numpties and bawbags walking around, it has profound issues with alcohol and drugs, sectarianism, obesity, and I wish it were less white and more diverse, but that’s just a reflection of its history. And I love Scotland with all of these things to – for it wouldn’t be this beacon of light without the dark side, and I hope that I can contribute to strike another match, to make it all a bit better.

I can’t vote in UK-wide elections, but I can’t separate myself from this sense of belonging to Scotland any more – I always talk about our country, our people, our voice. Sure, I open my mouth with my Portuguese accent and it is clear that I wasn’t born here – and I don’t mind that people ask and are interested about where I come from. I’m always happy to tell all the good things about Portugal, about the food and the wonderful places to visit, and all of that. But it doesn’t feel like I’m talking about home, like it feels when I talk about Scotland.

At the risk of sounding really corny, and bear in mind that this comes from an atheist with no time for superstitious silliness, I do think that I was born with a Scottish soul. Its flame just brightens up at the sound of the bagpipes (or the Proclaimers, for that matter), its spirit is lifted when I smell the freshness of our cold winter mornings, and it is fuelled by the affection and love of the many folks I have crossed paths with here. Nowhere else on earth do I feel the peace I do when walking around the Trossachs, or setting my sights on the majesty of the Highlands, or when I’m walking around the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, my favourite museum in the world after London’s Tate Modern. I love the historical atmosphere of Edinburgh, as I love the working class spirit of Glasgow, and how genuine Glaswegians can be, especially compared with some Edinburgh folk who come off as slightly more… stiffer (they’re sweethearts once you get to crack their shell).

And there’s still so much about Scotland that I don’t know, and I look forward to it all – as long as the nasty Government from Westminster doesn’t try to get rid of me post-Brexit. Regardless, I’ll be fighting the good fight for this country to be independent, a sovereign nation within the European Union, which is a true equal union, not this little, narcissistic, inward-looking United Kingdom that is becoming increasingly less United with each day its glaring injustices are exposed.

What matters is that we’re all human beings, all one clan. We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns.

Me (left) and my partner Roger basking in the elusive Scottish sun