Séverine von Kaenel: From Switzerland to Portugal in a rusty old camper

Living by the sea was a long-cherished dream for Séverine von Kaenel. Last year, the 38-year-old finally decided to take the plunge and move to Portugal. Thanks to a career change she is now able to live her dream in a small fishing village, but it’s not always easy.

This content was published on November 19, 2017 - 11:00 When and why did you leave Switzerland?

Séverine von Kaenel: I had been thinking about emigrating for more than ten years. I have done water sports since I was young, and a few years ago I discovered surfing. Living by the sea was not just a dream, I always knew that I would live there one day.

Like most people who procrastinate making a decision, I could never find the right time. But let’s cut a long story short. After a few significant events in my life, I finally decided to make the move, and the rest is history.

It all happened a lot more quickly than I had expected. In the summer of 2016, I packed all my belongings into my rusty old camper van and drove to Portugal.

At the time, I didn’t know whether I definitely wanted to emigrate because the pressure was far too high. However, I prepared everything accordingly. For the first two months, I lived in my van before I moved into a shared house, where I still live.

Make Global Switzerland visible: Select your Instagram images with #WeAreSwissAbroad Was it a trip of no return or are you planning to go back to Switzerland in the future?

S.v.K.: In autumn 2016, I knew for sure that I wanted stay. I flew back to Switzerland and sorted out all my affairs. I see myself living here for the next three to five years, and then come what may. I am not planning to go back to Switzerland though! Maybe I will return when I am old and tired! What do you do for living?

S.v.K.: I have had a complete career change. I now work as a masseur and I am currently in the process of starting another project, which is a Sports & Wellness Camp. I work in a therapy centre together with two other therapists. So far, I am very happy with it. Sometimes I also work as a surfing instructor’s assistant and as a waitress to top up my earnings. How did this career change come about?

S.v.K.: About a year before my departure, I took a change management course. Ironically, this course made me finally decide to listen to my heart, do what I have always wanted to do and get rid of my rational Swiss thinking (fear, security, conscience, prejudices, etc.). Just before I left I was unemployed, I used this time to acquire diplomas in massage therapy. I also went to Berlin to do a barista and coffee shop owner’s course and completed a business founder’s course. I left with a rucksack full of new skills and beliefs. Where do you live at the moment and what’s life like there?

S.v.K.: I live in BalealExternal link, a small fishing village 100 kilometres north of Lisbon. The neighbouring village Peniche has become a popular surfing spot and attracts many tourists. Everything revolves around surfing there.

Life here is completely different to Switzerland. Most people live off tourism between June and the end of October.

Off-season is a wonderful time, but the place is deserted in winter, which is not always easy. Only a few locals and some dropouts, who don’t mind the long, humid and cold nights, stay here over the winter.

The food is very simple, but delicious! We eat a lot of fish and seafood (I have gone back to being a vegetarian, rice, potatoes, salads, various vegetables and cabbages of a kind we don’t really know in Switzerland. What do you prefer in Portugal over Switzerland? What is the biggest difference to Switzerland?

S.v.K.: I have more time on my hands than in Switzerland. It may not always be a good thing, but it makes you feel more independent.

It’s a poor country and sometimes it is not so easy to make ends meet. However, the quality of life is still very high, at least it is for me as I can do what I want to do every single day, and I am not limited to five weeks holiday a year.

People here also have to work hard, but the pressure is not that high. The biggest difference is that people here are more easily pleased and that they appreciate their free time.

On top of that, the Portuguese are extremely hospitable and helpful.

The most significant difference for me is that I am no longer a slave to consumption. I live in a remote village, don’t earn much and don’t have any spare money for things I don’t need.

The next big town is about 30 minutes away and you only go to Lisbon when you absolutely need to. This way, I avoid any random shopping attacks or impetuous purchases. Last year, I bought three items of clothing that did not cost more than €20 each! How do you view Switzerland from afar?

S.v.K.: I have always felt positive about my home country. There are things that bother me, however, they may not irritate other people.

I really appreciate the peace in Switzerland (I have always felt safe and secure there), our high level of education, our politics (even though I am not really interested), our history and our openness towards different cultures and religions.

I also believe that the majority of the Swiss are very tolerant, and I am proud of it.

What I don’t like is the pressure we are exposed to. It’s all about work, earning money, having a career, doing well, etc.

The social ranking is still very important. It compartmentalises people, limits them and suppresses their potential. Slowly but surely, we are getting away from our traditional blinkered way of thinking, however, there is still room for improvement! What’s the political situation like in Portugal? Are you interested in the politics of your adopted country?

S.v.K.: I’ve never been interested in politics, which makes me pretty clueless, no matter whether its Portuguese or Swiss politics. However, when I listen to the Portuguese talk politics, I sense that they are not very happy with it. Do you take part in Swiss elections and popular votes? If so, do you use postal vote or E-voting?

S.v.K.: I still do postal vote as I didn’t even know E-voting existed. I usually only participate in votes over issues that are relevant to me. This has only happened once so far with the vote on the energy law. What do miss most about Switzerland?

S.v.K.: My family and friends, concerts and music festivals, autumn bike tours in the mountains, raclette and Ragusa chocolate!

Are you a Swiss citizen living abroad? Label your Instagram photos with #WeAreSwissAbroadexternal linkExternal link.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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