What I learned about Toronto from living in Lisbon, Portugal

May 3 2019, 11:30 pm

William Koblensky Varela is a career journalist who grew up in Toronto and now lives in Lisbon, Portugal. He specializes in financial and political coverage, and aims to listen more than he speaks. 

Canadians living abroad always get asked the same question: “Why did you leave your beautiful country?”

The illusion that Canada has nothing to learn and everything to teach the rest of the world is an image The Great White North sells quite successfully.

Truthfully, many Canadians, and Torontonians specifically, aren’t actually aware of what makes their country and city so sought after.

Nearly a year and a half ago I left my hometown of Toronto for a place I’d never been to, where I knew no one, and didn’t speak the language.

Lisbon, Portugal is the polar opposite of Toronto in a number of ways — and in no way resembles its neighbourhood of Little Portugal. The city’s calm demeanour and laissez-faire attitude towards regulation would make any downtown elitist blush.

While the city’s improvised streetscape is enough to give most suburbanites a jump.

But beyond this superficial observation is a story about happiness

Toronto is a much more efficient city than its inhabitants realize.

Though there are a lot of reasons to complain about Presto, imagine having to fill out a legal paper-sized form and wait two weeks just for a monthly metro pass, as you do in Lisbon.

That said, Lisbon is a city of 500,000 residents whose metro serves an area half as big as Toronto’s subway.

Not bad for a place smaller than Brampton.

Living in Lisbon, Portugal


While we Canadians complain about overregulation, if you just want to issue an invoice in Portugal, then prepare to spend four hours in an overcrowded government office in order to receive a piece of physical mail five days later.

What has Toronto accomplished with our enviable efficiency and its enormous wealth-creating potential?

We’ve created a hyper-competitive society where everyone’s fighting to be recognized as on-trend, on-brand, and on top.

Torontonians’ unquenchable desire to be recognized as world class, or just better than their high school rivals, has created a highly efficient hamster wheel.

Our expectation for everything to work all the time makes us angry when anything goes wrong.

Efficiency, as it exists in Toronto, makes people miserable.



In a country like Portugal where things rarely happen on time or the way they’re supposed to, people don’t get angry because their expectations aren’t particularly high.

The Portuguese mentality is one that has been historically steeped in sadness and longing, encapsulated in a word called “Saudade.

The word comes from Portuguese women in the colonial era longing for their husbands who were sent off to war, and later for the Portuguese population longing for a time when they were world conquerors.

But even Lisboetas aren’t as miserable as most Torontonians.  

That’s because Lisboetas, for all their faults, value wine, sunshine, and their culture.

lisbon toronto

Lisbon. (Shutterstock)

Toronto’s culture is focused on money and other people’s opinions.

Multiculturalism isn’t unique to Toronto, but Toronto’s multiculturalism is unique

Surprisingly, Lisbon is just as multicultural as Toronto, and in some instances more so.

There are plenty of cities just as worldly as Toronto and even a small place like Lisbon hosts people from every continent, speaking their native language and practicing their traditional culture.

While this flies in the face of Toronto’s “the most multicultural city in the world” narrative, the opportunity to interact across cultural barriers is shockingly rare in most urban areas.

Toronto is certainly divided along racial and economic lines and those divisions appear to be growing, but immigrants and people of colour to Toronto are more readily considered Canadian than immigrants to Lisbon are considered Portuguese.

If Torontonians value anything about themselves, our unique level of social integration, even compared to a place like New York, ought to be it.

Even if we’re not exactly an equal society.

Being healthy in Toronto is easier than in most places

Having tree-lined streets, healthy ravines and a plethora of parks does wonders for the air quality in Toronto.

Living in Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal/Shutterstock

Lisbon has a national park on one side of the city and an ocean on the other, but the fumes from cars linger in the air far more due the city’s density and climate.

Higher prices for alcohol and cigarettes have a direct and rapid effect on your health, even if you’re just a social drinker or smoker.

Like many jurisdictions, Portugal’s alcohol and cigarette prices are far lower than that of Ontario’s and that encourages greater consumption.

Many bars and clubs in Lisbon still allow smoking inside and health food products are often hard to find, something many Torontonians take for granted.

Torontonians aren’t more healthy

Despite having access to a better healthcare system, a greater diversity of food and clean air, Lisboetas are still arguably as healthy as a Torontonian.

That’s in part due to Toronto’s workaholic culture.

All Portuguese companies are required to offer a minimum of 21 days vacation per year, 10 of which are meant to be taken sequentially.

Overall, Canada has a higher life expectancy rate (82.30 years) compared with Portugal’s (81.13 years).

Though it’s not necessarily an indicator of health, obesity is basically non-existent in Lisbon because of the city’s enormous hills, the population’s genetics and the Portuguese take on Mediterranean cuisine.

Where drug users and social conservatives meet.

The maximum penalty for possessing more than a gram of heroin or five grams of marijuana is a 300€ fine and an appointment with a psychiatrist in Portugal.

Anything below that is permitted thanks to the country’s 2001 drug possession decriminalization.

The law is incredibly effective at connecting drug users with health services. The fact that buying and selling is illegal but using is not makes the legal system somewhat nonsensical.

The drugs aren’t falling from the sky.

lisbon portugal

Gardens in Lisbon, Portugal. (Shutterstock)

In this area, Canada’s move to regulate and sell marijuana makes more sense, but Portugal is attempting to tackle the entire drug market, not just cannabis.

What’s perhaps most fascinating about Portugal’s move to decriminalize drugs is the fact that it has a socially conservative society compared to Canada.

Even with an “old fashioned mindset,” Portugal has still been able to craft some of the most progressive legal policies in the world as a matter of pragmatism.

Though the society is fairly divided between social conservatives, moderates and anarchists, the alt right has made virtually no in roads and that makes living in Lisbon feel incredibly safe.

Living in Lisbon, Portugal

Rossio square in Lisbon, Portugal/Shutterstock

Learn to learn, Toronto.

Portuguese people think they need to adapt to immigrants and tourists while most countries expect foreigners to conform.

It’s incredible seeing tourists’ shocked faces when they realize their bartender speaks four languages.

I love Toronto and I only want the city to improve.

But to do that, we as Canadians generally must admit we have something to learn from the world around us.

See also:

Mapped Global CorrespondentMapped Global Correspondent

+ Travel Tips
+ Mapped