Becoming a European transplant has been long romanticized by books and films alike. The narrative often goes something like this: girl loses husband/boyfriend/job; girl is at a crossroads and decides to "reconnect with herself" by traveling abroad or relocating to a small, quaint European village; girl meets local carpenter/farmer/skilled laborer; girl falls in love, and scene!
While we appreciate the theme of adventure and understand the allure of the escape, we welcome a more modern approach to this journey. One that involves a woman making a long intentioned move overseas on her own, for herself, at any point in her life. One that illustrates that the happy ending is not always or just found in partnership, but in finding a place to feel rooted for a moment, or forever. A story like that of Chelsea Fuss, who always knew that she wanted to live abroad, and after the desire became difficult to resist, sold all of her belongs and relocated from Portland, Oregon to Portugal.
Today Chelsea, who is also a floral designer and arrangement instructor (with online classes accessible everywhere), and soon-to-be author, offers a glimpse of the space she lived in for two years, complete with the plot of land she negotiated in her lease. She also shares some of the beautiful lessons she has gleaned during her travels and has a few words of wisdom for those also considering living abroad: "Stay open minded and embrace opportunities to adjust your attitudes and entitlements that you will discover you have over time."
Tell us about your home: How did you find it and how long have you lived in this space?
I found the space on OLX, which is similar to Craigslist. It was my landlord's grandmother's property. She kept many of the original details when restoring it. It is part of a small compound of little houses in an Aldeia, which is like a very tiny village outside of Sintra. There are about four different people who live in the little stucco cluster of houses and apartments with a meadow in the back that has views of the Pena Palace, Moorish Castle, and Monserrate. Mine is up top with a little balcony looking over the meadows and to the castles of Sintra. I also have a little plot of land in the meadow that I negotiated when signing the contract. I did move from this house last fall to go back to America for several months, but lived here for about two years.
You have been living abroad for about five years. Was this always your plan or did it evolve over time? Either way, what was the impetus for the change?
I always knew I wanted to live abroad and it started bugging me so much, becoming harder to adjust after every trip away. Because I mostly work online, I would take one and two month working trips abroad, and finally sold everything and went to Europe with a backpack. I landed in Portugal, in a lovely city called Beja six months later, after that I discovered Lisbon and I knew after a day or two that this would be my new home.
Your space is ethereal, almost surreal. You can feel the lightness and sense the calm it must bring to those who enter it. How would you describe your aesthetic?
I used to be crazy about English style and still love it, but each place I live informs the aesthetic of that house. Without getting too woo woo, I sort of wait to decorate until the house tells me what it wants to be. I love the rustic Portuguese country aesthetic and fully embraced it while living here both in my lifestyle and decoration of the house, which was mostly done with what I had available to me and what I could find at local shops and from local makers.
There's something I love about Portuguese design — my favorite designs have this sense that they aren't trying too hard. I love that undone feeling and I think that has inspired me as well. The furniture was already there, it was the owner's grandmother's furniture. I restyled, adjusted, took some pieces out, and added my own touches with the highlight of each space being the fresh flowers I bring in each season, and the produce I grow. I think the ethereal bit that you speak of comes from the location itself. Sintra has an interesting history with a fairytale energy to it and was a gathering place for artists, creatives, foreigners, and mystics. It is a micro climate and is foggy with the castles and palaces, verdant green hills, and rustic ruins and dilapidated villas.
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"Set a humble table and eat beautiful simple food. Nothing has to be fancy. When you make yourself comfortable, your guests will feel comfortable."
We loved this quote from your IG: "Home has a whole new meaning for me now after five years away — on the road and then as an immigrant abroad. I've always lived in rented spaces with details less than perfect and have come to enjoy the challenges of making the spaces feel like home. Nothing taken for granted."
What do you like most about the challenge of creating a space for yourself with "less than perfect details" and how have you implemented this in your current home?
I think it has to do with letting go of expectations and embracing what you have. This mindfulness practice has really helped me get through the last few years. When you let go of social pressures and should be's... you learn to embrace a messy but beautiful life, and that can be applied to everything, even to home. The soul of a house is in the people, the knick-knacks, the meals you make, and conversations you have there. If it has less than perfect design, that's beside the point. Remodeling, or buying, is just not something that's in my realm of possibilities at the moment, or a priority for me, so I embrace what I have and create the most beautiful version with what I have available to me. As long as it makes me feel good and feels like a safe place to land from the outside world, that's all that matters.
So yes, I am not a fan of the metal windows in my kitchen, but I love and am thankful for the view of the creek and sunset they provide. The more I love them, the more I can live with them. I've had people say to me that they could never live with a shower or a fridge as small as I have, but you learn to love what you have when you show it appreciation by taking care of it, and adding touches that make it feel special, like a sprig of scented flowers in the bathroom, or organizing the fridge with beautiful homegrown produce. Taking good care of things doesn't come naturally to me. I have to slow down, and force myself to take time to do these things, but it feels good when I do. The more I do it, the less I realize I need.
We would be remiss if we didn't talk about the flowers! We know you as a floral designer, expert, and teacher. Often in creative endeavors it can be "the cobbler's children" type of scenario, but you seem to surround yourself with your work. Is this intentional? How do you integrate being creative into your everyday life?
This house is actually where I fell in love with flowers all over again, and in a somewhat new way. I came to this house at a difficult period in my personal life when I felt very alone. I almost moved back to America but decided to stay. In the beginning every day was a struggle. The area is close to a main village but a bit rural, and required me to hike a trail everyday to get into the the center of town. I gathered flowers on that trail everyday. It became my meditation and helped to center me. It was less about making a perfect arrangement and more about embracing a childlike ritual that offered a sense of grounding, a way to lose myself in the observations of nature. I realized no matter what, I could always find honeysuckle and roses and enjoy their fragrance and beauty. The house is almost always filled with flowers, either for work or for myself and there is a lot of overlap there.
What do you love most about living alone?
The ability to be completely myself and embrace all the colors, decoration, food, and music I love.
What is one piece of advice you would offer to anyone looking to become an expat and considering relocating to another country?
Stay open minded and embrace opportunities to adjust your attitudes and entitlements that you will discover you have over time. It is an ongoing process for me.