Blogging Milestone: 2020 Becomes Our Most Read Year!

Readers of our last post, our 66th since heading out on our Expat Expedition in the summer of 2016, made 2020 our most read year out of the five calendar years we have posted, and made August our most read month out of the 51 months since our first post on 25 June 2016.

The 112,970 words of those 66 posts have traveled through the blogosphere to 80 countries spanning all six inhabited continents (unfortunately we do not have stats on readership by penguins in Antarctica), with 4572 visitors viewing various posts on 8741 times.  Our posting productivity has waxed and waned inversely with the craziness factor of our lives.  Though we blogged for only the last seven months of 2016, the 16 posts in that calendar year were the most in any year since then, and garnered 985 visitors from 26 countries with 1954 views.  With a particularly crazy 2019 (both professionally and personally), our numbers flagged due to our posting only seven times to catch the attention of 608 visitors with 1281 views.  But with 13 posts already this year (prior to this post), the four months remaining in 2020 give us plenty of time to pass that annual post count.

Yet, even if we posted nothing more about this year’s new Panamanian path to our expedition, August pushed past not only the “most read year” threshold but also the “most read month” mark.  This month has had 406 visitors from 17 countries on all six continents viewing different posts 632 times.  That beats the 555 views from August of 2016, our first full month living in Morocco; and the 472 views just last month, when over the course of two weeks we emigrated from Morocco to a holding pattern in the U.S. before completing our immigration to Panama.  Moreover, since January we have had 1163 visitors from 35 countries with 2034 views.

As expected, the U.S. and Morocco consistently have the most views; but the ratios change from year to year as readership grows around the world.  In 2016 the U.S. accounted for 83 percent of views, with Morocco adding another 11 percent.  This year the U.S. has only 57 percent of the views while Morocco’s views have grown to 25 percent, and views from countries beyond the U.S. and Morocco have grown from roughly five percent in 2016 to 18 percent in 2020.  Each year Canada has placed among the top five countries viewing, but the other two spots have traded off between China, Spain, Cambodia, the U.K., France, and Panama (climbing into the top ranks since the International School of Panama interviewed Audrey last November).  It inspires us greatly to know that many people reading the blog are people from different chapters of our lives that we continue to hold close to our hearts despite the physical distance between us.  That physical distance comes not only from our moving across the U.S. and abroad, but also from those we have met moving elsewhere as well.  We have life friends and colleagues from previous schools in states around the U.S. and in countries around the world.  We enjoy seeing readership in particular global locations increase after people we know have moved there.  It also inspires us to know that many people reading the blog are people we have never met but for their own reasons and interests find value in reading what we publish online.  We encourage everyone to post comments, whether we know them or can only hope to meet them someday, so that we know what draws their interest to our blog.

The most read posts dovetail with significant milestones at the beginning of our journey and with our recent transition:

Graduation:  Wrapping Up Year One from 3 June 2017

Transition: Settling into Panamá from 6 August 2020

Starting an Intentional Adventure , our first post, from 25 June 2016

Transition: Leaving Morocco from 22 July 2020

Welcome to Morocco! from 26 July 2016.

We find interesting, though, that some of our favorite posts have relatively small readership.  If you have joined recently, you may find it worth reading back through earlier posts like “I am Policeman!”, Driving in Casablanca: Darwin’s Playground, Parking in Casablanca: The Chivalry of the Curb, Proclamation of Independence: Audrey Drives, Gentlemen’s Agreements: Business Deals in Morocco, and A Bad Day to Buy Peas with numbers of views incongruent with how much they tell about our life abroad and, implicit with many of them, the importance of maintaining a good sense of humor as we go through expat life.  As Audrey has long quoted, “Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be amused.”

It makes sense that our setting into our new Panamanian gig this month would draw much interest from readers of; but we do not know what about 2020 overall has grabbed such attention.  Perhaps it is because we have more to share and – especially with people curious about how others have dealt with a global pandemic – more significant things about which we have shared.  Perhaps it is because the Age of COVID has people living through their screens, so physical proximity becomes less important to people staying in touch with each other and they venture out virtually to check in on physically distant people they know or to discover people and things far away they might find interesting.  Perhaps it is merely because people just need to find things to do in their lockdown lives.

Whatever your reasons for reading, in whatever country you reside when you read, and whether or not you comment, Like, or Follow our blog, we thank you for your interest and for helping make 2020 our most read year yet.  We look forward to your continued company as we push on through our expat expedition.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Graduating from Quarantine to Lockdown: First Glimpses of Panama

MINSA released us from our mandatory quarantine on August 12, sending us our “certificación de culminación de cuarentena domiciliaria” decrees – or, more colloquially, our “Get Out of Quarantine Free” cards – by correo electrónico (email) after a final call to us that morning to confirm that we had gone two full weeks without leaving home and without contracting any COVID-19 symptoms.  As much as we celebrated this new freedom, we knew also that it marked our move from COVID-19 “solitary confinement” into the “GenPop” nationwide restrictions.  For months Panama’s lockdown has allowed women out for two hours a day on Monday/Wednesday/Friday, with each woman’s designated release time dictated by the last digit of her official ID (and Audrey’s passport allowing her to go out 4:30pm-6:30pm).  Men originally had the same two-hour “yard time” on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday, but at some point lost Saturday privileges, leaving them with only two two-hour breakout times each week.  (Like Audrey’s time, Brian’s passport allows him out 4:30pm-6:30pm on his designated days.)

On Thursday, August 13, Brian occupied himself through the day until he could hop in our car and venture out to drive for the first time since leaving Morocco a month ago and to go anywhere outside our house since we arrived in Panama two weeks ago.  With only two hours allowed for his allotted time, he could not spend the day touring himself around the city.  Instead, as the daily rainforest thunderstorm started dropping buckets of hard rain, he exited the gates of La Montañesa and set out on the first outing either of us had taken since we arrived.

He approached his maiden voyage with more respect than he would an affront, but still flush with a healthy supply of caution as he traded flip flops for actual shoes for the first time in two weeks, donned his REI jacket, grabbed his most comfortable mask, and decamped to the car in our driveway with both excitement and nervous trepidation.  The total cloud cover and driving rain made it very dark for 4:30 in the afternoon, consequently also making it hard to see markings in the narrow two-lane road.  The lack of anyone in the rear-view mirror gave some relief as he crawled slowly along the roadway.  He found road signs in Spanish better for him than in Morocco’s French, Arabic, or Berber.  Yet they still necessitated an adjustment and required extra processing time that – along with processing new traffic patterns, how stoplights organize traveling through intersections, and whether other drivers follow Panama’s rules of the road – engaged his full allotment of RAM available.  If his brain connected to a monitor, it would have displayed a “spinning wheel of death” while buffering.  He likened his hyper-cautious driving to that of a 16-year-old new driver.  In reality, though, he probably resembled too much the opposite stereotype as the grandfather our new grandson, Adam, made him earlier this month.  Fortunately, for the most part, Panamanian drivers seem more courteous and more inclined to follow road rules than Moroccan drivers (even though some people with whom we have spoken in Panama describe the masses of drivers less graciously).

Our first outings have reinforced for us our need to build our Spanish skills.  Interacting with people by text or email lets us check what we try to say against Google Translate and either make corrections to our bad Spanish or completely replace it with what Google offers.  Interacting in person or on the phone makes this harder to do in real time, so it helps to write out questions or issues in advance; but after firing off those initial questions with lingual bravado, we get lost in the white noise of Spanish spoken too quickly.  In those moments we can sense, in out-of-body experience, our pupils dilating and mouths hanging agape while our interlocutors tilt their heads slightly forward and to the side while raising an eyebrow in encouraging-but-unfulfilled expectation.  Especially then, whether from our bad Spanish or Google Translate’s less bad Spanish, we hope not to botch things too much.  Otherwise the desire to say, “I am tired of being embarrassed by my poor Spanish” may come out translated best as something like “I am married because a bad Spaniard is getting me pregnant.”  (“Estoy casada porque una mala española me está embarazando” instead of “Estoy cansado de estar avergonzado por mi pobre español.”)  We need to move past mnemonics to remember vocabulary like, “What color ice do you not want in your glass?”  Needless to say, we have started individual study time and look forward to when we can work 1:1 with tutors to get our language skills up to speed.  

Fortunately, Brian averted a major linguistic catastrophe on his first time out.  Driving less than 10 minutes along Vía Club de Golf and Avenida Manuel F. Zarate, he arrived safely at PriceSmart, Panama’s Costco or Sam’s Club, in Brisas de Golf.  He found the parking lot already packed, but eased into a spot close to the loading zone for pick-up orders.  Not knowing where to go from there, he hoped he would find signage easy to follow.  It proved different from what he hoped but still very easy to follow, because he realized quickly the mass of people through which he had cut to grab a cart actually were a very long line of people snaking back and forth through the parking garage while waiting to get into the store.  Taking his place at the end of the Disney-esque line, his brain buffered again as he grasped the newness of standing in line with about 150 men and no women anywhere in sight.  During the 30 minutes he spent moving incrementally through the line’s switchbacks his brain buffer ended and he thought briefly about a dystopian world in which women had disappeared before turning his thoughts more productively to how as his first task upon getting inside he had to find Customer Service, show his membership email, and secure his membership card.  With bad Spanish, he accomplished that in about 10 minutes.  Better still, no one thought he was pregnant as a result of his efforts.

With membership card secured and roughly 75 minutes remaining before his two hours expired, he set to racing through the aisles with a mix of 60 percent Guy’s Grocery Games; 30 percent “Dorothy enters Munchkinland” in awe over the broad array of products and no shortage of supply; and 10 percent The Hunger Games, making sure to get in the check-out line with enough time to get out, load up, and drive home before returning to lockdown.  He bought a rolling mop bucket, 409 cleaner, Tostitos, wine, and some produce items including something we could not purchase during four years of life in Morocco:  Russet Potatoes so we can make baked potatoes!  Then he emerged at 6:20 into the dusky, drizzling rain to load the haul into the car.  At first he thought the darkness came from the continued cloud cover, but then he remembered that being only 1000 km (just over 600 miles) north of the Equator the sun will rise around 6:00 am and set around 6:30 pm year-round.  He headed back home, and Audrey swooned at the thought of eating baked potatoes for the first time in four years.

The next day Audrey took advantage of her first chance at an outing to go to Riba Smith and see how shopping in the store compared to our experience having our online purchases there delivered.  Like Brian, she had not driven since before we left Morocco, so she mimicked his “first time driving in a while” trepidation and asked Brian for the most detailed directions to Riba Smith that he could provide.  He told her, “Turn left out of La Montañesa and keep going until you see Riba Smith on your right.”  Following his precise routing, somehow she succeeded in getting to her destination without getting lost.  Even better, she found a covered parking space close to the entrance.

In contrast to Brian’s PriceSmart introduction, when Audrey arrived at Riba Smith she walked right in to do the obligatory temperature check before grabbing a cart.  She had expected a huge line, but apparently the three minute drive from our house allowed her to get there before other women driving longer distances in their time slot could get there.  Indeed, the longer she stayed, the more and more women arrived to fill the aisles and lines.  Her first lesson in shopping at Riba Smith during two-hour “yard time,” learned too late in this first visit:  Go straight for the meat counter before the long line forms, or you will not have time to shop for anything else.  Instead, with shopping list in hand, she wheeled through aisles that filled her with amazement at such a variety of goods stocked on the shelves that she felt almost like she had wormholed back to the U.S.  Usually not one to shop off-list, somehow things like organic steel-cut oats, Cream of Wheat, frozen hash browns, cottage cheese, sour cream (instead of Morocco’s plain yogurt), spring onions, corn tortillas, and more found their way into her cart.  Even more than buying these grocery cart stowaways, she imagined what we COULD buy in the future as she drove her haul home with veteran confidence.

Due to Panama’s lockdown rules, neither Audrey nor Brian had “yard time” through the weekend; and ISP’s work day consumed all of Audrey’s Monday so that she could not go out again.  So Brian had the next outing on Tuesday afternoon, with an ambitious itinerary featuring quick stops at Banco General and Novey (like a True Value Hardware Store), and concluded with his own on-location introduction to Riba Smith to explore and to pick up something for dinner.  Just like we learned from our early outings to shop in Morocco, though, reality loves to check such aspirational itineraries, and everything takes more time than one would expect.  Shooting through the the Brisas de Golf neighborhood’s main strip, lined with stores and restaurants (including American chains like Dominos, Little Caesars, Papa John’s, KFC, Subway, Popeyes, McDonald’s, Dairy Queen, and Pizza Hut), he took a left turn and then pulled into the Banco General parking lot and promptly found himself stuck in a drive-thru banking line of unmoving cars.  It took him 10 minutes to extricate himself from the line and find a parking space on the other side of the lot.  He assumed his place in line with about a dozen men in front of him waiting to get in while an armed guard worked down the line checking IDs to ensure no one had come outside their designated time.

When the guard got to Brian, the aforementioned language issues manifested.  He had three objectives for the bank visit:  to get online access to the account that ISP opened for Audrey; to add himself to the account and get another tarjeta de cajero automático (ATM card) for himself; and to get a letter from the bank that we need for our Panamanian residency.  In addition to checking his ID, the guard asked something about whether Brian was going to a teller or had other business at the bank, but gave up quickly when Brian said his Spanish was bad and asked him to repeat more slowly.  When Brian got to the front of the line, he heard the guard tell the other guard marshalling temperature checks and entry into the bank that Brian did not speak any Spanish.  This led to what international travelers, expats, and immigrants encounter often in their new countries, whether in the U.S. or Morocco or Panama or elsewhere in the world:  the need to respond to patronizing treatment with gratitude for the good intentions behind it and appreciation for the help it provides instead of by taking offense.

Getting through the line to enter the bank and then another line for Customer Service, he navigated through his three objectives with his bad Spanish and the bank employee’s bad English.  All three met the same result:  Audrey has to do it because Brian does not appear on the account.

Stop One finished without success…with 75 minutes of the two-hour block remaining.

Stop Two, Novey, conveniently stood next to Banco General.  Brian left the car by the bank and walked next door, and shot in – another temperature check, disinfecting mat for shoes, and hand cleaner – for rapid shopping.  Keeping a close check on timing, he sailed through aisles to get an iron, ironing board, push broom, kitchen wastebasket, extension cords, and other home items.

Stop Two finished…less than 45 minutes left.

Stop Three, and Brian grabbed a parking space right by the entrance of Riba Smith.  If his run through PriceSmart was like the starting romp of Guy’s Grocery Games, this 30-minute sprint through Riba Smith was like each episode’s 30-second finale trying to grab everything he needs before time runs out.  The optimistic itinerary got all boxes checked, but barely.  The lesson:  Do not overreach.

On Wednesday Audrey went to Banco General to do what they would not do with Brian.  While she shopped only with women at Riba Smith, the appearance of several men in the bank line surprised her.  We figure they must have been couriers with salvoconducto paperwork, the “safe conduct” permission that allows essential employees to travel freely on any day instead of abiding by Panama’s lockdown protocols.  Going inside, she had written out all her questions and issues in advance, and presented them at the Customer Service desk with mixed results.  She got online access to her account, and she got the bank letter we needed for our residency.  When it came to adding Brian to the account, though, they told her that both she and Brian had to come into the bank together.  When Audrey pointed out that Panama’s distinct Women and Men days for “yard time” meant that we could not come in together, the woman responded with an “Oh well,” shrug.

Our adventure in Panama has just begun.  So far, our Latin American life exists between our house and a few business establishments.  We have many things to experience and much to learn…like why we had a printed phone book delivered to our house the other day.  Who still prints telephone books?

Lockdown eases next week, with women able to go out all day M/W/F and men able to go out all day T/Th/St.  That will not help us add Brian to Audrey’s bank account, but that will come in time once we can go together to the bank.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Second Time Around: Life Milestones While Making Life Work in the Age of COVID-19

August 10 was a great day to get married.  We had perfect weather in Charlottesville, Virginia, 24 years ago as a backdrop to events that included our wedding Mass at the historic University of Virginia Chapel (dating from the 1880s) and our reception at the Boar’s Head Inn.  That first day of life as two becoming one, planned to the last detail, was probably our last day of everything going according to plan.  Through 24 successive August 10s, we have lived in 14 different places (including some short-term transition housing at different times) across five U.S. states and two additional countries.  We have, either separately or together, taught and been administrators at 13 schools and two higher education institutions.  Such was not the plan; our journey just tracked that route as the map unfolded.  But our expedition has enriched our lives as educators as well as our life together.  We have had the honor of contributing what we can to each of those school communities, and count many former students, parents, and colleagues as friends today.  Along the way, we raised and launched two strong, confident, independent daughters who have chosen for themselves two very different directions in which they wish to take their own lives.  Moreover, we have amassed no small coterie of friends and family around the globe with whom our digital world allows us to stay in touch, and who have blessed us more times than we could have imagined with visits to whatever far region becomes our next home in the ongoing expedition.

But August 10 has not stayed the perfect day for anniversaries that we found it for getting married.  As school administrators, when our anniversary creeps around again we always find ourselves either deep in planning for the school year to begin or, more likely, engaged fully in staff orientation.  No time to escape for a day or two when a returning teacher has questions about how changes to the bell schedule will impact prep periods, and a new teacher needs hand-holding to help get through a minor (or major) anxiety attack brought on by the inability to access school email and Google Classroom.  Perhaps this contributes to Audrey’s legendary inability to remember our anniversary date.  (“No,” says Brian.  “She just could never remember the date…or even how long we have been married.  It is no different for birthdays, when she most likely will ask how old she is or how old I am.”  But she is getting better, telling multiple people proudly and with confidence over the last couple months that we would celebrate our 24th wedding anniversary on August 10.)  This year, in addition to the regular obstacle of staff orientation we also had the consequential limitations of COVID-19 and three more nights of mandatory quarantine before we could venture out of our house…and then only separately on our designated female (M/W/F) and male (T/Th) days for two hours at a time in the Panamanian lockdown.

So we spent our 24th anniversary together at home without major fanfare.  That is OK.  We are used to that.  And one might say that we have no better marker of our marital success than that we can spend our 24th anniversary together at home without major fanfare.  We enjoy each other, and for that we feel truly blessed.

[Still, we think we would also have enjoyed celebrating this empty nest anniversary at a fancy restaurant with thick steaks and a tannic Chilean Bordeaux Blend steeped in dark red fruits.]

Not having big anniversary plans worked for Audrey, after a full day leading ISP’s kickoff to staff orientation online; and a low key evening fit Brian as well after continuing his focus on settling into our house.  We gave the food delivery app Appetito24 a try, ordering Chinese food from a close-by restaurant, and we popped a celebratory bottle of champagne our wonderful neighbor Priyanka dropped off earlier in the day when she learned that it was our anniversary.  We toasted.  We ate.  We talked briefly about what we might do to celebrate our 25th anniversary next year if the world opens up.  We watched Netflix.  We clearly felt undersold on the anniversary milestone, but the Age of COVID-19 has thickened our tolerance for things less than or different from what we otherwise would prefer.  Instead, we prefer to look on the blessings we have more than on the desires we must put to the side right now.

A second milestone that has consumed us for the better part of a week is the birth of our first grandchild.  Charlotte and Zak welcomed Adam to the world last Thursday in Casablanca, and everyone came home from the hospital over the weekend happy and healthy, which gave us great comfort.  After wearing on our sleeves our parental worry about our pregnant daughter while the coronavirus pandemic continued through the spring and summer, we sought not not to be alarmist; but the sooner they ended their public exposure in the hospital while Morocco’s rate of new COVID-19 cases has exploded since our departure four weeks ago, the happier we could be.  Since Adam’s birth we have averaged at least two or three hours daily of accumulated FaceTime calls and text exchanges with Charlotte and/or Zak, bridging the 7782 km (4835 miles) from Casablanca to Panamá so easily that we forget the six-hour time difference between us.  After Adam’s birth, Brian’s mother reiterated the difficulty of long-distance grandparenting – even though Granny Jo and Grandpa Bob have mastered the art with their grandchildren spread around the world.  Indeed, we would love to hold him and inspect his every nook and cranny from hair follicles to toenails as Granny Jo did with both our girls when she visited the first time after each was born.  Today’s technology, though, allows for pretty intimate exploration with the majority of senses satisfied…and no changing diapers.  Back in the pre-COVID days when we had such narrow thinking of how the world works that we figured we could make plans months in advance and expect to carry them out as planned, our game plan was to move to Panamá in July, then have Brian return to Morocco in September to spend time with Charlotte, Zak, and Baby Bidoudane.  In this COVID World, we have amended that plan to have Brian head back to Casablanca sometime after airports reopen and travel becomes safe again.  Until then, we will appreciate the virtual closeness that technology allows us to enjoy.

Since we celebrated our anniversary, it seemed appropriate on Monday night also to celebrate our grandparenthood.  People keep asking us what our grandson will call us.  Brian has a more ready answer than Audrey.  When he was 10, upon the birth of a new cousin his uncle dubbed him “Grandpa Brian” because of the overly-serious kid he was.  That name has stuck in his head over the intervening 43 years as what he figured his grandchildren would call him, so “Grandpa Brian” just works for him.  Audrey, on the other hand, has wrapped herself around Adam’s little baby finger from far away but still cannot fathom what she wants her grandson to call her…only what she does NOT want him to call her.  In reality, we both know that whatever we do or do not want our grandparent names to be matters not a bit:  he will end up calling us what he does, and we will love it.

The final milestone we celebrated on Monday was Audrey’s successful launch of all-staff orientation at ISP.  She started transition meetings with ISP stakeholders not too far into 2020, and toward the end of the school year the six-hour time difference allowed her to follow up a full day of George Washington Academy work in Casablanca with a few hours of ISP work during regular work hours of people in Panamá.  For the last month, though, she has gone full bore into the mountain of preparatory work at ISP (and at every school around the globe) needed to start the upcoming school year ready for the unique challenges it presents.  We finished at GWA by planning as best we could for various scenarios that might unfold through the summer in advance of classes starting for the 2020-2021 year.  She started officially at ISP needing to pick up where the school had left off  and connect it to new developments in Panamá and at ISP cutting more detail into the design of the coming school year.  As an example of the difficulty schools face, at least one peer school in Panamá announced just weeks before school would start that it is closing its doors.  In short, while ISP’s financial health is good, when we arrived in Panamá two weeks ago, Audrey faced the unmatched challenge of having to start her leadership of the school with internal restructuring and then engaging the teachers and administrators in overhauling the education plan to employ a Blended Learning model that would fit regardless of whether students went to classes online or on campus.

After much preparatory work by a great team of educators and administrators, on Monday morning Audrey welcomed all of ISP’s staff to the start of this year’s orientation, fitting well over 200 people into our dining room that has become her office-in-quarantine only through the modern miracle that is Zoom.  She started by acknowledging the elephant in the room:  the unique and difficult circumstance of having to start online instead of with the usual in-person celebrations and training she otherwise would use to construct orientation.  Once she finished talking about the difficult circumstance directly with them through their screen views of her, she said, “Now I want to hit the restart button,” dropped the heaviness of the moment, and shared slides in her first presentation to let them get to know her and our family personally.  At the end of the day she had feedback from both teachers and members of her admin team thanking her for her transparency, honesty, and focus on relationships amid what in schools worldwide is a very tough start.

With all this marking of milestones churning in mostly positive ways, we remain acutely aware in the meantime of our current transition reality.

Ironically, the quarantine that caps our complicated process of getting to Panamá has, once arriving here, helped ease this transition.  Audrey’s culture sometimes shocks Brian, and vice versa; such is married life.  In this second expat time around of moving to a new country, though, so far we have had not much opportunity for Culture Shock to hit us because we control completely the culture in our house that we are not allowed to leave.  Due to her ISP interactions Audrey gets quantitatively more virtual exposure to Panamanian culture than Brian does, though he also has touched a bit of Panamá with the daily calls during our quarantine that he fields from MINSA (the Ministry of Health) – “Hola, Señor Audrey, ¿tiene algún síntoma? ¿Fiebre? ¿Tos? ¿Dolor de cabeza?…¿Cómo se llama, Usted?” – to see if we have any COVID-19 symptoms, and in multi-hour exchanges with Riba Smith to order grocery deliveries.  (This takes so long because after he submits an order online, Riba Smith’s in-store shoppers interact with him by phone and WhatsApp to go through every item ordered, let him know which items are unavailable – usually at least a quarter to a third of the list – and explore alternatives they might be able to substitute; then he gets to joke with the delivery guy about the size of the order for two people when he drops off the order 24-72 hours later).  But our flavor of Panamá so far is what in Morocco’s French influence we would call un goûtée (“just a taste”).  While tomorrow marks the last day of our mandatory quarantine and Brian’s daily calls from MINSA will end, our cultural exposure under the severe Panamanian lockdown will not change much from the strong element of control we have in our daily life experience that has started our life here.  Only after the country opens up at some undesignated point in the future will we start experiencing the culture differences Panamá offers from Morocco and from the U.S.

[Side Note: This same circumstance describes educators globally who have joined new schools in new countries without actually setting foot in those countries or while being quarantined after they arrive.  ISP has teachers and students currently around the world from Asia to Europe to Africa to the Americas, waiting to come to Panamá.  Someday it would make an interesting doctoral dissertation to study the impact of COVID-19 on culture shock in international educators.]

All this feels different going to our second overseas gig then it did going to our first four years ago.  Then, we had Charlotte joining us on the adventure (adding parental concern about how well she would adjust or what difficulties she would have to conquer as we upended her life) and Margaret staying behind in Arizona (adding parental concern about her decision to go it alone in the U.S. instead of joining us in Morocco).  Now, we are empty nesting with Charlotte launched and starting a family in Morocco and Margaret launched and building her career as a chef in Phoenix.

Then, we headed to a new and very different culture in a country we had never visited before accepting our jobs and moving our lives there.  Now, we have come to a country we visited before deciding to move here, and which – while still very foreign to us – has a culture shaped by religious influences more familiar to us.

Then, we spent our first days exploring pieces of our new country-of-residence locally – walking to the Morocco Mall and to the closest beach; shopping at the souks and hanouts; meeting people and learning Morocco’s beautiful Culture of Marhaba.  Now, we explore rooms of our house, pages of Riba Smith’s online offerings, and Google Translate to ensure that groceries get delivered and that MINSA does not launch a HAZMAT team to tent our home.

Then, we had more excitement of the unknown paired with more anxiety over the unknown.  Now, we undertake this transition with more confidence in ourselves both professionally and personally, moving to Panamá as experienced international educators instead of newbies heading out on their first international school adventure.

Yet, we are not so cocksure to blind ourselves to the possibility of culture shock this second time around.  We have seen culture shock hit people moving abroad for the first time.  We also have seen culture shock hit people with experience living abroad, especially when they think their previous experience makes them immune to it.  We do not want to join those ranks, so we will keep an eye on each other to watch for signs.  Four years in Morocco have prepared us in many ways for life in Panamá.  As different as the countries are, they share many cultural attributes.  But we know there will be adjustments, once we can get out to experience them, and those adjustments may lead to culture shock and other difficulties.

In 24 years we have passed and marked many milestones.  We could not predict then the portrait of our lives that together we would paint.  Today, contrary to our well-intended planning long ago, we see better the scene taking shape; but we see most clearly that so much of the canvas remains unpainted, and prudence has taught us not to predict what colors or brushes we will end up using as we continue work on this masterpiece.  Instead, we have learned to plan as best we can while maintaining the flexibility to maximize what life delivers to us as we plod forward, and to paint milestones along the journey with as much color as we can put on our brush.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Transition: Settling into Panamá

We made it.

After weeks of waiting in Morocco with hopes that airports would open, an embassy-arranged repatriation flight back to the U.S. when they did not, and two weeks of additional waiting in a Northern Virginia hotel room while trying to arrange the last leg of our transition, we finally got approval from the Panamanian government to join another repatriation flight from Dulles Airport to Tucomen Airport in Panamá.  Late last Wednesday night, after landing and clearing the COVID-19 checkpoints set up in the airport by MINSA (Ministerio de Salud, or Ministry of Health), we arrived at our house across the street from the International School of Panamá.  It felt good to come home for the first time.

While still exhausting, our experience flying to Panamá compared favorably to our trip across the Atlantic two weeks prior.  We checked out of our Homestead Suites hotel room at 1:30 pm, hopped on the shuttle to the airport, and arrived at Dulles by 1:45 pm for the special flight scheduled to depart at 4:15 pm, and had about 100 people ahead of us in the check-in line.  In line we had a “flat world” reunion with people we had never met face-to-face.  First an ISP parent who is a friend of another ISP parent who is a college friend of two longtime friends of Brian’s grabbed us in the check-in line to introduce himself after trading WhatsApp texts with Brian for days about how to get a seat on the repatriation flight.  Two men further along in line watched while we talked with him.  Then, as we snaked through the line and crossed with them, they introduced themselves as ISP teachers (one whom we actually had met in our Costa del Este hotel restaurant last November during our interview trip to Panamá).  Then ISP’s new Elementary Principal, who had flown to Dulles the previous day from the Pacific Northwest to join our flight to Panamá hopped into line for our first non-virtual greetings with her.

The line moved fairly quickly, with five staff from the Panamanian Embassy overseeing the queue to ensure everyone heading to the four Copa Airlines check-in counters appeared on the flight’s approved manifest.  We filled out forms identifying ourselves; where we would quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in Panamá; and how MINSA could contact us to check on our health status during our quarantine.  Then onward we went through an eerily empty Dulles Airport – corridors, escalators, trains, etc.  Even Security would have gone quickly had Audrey not insisted that Brian stick a bottle of Morton Nature’s Seasoning in a bag of travel food he brought for us to eat on the flight.  So after Brian passed through the body scanner without incident, the TSA folks sidelined him while they unpacked the bag in search of the offensive bottle to test its contents and make sure the salt/pepper/spices mix was not combustible…all while Audrey rolled her eyes wondering why Brian always took so long to clear Security.  Despite the Great Gourmet Delay, by 3:15 pm we had arrived at the gate…where we met more ISP family folks.  Then we had to wait for the looooong boarding process.  We did not board our 4:15 flight until 5:15 – with a temperature check of each passenger at the gate just before boarding – and did not take off until 5:35.  But we were so happy to be on board for the final leg of our transition from Morocco to Panamá.

En route we were not surrounded this time by screaming children, and it was a regular Copa Airlines plane instead of the Titan Airways plane with non-reclining bus seats that took us from Casablanca to Dulles.  As a prelude to what we would find upon arrival in Panamá, the flight attendants sported pseudo-HAZMAT gear, with paper hair covers and body coats in addition to the expected face masks, face shields, and gloves.  Other than a bit of turbulence here and there, we had a rather uneventful journey south.

When we landed, Audrey deftly cast Brian’s attention to the woman sitting across the aisle from us, whom she described as “ensconced in plastic” with a clear plastic disposable parka covering her torso, plastic shield covering her face over her face mask, disposable gloves, plus a large clear-plastic garbage bag to hold and protect all her carry on items.  Brian, whom Audrey calls a germaphobe, responded saying, “I’m jealous.”  That proved just the start of a far more intense COVID-19 scrutiny than what we faced on the first leg of our journey in mid-July (that is to say, NOTHING either departing from Morocco or arriving in the U.S.).  As we emerged from the jetway, the gate looked like a Trauma I triage staging ground with a long-distance thermal sensor taking the temperatures of passengers as we deplaned, and ropes channeling us like stockyard cattle over to banks of chairs arranged as a socially-distanced holding area (“Do not sit in seats with the X!”).  We again filled out ID and contact information forms (this time for MINSA; apparently the Embassy got to keep the ones we completed in Dulles) plus two other forms and waited for HAZMAT-dressed officials with thermometers to scan our foreheads.  Upon confirming we had normal temperatures, the officials released us to continue along the stockyard cattle route to Passport Control.  The serious social distancing continued in line there, with floor stickers designating socially-distanced places to stand.  Then we progressed to baggage claim to pick up our three checked bags.  Two came quickly.

Then we waited.

At least two or three dozen people from our flight waited as well.

In a classic “You had ONE JOB!” circumstance, we all continued waiting for at least another half hour as the baggage crew sought to bring the remaining bags from the one airplane that had landed at the airport to the one baggage carousel receiving bags.  (Okay, to be perfectly honest, they ran our flight’s bags out on two adjacent carousels – presumably, but unsuccessfully, to speed up the process – so people kept flitting back and forth between them to see if their missing bags had emerged from either yet…which, of course, they had not because of the shortfall in the “ONE JOB” realm.)  After waiting a very long time without new bags, finally the belts restarted and our remaining bag helped lead the parade of luggage marching out from the luggage cave to the joy of those waiting.  So we pushed our bags through the exit scanner and headed out to meet the driver ISP had arranged for us to carry us to La Montañesa, our neighborhood San Miguelito, a suburb in the hills northeast of downtown Panamá City.  Twenty minutes later, we were home.

To anyone who calls the two of us moving into a house with six bedrooms preposterous, we say, “We agree.”  That said, Audrey’s two firm priorities for finding a place limited our options considerably.  First, Audrey requires that Brian be able to grill for her, which means having a house instead of an apartment (where grilling on a balcony is illegal).  Second, with the horrendous traffic of Panamá she wanted to live close to school.  Throwing in Brian’s desires to be outside urban hustle and bustle and to have more than containers on a balcony for gardening, we found a perfect spot right across the street from ISP.  And having six bedrooms means upstairs we have one for sleeping, Brian uses another for his home office, and we have another for a relaxation and exercise room; and the three downstairs bedrooms that we hope will host visitors regularly all branch off from a hall with doors we can close to shut down that wing and save on air conditioning costs.  So we have generous space for the house to feel quite roomy, especially with a large kitchen and sizable pantry; but closing off the downstairs bedroom hall makes it easier to forget just how big the house is.

On our first day here, as we listened to sounds from the sliver of rainforest that abuts our back fence, Audrey said, “It’s nice to have the quiet.  The younger people coming in will want to be downtown where the action is.”  Brian tossed back to her immediately, “We old people want to be where the action is not.

On our first day in Casablanca, we woke to the sounds of donkeys and sheep and horses and dogs and roosters and turkeys.  On our first day here, we enjoyed the sounds of chirping birds, buzzing insects, and other inhabitants of the rainforest; and, since we are in the middle months of the Rainy Season, we also like the sound of thunder and rain pelting our windows as storms roll through at least a couple times a day.  Likewise, we enjoy the deep, lush Rainforest green everywhere.  It feels renewing, and knowing that it will stay with us year-round makes us happy.  It stands in contrast to Morocco’s annual cycle of greening and browning.  We loved the “circle of life” reminder that Morocco’s cycle brought as green starts to re-emerge each December/January; but we look forward to the vivacious celebration of life that constant green will infuse into our days here.  “I keep thinking about the Rainforest Cafe,” said Audrey, referring to a campy chain of restaurants in the U.S. that serves basic food at preposterous prices while piping sounds of thunderstorms and myriad animal noises through speakers into the dining room adorned with fake greenery and fiberglass animals to create a surreal aura of American dissonance.  “Well, don’t,” responded Brian adamantly.

While Audrey focused on ISP for most of Day One, Brian spent it attacking boxes throughout the day, motivated primarily by the search for our pillows.  Naturally, he finally found them in the final box of the day that he opened at 9:00 pm.  Then, after at last accomplishing our chief task of the day, like Frog and Toad in “The List,” we went to sleep.

Unpacking has continued through our first week, mixed with ISP work and other “settling in” tasks.  Key to the unpacking task was first getting cleaning supplies.  Fancy-pants grocery chain Riba Smith delivers online orders, which makes mandatory quarantining much easier, but the process of finding everything on our list online to order takes a while; then we have to wait for Riba Smith to contact us by WhatsApp to tell us all the things we ordered that are out of stock; then we have to wait for the delivery to come sometime between that day and a couple days later.  Brian disinfected the kitchen and pantry once we got cleaning supplies on Saturday, and on Sunday we unpacked about 10 moving boxes of kitchen supplies, dishes, china, our good knives, pots and pans, and Audrey’s beloved vegetable peeler that she has mourned living without since movers packed it in Casablanca on June 1.  Through the last week Riba Smith has made a couple more deliveries to stock us sufficiently with food and beverages until our quarantine period expires and we can go out to shop (which Brian hopes will reduce drastically the time it takes for online shopping).  With the kitchen set for action, on Monday Brian made a “batch” of sauce for pasta, which in Brian’s concept of cooking means we have enough to eat nothing but spaghetti until a COVID-19 vaccine has been developed, tested, and promulgated worldwide.  Meanwhile, we still have a number of boxes left to unpack (primarily our clothes…still living out of suitcases), and have a mountain of packing paper in our living room stacked as high as socially-distanced people should stand apart.  More recently, as Audrey continues full-time virtual meetings for ISP to prepare for what promises to be the most unusual school year any of us have ever seen, today Brian has set up shop in his home office space and now can start working on his various projects and priorities from there.

We also learned of other supplying we can do without leaving our neighborhood.  Apparently every two weeks a chicken truck and a bread truck come through.  They do not blare ding-a-ling bells and pre-school music as they roll through the streets.  Word goes out through the neighborhood WhatsApp thread (to which we already have been added!) as the trucks approach and people go out to buy fresh rolls and buns and loaves or packs of fresh-cut chicken.

We learned of these, and so many other things, from our wonderful neighbor Priyanka, who has lived in La Montañesa and worked at ISP for more than two decades.  Brian has dubbed her the Mayor of our neighborhood because she knows all and everyone, and has provided better “constituent service” helping us settle in than Brian ever encountered during his years working in politics and government.  Meeting her in a socially-distanced and masked face-to-face on our first day continued our reunion of people we had never met.  She was the kind soul who received our first Riba Smith order before we landed last week and stashed everything in our kitchen and our fridge before we came home for the first time.  She welcomed us from two meters away as we stood in our doorway on Day One, giving us the scoop on the neighborhood.  She picked up cleaning supplies and other things we could not get at Riba Smith last weekend when she went to PriceSmart (the Costco of Panamá).  She brought us curry and paneer that she made for her family to ensure that we had home-cooked food before we claimed our kitchen.  She told us about how garbage pickup works; how dedicated the guards at the gate are to the neighborhood families (as deeply as the neighborhood parking guardians and residence building concierges are in Casablanca); and who in the neighborhood owns a farm from which we can get beef and pork.  And she has been a warm and welcoming face willing to answer any and every question we have as we get oriented.  Such is the case with other key people at ISP as well, but because we remain quarantined we have not been able to meet most of them face-to-face yet.

One caveat of moving into new digs:  Often you do not know what you do not know about your new home’s potential pitfalls until you experience them directly.  We hope we will make it to a full 24 years of marriage in a few days, but we will have to take it one day at a time to see if Brian encounters anything else like getting locked in the utility room without his phone and with Audrey not responding to his pounding on the kitchen door trying to catch her attention.  On Saturday afternoon Audrey asked him to take a moving box of crumpled packing paper to the utility room to get it out of the living room, and he did not know the locked kitchen door would close behind him on its own.  While the room has access to outside through a screened gate-type door, one cannot open it without a key if it is locked…which, of course, it was.  Seeing his phone through the kitchen door did not help him call Audrey and bring her to his rescue.  His only “last hope” desperation way out would be to break a pane in the kitchen door to get back inside.  Not wanting to start out living in our Panamanian residence by breaking and entering, he opted instead to pound on the door as loudly as he could for 10 minutes, then stopped because his hand hurt.  Melting in the Panamanian afternoon of 31° C (89° F) – which, with high humidity, said felt more like a moist 37° C (98° F) – he resigned himself to the possibility that he would melt there for several hours longer until Audrey got hungry enough to get food from the kitchen and (perhaps) see Brian slumped in a puddle on the utility room floor.  Enter Priyanka, again our local superhero, who walked up our driveway after Brian had melted for just five more minutes.  Brian called out to her from his utility room prison cell, explained what had happened, and suggested she call Audrey to ask if she knew where Brian was.  She did, and to the amusement of both Brian and Priyanka, Audrey said she knew.  Then Pri told her what she found coming up our driveway and Audrey said, “Oh, I wondered what he was doing to make all that noise!”  She figured that her husband, whom she has long alleged is ADD, took the box to the utility room and got distracted by something else that led to something else that led ultimately to him hammering loudly to hang something somewhere.  She came quickly to let him out of jail, and all seems well for now.  She promised that if she hears loud banging unexpectedly she will check to make sure Brian did not lock himself in a cell again.  When daughter Margaret learned about the incident, she laughed hysterically and predicted that her mother would presume what she presumed.  When daughter Charlotte heard, she belly-laughed for at least a full minute.  Then she asked if we would give her Priyanka’s phone number so that she could call to have her check on her parents that worried her living by themselves.

One more prevalent feature of our first week has been daily calls from MINSA to check on our health situation.  They call Audrey’s ISP phone because Brian does not yet have a Panamanian number.  Since Brian’s bad Spanish is far less bad than Audrey’s, when they call she hops up from her computer and its virtual ISP meetings and runs to hand Brian her phone to answer.  The tables have turned for us from Morocco, where Audrey had a French advantage over Brian, and Brian relishes now the ability first to determine that the call comes not from Riba Smith about a grocery order; then to confirm at what address we are staying (to match against the address in San Miguelito we gave on our forms) and the email address at which MINSA can reach us, and to work through telephone greetings and basic questions about whether either of us has any of a list of COVID-19 symptoms.  Only rarely do the MINSA callers switch to English to help him (because most of them say they do not speak English when he apologizes for his bad Spanish).  We believe all of MINSA will celebrate when the next week passes and they no longer have to call and deal with the lady without Spanish and the gentleman who tries to speak more Spanish than he knows.  Oh, and of course, for both of us bad French keeps coming out when we try to speak bad Spanish.  Désolés…er, uh…Lo sentimos.

Before we left Morocco, Brian predicted that the behavior of the masses as the country opened up slowly foretold bad things for the COVID-19 infection rate there, and such has unfortunately come to pass as it has skyrocketed since we left, and the government has reinstituted measures to start tightening up again.  We feel like we got out just in time.  On the flipside, since arriving in Panamá last week the numbers here are flirting with the start of a downward trend while rates in the U.S. and elsewhere continue to soar.  Today the government announced new curbs on people entering Panamá on repatriation flights, restrictions that quite likely would have kept us from entering on our flight last Wednesday.  We feel like we got in just in time.  Our transition from Morocco to Panamá lasted much longer and proved much more complex than we could ever have envisioned when we decided on making Panamá our new home.

But we made it.

Halfway through our mandatory quarantine, already we have had an adventure.  Who knows what lies ahead, but we embrace it with all the comfort with ambiguity required of 21st century educators.

On your mark, get set, here we go!