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!

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

  1. I’m SO excited to be with you two on this next journey! New country…new baby Adam and oh so many changes in this world! Thanks so much for sharing your happenings, family and your transparency. I hated when you left AZ but feel like I’ve been with you (except for actually tasting all the amazing food!) these past 4 years!
    HAPPY ANNIVERSARY and CONGRATULATIONS on having a beautiful baby boy to love. Can’t wait to see more pictures of Adam (my sons name 🥰), Charlotte and Zac!
    Much love to you both Grandpa Brian and Mimi, Yaya, Grams, Grammy or whatever comes out of that mouth!!!


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