COVID Christmas in Panama

‘Twas the morning of the night before Christmas

and all through the house

lots of geckos were stirring

instead of a mouse.

And so we have reached our first Christmas in Panama . . . and our 25th Christmas since getting married many years, continents, countries, states, and homes ago.  But this year is different for us not only because we celebrate it in Panama for the first time, but also because this is our first Christmas since getting married when we have no other family celebrating with us.

Even before the girls were born, we spent Christmas with either Brian’s or Audrey’s family, and sometimes with elements of both.  Since our household grew with the additions of Margaret and Charlotte, Christmas always meant either hosting extended family or traveling to celebrate Christmas with them.  When we lived in Virginia, except when traveling to the Pacific Northwest to be with Brian’s family (which meant three branches of his mother’s family tree celebrating together with as many as two dozen people sharing Norwegian meatballs, lefse, and julekake, and four generations of memories), we joined Audrey’s family at her grandmother’s big house outside Washington, D.C., or hosted fancy, wine-paired, multi-course dinners for them at our house, complete with printed menus tied with ribbon at each place setting.  Our girls grew up understanding time with family as an integral part of celebrating Christmas.

Before moving abroad, Brian promised his mother that he would return each December so they could celebrate Christmas together and check off as many boxes as possible on the list of family holiday traditions like making Norwegian cookies and joining the annual sing-a-long of Handel’s “Messiah” in Seattle each December 26.  (Indeed, Christmas 2016 was especially memorable for bringing Margaret and Charlotte to their first Messiah Sing-a-Long after they had grown up hearing about it, introducing an intergenerational family tradition that stretches back at least to Brian’s great-grandfather and grandmother, who respectively conducted the Messiah and sang in it at their small-town Minnesota church.  His great-grandfather’s conducting baton and his grandmother’s Messiah music score are among Brian’s most prized sentimental possessions.)  Each year he kept his promise.  Some years Audrey and Charlotte also flew from Morocco; other years they enjoyed mother-daughter holiday jaunts in Europe while Brian headed to the PNW, taking them to the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.

This year, like people across the continents, we hoped to spend the holidays with family, perhaps even making Panama a meet-up destination for as many of the current four generations (from Brian’s mother to our new grandson) as could join us for a Rainforest Christmas.  Instead, like those across the continents abiding by pandemic best practices to keep loved ones safe, we awoke today to start our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations happy to be together, but missing all the family with whom we had hoped to exchange Christmas hugs, and one whom we can never hug again.

We also looked forward to celebrating our first Christmas after moving to a Catholic country.  During our years in Morocco, we enjoyed trips to Spain where we often saw parades through the streets on Holy Days, with spectators crowding the sidewalks as waves of iconic statues and bands marched and played solemnly from churches onward through their town.  We wondered how the New World Catholic traditions would compare to the Old World ones.  But the last time either of us went to church was at the end of February when Brian attended Ash Wednesday Mass with two college friends in the Czech Republic’s capital of Prague.  With Panama’s COVID-19 numbers rising sharply since the November national holidays, the country has stepped backward in its lockdown protocols:  at least for the next two weeks women can go out Monday/Wednesday and men can go out Tuesday/Thursday, with no one able to go out Friday/Saturday/Sunday.  We will have to wait at least another year to see what Panamanian Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Nonetheless, we have persevered to will ourselves into the Christmas spirit over the last few weeks.  We found a box with an artificial tree in the attic space of our house, and assembled its branches in a spot where we pass it multiple times a day.  Looking a bit ragged and thin, and without any decorations, it has served symbolically as a totem for our family this year:  a bit off, not quite what we would prefer, and a bit worse for the wear of this year with empty spots from what and whom we have lost; but standing just the same, and with a quiet appreciation for all the blessings we have enjoyed.  With the tree urging us further, we started playing Christmas music.  Last week, Brian watched “Polar Express” by himself, thinking about when we took the girls to see it in the theater when they were four and six years old.  And earlier this week together we watched “White Christmas” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” – two more things we try to watch each year.  Tonight we will cap our family Christmas movie tradition with “It’s a Wonderful Life” as George Bailey and Clarence the Angel remind us of life’s blessings – especially the people who know and love us – even in difficult times.

We also have gotten a little festive with food plans.  Last weekend Brian cooked a ham, then Audrey made a batch of rolls with cast-off from her sourdough starter so that we could continue the ham feast for a couple days with ham sandwiches warmed so that melted swiss cheese oozed down the sides.  Originally we had planned to roast a chicken for Wednesday’s dinner, then keep alive the Menard family tradition of Christmas Eve Pizza before roasting a turkey for Christmas Day with green beans, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy.  But the chicken that Brian took out of the freezer on Sunday was still frozen yesterday, so we changed plans to roast it in Audrey’s Instant Pot tonight instead of making pizza.  And if the chicken had not thawed by yesterday, that also meant the end of any hope for the much larger turkey being ready to roast tomorrow.  So last night we pulled a couple duck breasts out of the freezer as a new Christmas dinner plan, with turkey coming . . . well, coming whenever it finally thaws so that we can roast it.  Whenever that finally happens, we will have tons of turkey to feed the two of us with roast turkey, turkey sandwiches, turkey and wild rice soup, turkey tetrazzini, and whatever other turkey things we might make from even a small turkey roasted just for two people.  As a final note on dinner tonight and tomorrow – less a note on food, and more a commentary on maintaining this year’s great flexibility all the way to the end – it looks like the chicken may have to wait one more day to thaw fully, so we will probably make one more menu adjustment to have it tomorrow and feast on Christmas Eve with pan-seared duck and a blackberry-pear sauce.

In an inspired moment, yesterday Audrey decided on a whim to decorate our homely tree with what she found available in the house.  It has no presents beneath its fake branches; but, with two rolls of toilet paper and a mask she took off after going to her office at school, she transformed it perfectly to complete its status as a totem for this year and season.

In 1943, Bing Crosby’s original recording of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on Decca Records charted for 11 weeks.  Since then its fit has grown from soldiers and sailors abroad in the European and Pacific theaters during World War II wishing they could come home for Christmas to encompass anyone far away from those they love.  After graduating from college, any year that Brian could not celebrate Christmas with his mother, he has called her to sing the song.  They both cry a little, say they love each other, and wish each other Merry Christmas.  This Christmas, after a year dealing with a pandemic that has changed the world in so many ways, after losing his stepfather suddenly in September, and now unable to be together for the safety and health of everyone, they might share an extra tear or two when he sings to her, “I’ll be home for Christmas . . . if only in my dreams.”

Yet the heaviness this particular Christmas brings us remains laced with so many blessings that fill our lives, even in a year like this one.  And so – like the Mel Torme song Nat King Cole first recorded in 1946 – we offer this simple phrase to kids from one to ninety-two, although it’s been said many times, many ways:  Merry Christmas to you.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Panama’s Climate: “If you don’t like the weather now, just wait a few minutes!”

American humorist Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemons) said famously, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”  We think that sentiment may apply equally well in Panama’s delightfully confusing seasons and weather.

Two weeks into December, we have started the transition from “the Wet Season” (aka winter) to “the Dry Season” (aka summer) in Panama.  Yes, even though Panama is a tad more than 1000 kilometers (a bit over 620 miles) north of the Equator, here people insist that Panamanian summer comes during the northern hemisphere’s winter, and – after Panamanian summer expires in what otherwise would be spring north of the Equator – the rest of the year is Panamanian winter.  Spring and fall entirely drop out of people’s concepts of seasons here.

Even the times for sunrise and sunset do not change terribly much through the year (certainly nothing like the eight-hour swings of daylight Brian had between long summer days and short winter days growing up in Washington State), gifting our body clocks with a welcoming consistent routine.  As a consequence, Panama has no cause to spring forward or fall back to navigate Daylight Savings Time.  With Panama’s contra-Equatorial concepts of winter and summer, that would get too confusing anyway.  Moreover, with one daughter in the U.S. state of Arizona (where they call Daylight Savings Time “silly time” and do not change their clocks) and another daughter in Casablanca (where the Moroccan government declared a few years ago two days before Daylight Savings Time was supposed to end that they would remain on DST year-round instead of changing their clocks, causing havoc with digital global clocks and prompting us to abandon using conventional time designations in favor of MTS – “Moroccan Time Syndrome”), we appreciate counting on the consistency of one child always being two hours behind us and the other child always being six hours ahead of us.

So through the parade of months, we can expect in Panama to have only the change from wet to dry and a commensurate increase in temperatures of about 5ºC (fewer than 10ºF) as we move from the aptly-named Wet to Dry Seasons, or Panamanian winter to summer.  Based on what people have told us, the high daily humidity will remain just as high.  We simply will not have daily rain pouring down; and so, for a few months, we will not need to follow the otherwise prudent practice of keeping an umbrella on one’s person any time going out.

But as of today we have not yet reached that point of humid-but-rainless days stretching through weeks and months.  Instead, we have stepped back from wondering when our daily downpour will come (and, indeed, if it will repeat one or more times in a day) to enjoying a good rain shower only a few days each week.  Amid this, we still have not mastered the art of predicting whether and when such rain may come.  It seems that clouds can come from nowhere at any time, and suddenly the sky sobs.

That ever-present prospect can be problematic for Brian on his regular walks along the quiet roads lined with hints of wilderness around our house.  His regular route runs from our house, out the gate of La Montañesa, and along the solitude of his steps for 6.3 km (just shy of 4 miles).  In that solitude, many of his steps he takes while watching the magnificent movement of clouds that Panama’s changing weather rolls over the panorama’s green hills.

White fluffy clouds moving briskly cause him no concern.  Dark clouds, especially moving briskly, merit closer watching to make sure their trajectory leads them in a direction other than where Brian walks.  At the high rotonda (traffic roundabout) one kilometer into his route (a bit more than a half mile from our house) he can look southwest to the modern skyscraper condominiums of Costa del Este and Punta Pacifica on the eastern edge of Panama City, and even across the water fronting the coast of Panama City to the four Channel Islands that form a breakwater for the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal on the city’s west side.  At times Panama’s crazy weather lets him stand at the rotonda in strong sunlight under bright blue skies while the black shadow of a heavy storm covers Costa del Else 12 km away (7.5 miles) or Punta Pacifica 18 km away (11 miles) and completely obscures the Channel Islands.  Other times, the perfectly clear sky lets him see outlines of the distant Taboga Islands, 33 km (20.5 miles) from us in San Miguelito, where Francisco Pizarro made his island base in the Pacific while building a fleet to conquer the Incas in 1539.

Weather can change so quickly here that the dark clouds sneak up to threaten a drenching.  Still air suddenly yields to breezes that whip up seemingly out of nowhere to bend the three-meter high (ten-foot) tall grasses and make the trees lean, and Brian looks up to see a wall of black make the fluffy white clouds scamper away like a schoolyard bully has entered the sky.  Yet, even then things can change quickly.  While he has seen the black wall move rapidly toward him more than a few times, each time it has changed course to sprint off and wreak havoc in another direction before more than a couple drops of rain land on him.

We both know that his luck surely will run out at some point, for we have seen from home too many times when clear skies morph into torrents of rain in not too long a span of time.  From our sun room (or maybe we should call it our rain room) it looks like a giant water balloon moved in and burst above us to drop measurable rainfall within an hour before the clouds push away just as rapidly and the sun returns.  We doubt Brian will find it as enjoyable when a storm finally catches him on a walk still 20 minutes out from home to soak him instantly and completely.  But that will just give more existential context to life in the rainforest through history, from those who have lived here for millennia to Balboa and Pizarro traversing the isthmus 500 years ago to the railroad- and canal-building efforts of the French in the 1800s and the Americans a century ago.  If all goes well, he will be in the clear, literally, and will not have the dubious heuristic benefit of that context until Panama’s Wet Season returns in April.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Thanksgiving for Two: November Holidays in Panama

One year ago we hosted a mini-Thanksgiving celebration in our Casablanca apartment – just Audrey, Brian, our daughter Charlotte, and our new son-in-law Zak.  With just four people, our table spread – of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole, Commissary-purchased Stove-Top Stuffing and Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce, and Brian’s apple pie – compared humbly to what larger groupings across the U.S. and in American expat gatherings around the world likely enjoyed.  We enjoyed it, though, and noted Zak’s cross-cultural experience marked by his return trips to the kitchen for seconds, thirds, and fourths of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy on his plate.

This year, having moved from Morocco to Panama, we celebrated Thanksgiving just the two of us in our big house in San Miguelito on the northeast side of Panama City.  As happened across the U.S. and in American expat homes around the world, COVID took its toll on the ability to gather with others.  Moreover, because Audrey worked all day on Thursday we decided – since it was just the two of us – that we would celebrate on Saturday instead of on Thursday.  One good mark COVID has left on us, as with so many, is a heightened appreciation of all the many blessings for which we are thankful…

…And with it, our heightened efforts to express that thankfulness not on one designated day, but always.  So, since we try to make every day Thanksgiving Day, what does it matter to do it officially on Saturday instead of on Thursday?

Some of our favorite family memories raising our girls hail back to Thanksgivings past with the four of us spending all day cooking together in the kitchen, or hosting extended family staying with us for the holiday.  With just the two of us, we again spent the day together cooking in the kitchen while keeping to a restrained menu.  When the Riba Smith grocery store three minutes from our house (which caters to many expat tastes) dedicated a huge portion of its frozen food section to Thanksgiving supplies a couple weeks ago, we bought a turkey breast to roast.  Riba Smith also got a shipment of Stove Top Stuffing (which we shamelessly say has become an expat treat for us when we can find it), so we had BOTH mashed potatoes AND stuffing…and Audrey found Ocean Spray cranberry sauce at Riba Smith as well.  To go with turkey, potatoes, and stuffing, Brian tossed the “gravy packet” of chemical nastiness that came with the turkey breast into the trash and, instead, made his typical gravy from scratch.  Audrey also tried her hand at steaming artichokes in her new Instant Pot.  And Brian rounded things out with apple pie for dessert.  We gave thanks for all the blessings in our lives.  We ate.  We relaxed in the IKEA rocking chairs that we shipped from Morocco (since Panama has no IKEA stores) and watched a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Amazon Prime in our “home theater” projecting from our Epson on a stepladder in the dining room more than 20 feet away onto the massive two-story wall of our living room.  The calm and quiet of the day reinforced our thankfulness, especially with so much COVID craziness flaring up again around the world (including, we fear, in Panama).

In Morocco we still celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November because GWA is an American school abroad, and thus worked American and Moroccan holidays into its annual calendar.  As an international school, ISP operates on a typical international school calendar, not an American one.  Its school year runs August through June instead of the typical Panamanian school calendar running March through December, but does not include USA-specific holidays like Thanksgiving, so we had to settle for a usual two-day weekend instead of an American four-day Thanksgiving weekend.  In our acclimation to Panama, though, it seems like Thanksgiving is the one holiday NOT included on Panamanian calendars in the month of November!

Panama has 14 official government holidays each year.  The first seven drop between New Year’s Day on January 1 and international Labor Day (May Day) on May 1.  Between those bookend dates appear Martyrs’ Day (Día de los Mártires) on January 9 (commemorating the 1964 Flag Protests that resulted in 21 Panamanian and a handful of American deaths after 150-200 Panamanian students marched into the Canal Zone to raise the Panamanian flag next to the U.S. flag at Balboa High School) and the Catholic or Catholic-culture holidays of Carnival Monday, Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday.  December features Panamanian Mothers Day on December 8 (a nationwide “momma-thon” in a country where respect for mothers matters, linked on the calendar to the Catholic Church’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception – when Mary the Mother of Jesus was conceived and protected from Original Sin) and Christmas on December 25.

Which leaves five more holidays all smushed within November’s 30 days to commemorate important historical events tied to its development as an independent nation.  Panama celebrates not one independence day, but two:  chronologically, first came independence from Spain in 1821 when Panama separated from the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru and joined the Greater Republic of Colombia (consisting at that time of modern Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela); second came independence of Panama from Colombia in 1903 after the Colombian government rejected the USA’s desire to build a canal across the Panamanian isthmus and Theodore Roosevelt’s administration facilitated Panama’s declaration of independence in order to grant the U.S. rights to build the Panama Canal.  November 3 marks Separation Day, when Panama officially declared its separation from Colombia in 1903.  November 4 marks Flag Day to commemorate the new Panamanian flag created days before the 1903 declaration on November 1 by Maria de la Ossa de Amador (wife of Manuel Amador Guerrero, first President of independent Panama).  November 5 marks Colon Day, commemorating the date in 1903 when citizens of Colon, at the Caribbean terminus of the Panama Railroad, convinced Colombian troops stationed in Colon to stay there instead of following orders from Bogata and advancing to Panama City, at the Pacific terminus of the railroad, where the declaration of separation had taken place two days prior.  Had the Colombian troops crossed the isthmus to move on Panama City, they likely could have quashed the orchestrated but not widespread independence effort.  A few days later, Panama harkens back eight decades earlier to the Los Santos Uprising Day (Primer Grito de Independencia de la Villa de los Santos) on November 10, commemorating the date in 1821 that Rufina Alfaro, a young woman living in la Villa de Los Santos roughly 300 kilometers (shy of 200 miles) west of Panama City, shouted, “¡Viva la Libertad!” (“Long live liberty!) and led villagers armed with sticks and stones to take the Spanish barracks without spilling any blood, launching the independence movement that resulted in the less than three weeks later in Panama’s declaration of independence from Spain on November 28 (celebrated now as Independence Day) and its joining of the Greater Republic of Colombia.

Consequently, November is a month of holidays during which time people tend to focus more on vacations than on school and work.  ISP teachers, students, staff, and administration may have had school as normal (as much as online school now seems “normal”) on Thanksgiving, but the first week and a half of November had school closed in recognition of the first four holidays of the month.  Panamanian flags and bunting of red, white, and blue adorned streets and buildings everywhere as the month started and have stayed up through the month except where replaced by Christmas decor.  Even the guard station at the gate of our neighborhood got festive with patriotic colors (see the photograph with this post), and remains festooned as such as we move into December.  Interestingly, as a side note, despite not having Thanksgiving in its lineup of November holidays Panama nonetheless sports big Black Friday sales in its advertising.  We masked up and gloved up last Friday – a day before our own Thanksgiving celebration – to shop for furniture we have wanted to complete the process of making the house we rent into the home we want, finding a great deal at an (American) Ashley Furniture store far away from crowds in downtown Panama City and expecting living room and dining room completion upon upcoming delivery at the end of this week.

On the downside of all these festivities, just as we saw in Morocco when relaxing pandemic precautions combined with holidays (in Morocco’s case, the end of Ramadan), after a month of Panamanians gathering with family and friends for the November holiday season, the number of daily new COVID cases has more than doubled from its pre-November numbers, with the total number of active cases whiplashing from a reasonable rate of decline to a sharp increase; and the number of daily deaths jumping from six on November 1 to nearly 20 per day at the end of the month.  We will see what that brings in terms of renewed restrictions, hoping it does not mean we return to men and women going out for limited hours on separate days.  As of today, tightening up is starting again in some parts of the country; just not yet in the capital where we live.  But whatever it brings, we will adjust accordingly, and we will remain thankful.

On your mark, get set, here we go!