Culturally Compounded Christmas(es)

On Monday we took down our Christmas tree.  While this year our season stopped prematurely with nine ladies dancing, rather than going all the way through twelve drummers drumming before bidding adieu to the partridge in our fir tree, we could engage fully in the promise of 2023 only after closing out Christmas 2022.  Besides, more than five weeks of Christmas stretching from “tree up” to “tree down” should suffice despite cutting short the “Twelve Days” calendar.  And we do not need a brittle and dried tree up to acknowledge the Wise Men when they arrive at the manger for Epiphany later this week.

Panamá starts its journey toward Christmas even earlier than those in the U.S. who insist on starting an endless loop of Christmas music on AccuRadio.com and Christmas movies on Amazon Prime as soon as they awake to the smells of baking pies and roasting turkey on Thanksgiving Day.  In Panamá, the coming of November, with its five national holidays spread throughout the month, kicks off the Christmas season.  Initially competing in stores and public spaces with displays of national pride for the two different Independence Days and other celebrations during el Mes de la Patria (Homeland Month), Christmas bunting, trees, packages, and Santas wax through the month as patriotic themes wane.  Back in the U.S., practitioners of the Thanksgiving Launch endeavor to keep their Christmas trees from drying out between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  This pales in comparison to the anti-drying challenge faced by Panamanians who buy their trees (imported from Quebec) nearly a month earlier than the first trees appear for sale stateside.  Having discovered the availability of real trees a year ago for our second Panamanian Christmas, we knew where to shop this year.  The tree vending stand once again popped up in the corner of a Super 99 grocery store parking lot in early November.  We held off buying a tree for nearly a month, and brought it home Thanksgiving weekend like any good red-blooded American desiring a brown and dried out tree by Christmas would do.  Finding the sweet spot for when to buy a tree here requires balancing the dryness factor with the reality that trees disappear much sooner than in the U.S.:  At least two weeks before Christmas, the trees were gone and all evidence of the vending stand had disappeared.

Putting up our tree this year led us backwards in time.  Our storage shipment from Bellingham (WA) to Panamá last June included a couple big boxes of Christmas decorations that bent the space-time continuum back through years of Christmases with Margaret and Charlotte as babies, girls, and teens.  For the first time in nearly a decade, our tree had ornaments made by the girls in their preschool tenures.  It even had the favorite ornament of Brian’s mother:  a silver and gold glitter-covered toilet paper roll ornament Brian made and gave to her when he was in preschool, and which she gifted back to us several years ago.  This loot having been boxed away long before our girls became adults with their own lives in which Christmas does not factor, we had fun sending them pictures of things they had made two decades ago and getting text and emoji groans from them in reply.  The nostalgia factor made this the first Christmas since moving abroad that we really felt settled and home as we celebrated the holiday.  Not only did we have years of family Christmas history with us, but Brian sang five Christmas concerts over two weeks in the two different music groups he joined a year ago.  It was good to reacquaint ourselves with our Christmas past.  But it also was good to celebrate Christmas with an international flair.

Among our favorite things about living abroad ranks the potpourri of cultural exchange that can occur.  Of course, we have our everyday experiences living in Panamá just from driving to work, shopping for groceries, or even just taking a walk.  But now and then one sips from a special mug of culture steeping deeply in a worldly blend of ingredients as the hallmark not merely of living internationally but of international living.  For example, while we loved our four years living in Morocco, one special night we treasure happened while our school hosted an International Baccalaureate representative evaluating GWA’s preparations for becoming an IB School.  Gathered for a send-off dinner at Casablanca’s Relais de Paris restaurant with the consultant, who had traveled from elsewhere in Northern Africa, and roughly a dozen GWA faculty and staff, the table buzzed with simultaneous conversations in at least three languages (and many people switching languages effortlessly depending on the people with whom they spoke in any moment).

Such was our Christmas weekend for this 2022 Navidad.  Through two days, we had three Christmas dinners, each with its own distinct cultural flair that aggregated into one marvelous culturally rich Christmas celebration.

We hosted Christmas Dinner #1 in our home, inviting our painter Alejandro and his friend Oswaldo (who came to help him a few times during the four and a half months of our renovation project) to experience a traditional American Christmas dinner.  We do not know what cultural taboos we may have invoked by inviting our painter to Christmas dinner, but we did not care.  Daughter Charlotte said multiple times about Alejandro during the four and a half months he spent with us, “Now he’s family.”  During July and August while they visited from Morocco, grandson Adam addressed him daily in Darija as “Uncle Jandro.”  So as the project originally envisioned to take four or five weeks stretched on and on, Brian teased Alejandro that he would still be around at Christmas.  Alejandro always joked back, “Me gusta la cena navideña con jamón.”  (“I like Christmas dinner with ham.”)  So even after he finished the project, and knowing that he had no plans to visit family in the Interior over the holidays, we decided to invite him to join us for Christmas.  When we learned that Oswaldo also would be without family on Christmas Eve, and that December 24 was his birthday, we asked Alejandro to extend our invitation to him as well.  

We spent the day before Christmas Eve shopping for a new mattress (Merry Christmas to us!) and pursuing other errands during which Waze steered us through a labyrinth of downtown streets in a failed effort to avoid traffic packed tightly with pre-Christmas shoppers.  Then we braved the grocery aisles of Riba Smith that were just as crazy to navigate as Panama’s streets outside.  One of our favorite busboys, Aymar, picked Brian out from the crowd of shoppers and said, “Hello, Mr. Brian…Merry Christmas!”  As he bagged our groceries and wheeled them out to our car, Brian commented on how busy the store was.  “Wait until tomorrow morning!” replied Aymar.  As a final task, Brian went to the Gourmet Deli to get one cake for our table and another that we could bring to our hosts for Christmas Dinner #3 on Sunday.  It had been picked through pretty severely, but still had one small strawberry cheesecake and one large Oreo cheesecake – perfect pickins for what we needed.

Then on the morning of Christmas Eve, while Brian prepped for our dinner projected for 1:00 pm, Audrey returned to Riba Smith for several more things we forgot the day before.  Just as Aymar foretold, Riba’s was a madhouse of activity bolstered further by a live band playing an international mix of Christmas music.  After hunting wildly for a shopping cart, she succeeded in buying flowers and beer, but gave up on the rest of her short list and headed home to help with dinner prep.

With ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, carrots, and rolls in process, our cultural exchange began.  At 11:45 am Alejandro texted Brian asking for confirmation of when he and Oswaldo should arrive.  Knowing they were coming from across the Canal (from early-July to mid-November, Alejandro typically spent 2 ½ hours in morning bridge traffic traveling from his home to ours), but knowing also that such an early time was insanely early for Panamanians, Brian reminded him of the 1:00 pm target.  Not unexpectedly, Alejandro sought to confirm 1:00 in the afternoon and not 1:00 in the morning, then asked if 2:00 pm was too late to arrive.  Brian told him 2:00 was fine and Alejandro said they would arrive at 2:00 or sooner.  So, of course, they arrived after 3:00…right on time for Panama.

We welcomed them, wished them Merry Christmas, and for the next four hours we had a spectacular speaking-nothing-but-Spanish time.  We started with conversation in the living room, then moved to the dining room table for dinner.  Our friends gorged on the meal.  After the four of us downed the first platter of ham, Brian reloaded it in the kitchen and they again emptied it in short order.  (Even still, the leftover ham fed us with sandwiches and soup for days afterwards.)  Oswaldo got a real kick out of us all singing “Happy Birthday” – them in Spanish and us in English – to him and Jesus before he blew out the two candles (one for him, one for Jesus) on top of the strawberry cheesecake for dessert.  After dinner we returned to the living room for more conversation that stretched from the World Cup to Panamanian politics.  We sent them home with the rest of Oswaldo’s birthday cake (figuring that Jesus would not be eating it), with many thanks and wishes of Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año y Felicidad.  Having hosted many Christmas dinners during our married life, it felt so good to have guests join us again this year.

Then we switched gears, heading out to the day’s Christmas Dinner #2 in the Patilla neighborhood of downtown Panamá.  A staff member at Audrey’s school had invited us to join her expat and Panamanian family and friends for a more traditional Panamanian Christmas meal.  Scheduled to start at 7:00 pm, we arrived Panamanian style at 8:00 pm.  Our Über pulled up with the host couple standing at the building’s entrance greeting other guests as they arrived.  We went inside, toured their apartment, and joined the guests for appetizers and conversation mixed between Spanish and English.  Then we sat down to dinner.  One Panamanian favorite dish at Christmas is arroz con guandu (rice with pigeon peas), something we had not had the opportunity to try with COVID curtailing our first two Panamanian Christmases.  The same goes for Panamanian tamales.  Each Latin American country seems to have its own version of these.  In Panamá, they are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks.  Our hosts offered pork, chicken, and beef tamales made in the Interior by someone they knew, and the corn dough was cooked with raisins and olives and flavored with spices.  The table also featured cooked plantains that served the starchy-sweet role that sweet potatoes play in American holiday meals, and Rosca de Navidad, the ubiquitous woven wreath of egg bread that takes over grocery stores in the Christmas season.  The meal also had turkey and gravy and ham, though we presume (perhaps incorrectly) that was less Panamanian than for expats joining the celebration.  After stuffing ourselves for the second big meal just hours after the first, we rolled home and almost got to sleep before the midnight Christmas fireworks launched across the city.  Panamanians love their fireworks, and our 45th floor kitchen windows offer a 180 degree view of the cacophonous individual displays that continued raucously for at least 15 minutes past midnight.

In the morning we woke to a FaceTime Christmas call with both our girls, one in Phoenix and one in Casablanca.  Then we lounged around lazily for several hours before dressing for our early afternoon departure to Christmas Dinner #3.  This was an international affair hosted by a Dutch-Brazilian family with a guest list of a couple dozen people that included Panamanians, Americans, Colombians, Germans, Brazilians, Netherlanders, and others.  The potluck groaning table in the dining room likewise featured more arroz con guandu along with a mixed bevy of dishes, and more turkey and ham.  While we ate and enjoyed delightful conversation at a long string of tables assembled on the terrace, the food table inside converted to a dessert smorgasbord to sustain us further during a rousing White Elephant Gift game.  The game went through several polite people before gift-stealing began in earnest and continued through the final number.  We went home satisfied once again with good food and good company.  Filled even more than our stomachs were our hearts with all the open exchanges of good will and good culture we experienced over two days.  God bless us, everyone.

Having savored the richness of our culturally compounded Christmas events, we figured nothing more this season would match it.  So on Monday we stripped the tree, boxed the ornaments and other decorations we had throughout our home.  Yesterday we prepared the tree to be taken away by the building staff, wrapping it in plastic bags like a dead body and putting it in the lobby outside our front door for them to take away for us.  It was a good tree, a good Christmas, and a good end to an often-challenging 2022.  We look forward to what blessings 2023 will bring, starting with the first of what we hope will be many visitors in the new year arriving this weekend.

Próspero año y felicidad.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Living Thanksgiving:  Making Our Way through Renovations and Happenings

Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S.  Living abroad can make celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November (as proclaimed by President Abrahim Lincoln in 1863 and then passed into law by Congress in 1870) a challenge because the rest of the world does not forego a day of work in order to watch football, gorge on a gluttonous feast, and yield to a nap allegorically (though not scientifically) attributed to turkey-supplied tryptophan.  Instead, it is a work day like any other, so since moving abroad in 2016 we have tended to push celebrating Thanksgiving back into the actual weekend when we have time to spend the day cooking and baking together in the kitchen.

A couple weeks ago Brian found a perfect little turkey breast in the Riba Smith freezer section sent down to Panamá by the folks at Butterball.  Next to the huge turkeys that looked like they spent years working out in the gym, it seemed puny and lacking in steroidal enhancement.  Just the right size for our Thanksgiving twosome.  Add mashed potatoes, stuffing, carrots, green beans, Audrey’s can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce with ridges that make it taste better, and apple pie, and that makes quite a table for two whenever we get around to making it.

But our best-laid plans for a celebration delayed slightly by scheduling will require a little more flexibility from us than we expected.  On Monday some workmen came to fix a small leak in the fire sprinkler plumbing of our utility room off the kitchen.  In the course of jackhammering the cement ceiling that is the construction norm for buildings in Panamá, they somehow nicked the water tank of the apartment above us and Niagara Falls opened up a torrential shower that flooded the floors of our pantry, utility room, and kitchen.  The rest of Monday was spent trying to minimize flood damage.  Then they came back Tuesday to continue flood abatement and to finish the sprinkler job.  Except that, as this is Panamá, the one-day job interrupted by Monday’s flood has become a weeklong job that they say will try to finish tomorrow.  So any Thanksgiving plans we might have intended for today would have fallen due to the construction zone formerly known as our apartment covered in concrete dust.  And the likelihood of pushing Thanksgiving back past this weekend seems probable as well because we received a notice that water company IDAAN will shut off water in our area on Saturday to do some work.

No worries.  If the Pandemic had not schooled us enough in the need for decreased expectations and increased flexibility, the last several months of life at home in our apartment has led us to mastery of those skills.

In July we started what was quoted to us as a four-week project to install crown molding (because the previous owner took the molding that was here with him along with most of the lights, mirrors…we drew the line at taking toilets!) and painting the walls and ceilings in all our rooms.  Four months later, our four-week project finished.  For the record, we are thrilled with the work that painter and master-of-creative-solutions Alejandro did regardless of the time required to complete everything.  Not only did he do superlative work, his attention to detail and his careful cleanup were phenomenal.  And as he progressed from room to room, we kept asking him if he could add more things to what got dubbed “la lista de Audrey” (The Audrey List).  He never said no, even when her request was for him to climb out on a very narrow balcony to scrape off protective blue tape that had been left on the outside of our guest room’s window frames since our building’s construction a dozen years ago.  He just borrowed a safety harness from someone and tied himself to a rope running through a window and secured inside the guest room while he scraped from 45 stories high.

But as diligent as Alejandro was about mess management, we still lived in a construction zone for four months.  That made hosting visitors in July and August more challenging.  When Grandson Adam and his parents returned in July, we had to manage a two-year-old’s energy amid various rooms being off limits for Alejandro.  And our kitchen was out of commission for the entire time that our foodie friends John and Barb visited in August.  Brian endured the greatest long-term impact, as he had to be around and available nearly every day throughout the project.  That hindered writing, music, and other projects he had planned for September through November.  Still, the experience beefed up our flexibility and patience quotients.  And, better still, Alejandro became part of our family after four months with us.  Adam called him ‘Jandro and ultimately 3amo (“uncle” in Darija, the Moroccan Arabic dialect), and they formed a bond.  Before they returned to Morocco, Charlotte made a big farewell card for Adam to color and give to Alejandro.  He kept it taped up in our apartment for the duration of the renovation project, moving it from room to room as he progressed through the job, then took it with him last week when he cleared out his painting supplies that had filled our pantry since July.  And after four months of patience, in the end we finally have turned the apartment we bought into “our home” where we can live happily for years to come.

Helping complete that transformation was the arrival of our shipment from Bellingham of what we stowed prior to moving abroad in 2016.  Brian spent a fair portion of his time back in Washington State last spring preparing the contents of our storage units for shipping.  It all got picked up two days before he flew back home to Panamá, then was delivered in early July as the renovation project got underway.  Now we have walls not only painted in warm and comfortable colors, but hung with art we have not seen in six years.  Ditto for cookware, utensils, servingware, and other things making our kitchen a delight; tools to make Brian’s completion of “Honey Do” projects easier; and heirloom furniture and other things we have missed since packing them away until we ultimately planted somewhere that we would call home forever.

But chaos in our physical surroundings was not the only thing keeping us from finally settling into routine.  In July we had planned on Adam’s adenoid surgery (the reason for bringing them back to Panamá so soon after their visit in February-March), with a required four-week recovery before he could board a flight home to Morocco.  We did not expect to add a string of medical issues for both Audrey and Charlotte at the same time.  Then school started for Audrey, leading into the September celebration of the International School of Panama’s 40th anniversary.  Right on the heels of that came three weeks of conferences that kept us bouncing around Panamá and the U.S.  And a couple days after returning from the U.S., Audrey tested positive for COVID (her first time), followed a few days later by Brian testing positive (his second time).  Brian was supposed to go to Africa at the end of October to join a school accreditation team visiting a school in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but that changed to participating virtually when he tested positive on the day he was supposed to depart.  Still, getting up at 1:00 am every day to sync with the DRC time zone plus dealing with COVID kept things crazy for another week.

As we slipped into November, we looked forward to the renovation project finishing, bringing an end to life in the construction zone.  Each evening we would sit in our finished living room and look at the painted walls with familiar art that we love hanging on them, and we would reaffirm to each other how nice it was to feel like we finally were home even though Alejandro was still knocking a few last items of The Audrey List.

To be honest, after enjoying a few days last week with Alejandro finally finished it has been frustrating to step backwards into construction zone status in the wake of the flood, especially when we now confront having to deal with the engineering company that caused the flood to repair our ruined wood floor in the kitchen.  But this Thanksgiving Day reminds us just how blessed we are to have what we have.  Not to minimize the material comforts of a place to live filled with things we enjoy, most important on that list is family and friends around the world whom we love and who love us, and professional circumstances that allow us to breathe easily even on days filled with disappointments.  One of Brian’s favorite political memoirs is by President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan.  Written after he beat cancer several times, “No Such Thing as a Bad Day” ranks his success in politics and government below the joy of simply being alive.  What an enlightened perspective that is.  In that spirit, we feel so grateful as we return to normal even though that process has taken much more time and involved many more hurdles than we anticipated.

So while today is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., we will get to “do” Thanksgiving when we have our kitchen back.  Meanwhile, the day matters less than the attitude; and we will hope to be no less thankful today than on whatever day we end up roasting our limbless turkey-for-two, baking our pie, and preparing our other fixings.  Then we will head off to the parking lot of Super 99 supermarket to buy our Christmas tree.  That way we can have a decorated tree next month when we will thaw the ham in our freezer and invite Alejandro to join us for cena con jamón a la Navidad.  And we will seek to fill every day before and after with Thanks-Living, steeped in deep gratitude in a way that makes every day Thanksgiving Day.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Soft Landings and Protests

Many times we have told friends and family what a soft landing Panamá is, especially after living four years in Morocco.  It is much easier than in Morocco to find products and other creature comforts of life from the U.S. here in Panamá, and easier (and cheaper) to ship them from the U.S. to Panamá than to Morocco.  Not that we want our life in Panamá to be simply a remake of U.S. life.  If that is what we sought, we would just go back to living in the U.S.  We love our Panamanian life.  At the same time, we appreciate the ease of traveling to the U.S. for professional conferences or for family ties, as we also value having access to familiar things from the U.S. here.

Sometimes people mistake our “soft landing” description either to mean that we never encounter challenges that expats may confront elsewhere in the world or to reveal a blindness in us to the realities that exist in Panamanian life.  (Granted, we tell visitors that our very modern and convenient Costa del Este neighborhood is not the “real” Panamá they will experience when they go to particular areas downtown or, especially, when they travel into the Interior.)  Neither is the case, as evidenced by the impact of protests across Panamá that started at the end of June and expanded nationally in early July.

A mix of labor unions, indigenous peoples, educators, students, and other groups mobilized to conduct demonstrations and create road blocks across the country to protest the spike in gas prices and the general inflation that have wracked Panamá (as they have globally) over the last several months.  Protests are not new to Panamá, but these had a more menacing feel of determination to elicit action by the government that provides relief.  Initially a mix of disparate efforts by separate groups, as they continued through the month the groups met to hammer out a coordinated list of demands that included acute items like subsidizing gas and food prices, as well as broader policy and reform expectations of increased investment in education and addressing government corruption.  As days progressed into weeks, the government yielded on various demands, but the protesters remained unsatisfied and continued to hold hope for seeing their list of demands met.

While protests here are not new and tend to be peaceful, people who find themselves stuck in a protest blocking their travel are encouraged to stay in their cars and keep a safe distance from the heart of the protest.  The longer the July protests continued, the more spontaneous incidents of violence were reported, both as aggressive action by protesters against drivers or police and as action by police to shut down protests with tear gas and other means.  One Panamanian friend told us, “If you get too close to them, they will throw rocks at your car.”  Indeed, isolated reports of rock throwing came out over the weeks.  And when protesters threw rocks at trucks in a humanitarian convoy carrying food to the Capital, a pickup truck carrying food ran over two protesters after a rock went through his windshield and he sought to flee.  (The driver was arrested.)

The U.S. Department of State issued a couple advisories to expats and tourists in Panamá:

Situational Awareness on Recent Protest Activity 

In recent days, there have been multiple anti-Government of Panama protests in response to rising cost of living and gas prices.  In light of ongoing protest activity, the U.S. Embassy Panama City reminds U.S. Citizens in Panama to exercise caution near any large gatherings or protests and maintain situational awareness.  @TraficoCPanama on Twitter and local news outlets are good resources for the latest information on protest activity and impact to traffic.  Please contact local authorities (311) if you have any immediate health and safety concerns. 

Unfortunately, protests and road blockages are a part of life in Panama. There may be demonstrations to protest internal Panamanian issues or, more rarely, manifestations of anti-U.S. sentiment.  While most demonstrations are non-violent, the Panamanian National Police have used tear gas and/or riot control munitions in response to demonstrations, particularly when roadways are blocked or aggression is used against the police.  Please read the Panama Country Information for additional guidance from the Department of State for U.S. Citizens in Panama. 

Actions to Take: 

  • Monitor local media for updates. 
  • Be aware of your surroundings. 
  • Avoid demonstrations.

The protests’ impact varied across the country.  In the Capital, where nearly half the nation’s population lives, protests flared up to block traffic in different places and at different times.  Other than a few days of heavy protest activity, the city remained fairly well travelable most of the time, with stalled traffic occurring when and where protests flare up.  The heavier impact was through the Interior.  Because the Pan-American Highway that runs through Panamá serves as the one conduit for transporting people and things from the west end by Costa Rica to the east end by Colombia, roadblocks on this arterial can shut down transportation with crippling effect.  Such was the case through much of July.  With supply trucks unable to travel to and from the key agricultural areas in Panama’s western half (especially Chiriquí Province), people in the Interior suffered from shortages of fuel while people in Panamá City found produce sections of grocery stores near empty.  After a few weeks, a humanitarian convoy of 100 trucks made it to Panamá City with loads of fruits and vegetables.  For a couple days, the grocery stores had produce, but they emptied out again.

We lucked out one week into the protests as we started a beach escape in Santa Clara with friends visiting us from abroad.  When Brian mentioned to a Panamanian friend that we were bound with our visitors for the beach, he said, “I hope you don’t get caught in protests on your way back.”  We hoped that as well, but we had planned this trip for some time and decided to take the risk.  While our friends currently live in the U.S., they spent three years with us in Morocco and understand the nuances of our “soft landing” description more fully than others who have not lived abroad may.  So we figured we would all make the best of whatever ended up happening.

Our trip westward on Saturday to the Río Hato corregimiento of the Antón District in Coclé Province was smooth and uneventful.  Normally it takes us about two hours to get there.  Not counting the time to stop for lunch and then to do some grocery shopping along the way, it took us two hours.  Our friends found the beauty of the drive into the Interior interesting.  Once we arrived, they were wowed by the beach, the water, and the calming view over the ocean from the flat where we stayed.  All good.

But all was not good throughout Panamá as protesters ramped up the force of their activity.  Had we continued driving along the Pan-American Highway out toward Chiriquí Province, we would have introduced our friends to quite a different Panamanian experience.  Protesters had established numerous road blocks along the Pan-American Highway as it runs deeper into the Interior.  Cars and trucks heading to Chiritquí were stopped for miles, and people were stuck in their vehicles for as long as 18 hours before blockades were removed and traffic flow resumed.

Brian reported this to our vacationing group, but was optimistic that we would not have difficulties getting back to Panamá City a few days later.

As we learned to say when we lived in Louisiana, “Bless his heart.”

We planned to return to the Capital on Tuesday because Audrey had kidney stone surgery scheduled for first thing on Wednesday morning; plus our painter was supposed to start painting our apartment then as well; and our friends had a flight out of Tocumen Airport leaving Wednesday afternoon.  After a morning of swimming and relaxing at the beach condo where we had stayed and a great Panamanian lunch at Los Camisones 15 minutes away, we started toward home around 2 pm on Tuesday afternoon.  

We got as far as Chame when traffic suddenly came to a stop.  We could not see why, but the stoppage seemed to begin only a few cars ahead of us.  Soon police worked their way through the line of stopped vehicles, and a few minutes later traffic began to move, if slowly.  Very soon we passed by smoldering trash blocking one of the two eastbound lanes of the Pan-American Highway.  Presumably the police had put out the flames of burning trash that spanned both lanes and cleared one lane so traffic could move through.  We felt relief in being caught in the protest for only a few minutes.

“Bless their hearts.”

We made it only a few more minutes past Chame into Bejuco before traffic halted again.  This appeared to be a longer line of cars, with nothing budging, and no police coming to clear the way for progress to resume.  We checked Waze, the GPS digital driving app, and saw ahead of us multiple stoppages marked with cautionary red on the map.  But we also saw an alternate route that teased the possibility of taking us on smaller roads through less dense and more isolated territory seemingly without protesters blocking traffic.  Fortunately we had reached our current stoppage while in the left lane, and there was no oncoming traffic, so we decided to hop the curb, drive across the median, and pop down into the westward lanes to try that other route.  

“Bless their hearts again.”

We drove back a couple minutes and started our detour that we thought would take us up into the mountains and reconnect with the Pan-American Highway about one-third of the way back toward home.  We did not get far.  Not one minute along this route, traffic halted once more.  We could see ahead of us a group of 25-30 protesters who had dragged a fallen tree across the roadway to block both directions of the two-lane road.  They chanted and sang and drummed on the roadside, and no cars passed.  Surveying our options, and considering that if by some chance we could get past this roadblock we did not want to get caught in another protest up in the mountains for hours, we decided to head back to Santa Clara and hope the roads would clear in time for us to drive back home before our important Wednesday activities.

So we did a 23-point turn to reverse course on the narrow roadway and headed back toward Santa Clara.  As we returned past the spot where we encountered our first roadblock, we saw that the dozen protesters there had pulled their smoldering trash back across both eastbound lanes so that no vehicles could pass in that direction.  The police were gone.  Those folks would have to sit and wait.  We felt quite fortunate to have a more comfortable “sit and wait” option back at Santa Clara.

Once we got back to the beach condo, we relaxed again…as much as we could while feeling the angst of pressing times approaching.  The boys of our friends swam some more.  We scrounged a dinner from leftovers and snacks we had picked up on a grocery stop heading back to Santa Clara.  Everyone except Brian napped, while he checked Waze every hour for the locations of protest activity.

A few minutes past midnight, protest spots on Waze disappeared one after another as if by magic.  Brian woke everyone up, we reloaded our things, and hit the road again, hoping the route would stay clear.

“Bless their hearts once more.”

Traffic moved along pretty well until once again we reached Chame.  In the time since our re-departure from Santa Clara, another protest had materialized.  We were stuck.

Fortunately, we remained stalled on the Pan-American Highway for less than an hour.  Promptly at 2:00 am the protesters blocking the roadway climbed aboard their large construction truck and departed with its horn blaring, bright lights flashing, engine revving, and people yelling proudly as they drove away into the night.  In a moment, the horde of stopped vehicles began creeping forward en masse.  We hit no more blockades for the remaining 90 minutes home, but traffic remained heavy all the way across the Puente de las Americas (Bridge of the Americas) over the Panamá Canal.

On Wednesday all went well with Audrey’s surgery.  Our painter arrived at our apartment and started his multi-week project.  And our friends made it to Tocumen Airport without incident for their flight back to the U.S.  Then, two days later, grandson Adam and His Parents arrived from Morocco in order for him to have adenoid surgery the following Tuesday.

On Sunday morning, Brian and Charlotte brought Adam to Pacifica Salud Hospital by Über so that Adam could get his requisite pre-surgery blood and COVID tests.  The Über driver said there was no protest activity over the weekend. The third week of protests in the City would start on Monday.  Big relief.

But then there was Tuesday, with Adam’s surgery scheduled for 7:30 am.  Brian drove Adam, Charlotte, and Zak to Pacifica Salud Hospital, leaving home at 5:30 am with little concern that protesters would halt traffic en route.  After all, protesters need sleep like everyone else.  But he worried about getting stopped later in the day after Adam’s discharge from surgery.  Protesters do not make allowances for medical issues to let certain cars pass, and he did not want to be stuck in a line of vehicles for hours with a post-surgical toddler freaking out in the car from the aftereffects of general anesthesia.  Fortunately, though rumors had flown around that protests would start that day in Panamá City at 10:00 am, they all got home without incident.

So it was, also, when Brian drove Audrey back to Pacifica Salud later that week to remove a stent the doctor had inserted during her surgery the week before.  While protests remained rampant in the Interior, in the city they merely flared up periodically.

While Charlotte and Zak held down the fort with Adam in Costa del Este, we spent that third weekend of July in Casco Viejo at a hotel where Audrey hosted her annual school leadership team retreat.  With rumors that protests would ramp up again over the weekend, Audrey considered changing the retreat format to online.  In the end, though, she decided to stay with the on-site plan.  But we opted to leave our car at home and Über to Casco Viejo 20 minutes away just in case protesters went through the Old City and vandalized cars while we were there.  They did not.  But on Monday morning Brian had to return home to buy some supplies with our painter.  The Über ride back to Costa del Este took more than an hour as Brian’s driver took multiple detours to avoid road blockages and protesters marching in the street.

In addition to our various road issues, the other primary impact of the protests we felt was in the grocery stores.  The longer the protests continued, the more stores in Panamá City ran out of fruits and vegetables.  Aisles of canned, boxed, and other non-perishable foods or household goods remained on store shelves.  But produce aisles became micro food deserts.  Initially, while Panamanian produce ran out, stores continued to have imported produce that came off ships in port at the end of the Panamá Canal.  But eventually those imported produce stocks also ran low when that was all people could buy.  Next, with frozen vegetables being the only vegetables available, that supply depleted as well.  Needless to say, this made shopping for our visiting vegetarian daughter and our broccoli-loving grandson rather problematic.  Shelves magically restocked after the convoy of 100 trucks carrying produce finally arrived in Panamá City, the magic lasting a few days before emptying out again.

But finally, after nearly a month of protests with varying strengths, the unified determination of the protesters seemed to dissipate as the coalition of protest groups splintered.  Still, individual protests continue to appear.  Son-in-law Zak passed one just today as he took an Über home to Costa del Este from downtown.  But travel in the area has returned to the expectation of normal-unless-otherwise, rather than the avoid-going-out-if-you-can condition that existed for a while.  And grocery stores once again are well-stocked with the magnificent produce to which we are accustomed in Panamá.

As residents, not citizens, we seek to avoid getting mired in the politics of the country that has welcomed us.  We have enough politics to follow back in the U.S. where we continue to vote as expats.  In this case, the impact of the politics between the protesters and the government was impossible to circumvent in our daily lives.  That is expat life, no matter the country in which one lives.  And while the protests added challenges to our life here, six years living abroad has taught us that while plans are good to have, keeping healthy doses of patience, creativity, and flexibility in reserve allows us to stay sane and unruffled (or more truthfully “less ruffled”) when plans go awry due to things beyond our control.  In our world travels, we have lost water or electricity for days.  We have been stranded in airports.  We have had to get creative with food (always appreciating that “get creative” means that we still HAVE food when so many in the world do not).  We have had to get creative with money in order to buy what we need when accessing cash becomes difficult.  We have endured bureaucracy, traffic, bias, and other things that stall our doing what we plan to do.  We have become much more deeply aware of what privileged lives we led in the U.S. and continue to lead abroad.  And we appreciate the blessings that we enjoy and that we can share.

All things considered, Panamá is a soft landing.  We have already booked our first friends on the “Visitors Calendar” for 2023.  Lucky us.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Settling in for the Long Haul

Once again we find two months have blinked by since last we shared a post.  It is not for lack of material, but merely for lack of time amid so much happening.  Nearly two years into our Panamanian adventure, we feel a good sort of routine developing in our lives.  So much has transpired since we started our last semester in Morocco in January 2020 that, while we do not yearn for things mundane, there is a comfort factor that comes with settling in and looking toward things not changing for a while.

School administration has not returned to February 2020 status.  It never will.  But managing issues tied to the Pandemic has stabilized as “one more” thing added to all the other parts of running a school that have returned to front burner attention after being shoved aside for about 20 months.  Safety protocols, contact tracing, and shutting down classrooms with outbreaks will stay high profile into the foreseeable future.  But HR issues, strategic planning, curriculum development, and mission/vision implementation are back to make the work life of a Head of School challenging, exciting, and rewarding instead of merely exhausting.  In September, Audrey will welcome stakeholders to ISP’s 40th Anniversary gala event.  It will be a great celebration!

Brian is also getting back into the swing of gainful employment after two years on sabbatical.  In the next couple weeks he expects to start consulting for a U.S.-based company seeking to market both to U.S. schools and international schools its product that makes school buildings and classrooms safer.  With all the recent attention to school violence, the timing could not be more important.  He hopes also to continue volunteering in school accreditation work leading visitation teams at international schools, especially as the accrediting agency returns to on-site visits after spending the last couple years doing only virtual ones.  Meanwhile, since January he has been delighted to rejoin the music world as he started singing with two choral groups.  Last Sunday he had his first concert with Cantus Panamá, singing a diversity of music in English and Spanish.  In early July he will have his first concert with Cantemus Panamá, which focuses more on classical/spiritual choral music and will offer several performances of J. S. Bach’s “Christ Lag in Todesbanden.”

Much of Brian’s time remains committed to helping his octogenarian mother in Washington State.  Like he did last August and September, he returned to the Pacific Northwest for another six-week stint helping her with a range of projects from late-April through early-June.  Purging decades of stuff and making regular trips to the dump and to Goodwill, meeting with professionals for legal and financial appointments, cleaning up branches that fell around the mountain cabin property through the winter and other property maintenance, and fortifying her digital proficiency so that she can bring music back into her world thanks to Apple Music played through a Bose wireless speaker via the magic of Bluetooth all kept him busy during his PNW time.  And she seems to be developing a greater comfort with using him for assistance from Panama as well, he having FaceTimed last week for a two hour appointment she had with a very flexible and understanding Verizon guy to update her phone plan and devices for the first time in years.  One special part of this most recent trip to Skykomish was Brian being able to celebrate his 55th birthday with his mother.  They went to the Whistling Post, Skykomish’s town watering hole, where some friends treated them to dinner and they shared birthday cake with anyone in the WP who wanted a slice.

Another important focus for Brian while in the PNW was our storage units in Bellingham.  We started our Expat Expedition blog in 2016 as we prepared to depart for overseas jobs in Casablanca, Morocco.  After selling or giving away the vast majority of what we owned, we still filled three 5’ x 10’ storage units with furniture, artwork, china and glassware, generations of photos and memorabilia from both Audrey’s and Brian’s families, and lots of books (the consequence of two academics with multiple degrees…oh, and Audrey’s collection of roughly 300 cookbooks AFTER paring it down).  It has sat for six years, with us figuring that once we finally settle someplace we can ship it to that location.  Brian spent his first week in the PNW purging and reorganizing in preparation for a shipping company to collect our stuff and send it to Panamá.

It was finally time to ship our storage stuff after we decided that Panamá will be our new home, and after finding the “forever home” where we plan to live and someday retire.  Besides a beautiful sunset view of the water and of downtown Panamá, our Costa del Este condo gives us one-floor living, so we will have no accessibility issues when we are old codgers wheeling around instead of walking.  And anything we could want – from groceries to great restaurants to all sorts of stores to a new Emergency Room and clinic three blocks away – is available easily to us by walking a few blocks or by a quick drive.  Our effort to purchase our condo started in October.  Buying property in Panamá is very different from doing so in the U.S.  The most striking contrasts stem from there being essentially no process here for escrow.  We said goodbye to large chunks of our money long before closing ever happened, and surprises kept popping up along the way for this or that bank requirement that would cost us more money or threaten to kill the deal or both.  But after six months of ongoing effort, we finally were able to close on our condo just before Brian left for Washington State.  So now, even if we end up going somewhere else for another job for a time (which, for the record, we have zero intention of doing!), this is our base, this is where we will come “home,” and this is where we will retire.  Making that decision gave us and continues to give us an incredible sense of comfort.  We love traveling and seeing the world.  That will never stop.  But after six years of roaming, we feel home.  That is different from merely living someplace.  We belong.  We can plant.

Of course, after a decade of not owning a house (having bought and sold five houses in several U.S. states during our life together), the process of settling in as renewed homeowners means fixing things that need fixing.  Last week we had more days with workmen in our condo than not.  Next up is painting the whole 3200 square foot pad.  We hoped we could do that before our shipment arrives from Bellingham, but our painter cannot start until mid-July and the shipping company says the shipment will reach Panamá before then.  Assuming it goes through Customs without a hitch, we think Brian will have to move boxes from room to room to stay ahead of the painter.  One way or another, it will get done.

And then it will be ours.  Not just where we live, but our home.  We really miss that.

And throughout it all, we will have visitors.  Tonight Brian’s cousin and her two boys arrive from Seattle for a Panamanian adventure carrying through the end of June.  Then more friends come.  Then Adam and His Parents will return for five weeks for some medical work he needs that we prefer to do here than in Morocco.  Then more friends.  From today until the end of August, we will have only five days without guests in our home.  We love that.  It will just be a little crazy entertaining guests while also doing home repair, painting, and receiving our cargo shipment from Bellingham.  But we would not have it any other way.  The other day we even booked our first guests for 2023 on the Visitor Calendar that we created.

So let us know if you think you might be in town.  We would love to see you.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

International Grandparenting: Getting to Hold Our Grandson for the First Time…and Saying Goodbye for Now

For the first 19 months of our grandson Adam’s life, Brian presumed he thought of his Nana and Buhpa as two-dimensional glass-enclosed beings…like we lived in a kinder, gentler version of the Phantom Zone that held General Zod and his co-conspirators in the 1978 blockbuster movie “Superman.” Through a year-and-a-half of FaceTime conversations, we had built relationships with Adam. He recognized us, and he reacted and responded to us. We played peek-a-boo and other games through the video connection. We made him laugh. Charlotte even helped us “tickle” him, following up our “I’m going to tickle you!” pronouncements by tickling him with the phone while he cackled wildly and we made tickle noises on our end.

It was delightful and satisfying, and as good as we could imagine two-dimensional grandparenting could be.  Yet, we remained – and remained acutely aware that we were – virtual grandparents.

…Until Panamá approved travel visas for son-in-law Zak and grandson Adam.  Everything changed two months ago when, on February 9, Adam and His Parents arrived at Tocumen Airport after traveling for more than 24 hours.  Instantly we morphed from virtual grandparents to ACTUAL grandparents.

Actually, we were surprised – and, of course, thrilled – that Adam recognized us both the first time he saw the big 3-D versions of us.  

Given Adam’s fascination with balls and balloons (which he also calls balls), Charlotte had suggested that Brian bring a balloon with him to pick them up at the airport to help with Adam’s conceptual transition from Screen Buhpa to Big Buhpa.  As they processed through Passport Control, Char called Brian on FaceTime as he drove in circles around the passenger pickup outside Baggage Claim so he could say to Adam, “Look what I have for you!” and show him the blue balloon.  As soon as he did, Adam was not interested in Buhpa any more; he just said, “Ball!…Ball!”  But when Buhpa pulled up outside Baggage Claim and got out to welcome them, Adam recognized him and smiled…until he saw the big blue balloon Brian held and started again with “Ball!…Ball!”  Nonetheless, he had no resistance to Buhpa picking him up, hugging him, and relishing holding him.

Likewise, Audrey waited impatiently at home and met Brian and the “special delivery” downstairs at the building entrance.  When Brian pulled over to the curb, she went straight to the passenger door with Adam’s car seat, opened it, and descended on Adam with Nana kisses that Adam received with good humor and recognition of Nana.

In the days that followed, we got our own taste of Adam being a 3-D grandson moving into his prime as a toddler who gets into everything.  Notwithstanding all our efforts at baby-proofing our apartment, Adam helped us immensely at finding where we needed to tighten up our safety implementation.  As just one example among many, we learned that he is particularly good at throwing things into any toilet left with the bathroom door open and seat uncovered.  We lost count of how many full rolls of TP went swimming during his stay with us.  Ditto cars, trucks, dinosaurs, and more.

And our plans for encouraging a Montessori-like system of playing with one thing at a time and putting it back where it belongs before getting something else out went out the window.  (Not literally, of course, because one success of Brian’s baby-proofing was installing dowels in all window tracks so that Adam could not open any windows and risk throwing something out a window and down 45 stories below or, worse, falling out of a window himself.)  Adam’s Toy Box had puzzles and blocks and balls and things to whack with a hammer and dinosaurs and trucks and stacking toys and more.  And everything came out without going back into Adam’s Toy Box.  Our floor was a minefield of painful things on which to step.  That, of course, is not even to mention food that ended up on the floor.  We do not know if he has better prospects as a pitcher or outfielder in MLB or as a quarterback in the NFL, but the boy has an arm…at least when he is chucking grapes he gets from Buhpa or bowls/plates of food to show he has finished eating in his high chair.  We upped the time our house-helper, Berta, came to clean from once a week to twice a week.  And it seemed that she cleaned the apartment three times each day she came:  once when she arrived, once after Adam had restored its status to chaos, and once more before she left at the end of the day.

Similarly, confronted with the reality of our insufficient baby-proofing, our apartment became “The Land of No”:  plants, telescope, cabinets, toilets, fan, no-no rooms.  We began Adam’s six week stay saying to Charlotte and Zak, “There’s only so much baby proofing we can do.  He’ll have to learn.”  Hah!  Spoken like people who have not had toddlers in the house for two decades.  He even turned off the projector in the middle of everyone watching the 10’-wide super-sized Super Bowl on the pulled-down shades covering our wall of windows…Quite a feat that requires not one “no-no” push of the power button, but two…executed masterfully despite four adults sitting close by.

It did not take Adam long to create a new favorite game:  throwing things under our bed and then using the “broom” (really a long-handled window washer brush/squeegee) we bought him to push them back out again.  He toddled around our room tossing things under our bed, then laid himself on the floor next to it to go to work with his broom.  He found the bedroom of Nana and Buhpa special for other reasons as well.  He liked to get Buhpa’s cowboy boots out of the closet, stand in them up to his thighs, and try walking…looking like a cowboy who had thrown back a few too many whiskeys in the saloon as he wobbled for a few steps then fell down laughing.  He liked to bounce on the Moroccan poof that we had in the room as a footstool by a rocking chair.  He liked to climb everything from the rocking chair to the divan to the bed itself.  And he really loved exploring in our bathroom, especially climbing into our bathtub.

One thing that impressed us greatly was his multilingual capability.  With language still developing in age-appropriate ways, he seems to speak four languages:  Darija (the Moroccan dialect of Arabic), English, French, and Adam.  He had the job to speak; we had the job to understand (and distinguish between) things like, “doh doh” (sleep), “doo doo” (self-explanatory), “di di” (boo-boo), “caca” (self-explanatory), “tehtah” (binky/pacifier), “tee tee” (sit down), “pee pee” (self-explanatory, as well as his favorite body part when he has a diaper put on and it gets covered…as in, “Bye-by, Pee Pee”), “hadi” (this, that), “wa wa” (water), “num num” (food), and more.  Likewise his references to people:  “Baba” (Zak), “Ba” (Zak’s father), “Bubba” (Adam), “Buhpa” (Brian), “Nana” (Audrey), “Mama” (Charlotte), and “Mmi” (Zak’s mother).  Over his six weeks with us, his vocabulary grew significantly – though that makes sense given he spent about 1/12th of his entire life with us – to include things like “dump truck” and “dinosaur” (usually accompanied by “Rrroooooaaaarrrrrr!!!) and “ciao.”  Perhaps most adorable was his moniker “Buhpa bubble wa wa” for the seltzer he saw Brian drink daily.  By the time he went home, after asking Buhpa to share his seltzer, Adam had developed a taste for the fuzzy flavored water and liked to walk around with his own liter-sized bottle holding a couple ounces so that he and Buhpa could drink bubble wa wa together.

Adam went to lots of places during his visit.  Buhpa took him to our building’s playroom to climb and slide and swing, as well as to the building’s outside playground to climb and slide and swing.  Buhpa also took him out in the stroller on some of his morning walks along the promenade of Avenida Paseo del Mar.  Along the way, Adam commented on scenery he passed, exclaiming loudly “PUPPY!” and “BABY!” and “BIRD!” (and, whenever he saw a vulture perched somewhere, “CHICKEN!”).

As a family we all went to Casco Viejo, and to Parque Omar Torijos (the large urban park of more than 140 acres on the north side of Panama’s San Francisco neighborhood).  We also enjoyed family trips to Taboga Island for a beach day, ferrying across the Bay of Panama through shipping traffic like a real life game of Frogger; and then heading across the Canal for a beach week in Santa Clara off the Pan-American Highway a couple hours into Panama’s Interior.  While in Santa Clara we took a day-trip to El Valle de Anton, the small Panamanian town (with a population of fewer than 8000) famous for being nestled in the six kilometer-wide caldera of a volcano formed 50,000-200,000 years ago.  People always ask, “Is it extinct?” and then often do not like the precision of the typical response:  “It is dormant and has not erupted for many thousands of years.”  Feeling edgy, son-in-law Zak laughed nervously about the possibility of a new eruption until we left El Valle and headed back down the mountainside.  Adam and all of us nonetheless had a great time visiting El Valle’s public market, the zoo (where he called the toucans and hawks and macaws and parrots and geese and all the dozens of birds there “Chickens!”), and more.

Adam’s most regular destination was Aqua-Tots swimming school just two blocks from our apartment.  Throughout his six weeks with us, Charlotte (and occasionally Zak) suited up to take him to swim lessons three or four times a week.  By the time he flew home to Morocco, he had become a water-loving fish, able – with parental propulsion –  to fetch colorful rings on the pool’s bottom and, by himself, swim back up to the surface unaided.  And he rocked his cute toucan-print swim trunks.

Adam was not the only person learning things during their stay.  He introduced us to a whole new digital generation of earworms for households with small children.  In particular, we encountered Blippi as a force that we can neither unsee nor unhear.  If you know, you know; if you do not, let your life remain whole and undisturbed by garbage trucks, excavators, loving dinosaurs, and going to the zoo.  The catchy YouTube monotony of Blippi has now joined our own children’s catchy music monotony of Raffi from more than two decades ago as what may prove to be the only thing we will remember in the senility of our most senior years.

Adam’s father also learned things on this trip.  As our son-in-law’s first trip outside Morocco, Zak first marveled at Panama’s skyscrapers that dwarf Casablanca’s tallest buildings.  By the time he left, though, he had grown used to them and thought he would find Casablanca’s skyline very small.  Living for six weeks in a non-Muslim culture brought another big adjustment.  In Morocco, one can presume food is halal (permissible) unless something says it is not; in Panamá one encounters the reverse, so one should presume food is haram (not permissible) unless something says it is halal.  So we shopped for meat at Super Halal, and options for eating out required clarity on the question of halal.  (Zak celebrated going home with his first McDonald’s cheeseburger in over six weeks!)  And his mind exploded each time he entered the warehouse shopping environment of PriceSmart (like Costco here in Panamá).  He walked down the wide aisles of clothes and food and other supplies taking pictures on his phone to send to family and friends.  Then he just started making video calls to family and friends and showed them the store as he walked around.  Brian remarked to Audrey that people here probably saw him in the same way that Moroccans saw us when we first arrived in Morocco in 2016 and took hundreds of pictures of every little thing at the souks, hanouts, patisseries, and any other place we went that was part of everyday Moroccan life.

Then, sooner that we realized, we had to say goodbye.  Adam went to his last swim lesson, then took a last nap laying on top of Buhpa.  Charlotte and Zak bought a huge cheese pizza at PriceSmart to put in a Ziplock bag and take with them for halal food they could eat on their long journey back to Morocco.  We blew up another balloon for Adam to play “Ball Ball Ball!” in the hours before leaving.  Then we took them to the airport, hugged them all, and bid them a safe journey back home.

Since leaving, they have transitioned back to life in Casablanca.  Adam is so glad to sleep in his queen size big boy bed instead of in a pop-up tent.  His first night back home he slept like a happy lump until 7:30am without moving.  He also is so glad to be able to ride his tricycle across the tile floor of the salon on their floor of Zak’s family’s house (as opposed to Buhpa and Nana not wanting wheels on their wood floor in Panamá).  Char and Zak unpacked, sorted, and gave to family and friends gifts from Panamá that comprised the bulk of their four bags stuffed to within micrograms of the 23 kg per bag limit.  Zak told us that he had to readjust to the sounds of traffic, noting that in Panamá we had “cute” traffic on the Costa del Este roads 45 floors below us, whereas in their Oulfa neighborhood of Casablanca they have “savage” traffic.  And the buildings of Casa, indeed, now seem “teeny tiny” to him.

And in the wake of their departure, we have transitioned back to empty nesting.  We celebrated, after dropping them at the airport, with an empty nesters dinner out at a restaurant wholly of our choosing.  We cleaned up in the kitchen and around the apartment, and Berta deep cleaned the high chair, stroller, and car seat for storage.  We have relished having a quiet, clean kitchen, furniture where it belongs and without handprints/faceprints/drool/liquids/food (chewed and not chewed)/quiet/quiet, and life back to our empty nesters routine.  “Wait,” we will say to each other, “Do you hear that?” followed by contented smiles from the shared quiet we hear.

Still, at other times, we say to each other, “I miss hearing Adam” and then pull up video clips that Charlotte and Zak send us, like the one of Adam saying, “Hi, Buhpa!”  Then we sigh.

Now, nearly three weeks after they left, we have returned to interacting with Adam virtually.  But we no longer are merely virtual grandparents who live two-dimensionally inside device screens.  Adam has been to our world, and the digital connection does not merely present flat screen Nana and Buhpa to him.  It brings that world of Nana and Buhpa back to him to perpetuate our relationship as “real” grandparents who live internationally.  Each time he sees Brian on a FaceTime call he still smiles broadly and says, “BUHPA!” and then asks Buhpa to show him his ball that he kicked and rolled around the house with Buhpa and Nana.  Brian gets the ball and holds it up to the phone camera for Adam’s view, leading to excited chants of “Ball Ball Ball!”  Or, Nana comments to Adam – who once again is hours ahead of us on Casablanca time – that he is wearing the dinosaur pajamas that we bought him and Adam responds with a hearty “ROOOOOAAAAAARRRR!”…which, besides cueing visual and auditory playback of Blippi clad in blue and orange singing the “Dinosaur” song in our heads, prompts Brian to fetch one of Adams dinosaurs to hold up for Adam to see, eliciting from our grandson a delighted smile and another big “ROOOOOAAAAAARRRR!”  And Adam likes to show us the dump truck he brought with him from Panamá, remembering how he played with it here.

As before his visit, we still reside many hours away on opposite sides of The Pond, but we are complete and full-sized in his world now, as he is in hours.

We cherish the order and quiet of our empty nest home.

And we cannot wait for Adam and His Parents to return.

Meanwhile, our Visitors Calendar continues to register both prospective interest and actual plans for family and friends to visit us in Panamá.  One week after bidding adieu to Adam and His Parents, we welcomed Bellingham friends Chris and Dave Carlson, who shared the first three of our four years in Morocco with us at GWA.  And apparently Uncle Tom shared with family a positive report on his Panamá trip in January, because Brian’s cousin and her two sons have bought tickets to visit us in June.  We look forward to more friends and family letting us know of their interest in basing with us during a tropical escape!

On your mark, get set, here we go!

The Visitors Calendar:  Bringing Back the Joy of Hosting

You know that feeling when, suddenly jolted from a deep sleep by a piercing noise, your fuzzy brain loops unproductively until the adrenal medulla floods your body with enough epinephrine to reset it to consciousness?  In that moment before awoken clarity, “What’s wrong?!” is the only thought allowed in fight-or-flight mode.

That is how Brian started the month of February.

Sleeping soundly for not quite five hours, following a late-night FaceTime conversation with his mom, his dreams evaporated at 5:48am when Audrey – up and getting ready for school – screamed from our bathroom.

“YOU’RECOOOOOMIIIIIINGTOPANAMAAAAAA!!!”

Quickly brain fuzz disappeared and he realized she was talking with daughter Charlotte in Morocco, and the Panamanian travel visas for son-in-law Zak and grandson Adam finally must have been approved.

So started a marathon of planning and execution that nine days later culminates with their arrival tonight at Tocumen Airport.  To say we are excited merits calling the Guinness World Records folks for consideration in the “Greatest Understatement” category.  For the next six weeks we will welcome the joyful disruption of our routine by having “Adam and his parents” (as we love to tease Charlotte as Zak) in our daily presence.

We love visitors.  Throughout our life together we have welcomed family and friends staying with us wherever we may happen to live.  Whether hopping across the USA or across oceans, we have always collected people and sought to keep them actively in our lives even after we moved to wherever in the world served as the setting for our next chapter.  Throughout, Audrey – schooled by her southern grandmother (and former First Lady of the USMC) in hostessing – has had a special knack for making guests feel welcome.  What started years ago with putting chocolates on guests’ pillows has grown into constructing visitor baskets that feature local snacks and amenities.  Brian’s mother recently recalled how, years ago when grandparents GJo and GBob joined us and our then-very-young girls for several days on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, Audrey arranged welcome packets for them that included a beautiful half shell which she still keeps today as a remembrance of that trip.  For 25 years Brian (and later both of us) hosted an annual “Wine-Tasting for the Masses” (i.e., an excuse for a social occasion, not an organized tasting of Church wine) that typically brought together not only local friends but also long-time friends who traveled across states and even across the Atlantic to continue their streaks of attendance.  Our children grew up knowing aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents who lived far away because they traveled to us and we traveled to them.  When we moved abroad, we welcomed family and friends to Morocco and loved touring them through as much of the beautiful country as the lengths of their stays would allow.  As much as we enjoyed it in our stateside life, hosting visitors abroad certainly marks one of the thrills of expat life.

Then came COVID-19 and the global pandemic that has changed everything about life for the last two years.  As the COVID trajectory improved last fall, friends and family started talking about coming to Panamá to visit us and use our accommodations as an anchor spot for exploring the country.  We had so many people registering their prospective interest with us that we added a “Visitors” calendar on our Google Calendar to keep track of who might come when.  We blocked out days and weeks for prospective trips people said they wanted to take with great anticipation of restoring the hosting component of our lives soon.

Even when the Omicron variant started surging in parts of the world, Panamá continued to have very good stats regarding daily new cases, so we remained optimistic about folks still being able to visit soon.  But, of course, the inevitable happened here as well.  Numbers skyrocketed in the first half of January.  We did not know how long that would last and how many visitors would have to cancel or reschedule their plans.  Brian’s Uncle Tom chanced it as numbers were climbing, becoming our first international visitor in Panamá after living here for 18 months.  We tested before he came.  He tested before he came.  He flew with a KN90 doubled by another mask.  We and he practiced reasonable caution before and during his visit.  While Audrey worked at ISP, Brian toured Uncle Tom around Panamá.  We took a “rum tour,” closing out each night with another quality rum from somewhere in Latin America while toasting the sunset from our balcony.  We had a blast.  And, thankfully, we all stayed COVID-free…even though Panamá hit its pandemic-long peak of daily new cases on January 20 midway through his stay.  One day before his departure, he tested at the facility four blocks from our house and was cleared to fly back to the U.S.

In the three weeks since that January 20 crest of the Omicron wave, numbers have dropped precipitously, and thankfully, back 75 percent.  That leaves a long way still to go to reach pre-Omicron numbers, but when Zak and Adam got approved travel visas, we sprung immediately into rescheduling the visit they had hoped to begin before Uncle Tom returned stateside.  But Morocco had re-instituted an international travel ban in the early days of Omicron, then extended it again and again through December and January.  So when Morocco announced its reopening to international travel as of February 7 and they got their visas approved, we started right away to explore when to reschedule their flights.

From February 1 until this moment, their trip has dominated our days and nights.  First we needed to buy tickets.  Then we needed to finish outfitting the guest room that Uncle Tom had so kindly beta-tested for us.  (Read:  the guest shower did not drain well, so Brian had to play plumber; we needed to buy a pop-up tent that could serve as Adam’s room-within-a-room to ensure that he would sleep inside the same walls as his parents; and Audrey had visitor baskets to restock.)  Then Brian went on a child-proofing frenzy around the apartment.  We now know how many outlets we have unused throughout the apartment that we need covered to keep Baby safe.  Finally, last weekend we went on a grandparent shopping extravaganza.  After all, Adam needs toys to play with while here.  And we needed to add a high chair and stroller and a car seat to our lives for the first time in two decades.  When we got home, we laid out the toys and puzzles and whatnot next to Adam’s Toy Box that Brian made back in December when we started talking about having them come visit.

According to FlightAware.com, in a little over an hour we will get to hug our daughter for the first time since 15 July 2020; our son-in-law will have traveled across an ocean on his first trip outside Morocco; and our grandson will discover that his Nana and Buhpa are not merely small people living inside, and traveling between, the screens of his mother’s phone/iPad/computer.  Audrey will stay home to receive food being delivered from a halal restaurant, and Brian will drive to Tocumen Airport with a blue balloon to give Adam to help with the conceptual transition to Big Buhpa.

Meanwhile, the Visitors calendar never sleeps.  As we prepared for Adam, Charlotte, and Zak to arrive, on Sunday we had a video chat with USA friends from our years in Morocco who will arrive for a week’s stay just days after our grandson and his parents return home to Morocco.  Notwithstanding future pandemic disruptions, our Costa del Este apartment in Panamá is open to visitors.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Boosted!…and Trying (Dubiously) to Boost our Hopes for 2022

Happy New Year!…we hope.  The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has reconstructed the Calculus equation for making a best guess as to when some measure of settling into “new normal” will occur.  Two steps forward, one step back.  Panamá is caught in the same topsy-turvy daily ambiguity as the rest of the world regarding what behaviors qualify as more or less safe or amid efforts to go forward with work and home life balanced with acceptable levels of risk in both.

At least we are both boosted…finally.

Toward the end of November we shopped at Panama’s upscale MultiPlaza mall in the Punta Pacifica neighborhood.  We had gone there in search of the tembleques (beaded flower-like headpieces), necklaces, and shoes Audrey needed to accessorize the Panamanian attire she would wear when joining on stage at ISP’s PAC (Performing Arts Center) in traditional Panamanian dances in her school’s bicentennial Independence Day celebration.  While hunting for the store where she was instructed to purchase them, on the mall’s bottom floor we happened upon a huge COVID-19 vaccination site run by Pacifica Salud (our Johns Hopkins-affiliated hospital next door to the mall).  Seeing that they offered Pfizer vaccine booster shots without appointments, we decided to hop into line.  Very quickly an attendant came to check our vaccination and other documents.  Audrey qualified, but because six months had not yet passed since Brian’s second AstraZeneca vaccine shot, the attendant said he would have to wait.  So Brian continued hunting for the store selling Audrey’s dance attire accessories while Audrey eased forward gradually through the line, moving toward getting boosted with all the speed of a sloth in Panama’s rainforest.  When Brian called Audrey half an hour later to say he had given up his failed hunt for the store, she told him she had received her shot and just needed to wait the obligatory post-shot 15 minutes to ensure no adverse reactions.

She had no adverse reaction to the shot, and Brian had no adverse reaction to waiting to reach his six month date on January 1.  Except, of course, that January 1 was New Year’s Day and we figured no shots would be available.  So he waited a couple more days until January 3 when he could piggy back getting boosted with a doctor appointment he had that morning in the consultorios (doctors’ offices) at Pacifica Salud.  Finishing his checkup just before noon, he navigated the typically bad stretch of traffic on Boulevard Pacifica, taking only about 15 minutes to travel the 350 meters from Pacifica Salud to the parking lot at MultiPlaza.  Lucky Audrey had waited only 30 minutes to get her booster in November.  When Brian arrived at the vaccination site, an attendant pointed toward what Brian thought was the back of the line by the mall’s doors.

Wrong.

Upon his reaching that spot, she pointed again, indicating farther out through the doors, and said, “Afuera.”  Outside.  Stepping outside into the underground garage, Brian saw that the line continued to the far end of the parking structure – at least 60 or 70 people ahead of him just to get back inside.  Apparently, since Audrey’s booster in November and the proliferation of Omicron the vaccination business has been good in Panamá.  So Brian had to wait outside in line nearly an hour sweating in a hot garage just to reenter air conditioning before continuing to wait in a designated “sala de espera” (waiting room) packed with the same 60-70 people in rows of chairs…before moving to a third waiting location outside the vaccination room…before waiting in the vaccination room registration line…before taking a seat to wait for his turn to get boosted.  After nearly two hours of waiting, the boosting itself went quickly and easily, with Brian pleased to get a Pfizer boost to his AstraZeneca vaccination shots.  Panamá is updating its concept of “fully vaccinated” to mean three shots, not two, so now we both are up-to-date in being up-to-date.

As such, we felt ready to step further toward life as we once were used to living it.  One thing we have missed terribly:  entertaining.  Audrey decided it was time to reacquaint ourselves with that practice, and invited the leadership team of her school to an afternoon “soirée” in our new home with wine and hors d’oeuvres.

Everyone was vaccinated and we welcomed each person by inviting them to leave their masks on or take them off as they wish, no peer pressure either way.  As it was a very homogeneous group of which almost everyone either worked together or was the significant other of someone who works at ISP, and with ISP having a staff vaccination mandate for some time, most people took off their masks.  Some left them on.  We had a good time, and it felt so good to entertain again.

And, Omicron being what it is, we then waited to see if anyone at the party subsequently reported a COVID diagnosis.  That was made easier by ISP’s requirement that all staff get cleared to return after the holiday break with a negative PCR test last weekend before staff reported back this week for some professional development days and then for the start of the second semester.  Two of the two dozen people who had been our guests did test positive, but so far it looks like they became positive (and contagious) after the party.  Still, with case numbers in Panama skyrocketing in the last week, we feel like the window of opportunity for big entertaining has closed again and do not plan to tempt Omicron fate to that extent for some time.

On another track, while Panamá seemed to manage Omicron well in December, Brian auditioned for and joined Cantemus Panamá, an SATB choral group of expats and Panamanians that sings sacred music in multiple languages.  He has missed his choral involvement in the U.S. since we moved abroad, and hoped when we decided in 2019 upon Panamá as our next billet that he could find a group here for musical and social enjoyment.  Joining Cantemus Panamá thrilled him, with his first concert scheduled for this Sunday to reprise the group’s December presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio.  For the last couple weeks he rehearsed on his own, both in his home office and during his walks on the promenade of Avenida Paseo Del Mar, singing softly while music played via Bluetooth in his head for no one else to hear, and hoping passers-by who saw the white-haired guy with floppy sun hat in t-shirt and walking shorts singing the bass part to Handel’s Messiah – without apparent accompaniment – did not think him schizophrenic.

But COVID had its way with musical plans as well, and Sunday’s concert has been canceled – at least for now – because several choristers and soloists have recently joined Panama’s wave of positive COVID test results.  He hopes they can reschedule the Messiah concert, and that plans later this year to sing Bach’s “Christ Lag In Todesbanden” and Haydn’s “The Creation” come to fruition.  We shall see.

So “up-to-date” with our boosters grants only tempered relief in the Age of Omicron.  As per ISP’s declaration that Audrey sent out last week, and as Omicron quintupled Panama’s COVID numbers in the first week of January (and still more in this second week), on Sunday we walked four blocks to the north side of Costa del Este to get tested at the drive-thru/walk-thru testing facility set up in a parking lot next to the Super Rey grocery store.  Both negative.  Whew!  And how fortunate we felt to have such easy and cheap testing available when tests in the U.S. are hard to find and, when finally found, often cost several times what testing costs here.

After testing we walked over to Town Center so Audrey could get a caprese snack.  We also got a reminder lesson on Panamanian National holidays when Audrey was told she could not order a cup of sangria because it was Día de los Mártires (Martyrs Day).  The January 9 commemoration each year remembers the 1964 flag protest which began when Panamanian students marched into the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone to hoist the Panamanian flag next to the U.S. flag that “Zonian” students had raised at Balboa High School.  A scuffle ensued that resulted somehow in the Panamanian flag tearing, and days of rioting followed in which 28 Panamanians and four Americans died.  After caprese, we walked home appreciative to live in a Panama with still-complicated but less-intense dynamics between Panamanian and American elements.

Besides the ISP staff testing mandate, getting tested also was good to reinforce our negative status before next Monday when Brian’s uncle will become our first international visitor since we arrived in Panamá 18 months ago.  Another thing we loved from the Before Times was hosting visitors.  With Panama managing COVID well through the last several months, we looked forward to Brian’s uncle marking a restart in that part of our lives as well.

How quickly things can change!  We still look forward to his visit, but with us and him all accepting the “unless it does not happen” caveat that pervades our times.  In preparation for his arrival, Brian has been researching and setting up tours for while he is here.  We will open up to spending time with tour guides, but not with large groups of other tourists.  And as a final check before Brian’s uncle comes, we will get tested one more time this weekend to ensure he has a COVID-free zone in which to stay…unless he picks it up on a flight or in an airport on his way to Panamá.

Meanwhile, Audrey’s ISP COVID test mandate before staff returned to campus led to more than 15 percent of staff testing positive – people who traveled during the three-week break, and people who went nowhere.  Consequently, she had to push back the return of students for the second semester until next week, and also expanded the testing mandate to include students before they return.  Teachers are preparing for students mixed between on campus and online once again, at least for a short term.

We started writing this post more than a week ago with a very different emphasis. We began 2022 with confidence in Panama’s management of COVID numbers despite Omicron blowing up so quickly elsewhere in the world. We hoped that we would soon emerge from two years of pandemic haze – not that COVID would be gone, but that it would settle into a stable presence around which we could shape new lives. As we already said, how quickly things can change. Like everyone, we are trying to determine the path forward in the current pandemic phase to find the balance between living as normally as possible while being as responsible as we can.  Consistency on either front yields to living in the massive gray area between the two extremes.  After all this time, we find ourselves still in the realm of everything we choose to do or not do coming down to a risk-reward assessment.  We want to boost our hopes for 2022.  So far, it is a bit better…until it is not…but then it is…before it is not.  [Sigh.]

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Fir Trees Do Not Grow in the Rain Forest:  Getting into the Spirit…and a Break

No sooner did we post a few weeks ago about decorating for Christmas in Panamá, including mention that we had not yet taken the artificial Christmas tree we inherited with our house upon arriving in Panamá last year out of its box to put up in our new apartment, than our seasonal decor plans took an unforeseen turn.  We had figured that – sometime after Thanksgiving – Brian would start listening to Christmas music channels on AccuRadio.com, inspiring him to pull the fake tree out of its box in our guest room closet, and Audrey would grimace slightly while granting her willingness to put it up, so long as Brian promised to take it down soon after Christmas (in order to avoid the “Easter tree” phenomenon that past procrastination sometimes brought into our otherwise wedded paradise).

Nope.  Not how it happened.

On the last Saturday of November – Thanksgiving Weekend and the official start of the Christmas Season by American calendar and custom – we found ourselves out running errands.  First we walked to Town Center, the mall just a few blocks from our Costa del Este home, to buy presents for some kids whom Audrey had “adopted” to make sure they had a good Christmas.  As we walked to and from Town Center we kept seeing cars driving on the roads with honest-to-goodness real fir trees tied on top.

That’s strange,” we said to each other, “there sure are a lot of Christmas trees buzzing around the streets.  Fir trees do not grow in the rainforest.”  And these trees looked good – healthy, green, fresh, and big.  We figured the ritzy class of Costa del Este were willing to pay several hundred dollars for real trees from some designer store instead of having fake trees, and left it at that.

A bit later we hopped in the car and drove to Costa del Este’s Riba Smith for grocery shopping.  As we wound through CDE in our car, we again saw lots of cars topped with real trees…

And what happened, then?  Well, in Panamá they say

That Audrey’s small heart grew three sizes that day.

And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through,

And Audrey said…“What would you think about getting a real tree this year?”  (Apologies to Dr. Seuss.  We know, it does not rhyme.)

Not that Audrey is a Grinch.  Far from it. For the record, she has always had a very large and compassionate heart.  But this is the Audrey who, throughout our years in Morocco, urged each Christmas that we not bother getting a tree and that Brian not go “overboard” on decorating our apartment with lights and bowls of ornaments (since we had no tree upon which to put them)…

Indeed, the same Audrey who, during our years in Arizona, wanted to bother so little with Christmas decor in Scottsdale’s desert environs that each December we would just move a small potted Norfolk pine to the middle of our living room and hang a few light ornaments on its flexile branches.  Audrey still insists it was her version of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, saying, “I’m a minimalist, and less is more.”

Nearly a decade has passed since our last real tree – a giant of a fir that filled-well our large 14-foot ceiling living room in Louisiana, our state of residence at the time.  Brian, with evergreens in his Pacific Northwest DNA, last year had rejoiced merely to be able to put up our new-to-us fake tree, then loved Audrey’s decorating it with two rolls of toilet paper and a COVID mask to give it as much personality as we could muster in Panama’s reprised pandemic lockdown.  (https://expatexpedition.com/2020/12/24/covid-christmas-in-panama/)  So he knew not what wondrous stirrings suddenly caused Audrey to want a real tree, but he needed no convincing.  Somehow, after filling our grocery cart with a week’s worth of supplies and getting into the checkout line, instead of thinking, “Why, for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now!” she wanted a tree…a real tree…with real decorations.

It was as if she had a smile to her soul as she descended Mount Crumpet cheerily blowing “Who! Who!” on her trumpet.

From two people behind us in the Riba Smith checkout line we heard the husband of an ISP teacher calling out to us.  Audrey asked if he knew where people were buying the Christmas trees.  He did, in fact, and had almost bought one himself for his family’s apartment two buildings over from ours.  He told Audrey where to find them (not a crusty fru-fru establishment, but a different grocery store in the neighborhood) and how they cost no more than if we went tree-shopping in the U.S. (not the hundreds of dollars we had predicted).  So we checked out and went home to put away our weekly storehouse.  And all the while Audrey grew more excited about buying a real tree and ornaments.  And all the while Brian grew more excited about Audrey growing more excited about buying a real tree and ornaments.  

After finishing stowing things in the fridge and pantry, we hopped back in the car and drove to CDE’s Super99 grocery store in search of a Christmas tree.  In a corner of the parking lot stood a blue-tarped, fenced enclosure fronted by a blanket of  pine needles on the ground.  Under the blue tarp, the small enclosure was dark, and housed only a handful or two of remaining trees.  But they were beautiful – lush, green, fresh, and rich with natural pine scent – not from the rainforest but shipped down from Quebec.  They had just one size left:  2.5+ meters (more than 8 feet).  Audrey worried they might be too tall for our apartment’s nine-foot ceiling, but Brian felt confident we could cut the base and top to fit even accounting for the extra inches of a tree stand.  So we bought the smallest of the remaining trees and had them lop off several inches when they cut the base.  Then they ran it through a netting device like Christmas tree professionals and tied it to the top of our car.  Had we gone even a few hours later, the fenced blue-tarp tree cave would have had no more trees to sell.

Then, tree atop our four-wheeled sleigh, more rapid than eagles our coursers took us over to Novey (like Panamanian Home Depot) to buy some Christmas balls and a star for the top.  By American standards we were at the start of the Christmas shopping and decorating season.  However, with Panama’s yuletide having run for almost a month at that point, it was nearing the end of its season and had 50 percent off all Christmas supplies that were left.  Knowing that we have three big boxes of Christmas decor shipping next spring from our storage when Brian makes his next PNW trip in April/May, we did not need much to make the tree look merely sufficient this year.  Lights, however, were a problem.  Novey had only outside icicle lights left.  Brian rectified that a couple days later when he walked to Arrocha (sort of a Michael’s-type chain in Panama) in Town Center and bought several strings of tree lights.  With lights secured, we decorated the tree one evening.  Brian capped the decorating by placing the star atop the tree as it just kissed the ceiling, doing his best Bumble impression to reenact a favorite scene from our childhood Christmases watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  It is sufficient for this year, and we know that next year we will have our family history of ornaments to put on another real fir tree to make our home Christmassy.  

So for the last three weeks it has smelled like pine needles in our apartment.  The aroma helps foster an increasing sense of Christmas spirit.  And today Audrey made her full transition into Christmas mode with her last day of classes at ISP before a long – three week! – Christmas break.

Last year, with schools operating virtually only, ISP could not do much to lead students into the Christmas break with festivities.  “Enjoy a virtual candy cane and virtual Christmas cookies” would not play too well with student stakeholders…or with teachers, for that matter.  But this year, with ISP in full on-campus operations since kicking off the year in August, Audrey got to experience the traditional ISP all-staff Christmas sendoff at the end of the school day that she missed in her maiden year leading ISP 12 months ago.  It began with Christmas music blasting and faculty and staff lining the hallways adorned in Santa hats and reindeer antlers while carolling for students as they headed down the halls.  Then they moved to the parking lots and pickup areas to wave and cheer – still in Santa hats and reindeer antlers – as buses rolled out and parents rolled in to pick up their kids.  There was much horn-honking to express delight and to reciprocate Christmas cheer back to the faculty and staff.  

So now we have moved officially into full Christmas mode.  Our plans remain simple.  We have no friends or family visiting us this Christmas.  Like last year, we will celebrate quietly together, talking with family and friends through digital screens instead of face-to-face.  But this Christmas season just feels more festive, like we have moved closer to how we hope next year we can celebrate.  Our real fir tree, from Quebec instead of from the rainforest and decorated sufficiently with lights and undistinguished ornaments, has helped to boost that feeling.  On Christmas Day, Brian will carve a Christmas ham for the two of us instead of the Grinch carving rare Who roast beast for a long table of Whos.  We will celebrate the blessings in our lives and in our life together.  And we will switch from Dr. Seuss to Dickens in order to say, “God bless us, every one.”

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Decorating for Christmas:  No Thanksgiving Debate

Today is Thanksgiving.

At least that is the case in the U.S.  Various other countries have their own Thanksgivings celebrated on other dates.  But the big Turkey-family-friends-football-shopping-blessings-materialism-travelfest holiday on the annual U.S. calendar has arrived for celebration in the land of E Pluribus Unum and among its expats scattered around the world.

As expats in Morocco we confronted more difficulty seeking to obtain the makings of a Thanksgiving meal, but found the supply stock we needed at the U.S. Embassy Commissary in Rabat (https://expatexpedition.com/2016/11/28/the-commissary-a-thanksgiving-blessing/).  Moreover, because we worked at an American school in Casablanca that built both U.S. and Moroccan holidays into its calendar we had a full four-day Thanksgiving weekend to celebrate in stereotypical American fashion:  cooking and gorging on Thursday (as often as possible introducing American Thanksgiving to Moroccan friends and, after Charlotte got married, to Moroccan family), followed by tryptophan-induced napping and general sluggishness, followed again by leftovers that provided the option for three more days of the same.

Panamá gives us the reverse situation.  For the last few weeks our old Riba Smith grocery store in San Miguelito and our new Riba Smith in Costa del Este have stocked cases of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce (usually the cylinder-shaped jelly kind that Audrey likes and that drops out of its can with a loud “Shhhluuurrrrp!), cases of StoveTop Stuffing (which we are not too proud to admit became an expat indulgence during our Morocco years), and unnaturally huge Butterball turkeys filling the freezer section.  Last week Brian bought a not-too-outrageous “Festive” brand turkey breast weighing 3 kilos (shy of 7 pounds) without its wings and drumsticks.  That should lead to good gravy and leftovers aplenty for days of turkey sandwiches.  (NB:  We also can get King’s Hawaiian Rolls here…SCORE!)  But that feasting will not begin until this weekend, because Audrey’s International School of Panamá has that “International” thing leading its name.  Hence, ISP’s calendar treats the fourth Thursday of November like any other typical Thursday through the school year.  Last year we opted to do our own Thanksgiving celebration on the weekend after the stateside Big Day.  We figured a two-day delay seemed a reasonable exchange for both of us spending all day in celebratory mode instead of cramming Thanksgiving into a couple hours after coming home from school on Thursday and before going to bed in order to get up for school again on Friday.  It worked, and so we will do that again this year.

Panama does not ignore American Thanksgiving completely.  This morning Brian saw online ads from some local restaurants featuring Thanksgiving specials today.

Churrería Manolo invited people (in Spanish) to “celebrate . . . with your loved ones a special #Thanksgiving with a delicious #Menu” that started with a Thanksgiving Breakfast of a “corn tortilla with shredded turkey in its sauce.”  After noon, its Thanksgiving Menu featured squash cream and house bread, a choice of turkey breast in black pepper sauce with honey or turkey breast in mushroom sauce, accompanied by mashed potatoes with vegetables and glazed sweet potato.  The churrería’s dessert, of course, is a churro stuffed with apple and cinnamon.

Portolá declared (again in Spanish) that “the date of the richest meal of the year has arrived,” before introducing it not as a Thanksgiving menu but as a Christmas menu.  This captures better our experience with Thanksgiving in Panamá:  Thanksgiving does not rate here.  Christmas is King.

No one wonders whether to wait until after Thanksgiving to decorate for Christmas.  Generally speaking, Panamanians are too busy with their own five . . . yes, FIVE . . . national holidays that appear each November to get excited about an American turkey holiday.  This year doubles down on that, because Americans giving thanks today comes just three days before the bicentennial of Panama’s independence from Spain in 1821 on November 28.

This plethora of November holidays not only squeezes out any hope American expats might have for celebrating American Thanksgiving on Thursday instead of a couple days later, it also presents a completely different marketing environment than in the U.S.  Plenty of stores and restaurants and municipal governments and individual homes in the U.S. still stand by Thanksgiving as the unofficial official kickoff to the Christmas season, for all that means spiritually and festively and commercially.  Sure, plenty of others seek to push it earlier than Thanksgiving, but the debate over the appropriateness of that rages hotly.  And in our travels we have marvelled at the power of American commercialism to spread the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping fests to other continents that do not celebrate American Thanksgiving, with that as a Christmas season kickoff not appearing unusual.

But in Panamá the entire month of November takes on a festive feel as soon as Halloween’s costumes come off and kids come down from their sugar highs.  (To be clear, Halloween is not a big thing in Panamá either, but the commercial and American expat forces seek to build that up as well.)  Panamanian flags and red-white-and-blue bunting go up in schools and shopping malls and neighborhoods and apartment building lobbies to mark the first three holidays on November 3-4-5.  But candy canes, nutcrackers, elves, reindeer, and Santas also appear in abundant grocery store displays, and once the earlier patriotic holidays finish, Christmas decor pours out of stores and neighborhoods like the floods that follow our daily thunderstorm downpours (that soon should wane into the dry season Panamians call “summer”).  Roundabouts in roadways sport strings of Christmas light displays made to look like Christmas trees several stories tall.  Courtyards of commercial buildings and shopping malls put up and decorate trees 20, 30, 40 feet high or more.  Christmas music – sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English – pipes through speakers.  In the Town Center mall, just three blocks from our new home, a huge teddy bear (appropriately masked for Panama’s COVID-19 protocols) wearing a Santa hat at least 15 feet high sits next to a big Christmas tree at least 10 feet taller and a large, plush, red bench with a sign that advertises it as Santa’s seat.  (We do not know if that is for display only, or if Santa appears now and then to have pictures taken with kids while sitting on his cushy bench.)  In sum, this place goes Christmas crazy throughout the month of November and continues all through la navidad (Christmas).  Thanksgiving as the kickoff to Christmas?  Not a chance. Not here.

And so we turn attention to our abode.  When we moved at the beginning of this month from our house in San Miguelito to our condo in Costa del Este, we brought with us the boxed artificial tree that we put up for our COVID Christmas last year.  (https://expatexpedition.com/2020/12/24/covid-christmas-in-panama/)  As of today, it remains boxed on a shelf in the guest room closet.  We figure the rest of Panama has done more than enough decorating throughout the month of November to cover us for a few more weeks without us oozing holiday cheer.  We do not feel Scroogey and call Christmas a humbug.  We just feel tired from a busy last few months of negotiating, packing, moving, unpacking, and settling into our new home.  We suspect that once Brian starts listening to AccuRadio Christmas music stations, the tree will appear . . . perhaps even with an ornament or two (unless we opt again for Audrey’s brilliant decor theme from last year).

So Happy Thanksgiving to all celebrating it today or later this weekend.  We count our family and friends as our greatest blessings, and wish you all the best today and every day.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Gridlock:  Travel During the November Holidays

Nearly a year has passed since we wrote about our first experience with Panama’s November holidays.  (https://expatexpedition.com/2020/12/01/thanksgiving-for-two-november-holidays-in-panama/)  At that time, Panama’s government had recently ended its strict lockdown that kept people sealed hermetically inside their homes all but a couple hours a day for two (men) or three (women) days per week.  Preferring to keep insulating our then-unvaccinated selves from the uptick in COVID-19 cases that a month of national holiday vacationing wrought, we – just the two of us – celebrated a quiet Thanksgiving during the weekend after the U.S. Thanksgiving Thursday date.  This year, our now-vaccinated selves (and with Brian’s blood still coursing with post-COVID antibodies from his August infection) welcomed the arrival of  Panama’s November holidays with an escape to a beach condo offered to us by friends for a few days of rest and relaxation overlooking the Playa Santa Clara (Santa Clara Beach).  Still rather reclusive behavior, but by choice instead of by mandate.

Following a few days in Miami the previous week so that Audrey could attend a school governance training conference with her board, and so that Brian could catch up with a college classmate and former housemate from his D.C. days whom he had not seen in 30 years, we arrived home at night on the last Friday of October too late to participate in the pre-Halloween trick-or-treating sponsored by our La Montañesa homeowners association for the neighborhood kids.  On Saturday we picked up keys from the realtor for the Costa del Este apartment we are buying.  Then, with ISP on break for the first week of November, on Sunday we packed a few clothes and lots of food before driving 137 kilometers (85 miles) out from the Panamá City metro area, across el Puente Centenario (Centennial Bridge) that spans the Panamá Canal, and along la Carretera Interamericana (the Pan-American Highway) to Santa Clara.  We stopped along the way at the regionally-famous Quesos Chela (Chela Cheeses) in the Capira District of the Panamá Oeste Province to pick up good cheese and delicious rolls for making lunchtime sandwiches during our mini-vacation.  With only about 30 people in line ahead of us at Quesos Chela (a relatively small number, given that we have seen more than triple that crowd there), we incurred not too much of a delay (though, arriving at 1:30pm, our shopping reprised Monte Python’s “Cheese Shop” skit as most of the cheeses had sold out for the day), and completed the trip with minimal traffic on the road in roughly two hours.

We arrived.  We settled into our digs.  We felt rejuvenated by the ocean view and the constant sound of waves rolling up the beach.  We ate well.  We stayed in pajamas some days and had Aperol Spritzes daily at noon because we could.  Life was so good.

Then we had to leave, needing to prepare for the craziness transitioning into our new apartment would bring over the next couple weeks.

We had driven to Santa Clara on October 31…a Sunday…a day of the week when people typically drive BACK to Panamá FROM the Interior instead of FROM Panamá TO the Interior.  So we found the drive rather pleasurable with minimal traffic.

Not so for our return to Panamá City three days later.  We headed back home on Wednesday afternoon, November 3, the first of the November national holidays and the first of three consecutive days remembering Panama’s 1903 split from Colombia (November 3’s Separation Day), the creation of its flag by Maria de la Ossa de Amador three months before she became the first First Lady of Panamá (November 4’s Flag Day, changed to Patriotic Symbols Day in 2013), and the people of Colon preventing Colombia’s military from marching across the isthmus to Panamá City to put down the bloodless revolution (November 5’s Colon Day).

Often people living in Panamá City own additional homes along the beaches or in inland towns of the Interior.  Traffic across the Centennial Bridge and el Puente de las Américas (the Bridge of the Americas) and along the Pan-American Highway typically backs up so much heading out of the Capital on Fridays and back from the Interior on Sundays that many of our friends and associates with beach or mountain homes rarely brave the weekend traffic.  Instead they stay put in their skyscraper condominiums in neighborhoods like Marbella, San Francisco, Coco del Mar, Punta Pacifica, Costa del Este, and Santa Maria, saying that one day of pleasurable escape does not compensate for many extra hours lost to driving each way.

Our drive back from Santa Clara to Panamá City went counter to the endless line of vehicles of all sizes packed with people heading west..slowly…very slowly…to meet up with families and friends for the patriotic triduum in the western provinces from Panamá Oeste and Coclé to Veraguas and Chiriquí.  Like Thanksgiving and Christmas in the U.S. and like Ramadan and Eid in Morocco, Panama’s November holidays are when it seems the entire nation travels to spend holiday time with those they love.  Soon, however, the overloaded highway lanes across the median burst like a controlled automotive aneurysm as orange cones narrowed our eastward path to a single lane and oncoming vehicles flowed into eastbound lanes to lessen the pressure of cars, vans, and trucks on the westward arterial.

First we slowed from our good pace.

Then we slowed to stop-and-go traffic.

Then we just stopped.

And sat.

We felt cast into a living version of James Taylor’s 1977 song Traffic Jam:

“Well I left my job about 5 o’clock, it took fifteen minutes go three blocks,

Just in time to stand in line with a freeway looking like a parking lot.

I said, ‘Damn this traffic jam!’ How I hate to be late, 

It hurts my motor to go so slow. Time I get home my supper’ll be cold.

Damn this traffic jam.

Now I almost had a heart attack, looking in my rear view mirror,

I saw myself the next car back, looking in the rear view mirror,

About to have a heart attack.

I said, ‘Damn this traffic jam…’”

For roughly 45 kilometers (shy of 30 miles) we moved a little, then waited a while, then moved a little more.  We watched people get out of their cars to fetch items from their trunks to help them pass the wait time.  We watched people pull their cars over to the shoulder so they could get out and pee while pretending everyone else with nothing to do but watch them pee could not see them next to their cars.  We watched policemen not notice the three guys on the side of the road peeing next to the car from which they emerged, standing together and conversing while emptying in a urinal line of nature.  We watched minutes tick by on the dashboard clock.

Stretching from the Coronado area (popular with American expats for retirement living and with Panamanians for beach residences) onward to La Chorrera, we wondered if it would continue all the way across the Centennial Bridge and, if so, how many more hours we had left before arriving home.

And then, just past La Chorrera, it stopped.  That is to say, all of a sudden the orange cones disappeared to open up multiple lanes again, and instantly traffic started once more to move at normal travel speeds.  We went from crawling to cruising speed in a blink, making up for lost time almost the rest of the way home.  (Of course, there was the one detour spot Brian tried to preempt by reminding Audrey in advance that she always insists forcefully on his going the wrong way on Corredor Norte; which Audrey then acknowledged and owned completely; and then promised not to insist forcefully that he go the wrong way on Corredor Norte; and then screamed involuntarily at Brian, “CORREDOR NORTE!…There!!…There!!!…THERE!!!”; leaving Brian, knowing all the while it had been written in stone through the ages as that which one must do, to smile and embrace this fated irony, and head in the wrong direction on Corredor Norte for a few kilometers before reaching the now-familiar turn-around maneuver at the Clayton exit.)  Somehow, even with James Taylor along for the ride, what should have been a two-hour trip took us only an extra 30-45 minutes to complete.  We suspect that had we stayed a few days longer and traveled home with the masses instead of pitying them on the start of their holiday journeys while we headed home from ours, our drive time would have doubled or tripled.

Needless to say, in a couple weeks when Panamá celebrates the bicentennial of its 1821 independence from Spain we will be home enjoying the view of the Pacific from our new condo balcony in Costa del Este.  And with several bathrooms at our disposal, we need not pull over to pee on the side of the road in front of an auto-encased audience while hoping the police will not notice.

On your mark, get set, here we go!