COVID Christmas in Panama

‘Twas the morning of the night before Christmas

and all through the house

lots of geckos were stirring

instead of a mouse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Thanksgiving for Two: November Holidays in Panama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Emergence: Venturing Out…Slowly

Having lived the better part of three months in Nuestra Casa de las Tortugas (our house of turtles), safe inside our domestic shell and rarely risking to stick our heads outside other than for supplies, the opening of Panama has started to coax us out and discover – poco a poco – the country we have waited nearly a year to enjoy and call home.  Make no mistake:  the residual impact of COVID Shock continues, Panama is not in the clear, and numbers of positive cases here could at any time start creeping up – or even shooting up – again to have us relapse into lockdown, as Europe and other parts of the world have seen in the newest phase of the pandemic.  But since August 23’s 1420 new cases (the third largest number of daily new cases since Panama confirmed its first cases in early March), Panama has averaged a little more than 650 new cases daily with even the few outlier days staying well under 1000 new cases and ongoing active cases staying at a level that does not overwhelm Panama’s health care system.  According to medical personnel we know, that consistency comes from Panamanians tending to follow the rules that came with opening up the country again:  respect social distancing, wash hands, and wear masks in public.  We continue to live cautiously, but with more willingness to venture out into a concrete, tactile, interpersonal world instead of staying cloistered in a virtual one.

Audrey’s big milestone came in mid-October when, for the first time since our arrival in July, she could set foot legally on campus at ISP and start working from her office at school instead of working only from home.  She had no problem working virtually from home, and much of what she does from her office at school remains virtual because most people with whom she meets through her packed days do not come to campus to meet.  But living across the street from the campus she could not enter made starting this year virtually feel incomplete.  Passing by ISP’s entrance on grocery runs to Riba Smith or other necessary outings, the school did not taunt her but did seem sadly empty and forlorn.  Just being on campus, creating feng shui to align her office setup and decor with her energy as a school leader and relational personality, she feels more connected personally and more complete in assuming her role as the school’s Director.  Some people respond with disbelief when she tells them how happy she is to be in her office until she explains, “Now that I’m in here, I finally feel like I’m really at ISP instead of just in virtual ISP on a flat screen.”  Typically she starts her work day hopping into our car to drive all the way across the street to spend the morning working on campus.  (To be honest, it would be about two and a half football fields to walk to the gate of our neighborhood, up the main road with no sidewalk, and down ISP’s access road to the school’s entrance, often with a good chance of a Panamanian rainstorm either going or coming back during the walk.)  Then she comes home for lunch and continues with virtual meetings through the afternoon from her “home office” that comprises the entirety of our house’s common space.  Midday heat provides one big reason for heading home, because she cannot run air conditioning in her office without turning it on for the entire administrative building while much of the space remains empty of people.  One day last week when she arrived in her office she discovered a gift left for her by the spouse of one of her coworkers who also spends time on the hot campus without a/c:  a necklace bedazzled with two personal fans to blow air on her face while she works.  Together with the portable fan she brought from home when she started working in her office a few weeks ago blowing on her feet, this makes enduring the hot and humid office more bearable.  That notwithstanding, she remains overjoyed to steep in ISPness while on campus, and looks forward to completing the experience by eventually welcoming students and staff back to campus…in February…if all goes well and as planned.

Audrey’s big step forward into her office at school pleases Brian as well.  While he has revelled in his Sanctum Sanctorum home office upstairs with big windows offering views that stretch across our small neighborhood to the green rainforest-covered hill that backs our cluster of short streets, when Audrey works from home he must default to “silent mode” upon emerging from his office to go anywhere else in the house so as not to disrupt Audrey’s virtual meetings that might happen at her faux desk (née “dining room table” where we push aside her work piles to eat dinner) or in the living room or anywhere else where she paces.  (All those who know her know that tile makes much better flooring for Audrey so that she cannot wear it down with a pacing path like befalls a carpeted floor under her tread.)

Brian’s new sabbatical life also has allowed for stepping out more broadly than Audrey’s expedition across the street to her office.  Two weeks ago he sallied forth into the rainforest and the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center with new friend Martin Arias.  Brian’s longtime friends Karen Fernandez Nagy in Los Angeles and Bob Castro in Cyprus both recommended separately that he connect with Martin, their Georgetown classmate, knowing through the “transitive property of friendship” that Brian and Martin would enjoy each other’s company.  Brian met up with Martin and family in a parking lot in Santa Maria then followed their vehicle 45 minutes out from Panama City, northwest along Avenida Omar Torrijos Herrera as it parallels the Panama Canal, past Gamboa, and further along as the road switched from asphalt to dirt and narrowed with rainforest vegetation closing in.  At several points before and after Gamboa they encountered slow traffic accommodating flocks of bikers on the two-lane road for some bicycling event.  Then, happily, they could continue to their destination fitting under the social distancing limit on how many cars can go to the PRDC’s entrance.  The trails make for mini-hikes that reveal much rainforest flora and fauna beauty, especially when climbing the 174 steps of the Observation Tower to pierce the rainforest’s canopy 100+ feet in the air.  Elsewhere on the trail they went from observers to observed as at least six or eight Capuchin monkeys came swinging through the branches above them to check out the bipeds on the ground below.  The way back to Panamá City included pulling off the road to wait out a torrential downpour, then a stop at the French Cemetery, a quiet piece of history from the 1880s, where rest some of the 20,000+ who died in France’s failed effort to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific.  Sadly, nearly all the rows of graves climbing up the hillside are marked not with names, but only numbers – perhaps a consequence of the rapid deaths and interments that happened due to scourges of yellow fever and malaria during the French effort.

Brian also has explored downtown, sometimes for specified purposes and sometimes just to get familiar with the city.  One of Audrey’s coworkers says it does not take long to realize that Panama is really a relatively small town, but Brian’s codicil to that epiphany states that such a realization does not make it any easier to learn how to get from Point A to Point B with narrow, twisty-turny, one-way streets.  Last weekend Brian marked the first Sunday with the lockdown lifted fully to allow reconnoitring by driving downtown to see what stores with “to buy” items on his shopping list would be open.  Channeling his inner 15th Century Portuguese navigator, he made it to San Francisco on Panama’s west end and Costa del Este on Panama’s east end to find, serially, that every place he wanted to stop was closed.  But the drive treated him to snaking past grand old homes that look like they have housed Panama’s elite for many decades; next to the Jardin de Paz, a peaceful cemetery of open green space (best guess from Google Maps around 75 acres) surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city; and various neighborhoods.  Then yesterday we both headed back downtown to buy a long-awaited grill at the Original Weber Store (because Audrey has waited five months for Brian to reacquire grilling ability since we left our apartment in Casablanca) and Felipe Motta Wine Shop (because we need good wine to go with the dinner that will celebrate finally getting a grill) and Pretelt Gourmet Meats (because we need well-marbled beef to sear on the grill) and Hermanos Gago Casa del Jamon (because…well…because they have Smithfield hams and beautiful pork chops and more).  We emerged well and had a good day.

But as Brian’s main emerging activity, he has met Panama opening up as an invitation to start walking through the area around our neighborhood, wearing nearly 30 miles off the soles of his hiking shoes in the last three weeks.  Despite a fair bit of construction underway in the area, our neighborhood remains remote enough to have lots of green with a mix of rainforest plants and trees and grasses reaching more than 10 feet high all stretching over the hills around us. In addition to walking the area streets, he frequently heads into the Club de Golf de Panama to walk without worrying about dodging cars.  As Panama launches into November and the season of independence days (yes, plural; the country celebrates more than one this month), he finds bunting in national red-white-blue colors all over – from buildings downtown to the gates of Club de Golf de Panama to the guardhouse of our neighborhood.  (More on this in an upcoming post.)  On his first walk outside our La Montanesa neighborhood, he crossed paths with an older, rail-thin man also out for a walk.  They stopped to greet each other, masks securely in place.  They traded enough words all in Spanish for Brian to know that the gentleman started walking all the time to lose weight, hoisting his spacious pants to show how they clung loosely to his waist only because he cinched his belt tightly.  Brian told him, “Ahora necesita ir a compras para comprar pantalones nuevos!” (Now you have to go shopping to buy new pants!)  He really must walk all the time, because since then Brian has seen the ubiquitous walker every time he has gone out to walk, regardless of whether at 7:00am or 4:30pm or some time in between.  When he walked yesterday they stopped for a longer conversation when they saw each other.  Brian’s part of the conversation consisted of a few carefully constructed sentences formulated while trying to process the long monologues his walking friend delivered.  Sometimes Brian’s Kindergarten-level Spanish comes out rather easily, but interlocuting with this gentleman becomes more like speaking Spanish while trying to tie a maraschino cherry stem in a knot with his tongue. Poco a poco.  Yesterday’s conversation went from his asking Brian – in Brian’s quest to get back into shape after four years of physical inattention in Morocco – if amid his health push he drinks beer or whiskey.  Brian told him he cannot drink beer because of an allergy, but he enjoys whiskey (particularly bourbon).  Then, encouraging Brian’s healthy walking habit, the gentleman asked, “¿Bebe ron?” (Do you drink rum?) and said, “La cerveza es mala, pero ron te hace más fuerte.” (Beer is bad, but rum makes you stronger!)  Conversation then worked around to our having come to Panama from Morocco and one of our daughters still living there with her husband and our new grandson.  This led to a very non-American conversation about whether Grandson Adam’s skin color was white or brown, which of course led to Brian’s first opportunity to pull out his phone proudly and show someone a picture of his grandson.  Upon seeing the photo, the walking friend smiled, then grabbed his own cheeks in big pinches to squeeze them and show his admiration for the pudgy cushions on Adam’s three-month-old face.

We remain in an early phase of our re-emergence from our COVID lives, and we know well that numbers going up again could send us back into lockdown and take away the gains we now enjoy; but, for now, we are pleased that our re-emergence from our COVID lives and our emergence into life in Panama has begun.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

COVID Shock Instead of Culture Shock

When we moved to Morocco, our school’s orientation for new expat staff did a splendid job talking about Culture Shock and helping us prepare for the likelihood that at some point we would deal with it.  Audrey never did; and Brian did not experience its funky pangs until ten months later as he approached his 50th birthday in a new country on a continent an ocean away from family and friends that he wished could celebrate with him.  He recognized it for what it was, and weathered it with Audrey’s support as they planned a fun birthday evening that filled our apartment with new friends to celebrate his milestone.  (See our 28 May 2017 blog post Homesick in Morocco:  Transition at Ten Months.)

Since coming to our current digs was not our first rodeo abroad, and having seen our share of seasoned expat educators who suffer bouts of Culture Shock despite thinking their previous experience made them invulnerable to it, we anticipated the potential pangs of Culture Shock upon coming to Panama.  As we proceeded blithely through one day after another feeling largely unscathed, when days grew into weeks we also started to feel oddly caught in that “just arrived” stage, curtailed by external forces from experiencing and adapting to our new surroundings.

Our transition this summer into Panama from Morocco, by way of a two-week U.S. stay hunkered down in a hotel room outside Dulles Airport, was relatively smooth, considering we arrived with a mandatory two-week quarantine and the severe pandemic lockdown still in force.  The lockdown continued for several weeks unabated until Panama commenced a slow process of opening up that still continues.  Audrey’s school year started online and will remain virtual until February.  In fact, though we live across the street from the school she was not permitted to set foot on campus until last week.

We had planned to spend a week here last May for house hunting and starting to orient ourselves to our next post; but COVID-19 squelched that plan, so we feel quite fortunate to have found a wonderful house virtually while still wrapping up life in Morocco.  Even better, we struck a deal with the house’s previous inhabitants (an ISP staff family departing for new jobs at a school many time zones away) to buy an abundance of their belongings that they did not plan to move with them.  So despite Panama’s lockdown preventing us from shopping for furnishings and houseware, we arrived with basics covered – refrigerator and stove/oven in the kitchen (critical, because like many places outside the U.S., unfurnished home rentals here generally come without what stateside folks typically consider standard); beds and linens in the bedrooms; towels in the bathrooms; a mix of furniture in different rooms, including a well-outfitted office for Brian’s new home-based phase – to allow us to live a life beyond subsistence while waiting for the Ministry of Health to allow stores to reopen.  That said, with stores now open we look forward to being able to shop for things that will take us from having “a” home in Panama to having “our” home here.

That positive spin of “looking forward” has been ubiquitous throughout the pandemic’s upheaval, and really means that for three months since our arrival we have waited here in Panama, and that waiting goes beyond merely shopping for material things to make home more comfortable for us.  It means waiting – sometimes patiently and sometimes less so – for daily life to resume some semblance of normalcy.  Brian, as a lifelong Catholic (though one who has not gone to Mass since the end of February), is used to periods of waiting:  Advent and Lent come in each year’s liturgical cycle.  But each Advent and each Lent, like in all the years before, promise something wonderful and known at the end of the waiting.

As parents of two children, we also know the patience required to go through pregnancy, with the hope of something wonderful at the end always tempered by never knowing for sure what the result will be until it arrives or how it will change your life until actually experiencing the changes the arrival brings.  But one at least can read books and talk to people to get a general idea of what to expect while waiting nine months.

Since the world changed last March we have encountered many people waiting for normalcy to resume.  Seven months (and the start of a new school year) into the Age of COVID, more people have started to understand that normalcy, as least as we knew it, will NOT resume.  The normalcy we knew left in February 2020; instead of waiting for that normalcy to resume, we now wait for the global disruption COVID-19 wrought to settle into a new normalcy the details of which we still cannot script.  How long will activities and processes of daily life remain disturbed?  When will vaccines and “herd immunity” lower significantly the caution threshold that so much of our former lives, as yet, cannot rise above?  How much will we need to practice social distancing once we do settle into post-COVID normalcy?  When will we feel the desire for in-person social interaction outweighs what seems prudent caution in leading reclusive daily lives?

Add to these the precipitating causes stemming from a mid-pandemic transoceanic move from one country and continent to another, and you have all the makings for COVID Shock instead of Culture Shock.  

Under the lockdown that prevented men and women from leaving their homes on the same days (Monday/Wednesday/Friday for women, Tuesday/Thursday for men) and for no more than two hours as assigned by the last digit of one’s passport or cedula (Panamanian ID card), we could not even shop for groceries together.  More significantly, we could not go to the bank together to fix some issues with the account that got set up only in Audrey’s name instead of both our names.  We could not hunt easily for doctors, language tutors, barbers and stylists, handymen, house cleaners, and other key people on our default “Settling into a New Country” list.  We appreciated tremendously knowing that despite all these impediments, our nascent life in Panama let us exist in far better circumstances than so many here and around the world; yet, still we felt hampered from moving forward as we always have in previous moves, our adept problem-solving skills and experience snagged by unseen but very real grapplers.

Little annoyances became bigger in appearance with no immediate solutions available, and bigger in effect from prolonged periods of being unable to take corrective action.  One day we noticed a rotting sort of smell and figured we had waited too long to take out the kitchen garbage.  But the kitchen smelled fine.  Letting our noses lead a hunt through the house we eventually concluded a critter of some kind had gotten into the central a/c ducts and died.  Without a handyman to duct-hunt and without language skills to search for one, we endured the worsening stench over the next several days, and weeks later we still get whiffs of the unseen.  Likewise, when the washing machine broke we were dead in the water (i.e., the water that flooded the utility room floor) until Brian could find the right store to buy a new one…then wait several days before the store delivered it…then wait several more days before the store sent someone with an electrical cord (since it had arrived without one) to install it.  All told, we endured two weeks without doing laundry and grasped experientially one benefit of the pandemic from having daily interactions only with the one person who had taken vows to love and cherish in clean clothes and in dirty clothes.

Such ballooning of little things into big things, along with feeling unsettled (if not outright depressed), irritable, hostile, confused, even feeling frustrated with feeling frustrated and wallowing in futility, offer classic signs of Culture Shock.  People suffering from it may want to cloister themselves, staying in their small environment they can control instead of venturing out into the new and strange culture into which they have moved that does not make sense to them.  The good news about Culture Shock is that it usually runs a course of several stages from a honeymoon period to eventual adaptation (and even reverse culture shock when expats travel back “home” and discover they no longer fit it, and it them, like before they moved abroad).

Our label of COVID Shock highlights a condition similar to Culture Shock, but with some important distinctions:  First and foremost, while Culture Shock marks a discomfort with one’s unfamiliar surroundings, COVID Shock makes one long for a time and a way of life that came to an abrupt end in March 2020.  Second, as a codicil to that, those suffering from Culture Shock can hope that, if they get stuck in the Irritable & Hostile stage and never adjust to their new surroundings, they can return to their home culture to find that comfort in their daily lives that eludes them abroad.  On the other hand, living with COVID Shock we know we cannot ever go back to our lives before the Age of COVID struck.  Third, while Culture Shock hits individuals as it will in their individual life changes, COVID Shock has struck broad populations.

Four weeks ago, and more than seven weeks after arriving here, we celebrated our first day out together.  With the guidance of an ISP staffer who kindly offered to introduce us to places she knows in the San Francisco neighborhood that she thought we would enjoy, “we” (Audrey) bought the foodie kitchen appliances that “we” (Audrey) had been waiting two months to purchase; “we” (Brian) bought wine and spirits that we had not found in Riba Smith’s alcohol aisle (e.g., banana liqueur to make Bananas Foster the right way…although the all-rum effort a few weeks ago still worked fine); we (both) started looking for furniture that could get our house up to entertaining level; and we (Audrey, with Brian dutifully pushing the cart into which she loaded things) knocked off a number of foodie ingredients we have wanted and finally found at the deli and specialty store where we grabbed sandwiches for lunch.  After a long sleep under lockdown, Panama was starting to wake up as the number of new COVID-19 cases continued to decrease poco a poco.

More recently, numbers are holding steady at around 600-700 new cases a day, which apparently will not overwhelm Panama’s medical resources.  The opening up that started last month continues, and we continue finding our way with what we do amid the daily mix of things changing and things not.  After finally being able to set foot on ISP’s campus, this week Audrey actually had her first group meeting in ISP’s conference room – complete with plexiglas partitions marking each socially distanced seat at the table – and marvelled afterward at the ability to see people in their entirety instead of just their on-screen faces.  She glowed in awe of things like body language and other nonverbal cues so valuable to human interaction.  Meanwhile, last week Brian participated in a virtual accreditation team visit to a school in Africa without ever leaving his office upstairs in our house.  With everyone having polished their virtual skills since March, much of it was like the traditional on-campus accreditation team visits he has done in the past; at the same time, nothing substitutes for actually standing on a campus to look all around during a walk-through or in a classroom observation (rather than seeing only what a camera shows in their virtual manifestations).  Looking ahead…and waiting…we cannot yet plan on in-person gatherings with family and friends:  birthdays, anniversaries, other significant and momentous occasions you want to experience and share with people you love.  Doing this digitally is feasible, in some sense, like the extended family Zoom sessions to meet our new grandson in Morocco, but it changes the “gathering” in fundamental ways:  most obviously, in losing the ability to look around room filled with full-bodied people who own places in your heart rather than seeing a gallery view of disembodied faces on your screen; to touch them as you hold them in your arms or hand-in-hand; to feel their human warmth and, for reassurance, their pulses.  We cannot know whether it will be possible to break the virtual screen borders on human interactions for the milestone birthday Brian’s mother will celebrate next spring, or the 25th Anniversary we will celebrate next summer.

It goes without saying that the most painful manifestation of COVID Shock is when loved ones die and people cannot come together to help and to mourn like “normal” practice dictates.  On September 20, Brian’s stepfather suffered a sudden heart attack and died after chopping wood at his parents’ mountain cabin in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains.  At any other time, Brian would have jumped on the first flight back to the U.S. to be with family, as would his siblings spread from the eastern to western U.S. and the eastern and western hemispheres.  When we moved to Morocco on our first overseas gig, we had to accept the roll of the dice that meant for being able to get back to family “in time” if a stateside loved one suffered a health emergency.  Knowing that reminded us of the importance of ongoing relationship maintenance, practicing the ubiquitous telling people who matter to you that you love them.  Indeed, over our four years based in Casablanca, serious medical events struck family members.  Fortunately they survived their immediate threats.  Without minimizing the significance and difficulty of those experiences, though, before COVID-19 expats abroad could come together, in cases where someone actually passed away, to grieve even if it took a day or so of exhausting air travel to join family and friends back in the U.S.  The Age of COVID, however, robs us of that ability.  Even with Panama’s airport recently opened, best practices preclude siblings coming together from our respective locations around the world to grieve with family and friends that include a large proportion of older and other high risk individuals.  We cannot touch and hug and kiss each other.  Brian, whose newfound flexible circumstances would allow him to help his mother in the aftermath of losing her husband, instead has to do that virtually from Panama.  So we must grieve from here, Charlotte and Zak from Casablanca, and Margaret from Arizona, while we all hope that the world will have settled enough into this new age that we can gather next summer for a memorial to someone we love deeply and whose loss we have to process in ways we never before imagined.

As Panama and the rest of the world moves, if slowly, toward more openness, we find ourselves in a new aspect of COVID Shock.  Instead of feeling held back from what we want to do to acclimate to our new surroundings, now we feel a reluctance to move too quickly too far out of the shell in which we have lived for more than half a year.  One hard thing about getting used to COVID life is coming out of seclusion.  We have done well for seven months spending time together – talking, cooking, watching movies, playing cribbage, and supporting each other when things get hard.  As Panamá opens up, people can shop, go to restaurants, go out to socialize, entertain, go to church, do as they wish.  The thing is, we feel no great impulse to do so.

It is so hard to shake the need to protect ourselves against a potential danger that, even though the chances of contraction are small, we have no control over if we give up our controlled environment.  We love entertaining; but we feel cautious about bringing people and traces of all the places they have been and all the people with whom they have had contact into our house.  We love socializing; but that affords us less control than entertaining in our house.  When a Panamanian friend of other friends in the U.S. that we have known for decades invited us to dinner with his family, we thanked him for his invitation, and said we would love to do it once we are “there” re socializing.  In this odd time, we battle with ourselves existentially over whether to reach out to people about meeting up; but we just have not reached that point.  We find many people who agree there are too many uncontrollables which, even when terribly unlikely to spin into something cataclysmic, have the potential to manifest badly.  We have always told our staffs that “hope is not a strategy” for avoiding bad consequences, and we do not want to rely on hope more than we need to right now in our personal lives when, among other things, our health insurance is still in process.  But we do look forward to socializing with people when the time feels right.  In the meantime, we have the dubious good fortune of Audrey remaining so busy with work that it is hard to find time to go out or invite people in.

It is also good that, for now, culturally it is perfectly acceptable to live in a sheltered manner that previously appeared anti-social or even agoraphobic.  To be clear, we are NOT agoraphobic.  We have no problem going out – or even having people in – when it is called for.  We look forward to “out there” settling – not to mention, eventually, development of a vaccine and/or cure – so that we can resume shopping, going to restaurants, going to church, socializing, entertaining.  In the Age of COVID, we find everyone crawling out of their COVID dens in ways that work best for them, with a general willingness on the part of those emerging more quickly to have patience with the cautious processes of those more timid and cautious about overexposure from emerging too quickly.  While joining or leading virtual school accreditation team visits around the world without leaving Panama, Brian has found others with this same cautious perspective and with the same appreciation for others being gracious about people having different time frames for re-emerging.  And this week, when Audrey had her first socially distanced multi-person gathering in ISP’s conference room, the small group took a photo to memorialize the event for all its significance in the context of COVID-19.

We cannot know now the details of how post-COVID normalcy will look when the world finally settles into it, just as people living in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (which actually raged through two years) could not begin to imagine life beyond 1920.  But we know that eventually it will settle into normalcy of some kind.  While we practice flexibility, creativity, and other 21st Century pedagogical skills that serve just as well in life as in the classroom, we appreciate the blessings in our life each day.  (Some days that is easy; some days that is hard.)  One of political geek Brian’s favorite memoirs is No Such Thing As A Bad Day, written by President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan, after surviving several battles with cancer and before he lost a final battle to the disease.  That is the perspective we have tried to follow throughout the pandemic, even while encountering so many bad things – whether in our immediate lives or in the world – through the often-pervasive darkness of the last seven months.  Perhaps this strangeness we feel, seeking to be hopeful and appreciating so much that is good without denying the bad or the difficult or the need for caution, fits a poem that Brian’s aunt shared recently with his extended family.

A Blessing for Traveling in the Dark

Go slow

if you can.


More slowly still.

Friendly dark

or fearsome,

this is no place

to break your neck

by rushing,

by running,

by crashing into

what you cannot see.

Then again,

it is true:

different darks

have different tasks,

and if you

have arrived here unawares,

if you have come

in peril

or in pain,

this might be no place

you should dawdle.

I do not know

what these shadows

ask of you,

what they might hold

that means you good

or ill.

It is not for me

to reckon

whether you should linger

or you should leave.

But this is what

I can ask for you:

That in the darkness

there be a blessing.

That in the shadows

there be a welcome.

That in the night

you be encompassed

by the Love that knows

your name.

– Jan Richardson

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Blogging Milestone: 2020 Becomes Our Most Read Year!

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

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

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

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

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

Graduation:  Wrapping Up Year One from 3 June 2017

Transition: Settling into Panamá from 6 August 2020

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

Transition: Leaving Morocco from 22 July 2020

Welcome to Morocco! from 26 July 2016.

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

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

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Graduating from Quarantine to Lockdown: First Glimpses of Panama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Two finished…less than 45 minutes left.

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

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

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

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Transition: Settling into Panamá

We made it.

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

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

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

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

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

Then we waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we made it.

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

On your mark, get set, here we go!

Transition: Life in Purgatory

When Brian served a decade ago as the Head of two schools in Baton Rouge (Louisiana) affiliated with the Redemptorist order of priests and brothers, now and then Brother Clem walked a few blocks from the St. Gerard’s Parish rectory to visit Brian in his office in the high school building.  On one such occasion, they talked about their favorite prayers.  Brother Clem made an impression on Brian with what he shared:  “Lord, thank you for letting me be where I need to be when I need to be there.”  Since then Brian has applied it to find purpose in whatever challenges he undertakes as he follows his “Go where God calls you!” personal mission.  But since we landed back in the U.S. on July 15, our relative self-quarantine time has allowed a different appreciation for Brother Clem’s prayer.  We did not look forward to spending two weeks in self-quarantine 10 minutes from Dulles International Airport.  Unexpectedly, though, we found the change in scenery and setting from this purgatory stage between Morocco and Panamá where we needed to be when we needed to be here.

Following our repatriation flight from Casablanca, we checked into a residential hotel suite reserved on and settled in to see as few people as possible until we could continue on to Panamá.  We chose the location carefully:  a quick shuttle ride from/to the airport, friends in the area upon whom we could call for help if we need it, and an easy 15-minute walk to a Giant grocery story that let us satisfy any cravings for things on which to snack or things to cook in our “kitchen” of a stovetop, a frying pan, and a microwave.

We actually have done quite well preparing meals, marked most notably by the grand total of 25 ears of steamed corn we have eaten together since arriving two weeks ago.  Morocco’s list of heavenly produce does not include good corn, ergo we have missed it and wanted to maximize its consumption while here.  When we do not cook, we take advantage of a delivery service that brings food from area restaurants.  Between near-daily walks to Giant and restaurant deliveries, our gluttony satisfied “back in the USA” cravings for fried chicken, ribs, cheeseburgers, pork chops, ham steak, kielbasa, pizza with “real” pepperoni, tortilla chips and “cheese crack” (our family name for Tostitos Salsa Con Queso), mint Oreos, Claussen dill pickles, pita chips and hummus, celery and peanut butter, and more.  One sad thing about arriving in Panamá:  we will unpack our scale and have to get on it.  If we planned to remain here longer, we would have conducted our culinary activity differently; but with the hope of staying in purgatory only briefly, we opted for temporary decadence.

Despite plans to see as few people as possible in order to minimize exposure that might keep us from continuing on to Panamá, Brian’s longtime friend Doug Gray invited us to visit a couple hours away in Richmond.  We hoped to take him up on his offer, but the combination of Audrey’s work schedule and the need to be proximate to Dulles in case we suddenly got approved for a flight to Panamá kept us in our small world between hotel room and grocery store.  So instead of catching up with friends, we fascinated ourselves with things we rediscovered in suburban Northern Virginia like shopping carts with fixed-direction back wheels (making them easy to turn without counter-shifting full body weight), American toilets, sidewalks along grassy greenscapes, people conscientious about social distancing and wearing masks when passing or being around others (a lesson many elsewhere throughout the U.S. need to learn as well), a relative absence of litter, large multi-lane intersections with pedestrian buttons at crosswalks, green trees clumped closely together (i.e., “woods”), reliable internet, the ground floor of buildings as Floor #1 instead of Floor #0, and air conditioning.

On our first day here we celebrated Audrey’s birthday by ordering dinner from P.F. Chang’s (and discovered from their fortune cookie messages that the restaurant we used to enjoy in Scottsdale was their original one).  As we dined on our hotel table, the beautiful sunset we saw through our room’s windows gave us comfort with a view different from what we enjoyed from our Casablanca balcony for four years but still under the same sky that connects us to the people we know and love back in Morocco.

It also was Audrey’s first day of full-time work at ISP, something much easier to fulfill just one hour ahead of Panamanian time instead of the six hour time difference in Casablanca that governed the hundreds of transition meetings and interactions she has had over the last several months.  She has thrown herself completely into her new role as School Director of the International School of Panamá, leading the school’s reconception of online learning as they prepare for classes to start online on August 20.  Despite very long hours already, even in this virtual atmosphere, she feels in heaven with her new school.  In her first board meeting yesterday, she marveled at how they had a clear agenda, stuck to it, stuck to the prescribed times, and accomplished a tremendous amount in just 2 ½ hours.  Like school administrators around the world right now, she has an incredible amount to do leading up to classes starting; but she could not be more pleased to have joined the ISP community.

Even though we have yet to arrive physically, Brian also has enjoyed the ISP community already, glimpsing what lies ahead from our current place in purgatory.  In addition to faculty and administrators reaching out to welcome him and starting to get to know each other through Facebook posts and messages, the “small world” factor has kicked in as old friends scattered around the world let him know that they have friends with children at ISP, leading to more outreach and useful information as we seek to set up life there remotely for when we arrive.  One big help was ISP sending someone to our soon-to-be house across the street from the school to receive our container shipment that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and cleared customs before we have been able to arrive ourselves.  We brimmed with excitement on Friday when Audrey’s phone pinged with pics sent to show everything boxed and ready for us to enjoy Christmas in July when we get there, opening up all the packages and putting things in their new spots in our Panamanian home.  Another help has been an ISP neighbor offering to receive a grocery delivery for us and take it to our house.  So over the weekend Brian built a grocery order at Riba Smith, a top Panamanian grocery chain, to be delivered just before we arrive.  He discovered, not surprisingly, the superiority of searching for items in Spanish rather than using Google’s auto-translate function, because the first item that came up for “soap” was Brillo Pads, and the label for a picture of fresh mint in the produce department translated as “good grass.”  But our kitchen will have food in it as we begin the mandatory two week home quarantine that Panamá requires once we arrive.

Thankfully, that will start tomorrow!  We decided to leave Morocco without knowing when we could finish our journey to Panamá after weighing a number of factors.  First, while Morocco had done relatively well containing COVID-19, we worried that large numbers of people ignored social distancing and other prudent (and considerate) public health protocols and, consequently, that the number of novo coronavirus cases would start to go up.  (Indeed, since we left that exact thing has happened, prompting the government to begin tightening controls again.)  Second, we hoped that our connections in the powers that be could help us get to Panamá from the U.S., whereas they could do nothing to help us get there from Morocco.  Indeed, that ended up being the case as a team of lawyers, ISP-connected people, and other advocates began working to get us the permission we needed from the Panamanian government to allow us onto a repatriation flight from Dulles to Panamá City.  As days passed, we learned that Copa Airlines had seats reserved for us on the July 29 flight, but we could not actually buy those seats until we had permission from the Panamanian government in hand.  That finally came this weekend, so right away we called Copa to buy our seats and shift our purgatory thinking from “someday” to “next Wednesday” for when we finally could go home for the first time.

So today, while Audrey had meetings all day, Brian has worked to reshuffle how bags are packed in order to fit the different weight limits than we had for our Casablanca-to-Dulles flight two weeks ago.  The luggage scale we bought a couple years ago has proven one of our most practical purchases ever to load bags down to the last ounces or grams.

Purgatory has been unexpectedly good to us, with very hospitable circumstances for just the right amount of time.  We have been where we needed to be when we needed to be here.  Tomorrow we will bid adieu to our purgatory home and shuttle back over to Dulles, prepared for another exceedingly long process of checking in and boarding.  If all goes well, we will take off around 4:00 pm East Coast time and land around 8:15 pm Panamá time.  But expectations are everything in such travel, so we will be happy just to get to Panamá at some point, work our way through Passport Control, get our bags, connect with our ride, and get home at whatever time we get there.

Meanwhile, it is good to know that we can experience sunsets even in purgatory, and we look forward to experiencing them in Panamá as well.

On your mark, get set, here we go!