As An Expat, How Do You Bloom Where You’re Planted?

I have a confession to make. Contentment and I are not good friends.

I’m good at starting new things. I’m not good at long-term maintenance, whether it’s a job, a house, or a geographic location. I envy those who are content with where they are, but I’m not usually one of them.

Even before I came to Panama, I moved frequently. As a child, I lived in five different towns in two different states. After moving out of my parents’ house I lived in eight different homes in three different states.

My travels eventually took me to Central Florida, where I stayed for nearly 25 years (in two different towns). Orlando is the city I feel most deeply rooted in, with Boston a close second.There are two gardening analogies constantly at war within me.

“Bloom where you’re planted” vs “the grass is always greener. …” The first feels limiting and restrictive to me. It reeks of being stuck while making the best of it. The second speaks of dissatisfaction and impermanence.

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Somewhere, there has to be a place to grow and thrive, while still having options to change course. I’m always looking for the next thing – the next place to live, the next project to start – yet I also want to feel good about where I am now.

The problem is, sometimes I’m so focused on what’s next that I don’t enjoy the present. How to enjoy where I am without giving up the search for that greener pasture – It’s a balancing act I’m constantly struggling with.

It’s very difficult to make a commitment when trying to find your balance.

Most of our expat friends have established permanent residency here. We haven’t even started the process, because we haven’t committed to staying here. Yet, with residency, our lives would be simpler. We wouldn’t have to make the visa runs to the border (which are becoming more complicated as Panama starts enforcing some new rules) or worry about the airlines forcing us to buy unneeded return tickets to the US.

We have no plans to buy a house here. That would be too much of a commitment, it would tie us down.

Last spring, as we were finishing up our first full year in Panama, I started to get itchy for change. Even though I like Las Tablas, the town where we live, it’s small, and it’s far away from good restaurants, cultural events, shopping and other amenities. There’s nothing to do after dark except drink beer in the cantinas or watch TV.

We started to talk about maybe finding another place to live, closer to the capital and all the amenities. Or maybe looking at other locations entirely, outside of Panama.

Then I spent two weeks back in Orlando. I ate at many of my favorite restaurants, saw friends there and enjoyed what Orlando has to offer.

Since my return I’ve been more content with Las Tablas again. Maybe I could make a commitment to Panama and Las Tablas if I knew I could get away on a regular basis … food for thought.

How do you Bloom without getting Stuck?

I agree that we should try to make the most of wherever we are in life. But I don’t want to settle for an attitude that says, “I’m stuck here, I have no options, so I need to make the best of it.” If you’re an expat, or plan to be one, I’ll bet you’re not willing to settle for it either.

So how do you bloom where you’re at, without becoming a stick-in-the-mud?

Some people are content to drive deep, deep roots into a community. Perhaps the family has lived there for generations, and it just never occurs to them that there’s anywhere else to live, thrive and be happy.

At the other end of the spectrum, some develop no roots at all. They arrive, they pass their time for a few months or years, and then they move on leaving barely a ripple in the surface.

When I first moved to Las Tablas I met an expat couple from the Pacific Northwest – in fact, they lived across the street from me for a few months. They divide their year between the Pacific Northwest and Panama. Something he said last winter keeps popping into my head.

“We spend half our year here in Panama so that we can live the way we want the other half of the year.”

They’ve lived in the Seattle area for many years. They love boating, and spend a good part of the summer living on their boat. They travel quite a bit – last year, she spent time in Europe and he went to Hawaii.

They can afford the boat, the travel, and other activities they enjoy because, for half the year, they live in Panama very inexpensively.

Then and Now

When we arrived in Panama following the big financial meltdown in the US, we were economic refugees. We needed a really inexpensive place to live because the downturn had pretty much wiped us out. We sold everything we owned, rented out our house (the market was too bad to even consider selling at that time), and fled to a furnished rental in Las Tablas, Panama.

Our situation has improved since then. My portable career is thriving, and – wonder of wonders – we just sold our Central Florida house. This gives us a lot more options than we had even one short year ago.

Now we’re talking about something that might strike a middle ground and help with that precarious balancing act. Before we could even begin that conversation, I had to get past the idea that where we live is an all-or-nothing proposition.

Living in Las Tablas doesn’t mean we have to be here 365 days a year. Moving away from Orlando doesn’t mean we can’t ever go back. In fact, maybe our lives could be richer if we found a way to combine them.

For me, the most difficult step is also the most important – to sit down and really think about what’s important to me. Twenty years ago with a young family, the answer was very different from what it is today. I think the first step in blooming without getting stuck is to recognize that life changes, needs change, and hopes change. And that’s okay.

by Susanna Perkins.

Susanna always wanted to experience life in another culture – she just never imagined it would become the “sensible” option. Believing that, when life hands you lemons you learn to juggle, she found herself with an entire crate full of citrus following the financial meltdown in the US. She started tossing fruit around and ended up, with her husband and three small dogs, in Las Tablas, Panama. With a more-or-less reliable internet connection she works as a freelance writer and shares her expat insights and experiences on her website, Future Expats Forum, and teaches non-technical people about WordPress at WordPress Building Blocks

Read Susanna's other Expat Focus articles here or click the button below to view her own blog…


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