A funny thing happened on my way to Orlando last week. My flight landed at Orlando International Airport. I made my way through customs and immigration, retrieved my bags, then headed for the main terminal. If you know the Orlando International Airport, you know that monorail shuttles carry passengers between the main terminal buildings and the gates.
I waited for the shuttle, anxious to get my ride and settle in for some very necessary sleep. The monorail arrived, and I scurried on board to grab the prime (and only!) place to sit at the end of the car. Then those magic words came over the speaker system. “The shuttle will be departing momentarily.” Suddenly, I was home.
Even though I’ve been living quite contentedly in Panama for well over a year, Orlando still feels like home to me.Everything feels right. Coming back has been like slipping into a comfy pair of fuzzy slippers.
My daughter described it perfectly: “being here feels like the default setting. It’s more normal than normal.”
Does that mean I want to actually live here again?
I’m here for two weeks. The purpose of the visit is to work intensively with my summer college intern (who happens to be my youngest daughter, newly returned from a semester abroad in the Kingdom of Bhutan.)
While we’re making time in the evenings to catch up with friends, during the day we’re holed up in our room/office with our laptops.
There’s a level of comfort I experience here that I don’t in my actual home in Panama these days. It seems to be a combination of lots and lots of factors. At the same time, there’s an element of strangeness here and there.
It’s all part of what experienced expats know as reverse culture shock.
After 16 months in Panama, I’m quite accustomed to hearing Spanish spoken all around me. That doesn’t make me exactly comfortable with it. It takes effort – sometimes a large amount of effort – to understand what’s being said to me and to carry on a conversation.
Here, I don’t have to think about it. It’s a zero effort game, no concentration required. I understand what’s being said to me and around me, and I can respond effortlessly.
The roads are familiar.
By this, I mean much more than just “I know my way around.” After all, I know my way around Las Tablas pretty well by now too.
Here, though, the roads are the width I’m accustomed to.
Panamanian roads are narrow by comparison. I know what the road markings mean. Even the car I’m driving handles more like what I’m used to. I’m much more relaxed behind the wheel, despite Orlando’s volume of traffic and crazy drivers.
Food, Glorious Food!
It sounds silly, but I’m sure those of you who’ve lived abroad will understand – we spent as much time planning where and what we would eat during our visit as we did planning our work.
In Panama – at least in the more rural area where we live – restaurants are all pretty similar. When we find something unusual it’s a big deal and we let all our friends know. Panamanian food is bland, and we like it spicy. (Well, my husband likes it so hot it brings tears to his eyes, I just like it flavorful.)
So what are some of these exotic foods my mouth has been watering for? Salad on a bed of varied greens, not just iceberg lettuce … quiche … York Peppermint Patties … “real” Chinese food … Italian ice … gyros (made with lamb, not chicken, thanks) … a turkey Reuben sandwich at the restaurant that makes the best turkey Reubens in the world, in my opinion.
There’s nothing on that list that seems very exotic, but these are familiar tastes and textures we just can’t find in Panama. (At least, not in our part of the country.)
Now, this is an oddity. The weather here is what I expected and what I was used to during the 25 years I lived here – and at the same time, it feels cooler and less humid than I anticipated.
I guess that means I’ve really been adjusting to Panama’s tropical climate. Days that would have found me sweating at this time last year feel comfortable to me now. Orlando, this trip, feels cool. I’ve been wearing shirts with sleeves (which I never do at home in Panama), and I’ve put on my sweater a few times as well, to my daughter’s disgust.
On speaking with several of my friends, I found out about serious life-changing events that I hadn’t known about. They’re too busy to write long, chatty emails, and we hadn’t spoken on the phone for quite a while.
One had experienced a mild heart attack, from which he’s recovering nicely. Another is going through significant family readjustments, with an older child moving out, a big job change and some health concerns.
I was surprised at their news, and they were surprised I hadn’t known about it already.
In the Comfort Zone
I’m quite happy to be here in my comfort zone for a couple weeks and I plan to take full advantage of all the city has to offer me. It’s great to be able to relax on such a fundamental level.
When my time here is up, though, I suspect I’ll be happy to fly back to Panama. The warm glow is nice in small doses but you can’t live your whole life in fuzzy slippers.
Susanna Perkins 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.