Home » My First Thanksgiving In Las Tablas, Panama, Snuck Up On Me

My First Thanksgiving In Las Tablas, Panama, Snuck Up On Me

There were no weather-related clues that meant anything to me. It didn’t get colder, leaves didn’t turn color or fall off trees any more than they normally did, days didn’t get appreciably shorter. . . .

Not until after my son’s November 5 birthday did I even give Thanksgiving a thought.

We had moved to Panama the previous spring, so at this point we’d been in the country about seven months. I had missed Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, and felt cheated. I decided I was not going to miss Thanksgiving, but I didn’t really know what to do about it.Turkeys were wickedly, bank-breakingly expensive. Coming from a place where you could buy a Thanksgiving turkey for well under a dollar a pound, seeing them for $6, $7, and $8 a pound – and up! – was a bitter sticker shock. Buying one large enough to feed us and our friends would have blown the entire grocery budget for the week. Then another US expat came to the rescue. Jim decided that his restaurant, Ponchalos, would offer a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings.

I reserved our spots right away, knowing that seating would be limited. I made sure our friends knew about it, and persuaded them to join us. On the day, we found the restaurant bursting at the seams. In addition to a couple dozen of us from the US, several Canadians and a couple of Panamanians joined the festivities. We met some new people, renewed some acquaintances, and had a wonderful time.

By the time our second Thanksgiving in Las Tablas rolled around, I was more in tune with the seasonal changes. (They happen, they’re just not as obvious as the ones I was used to.) I also had more friends, and those friendships were better established. Several of us put our heads together to plan. Jane volunteered her new house to host the event, and we all contributed a dish or two. Jane decided that, as hostess, she would provide the turkey. So when my phone rang a couple hours before we were supposed to meet up, I had no warning of imminent catastrophe. It was Jane.
“I don’t think I dare to serve this turkey,” she told me. “It looks beautiful, but I think it’s bad. It doesn’t smell like turkey at all. What do you think?”
“Nooooooo!” I was screaming inside, while trying to stay calm.
Thanksgiving dinner without turkey? How could it be? What a hollow mockery!

We talked it over, and decided it wasn’t worth taking any chances. It was too late to get another turkey, so Jane substituted chicken. After we hung up the phone, I almost cried as I told my husband what had happened. Along with the chicken we had mashed potatoes, garlic green beans, a pineapple casserole (I know, it sounds strange, but it’s absolutely delicious!), fancy carrots, and lots of other dishes. Dessert was a chocolate concoction that’s a tradition in my family.

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There were about a dozen of us, and we had a wonderful time. Even without turkey.

This year, back in the US, we’ll join my husband’s family for Thanksgiving. My brother-in-law is hosting at his vacation home – the place we’ve been staying since we flew back in early August. We’ll be there as visitors, though, not as residents. That’s because we’ve just bought a house. A couple weeks ago we closed on a townhouse about an hour away. We’re doing some work, but should move in within the next week. So on Thanksgiving, we’ll drive from our new home to the lake house, bringing our contributions to the feast.

What Does Thanksgiving Mean, Anyway?

Many countries and cultures celebrate some sort of harvest festival. That’s part of our Thanksgiving, of course.

The commonly accepted “first Thanksgiving” took place in Plymouth, in 1621, in what became the Massachusetts Bay Colony and then the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “Near Boston” is close enough for those of you not familiar with the New England region.

Present were about 50 colonists – all the survivors of the preceding harsh winter – and about 90 local Indian guests. They gathered some time in the fall of that year, to celebrate their first harvest.

The Indians were invited as thanks for their help. Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag tribe, had added to the settlers’ food stores during the previous winter, and the local Indians had taught the settlers how to grow corn, catch eel, and other food production and foraging skills.

In 1623, Governor Bradford ordered a day of Thanksgiving. The first US President, George Washington, made Thanksgiving an official national holiday. Then in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln assigned the date of the annual celebration, which was to be the fourth Thursday of November. As its name implies, Thanksgiving, historically, has involved giving thanks. The first Thanksgiving in Plymouth was essentially thanks for survival, for many of those Pilgrims had not survived their first winter in the New World.

I’ve always thought of Thanksgiving as a holiday peculiar to the US. Years ago, when we had a French exchange student living with us, we put together an elaborate “Thanksgiving in August” to show Pascal and the other students what this holiday looked like. He still talks about the sweet potato casserole, with marshmallows, in a voice dripping with disgust and loathing, but he and his fellow students enjoyed the rest of the feast.

Today, Thanksgiving means different things to different people. In my family, we’ve used our Thanksgiving get-togethers to celebrate births and marriages and other happy events throughout the year. So as Thanksgiving approaches, I find myself thinking about thankfulness. . .

Life Isn’t Perfect, but I Have Lots to be Thankful For


This year has seen a lot of change within my close and extended family, most of it positive. I’m grateful that we’ve had:
2 college graduations
1 new baby
1 marriage
4 major relocations
1 entrance into medical school and 1 into college
1 retirement
several new jobs
We’ve also, sadly, had a death in the family. My uncle, who was the last relative left of my parents’ generation. But I’m thankful for his long and productive life, and the huge impact he’s had on thousands of people.


Although sorry to leave them behind, our lives have been richer because of all the friends we’ve found – in Panama, in Orlando, and throughout the country. I’m so grateful for the advances in technology that let us stay in close touch with them! And once we’re settled into our new home, I look forward to new friends as well.

Big Moves

Moving to Panama in 2012 was huge. It was a thrilling, exciting, terrifying journey into the unknown as we fled the economic meltdown that had wiped us out in the US. Moving back was huge, too. Did we really want to return to the US? Of the things that hurried our departure then, how much has changed now? Not a whole lot, sadly. The economy is still in rough shape unless you’re a member of the wealthy elite. The middle class is still shrinking. Politics is as divisive as ever – maybe even worse. (It’s hard for me to tell, as I’ve been trying to apply the lessons I learned abroad about keeping the ugliness at a distance.)

I’m thankful for what I learned about living a less stressful life in Panama, and applying those lessons to life back in the US. The Affordable Care Act has provided health coverage for eight million Americans who weren’t covered before, but those gains may be undone in the near future.

We didn’t move back to the area we were familiar with. After 25 years in Orlando, we find ourselves now in South Carolina. It’s very different. One of our sons moved from Vermont to Seattle for a new job. Our granddaughter left the East Coast to attend college on the West Coast. One niece left Philadelphia for West Virginia, had a new baby and started a new job while her husband started medical school there.

New Business Opportunities

Just before we headed back to the US, I was approached by a company that wanted me to work for them. While I did decline full-time employment, I took them on as a client for my freelance writing business, and they’ve been keeping me very busy.

Our youngest son (one of the two who graduated from college this year) is starting an internet business. Our youngest daughter (the other graduate) is writing and selling ebooks on Amazon.

Lots to be Thankful For

Sure, there’ve been some bumps. Lots of bumps, in fact. But on the whole, I feel like I’ve got a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

My family is healthy and happy, I’ll be in my own home (instead of rented or borrowed digs) for the first time in almost three years, financially we’re in better shape than we’ve been for more than five years. . .

This Thanksgiving I’ll be giving thanks for a lot of things. Including the fact that turkey won’t cost anywhere near $8 a pound, and this year we’ll enjoy it with family!

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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