It’s been a year now. One brief, fast-moving year since I landed at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City with my mountain of luggage, the first step in my expat life. As with any anniversary there’s a certain amount of looking back, reassessment and measuring.
So how has the time here in Panama measured up against my expectations?
The Logistics of Daily Life
My first serious trip to the grocery store took hours. Everything was strange. The store was not arranged the way I’m used to grocery stores being arranged. Brands were all different, most of the labels were in Spanish, and so everything had to be studied carefully.Today we breeze through the store. We know where to find the items we buy most often, and there’s no more mystery. That’s a good thing – a grocery store is the last place I want to play detective!
Unfortunately, a lot of the common grocery items we were used to are either not available or very hard to find here. This means we have to cook differently. It’s a far bigger adjustment than just navigating the aisles of the store.
We routinely shop at hardware stores, department stores, furniture stores and suchlike. We’re pretty comfortable navigating all of it now.
We’ve successfully opened a local bank account, something we expected would be difficult.
We’ve managed to get local cell phone service, cable and internet.
I found someone to cut my hair, though I haven’t yet tackled that other female bugaboo, finding a gynecologist.
We’re renting a furnished house, and plan to extend our lease for another year.
We navigated the purchase and registration of a used car.
Altogether, in terms of daily logistics, I think we’re doing just fine.
In this area we’re nowhere close to what I envisioned.
There are a few reasons:
1. Our dogs. Much as we love them, they keep us close to home. Finding people we trust to care for them has been a big challenge. That’s partly because pets here just aren’t treated the way we’re used to.
2. Transportation. Our first eight months here we relied on taxis, busses and the kindness of friends to get around. It worked fine for everyday travel, but really limited our options for exploring
3. Work. My work schedule has gotten busier – a good thing in many ways. But it means less time for exploring. Add to that the slowdowns caused by the frequent power and internet outages, and I don’t have the time for travel that I had hoped.
Speaking and Understanding Spanish
All I can say about this is, it’s better than it was when I arrived. Barely.
I can handle the everyday stuff. I can order in a restaurant, shop, call a cab and tell the driver where I want to go, no problema. Outside those types of conversations, though, I’m just pathetic. I understand more than I did – a bit. My vocabulary’s better – a bit. But I thought that after a year I’d be carrying on actual conversations. I’m not.
Once I get past “hello” and “how are you” all I have left is my deer-in-the-headlights smile.
We do have Panamanian friends, and enjoy getting together with them. The two families we see the most of include an English speaker so communication is fairly easy.
Among the expat community, our social life is much more active here than it was in the US.
Here are a few of the reasons:
1. No rat race. Many of our friends here are retired. Even those of us who still work just don’t have the level of busyness here that we were all used to in North America.
2. With inexpensive restaurants here, it’s easy to get together for a meal out. Socializing is easier when nobody has to host, cook and clean up.
3. We place more value on our social relationships here. Back in Florida there was always the sense that, if we didn’t get together this week we could do it next week. Here we have more of a let’s-do-it-now mindset.
We feel much less stressed here in Panama. That’s not a benefit we can measure, but it’s one I appreciate every day.
The country is beautiful, with world-class mountain scenery and pleasant beaches – and we’re only a few minutes from both. We love the year-round warm climate.
During Orlando winters we used to joke that we hadn’t moved far enough south. We certainly have now!
We have friends and feel a strong sense of community here.
Some days it feels like home. Once in a while everything feels really strange. I think that’s normal.
I’m looking forward to seeing what our second year in Panama will bring.
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 more of Susanna's Expat Focus articles here