Since moving back to the US, I’ve become painfully aware of one huge difference between living here and living there.
Meeting people and making friends in Panama was easy. Doing it here is hard.
A vibrant social life was one of our pleasures in Las Tablas. We had plenty of friends, and getting together was easy.
It started within a few days of my arrival in Las Tablas.
Because Panama doesn’t really have pet-friendly hotels, I flew down to find us a place to live while my husband and the dogs stayed in Florida to wrap up a few things. Less than 24 hours after I arrived in Las Tablas, I met my first friend.I was standing in the grocery store checkout line, and struck up a conversation with a local woman. Before going our separate ways, she gave me her phone number and invited me to call her any time.
I reconnected with a couple we had met the previous year when we visited Las Tablas for the first time. Doug and Jean were renting a house at Uverito Beach, and they invited me to spend the day with them. That was three days after I got to Las Tablas, and they introduced me to half a dozen other folks.
At Ponchalos, a local restaurant run by an American, I met several other expats. One was heading back to Canada, and showed me his house which was available to rent. Word spread that I was looking for a house, and I got phone calls and emails about available properties.
It took about two weeks to find and move into the house we ended up renting for 2-1/2 years. The morning after I moved in, I wandered across the street. I’d been told an American couple lived there, so I knocked on the door and introduced myself.
Don and Julie immediately included me in their social circle. They took me shopping with them in Chitre, we went to a baseball game, and we visited back and forth. They let me use their washing machine until I was able to get my own.
A few days after we met, they invited me to dinner at their house. There I met Bill and Judie, who ended up becoming our best friends in Panama.
After my husband joined me, he started meeting local cyclists. A couple of them spoke English, most did not. It didn’t matter. They invited us to their homes, and stopped by ours. Mario invited us to spend New Year’s Eve with his family. It was a neighborhood event with spectacular fireworks, and lots of visiting back and forth. When we decided to buy a car, Mario helped us negotiate with the Spanish-speaking seller.
Later on, I was in the Claro store paying my bill when I met Jacqi. She was speaking Spanish, but with a decidedly American accent, so I introduced myself. She became another close friend.
I met Jane through mutual friends. We met Bonnie, along with Bob and Pat and lots of other people, at the big Thanksgiving dinner at Ponchalos Restaurant. Through Bonnie we met Allen, who ended up buying our car when we left Panama.
We made friends in the neighborhood. I first came across Jorge because I got into his taxicab one evening. I found out that his daughter had been educated in the US and spoke very good English, and that they lived two streets behind us. Jorge helped my husband look for our missing dog. They took us on a tour of the Azuero Peninsula, including Playa Venao. Jorge stopped in to see us from time to time, and they invited us to spend Christmas Eve with them. Jorge is now the local Representative from Las Tablas in the current government.
Gradually our social circle expanded to include people in Chitre and Pedasi.
Contrast that with our experience back in the US. . .
We stayed for three months at my brother-in-law’s vacation home on Lake Hartwell. It’s an enormous, man-made lake that straddles the border between Georgia and South Carolina. His house in near Anderson, SC. We arrived in August, and left to move into our own place in mid-November.
In that entire time, the only people in the area that I came in contact with were restaurant waitstaff, grocery store clerks, and the woman who cut my hair.
Now that we’re in our new home, we’ve met the neighbors on both sides, and we’re on visiting terms with one of them. By the time I’d been in Las Tablas this long, I had at least two dozen names and numbers of people I’d met and felt comfortable and welcome to call.
Why the difference?
Whenever we were out and about and heard someone speaking English, we said hello and introduced ourselves. Visitors and tourists were happy to lapse into English for a few minutes, and often had questions we could help them with.
New residents were even happier. Navigating your way around shopping and normal, day-to-day business in a new country is daunting, especially if you don’t speak the language fluently! Finding an English-speaker who knows the ropes, or knows someone else who does, is a huge relief.
Did we become best buddies with all of them? Of course not. But those we had something in common with became friends.
Meeting Local People
Even with the language barrier – and remember, my Spanish is at the level of a slow toddler, and my husband’s is even worse – we had no trouble meeting local residents. They were friendly, welcoming, and willing to put up with our lack of language skills.
I think there are several reasons for this.
They’re used to greeting people – even strangers – routinely
It’s normal to say hola whenever you enter a shop or restaurant, or board a bus or taxi. In a group situation like a bus or restaurant, you give a general greeting, and then more specific greetings to individuals you know.
They haven’t learned to be afraid
In Panama, people you haven’t met yet aren’t fearful. They don’t see you as the enemy, or view them with suspicion.
Contrast that with the US, even in the “friendlier” areas. My daughter’s friend was at a bus stop in Orlando one day. He greeted a woman who was also waiting for the bus and she completely freaked out. He’s a very nice young man, doesn’t have any visible piercings, tattoos, or other indications he might be an unsavory character, but she obviously felt threatened.
Recently I was in a grocery checkout line here and heard a little girl addressed as “Susanna.” I smiled at her and said, “Is your name Susanna? That’s my name, too.” Her mother turned white and yanked her away as fast as she could.
In Panama, a grocery checkout hello has resulted in a 10-minute conversation, and an exchange of phone numbers.
Pace of Life
Life in Panama happens at an easier pace. Community and family are important, so even while working, people take the time to chat with friends, relatives and well known customers. It means a longer wait in line, but a pleasanter customer experience once it’s your turn.
Sometimes in the US I wonder whether we’ve come to somehow view conversation as an impediment to progress. Everyone’s always in a rush.
Well, when you’re always in a hurry and don’t take the time to talk to people, it’s impossible to develop friendships.
I’m trying to apply the lessons learned in Panama. So far my attempts to talk with people I don’t already know are one-sided and frustrating. But I plan to persevere.
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
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