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Settling In At “Home”

Those of you who’ve been following my column for a while know that, after 2-½ years in Panama, my husband and I have returned to the US.

It was a combination of family concerns and a job opportunity that brought us back.

Settling in, though, has been much harder than we expected. Harder even than getting established in Panama when we first moved there.

You see, we’re not back in our old stomping grounds in Orlando, where we lived for 25 years. Instead, we’re in South Carolina.(I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I’d find myself living in South Carolina.)

But here we are.

The job was to be in Orlando. Someone my husband used to work with had joined a new company and they needed my husband. The job was offered and promised. Then, after we had landed back Stateside, it disappeared.

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Without that work, cost of living was higher in Orlando than we felt comfortable committing to, so we decided to stay in South Carolina.

My husband’s parents are getting on in years, and he wanted to be geographically closer. From Las Tablas, it was pretty much a two-day trip to Atlanta, where they are. Normally, we took the bus from Las Tablas to Panama City the day before our flight, because after a 4-½ hour bus ride and then a cab ride to the airport, we couldn’t arrive in time for any daytime flights. And pretty much, daytime flights were the only ones available.

So. . . two days for him to get to his folks in an emergency. Not acceptable to him. Now we’re a couple of hours away by car.

We arrived in South Carolina knowing nobody here except family. My husband’s brother has a vacation home here, and offered to let us stay in it indefinitely. It made the whole thing possible, but it’s been a mixed blessing.

The problem is, this lakefront house is isolated, about a 25-minute drive from town, grocery stores, and anything to do outside the house. At first we thought we’d find a place of our own in town, but after looking around and becoming somewhat acclimated to the community, we decided it wasn’t where we wanted to be.

Remember those people who warn you to rent for at least six months before you buy overseas? Well, it’s the same when you come back from overseas, too. You should take some time to explore the community before committing yourself to a real estate purchase.

After about six weeks, we decided to look at a small city about 50 miles from where we’re staying. There’s a lot more going on there. It’s more cosmopolitan, with a more diverse populations and a nice variety of restaurants, theater, their own philharmonic orchestra, shopping, biking trails, and more.

Then we started looking at housing. Let me tell you, house shopping from 50 miles away is no fun. House hunting became a serious interruption to my work schedule, and we’ve burned up a lot of gas and time going back and forth.

Thankfully, we think we’ve found the right place. It’s a small condo in an area with lots of amenities, and only about 10 minutes from downtown. We should be able to move in after the first of November.

It’s also going to be easy to lock and leave, or rent out, when we decide to indulge our wanderlust again. We’re thinking that we’ll try the snowbird life for a few years, although we’ll have to tough it out this winter. After a few years, though, I’m sure we’ll be back overseas full time. We’re not looking at South Carolina as a long-term lifestyle choice.

It’s funny – funny odd, not funny haha – how differently I’m handling renting a furnished house in Panama versus staying in a relative’s furnished house in the US.

In Panama, I had no trouble adjusting to living with someone else’s taste in furniture, art, dishware, etc. Eventually we bought some of our own things there, partly for comfort and partly because we needed some things the landlord hadn’t supplied.

Here in the US, I somehow feel awkward living with someone else’s things. I’m really looking forward to furnishing my own place again, something at one time I thought I’d never want to do.

Here’s another big difference: friends (or lack thereof).

When I went to Las Tablas to find us a place to live (my husband stayed back in Orlando with the dogs until I located a house for us), I made friends right away. An expat couple lived across the street. I met them, then they introduced me to others.

If I wanted to meet other English speakers, I just had to go into town. I would always run into someone speaking English, and then I just had to say “hello” and strike up a conversation. One of my best friends is a woman I met in the Claro store when I went in to recharge my WiFi stick.

Here, if you say “hello” to a stranger in the phone store, it’s, well, strange.

It was easy to meet Panamanians too – easier than it is to meet fellow Americans here.

That’s one reason I’m looking forward to living 50 miles up the road from where we are. Once there, we can join MeetUp groups and such. There aren’t any in this town.

In Las Tablas, some of my husband’s best friends were other bicycle riders. If he was out riding and came across another cyclist, he’d strike up a conversation. Several of them quickly became friends and helped us with various “settling in” kinds of things. One assisted us in purchasing a used car. Another wrote us a letter of recommendation so we could open a local bank account.

Where we are now, he never meets another cyclist. We’re expect that will change once we move into our own place, close to established biking trails.

Even our dogs seem unsettled here. When we moved them to Las Tablas, they quickly learned that they were “home.” Not so much here.

What Does “Feeling Settled” Mean?
Feeling settled is complicated. Some of it is purely practical, a matter of opening boxes and putting things away. Some of it has to do with feeling that you’re part of the community. Some has to do with your own attitude, accepting your new environment as “home.”

I know people who are completely entrenched in one spot. They’ve lived in their house for 30, 40 or 50 years, and that’s the only place that will ever be “home” to them. They live within a few miles of where they went to high school or college.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I know a couple who have lived a nomadic life for over 20 years now. Paul and Vicki describe themselves as “perpetual travelers.” Sometimes they’ll stay in one place for several months, and sometimes they’re in a new place every three or four days. When I asked her once how she settled in to a new place, she told me that anywhere she drinks tea from her favorite mug is “home.”

I don’t know that I’ll ever be as flexible as Vicki with her special mug. And I know I’ll never be as established and rooted as those who’ve lived in the same house for 40 years. Frankly, I’d be bored stiff!

Somewhere, though, there’s an in-between that will work for me, in the US or abroad. I just need to find what it is!

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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