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Janet Sussman

Who are you?

That’s a tough one! I am a lot of things…a lot of women…a lot of life! I am a semi retired teacher from Florida with a lot of history before that! I am a widow, a mother, a grandmother!I am an adventurer, a sensitive soul, a passionate explorer. I am a dancer (very recently), a business woman, a friend. I am me… very unique, very individual, very blessed to have this life.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

“All Things Fall Apart” is a great title for a book and relates to many of us but mine would have to add, “but when the pieces come together…!!!”. I had some amazing plans that were all coming together, this control freak that I was.

Then in 2006, all things started to fall apart when, in February, my husband had a stroke at the same age his father died from a stroke. Six months later, our oldest son died in a construction accident. He was going to build that dream house I had designed: a log home in the middle of my dream property, 5 acres in the middle of the woods in Florida. The log kit from my design was literally on the truck on its way from Wyoming. I didn’t think I could live in the house our son was supposed to build so we cancelled everything. My husband gave up at that point and actually said out loud that he just wanted to go to the property and die. I felt he at least deserved that so we bought a manufactured home and plopped it down in the clearing for our previous dreams.

I had received a scholarship to return to school to become a teacher and had a 3 year contract to work it off so my daughter and I stayed in one county and our other son moved with his dad about 2 hours away. I travelled back and forth on weekends. By this time the 2008 crash was in full swing and people were walking away from their homes, hitching horses to stop signs with sad notes to just please take them and feed them and they were leaving the state in droves.

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We had taken everything out of our home in Tarpon Springs to pay for the home in Ocala, planning to sell that one and all would be paid off so now we were completely upside down and paying 2 mortgages with what seemed like no options to rent or sell either one. By that time, I had taken on 2 additional part time jobs and had started my Master’s degree to ward off older student loans.

I applied for a teaching position near the property in Ocala however, a short time after being hired and giving notice with my current position, the offer was cancelled as the population reduction caused a hiring freeze. I was stuck where I was, upside down on my mortgage, working 3 jobs, going to school and running back and forth a 4 hour round trip on weekends. It was taking its toll. In addition, the stress and lifestyle had blessed me with 90 additional pounds and thus declining health.

In the meantime, my husband had suffered several other strokes and his diabetes was taking over fast. With few options and a dead real estate market, I looked for something that would give me an income in the only time I had left in my day: when I was sleeping (as little of that as there was).

I had heard somewhere about the Colon Free Zone in Panama. At the time, I don’t think I even knew how many ‘a’s there were in Panama…just that it had the Canal and jungles. I figured I could buy goods from the Free Zone and sell them on e-bay while I was sleeping. So, I borrowed from somewhere and planned a trip to check it out in September of 2009, Labor day weekend. A friend was concerned about me traveling alone so he introduced me to a Panamenian friend who would show me around.

That was it! When I landed, I had this feeling that I had been here before…I have since decided that I was Panamenian in some past life!

In 5 days, I slept a total of 10 hours! I could not get enough…but mainly it was the people. By US standards, many have less than nothing…and yet they are happy…they are happy with what they have and who they are with right now. “Yo no se manana”!

They welcomed me into their homes as if I didn’t look or speak any different (and, boy did I)!

I cried the entire trip home. I knew I had to go back.

I did not end up doing the Free Zone business but instead started a shuttle service. At the time, there were not so many options for airport transport, especially regulated ones, and the taxis were not even painted yellow yet. So, I bought a van, shipped it to Panama and ran the business with my Panamenian partner via Craigslist. I could not stay away. I came to “work the business” every chance I got.

In 2010, however, my husband had his massive stroke and passed away. With the economy still bottoming out in that area, I never got to move to my dream property. After my son met the love of his life, he moved closer to their work with her so we had nursing care and housekeeping for my husband until he passed and I continued to travel back and forth most weekends.

My daughter and I lived in an apartment in St. Petersburg until she moved out with her boyfriend (now husband and love of her life) and I moved into a tiny 1 bedroom. Every night I lay on the floor in front of the open balcony doors crying myself to sleep. Thanks to my daughter, I had gotten back in shape and lost most of the weight I had gained but I felt I had nothing ahead. Every day I would pass teachers leaving school carrying more work than they could ever complete in one evening moaning, “one day closer to retirement”…and I watched many of them not make it. Stress, overwork, sedentary lifestyles and bad diets killed them before they ever got there. I was determined for that not to happen to me…so I prayed…and I prayed and I prayed.

Eventually, I realized that I was happy when in Panama and depressed in Florida. My kids had grown up and out…they didn’t need me… I hated my job… I didn’t see any future for me. But I felt young (enough) and was finally healthy again. I had to make a change. I told my kids about my idea – an adventure – one year in Panama teaching to students from around the world. They supported me completely.

My son told me, “go, Ma. Do you! Don’t take this wrong, Ma. We love you, but we don’t need you… and you take credit for that!” My daughter and I, although always close, had become closer through living like roommates. We had many ups and downs and adjustments in learning about each other as adult roomies and not just mother and daughter. We were right around the corner and so a comfort…now we would be hours away by plane…but they wished me well and gave their blessing.

In 2012 I submitted my professional leave of absence after securing a job with a new school in Panama City. On July 4, 2012, I arrived at a then tiny Tocumen Airport and my new life began. As I landed, however, the school with whom I had the contract closed.

Now what! I contacted all of the independent adult English programs and ran around the streets of Panama on foot, by bus, by taxi teaching adult professionals from around the world working on the many projects here at the time until getting a job at a small school over the Bridge of the Americas. A few months later, I landed a fantastic position with a well known international school. One year had turned into 2 at which time my school district called to remind me of my return date… there was no way!

I spoke to 2 financial planners then submitted my retirement. I have never looked back. At one point, my daughter said that she didn’t know much about Panama and missed having me close by but that Panama was for me…that she had never seen me happier or more at peace.

I stayed at the international school for 4.5 years until I got up the guts to go out on my own. I had acquired my permanent residency and work permit during that time and now have formed my very own corporation teaching TEFL to expats, marketing industry specific English to business and other adult professionals here and am about to move into a new location where we will be expanding and providing several other languages along with standardized testing preparation for ie. TOEFL, SAT, ACT, and the many Cambridge Exams.

What challenges did you face during the move?

I think the biggest challenge was how to downsize. I had had 2 four-bedroom homes full of antiques which, in that economy, were not worth the room they were taking up. Letting go of what I thought was my nest egg and the memories which I eventually realized were my mothers’ stories, not actually my memories, was difficult. I can’t tell you how many times I just shifted things from one pile/category to another. I eventually stored some things in a utility trailer at my son’s property which I have used, thrown away, given away, brought down here until I now live, what I consider, 3 suitcases away from my next country. Material things have become so unimportant to me that I simply no longer get the attachment to them. They are a stressor and all is temporary anyway.

The language… I was determined to learn Spanish. That has been difficult at my age but I continue to trudge through. Panamenian Spanish is different from Dominican Spanish is different from Spain Spanish, etc, and since I am visual, the all auditory part of language can get frustrating…no, exhausting when trying to do the simplest things like order a pizza on the phone or get your cable installed. Learning Spanish, however, has been one of my most proud accomplishments in this whole endeavor.

How did you find somewhere to live?

I was fortunate in that, since I had had the business here, I had many friends, clients, and business contacts, one of whom informed me of a room available for 3 or 4 months in the apartment where he and his girlfriend were staying. It would give me a chance to settle in and decide where I wanted to be for the long term. (By the way, by the time I moved here, however, that had all but fallen apart thanks to the non-efforts of my partner who mostly just used the van for personal pleasure and did little to push the business. I decided, like the rest of my past, to just let it go and start fresh.)

From there, I was at a breakfast for New Women in Panama and, coincidentally, met 2 amazing women from the same area of Florida. I was leaving the breakfast early to look for an apartment as I had to be out of that room in the next couple days, exchanging numbers, saying my goodbyes when one offered for me to stay with her. We have become lifelong friends and they have since moved back to Florida, less than 5 minutes from my daughter! Small world!

Are there many other expats in your area?

Panama is so very diverse. There are expats everywhere! There are groups of expats everywhere! The best groups, to me, are the immersed ones… who are learning the language, traveling with locals and internationals, foodie groups, explorer groups, singles groups, business groups.

One thing I don’t get is why so many expats move to other countries, complain about what’s there, what’s different, and that “these people need to learn English”. I’m sorry but you moved to their country!

What is your relationship like with the locals?

As I had said before, I feel somehow that I must have been Panamenian in a past life. I love my Panamenian friends. They are my family here. To me there is nothing like being in a Pueblo at someone’s home where everyone drifts outside with their drink, food to share with everyone. The music that is always playing somewhere, comes out to join you, someone is barbequing/selling something to eat, the dominoes come out, the friends and relatives from down the street join and before you know it, you are dancing in the streets until the sun comes up! Life doesn’t get any better than that! Or…you are visiting for the afternoon and end up going home 3 days later! It is such an “in the now” culture. Sometimes I think I love Panama more than many Panamenians.

What do you like about life where you are?

I think I have mentioned many of my “likes” already..it’s the quality of life here. It’s not lavish…it’s quality! I also love how there is so much to see and do. In the city, there is something every night. There is no way to get bored.

As far as history, it has architecture and stories that just do not exist in young little US. You can drive from the Pacific to the Atlantic in less than an hour. It is the only place in the world where the sun rises over the Pacific. There are black volcanic sand beaches, mountains everywhere and, like in cool, floral Boquete and Volcan Baru, there are greens that even Crayola has not discovered. The clear waters of the Caribbean and the Guna Yala’s 365 pristine San Blas Islands or Bocas del Toro near Costa Rica with its starfish covered beaches are nothing short of breathtaking. It is the only place in the world where whales come from both hemispheres to mate and give birth and it is the only place where there is a rainforest within city limits with its sloths and monkey and toucans, and more and more.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

Only that my family does not care to join me here and I watch them caught up in the stress, the propaganda, their live for tomorrow (not today) mentality. I only hope I can be an example.

The other thing I have to say is that I find it difficult to merge the two sometimes. I have as many, if not more Panamenian friends but expats seem to like to stay in their expat world with their expat things imported by and marked up by the Riba Smiths who make a fortune of their name-brand addictions. They enjoy being with each other which I get the draw to the familiar but, personally, I enjoy immersing myself.

As far as me being “an expat”, I guess I don’t really see myself as one…I see and jokingly refer to myself as a “panagringa”. At one point I was having a poor-me moment when I was considering trying another country and felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere…then….I had an ah-ha moment and said to myself, “Hey, that’s not it at all, you fit in everywhere”… and how cool is that!

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

The value and respect for time. Here, time has absolutely zero value! Tarde just means later… not necessarily “late”…there really isn’t “late”. No one cares. You had something to do, something got in your way, it really doesn’t matter. To us from the States, “time is money” and it is important, and it is valuable… so if you disrespect my time, you disrespect me! They don’t get that…how can you insult something that has no meaning or value. There is a saying…one of the first you will learn in Spanish… ”cuando lluega, lluega”, “when it arrives, it arrives”. That used to drive me nuts! Then, I had another ah-ha moment… Who gets to decide what ‘right’ is? Right is only a perspective based on your norms.

What do you think of the food and drink in your new country?

I love the food here! Seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables; fresh seafood, fresh everything… it’s organic without the price. Many places are too poor for anything else. They stick it in the ground, grow it, pick it, and eat or sell it! Done!

If you eat locally and seasonally, it is so cheap! You have to dodge the mangoes from hitting you in the head falling from the trees during mango season. There is even a festival! My biggest bragging right is, on a Sunday afternoon strolling down Ave. Central listening to the bachata music pouring out of the oh-so-cheap stores, I paid $1 for five small pineapples just before the truck was heading back up the mountain to Chiriqui!

What are your particular likes or dislikes?

Like I said…fresh and cheap! The corvina (sea trout) and ceviche are to die for! Gigantic avocados for $1. Fruits, fruits and more fruits. Sancocho, patacones, yuka, arroz con pollo, con coco, con pina (a beverage), con guandu, con frijoles… con anything. Hojaldras (a breakfast bread) Ron Abuelo, Seco. Not too many green veggies in the city, though.

Dislikes? Just one I can think of. It is a cold pork fat dish, I believe called salo.

Traffic in the city is horrible and driving habits make no sense. There might as well not be lines, stoplights, etc. I always say that laws/rules are only suggestions here and there is very little enforcement. (…and yet it is safer than most cities in the US).

Service is regularly complained about even by locals by my take is perspective. In the US you are made to feel rushed so that they can turn over the table for the next check. Here, you can dine or sip on one drink all night while you watch a game or visit with friends. Mostly because, I believe, they do not work for tips. It is becoming more common but the pay is not ridiculously less for servers than other trades (although the inequity of wages for Panamenians is another whole conversation.)

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

Just do it! You can sit back and plan and wonder but then today is gone. It will never be back. You can always return from wherever you came but you do not get any do-overs for today. This big beautiful world has so much to offer and, what a waste to spend your life in one little corner of it from one perspective in one language!

What are your plans for the future?

I have just left my International School teaching job to start my own language company with a like minded panagringa! We are training other expats in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) as well as an online and in person Language School where we will be offering not only English to 2nd language learners but also Spanish to expats to help them immerse and are finding new interest in French, Portuguese, German and several Chinese dialects, especially Mandarin which is the most spoken language in the world. Once that is up and running, I plan to do the marketing and managing mostly online from anywhere I choose to be at the moment. That is my goal: see more, learn more, experience more!

The picture is me with friends from US and UK (coworkers), and Roberto Duran (the boxer…. I was even an extra here in his movie, “Hands of Stone”) in his restaurant in El Cangrejo (an adorable neighborhood known for its diverse population).

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