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What I Really Think About Life In Panama City

Dec. 22, 2013
Panama City, Panama

Dear Live and Invest Overseas Reader,

Georgia M. wrote from the United States this week to say:

"Kathleen, I see you are planning to move back to Paris. Being totally honest and understanding that all experiences are positive, how would you contrast Paris and Panama City and what are your reasons for moving back to Paris?"

First, before I respond to these questions, an update:

The offer we made a couple of weeks ago on a small apartment in Montmartre has been accepted. Lief is working with our notaire to finalize details of the purchase of this new Paris pied-a-terre (it's but 35 square meters in size, so toe-a-terre might be more appropriate) that will serve as our Live and Invest Overseas Euro-base starting in the New Year.

We won't, though, be moving back to Paris, at least not full-time. Starting in 2014, we'll divide our time between Paris and Panama City, our current base.

Why? Because Paris is my favorite city in the world. It's pretty and romantic. I like pretty and romantic, and Panama City is neither of those things.

On the other hand, I also like contrast and the unexpected. Life in central, historic Paris is what you expect it to be--pleasant. Nothing about life in Panama City is predictable. Both those realities appeal to me, and my ideal lifestyle is one that embraces both the charming and the challenging.

Thinking more practically, how would I compare Panama City to Paris?

The cost of living can be more similar than you might imagine. This is because Panama City is not the super-cheap destination it used to be and also because life in Paris can be more affordable than you expect. Your cost of living in both of these cities is hugely variable.

You could rent an apartment in Panama City for US$1,000 (this is the minimum monthly rent I'd budget for comfortable digs in a neighborhood where you'd want to be based)...or you could rent an apartment in Panama City for US$5,000 per month (in Punta Pacifica or front-line avenida Balboa).

You could rent an apartment in central Paris for 1,000 euro per month (again, this would be a minimum monthly rent) or for 5,000 euro per month, depending mostly on where in the city you choose to settle.

A couple could spend US$200 per month on food in Panama City (shopping at local markets and eating only locally produced items)...or US$1,000 per month (shopping at the U.S.-style Riba Smith grocery store for brand-name food items).

A couple could spend 400 euro on groceries per week or 1,000 euro per month, depending, again, on where and how you shop.

Utilities will cost you more in Panama City than in Paris if you run your air conditioning around the clock (as we do). Transportation, too, can be more affordable in Paris, where you can get most anywhere you'd want to go using your own two feet or a monthly Navigo (metro/bus) pass. A cable/internet package will cost you 40 euro per month in Paris or US$50 in Panama City. You'll spend about US$50 per month on a cell phone in Panama...and about 50 euro per month on a cell phone in Paris.

Your entertainment budget in either city could be the equivalent of US$100...or many times that.

Help around the house is a bargain in Panama City compared with Paris. In Paris you'll pay 20 euro or more per hour for household help, while you can hire a full-time maid in Panama City for US$200 to US$300 per month. In other words, in Panama, you could walk away from household chores forever.

What about Paris versus Panama City beyond the cost of living? Paris is a city for walking; in Panama City, you take your life in your hands every time you set off as a pedestrian.

Both are cities of apartment-dwellers. In central Paris, the apartments can be 200- or 300-years-old. In central Panama City, they're typically two or three years old.

Paris is a city built on a river. Panama is a city built on a bay that opens to the Pacific Ocean at the entrance to the Panama Canal. Both bodies of water define and help to brand the cities they're attached to.

Service is taken seriously in Paris. You should expect good service everywhere. Good service, when you encounter it, is a surprise in Panama, as are (I know I'm going to take heat for this remark) good manners.

On the other hand...

Few places in the world are as dramatically alive as is Panama City right now. It's being reinvented in real time, and witnessing this transition as an insider is an opportunity that Lief and I appreciate and savor. Keeping things in perspective, I think that, years down the road, we'll remember this time on the ground in this emerging world boomtown very fondly.

The other thing we appreciate about living in Panama City is that it means we live and run our business tax-free. That trumps a lot of the day-to-day downsides.

We could not have built the business we've built in Paris, and, frankly, I don't know of anywhere else in the world where we could replicate the team we've assembled here in Panama City. We're in Panama for the long haul...and happily so.

But we're looking forward to regular chances, starting next year, to enjoy the best of both the Old World and the New.

Kathleen Peddicord

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Our second Christmas in Panama City, we asked for help. Where's the best place to buy a tree in this city? We wondered of our friends. A big tree. A fresh tree. We were directed to a shop called Tzanetatos, on Via Brazil, a warehouse with pallets of hams, wine, olives, and other holiday fixings, and, in a giant refrigerated area, fresh Christmas trees, delivered direct from Canada. Ah, this is more like it, we thought as we stood in the refrigerated unit in our short sleeves and sandals, shivering and rubbing our hands together for warmth. We chose the tallest tree they had, took it home, and enjoyed it through the New Year.

We returned to this same spot for our tree the next two years, remembering to wear sweaters. Some shoppers come dressed in snow parkas.

At the start of this month I suggested to Lief that we drive over to see if the place had received its annual tree delivery yet. We've learned that they receive but one shipment each year. When those trees are gone, that's it.

"No, not yet," they told us when we stopped by. "Come back Monday."

We've been living in Panama long enough to know to confirm these kinds of things, so, on Monday, we called the shop. "Yes, the trees are here," the lady on the phone told us. "They've arrived today."

Great. We drove straight over.

"Where are the Christmas trees?" we asked when we walked in.

"Oh, they're not here yet," the woman said.

"But we called. We confirmed. The lady on the phone said the trees arrived today."

"Yes, they've arrived in the country today. They're on the dock. Customs hasn't released them. Come back tomorrow."

The next day, we called again. "Yes, the trees are here," the lady on the phone told us."

"The trees are there in the store?" we asked. Fool us once but not twice, we thought to ourselves.

"Yes, they're here. They're in the store."

We drove over. No trees in sight.

"Where are the Christmas trees?" we asked again, dejectedly.

"They're on the loading dock out back. Not inside yet. You should come back tomorrow..."

The following morning, Lief and our driver Guillermo drove back over.

"I knew right away this time that the trees were finally, fully in residence," Lief reported. "The place smelled like pine forest."

Lief and Guillermo bought two trees, one for home and one for the office. Eight feet tall apiece, they're fresh and fragrant in their stands. We don't have snow, but we do have the scent of pine and fresh needles underfoot.

The season is well upon us.

Kathleen Peddicord

 

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Kathleen Peddicord

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.

Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.

Read more here.

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