A Charming Children’s Christmas In Panama City

Dec. 16, 2012, Panama Pacifico, Panama: Ecole Paul Gauguin is Panama City’s French school, where 300 children from around the world are being educated in French, English, and Spanish.

"Children in Palestine and children in Israel, children from the Americas and also from China, this day, let us think only of Christmas..."

--Traditional French children's Christmas song

Dear Live and Invest Overseas Reader,

The past four years that we've been living in Panama, our son Jackson, now 13, has attended Panama City's French school, l'Ecole Paul Gauguin. Four years ago, this meant he went to school with about 75 other children. Today, Jack is part of a student body that numbers more than 300. The school has moved from its original small house in a residential area of the city to a building six or eight times the size out in the new Panama Pacifico city-under-construction.

I was surprised when we arrived to discover that Panama's French school had 75 students, many, also surprising to me, Panamanian. Why would a Panamanian family, living in Panama City, choose to send their children to a French-language, French-curriculum school? I still don't know the answer to that question, but today dozens more Panamanian families are opting for this approach to educating their kids.

Of course, all the students at Paul Gauguin aren't Panamanian. Jack is one of the few Americans. In addition, there are kids from families that call themselves Spanish, Mexican, Colombian, Irish, English, German, Chinese, Japanese, Canadian, and, yes, French. The parents of these wandering youngsters are in Panama as entrepreneurs, like Lief and me, or because the international companies they work for have placed them here. And, again, their numbers have increased four-fold while we've been part of the charming community they create.

L'Ecole Paul Gauguin is growing, and Jackson is growing with it.

Jack came to me this week to tell me he needs a red Santa hat and a green polo shirt. Would I please find these things for him at the mall this weekend?

"Ah, for your Christmas pageant?" I asked, excitedly. "Great. When is it? Dad and I always really enjoy the show."

"Parents of the older kids don't really come to it, Mom," Jackson responded. "Only the parents of the little kids come to watch. I just need you to get me the hat and the shirt."

Our first year in Panama, Paul Gauguin's Christmas pageant took place in the 300-year-old Teatro Anita Villalaz in the center of Casco Viejo's Plaza de Francia. Even back then, when the student body was much smaller than it is today, it made for as eclectic a collection of small children as you might ever find. Jackson introduced us to his friends from all over the world, some have names I couldn't pronounce even after Jackson repeated them for me three or four times. Finally, embarrassed for me, he gave up, suggesting that, if I have something to say to a particular child, he'd be happy to relay the message for me.

Some of these children, then and now, have lived in three or four other countries already, though they've only barely begun their little lives. Most speak Spanish and French; others also speak English, Italian, German, Japanese, Chinese... They switch among languages effortlessly and manage to communicate among themselves cheerfully and with far less misunderstanding than you might expect.

That first year, on stage in the grand old theater on the Plaza Francia, the young but worldly bunch from Ecole Paul Gauguin, Jackson among them, performed Christmas songs in Spanish, French, and English, including some we recognized and many we didn't.

"Children in Palestine and children in Israel, children from the Americas and also from China, this day, let us think only of Christmas," began one song in French.

At Jackson's birthday party last month, I had a chance to speak with some of his classmates' moms. Some have husbands working with the UN and other international organizations who have been posted in Panama for a year or two. Others are here for work related to various of this country's many infrastructure projects. They and their children have migrated to Panama from Mexico City or Caracas, Buenos Aires or Santiago, Paris or Madrid...

Lief and I worry sometimes about the life Jackson is living. Born in Ireland, he's since lived (and gone to school) in Paris...and now Panama City. He's an American by birth though his only experiences of the United States are his annual visits to see his grandmother and cousins in Baltimore. If you were to ask him, Jack would tell you that he's Irish, with the second passport to prove it. I wouldn't call him American or Irish or French either, though the parents of his friends are shocked always to discover that Jackson's parents are American, not French. "But Jackson is French, is he not?" they ask us, trying to make sense of Jack's perfect Parisian French in the context of our American English.

"No, he's American, like us," I explain, not sure how else to describe him.

Jackson is a little guy without a country but embracing the world. And, at the French school in Panama City, he's found about 300 other little guys and girls just like him who, one evening each year, join together to fill the tropical night with the sound of Christmas songs from around the world.

Will we embarrass Jackson too much if Lief and I crash this year's show this Friday?

Kathleen Peddicord

P.S. What else this week?

  • When we lived in Ireland, our house sat on 6 acres of land. Up a small hill behind the house was an area that had been, in a previous life, a kitchen garden. We restored the garden, after we discovered it, and planted everything from strawberries to carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes. It was a lot of work, both to re-create the garden and to maintain it.

A kitchen garden alone won't keep a family fed, though. We restored one outbuilding on the property into a chicken coop, with the help of my father-in-law, and started raising chickens. We planted fruit trees to create a small orchard. And we looked into raising a few cows, mostly to fatten them up in the fields and sell them.

We didn't buy the property with the intention of turning it into a self-sufficient farmstead, and, in truth, if we'd had to survive off our 6 acres, we would have starved to death. Mostly because we were busy working. We didn't have the time to keep up with the gardens or the chickens, and we never figured out the cows, as the government, we discovered, regulated livestock to the point that we would have needed a permit to raise even a couple of cows if our intent was to sell them to a butcher.

Today we own various bits of land in different countries, but most of it either isn't suitable for farming or is owned with partners. We're getting serious now about changing this, about expanding my flag planting efforts to include a farm somewhere, something bigger than 6 acres.

At the tail end of the last time it made real sense to buy a farm in Argentina (about 2006), I found a 1,000-acre property in Tucuman province. The property was fertile and lush and, with a price tag of US$600,000, a bargain for productive land in that country at that time. You could still buy ranch land in Argentina back then for as little as US$50 an acre, but productive land was going for US$1,000 an acre or more. Alas, the timing wasn't right for me, and I had to pass on the purchase. Today, with Argentine politics more complicated even than is typical for this country, I'm looking instead at farmland in Uruguay, Chile, and Belize...

  • Every day, we receive hundreds of e-mails from readers wondering about their own situations. Would Belize make sense for me? Would I be happy in Panama? I'm debating between Costa Rica and Uruguay...could you comment, advise? Should I be looking at France...or Ireland? Thailand or Malaysia?

Unfortunately, it's almost impossible for me to respond productively to most of these questions. Should you consider Ambergris Caye or the Cayo (two very different options in Belize)? Would you be happier in Coronado or Las Tablas (two beach choices in Panama)?

I have no idea. Only you can make these determinations. It's a matter of knowing yourself...

  • While we've been in planning meetings this week here in Panama City, the mail has been piling up. Therefore, today, let's dig straight into the Mailbag:

"Kathleen, my wife and I now have an account at Caye Bank in Belize, thanks to you. Do you have a bank in Ecuador you would recommend?"...

  • This week we began our annual Countdown To Christmas coverage. Our first 'tis the season offering featured a very unlikely place to spend the holidays, as remembered by Correspondent Paul Lewis...

Sikukuu (literally, the Big Day) is how you say Christmas in Swahili, lingua franca of Kenya and the whole East African coast. The Sikukuu I have in mind saw me, many years ago, as a young army officer in the deserts of Northern Kenya, not far from Lokitong, near Lake Turkana. I was part of a force from the King's African Rifles, then Kenya's army, sent to protect local Somali tribesmen (whom we had just disarmed) against attacks by neighboring Merille tribesmen from over the border in Ethiopia who were still well supplied with weapons left behind by the Italian army after World War II.

As a result, the eve of that Sikkuu was no time for celebrations, preparing feasts, or even Midnight Mass. Instead we planned to lay an ambush for the Merille, suspecting they might try a surprise night attack on our camp in the hope of catching us unawares. "They probably think we'll all be pissed (that is, drunk). So we must be ready for them," our commanding officer had said...

PLUS--From resident global real estate investing expert Lief Simon:

Argentina is one of my favorite places to spend time. The lifestyle choices are diverse and, for me, all appealing, from big-city living in Buenos Aires, one of the world's great cities, to the cowboy's life in the Pampas and many options in between.

One choice that is particularly appealing in this country is life among the vines. The vineyard life in Argentina is as romantic and richly rewarding as you imagine it to be, but you can tap into at a fraction of the cost of enjoying a similar lifestyle in wine country in California or Europe.

Argentina is the fifth-largest wine producer in the world. Chilean wine may be more known in the United States, but that is largely because, until recently, Argentina consumed most of the wine it produced itself. Over the past decade, however, Argentine vineyards have grown and expanded, and exports have increased in turn.

As the vineyard industry in this country is maturing, it is also expanding to include wine country tourism. Many vineyards in Argentina now offer tours, wine-tasting rooms, and restaurants. One winery I visited last year had been designed specifically for tourism and as a venue for special events, with a bar, restaurant, and even an art museum. The winery building was laid out to maximize tour potential, while still being efficient and functional, showcasing the Argentine vineyard lifestyle.

A colleague, an Argentine, is also tapping into the expanding vineyard tourism industry. He has conceived and is well into building a vineyard surrounding a residential development in Valle de Uco, one of the biggest wine areas in Argentina, about an hour-and-a-half from Mendoza city. Mendoza in general is Argentina's most important wine producer thanks to its unique terroir and Andean snowmelt irrigation. This is a region of extraordinary natural beauty, clean air, and 300-plus days of sunshine each year.

The design for La Morada de los Andes has incorporated residential lots among 1,000 acres of vines, 4.5 acres of which have been set aside for lot owners. As an owner here, you will be able to reap the rewards of the wine the grapes from these vines produce, which should be about 5,000 bottles annually.

The idea is for lot owners to be able to enjoy the entire living-among-the-vines experience, including enjoying the fruits of their own vines, without having to make the investment of time, money, or effort to run their own vineyard operation.

If you've been reading my reports for any time, you know that one of my regular recommendations is to buy what you see. In this case, the developer put in the infrastructure before he started selling lots. Buying what you see, therefore, means buying completed roads, water, electricity, and even access to a beautiful clubhouse, in a dramatic setting, with the Andes Mountains as the backdrop.

In addition, the vineyard has been fully planted.

One of the best parts about the Mendoza region of Argentina is that it is, on one hand, remote and private, yet, on the other hand, lively and full of opportunities for distraction and diversion. In February is the annual folklore festival; in November is the Fiesta de la Tradicion; and, probably of greatest interest in this part of the world, come March are the annual harvest festivals.

Day to day, you could go hiking in the Andes, mountain biking, horse riding, even skiing in winter, though you'll have to travel a bit for that. The city of Mendoza, with a population of more than one million, has restaurants, theaters, and, on the weekends, an artist fair on the main square (I bought a custom-made knife on my last visit).

What does it take to buy into this lifestyle? Lots at La Morada de Los Andes start at less than US$100,000, and all lots are more than ½ acre. With just 83 lots in total, you'll have neighbors, but you won't feel crowded. And again, the infrastructure is in, so you could begin building your house right away. The developer can manage the construction for you, or you could arrange it on your own.

The best part is that the developer doesn't need cash from sales to put in the infrastructure. As a result, he's able to offer very flexible financing packages. You could buy your vineyard lot today with no money down and payments over two, three, or four years at 8% interest. Finance a US$100,000 lot over four years, and your payment would be less than US$2,500 a month. Or you could make a down payment, and the developer would finance the rest at no interest.

HOA fees are expected to run about US$165 a month, but the developer is waiving those until 2014. As an owner, you'll enjoy the annual wine allocation I mentioned earlier, which is 30 bottles per year for each lot. Any surplus bottles will be sold to help offset the HOA fees.

On top of that the developer is offering Live and Invest Overseas readers a US$5,000 discount, at least for the first 20 lots purchased. Nine lots have already been sold, meaning the next 11 buyers can save US$5,000.

Argentines enjoy their wine and their parillas. Once you've experienced the lifestyle that goes along with these things, you'll understand why. For more details, you can inquire here.

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