I am coming to the end of my visit to my one-time home of Panama, where I lived for seven years before moving to Paris. I am eager to get home… but there are plenty of things about life here that I’ll miss once I’m back in the Old World.
It’s brought me to thinking about the things I like and dislike about the cultures of each continent…
Still debating which side of the pond is right for you? Maybe these pros and cons will help you decide…
The Laid-Back Attitude Of Latin America
After the rigor of France, being in easygoing Latin America feels like a breath of fresh air. No one here is too worried about anything, no one moves fast or demands much from anyone else. And Latinos love kids, which is a boon for my young family.
On the other hand, this often translates into a lack of respect for your fellow people. Whether it’s being late for an appointment or causing a traffic jam because you wanted to have a chat in the middle of the road, you can see how being so relaxed about everything in life can have a negative impact on others.
One of my pet peeves in our modern age is people who use their phones with the sound on in public. This happens all over the world, of course, but in Europe, a pointed glare from across the room is enough to shame anyone into hastily silencing their device (in most cases). Here, everywhere I go people are taking calls on speaker, watching loud videos without headphones, or playing games with the volume all the way up… and if anyone notices a glare, they couldn’t care less.
I like that in Europe there are rules and everyone follows them…
Queues form naturally and if someone tries to cut, everyone will point out their mistake. Traffic moves swiftly, even in congestion, because everyone knows how to behave on the road to make sure everyone gets where they need to go in a timely manner. Meeting times are respected. Noise nuisances are rare.
I also like that people respect their environment as much as those in it. No one litters, roads are well maintained, facades regularly repainted, and parking rigorously enforced.
The International Twist On Cuisine
It’s hard to scorn French food, but if there’s one word you’d have to apply to it, it’d be Traditional, with a capital T. Innovation isn’t high on the list of things the French value, and while I love the consistency and dependability of a Parisian brasserie, I feel like a bit of a rube when I visit other places with more inventive takes on my old favorites.
Chefs in Latin America are all about pushing the boundaries and experimenting with local flavors, often blending them into classic recipes for a delightful burst of flavor that you weren’t expecting. They often train abroad and gain work experience in other countries, then bring all that skill to bear back home. I met one such Panamanian chef who’s worked in one of the official Best Restaurants in the World in Manhattan before returning to work at Lo Que Hay, which made this year’s list of 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America, and is the hottest new restaurant in Casco Viejo here in Panama.
Unfortunately, they don’t take reservations and when we tried to get in, the place was already packed. I’ll try again before leaving, but on the night in question we wandered over to Tántalo instead, a popular rooftop nightclub and restaurant that my husband and I used to frequent back in the day. We were blown away by the tuna tartare, which featured apple instead of avocado, and played with passionfruit and cilantro instead of relying on the classic soy and sesame flavors.
Still, there’s something to be said for the reliable old French basics. I love that I know when autumn comes, onion soup is guaranteed on every menu. When things warm up outside, it’s carpaccio and tartars that take center stage. You can predict French menus like you can predict Panamanian weather.
I love the variety that seasons offer…
I love that I need to check the forecast every day in Paris to know what the day will hold. I missed wearing boots and sweaters when I lived in Panama, and I relish the cold now that I have it back.
In Latin America, at least around the equator, there are no seasons to speak of. Moreover, the sun rises and sets at about the same time every day no matter the time of year.
I love waking up with the sun at 6 a.m. or thereabouts, and starting the day off with an enthusiastic bang. Seeing the clear blue sky as soon as I get out of bed is like a jolt of energy.
When I lived here, I’d take my dog out for a run before the sun got too hot, hit the gym, go for a quick swim to cool down, make a smoothie with fresh tropical fruits and coconut water, then head to work by 8 a.m.
The downside is that the sun also sets before 7 p.m. every day, which can be a drag when you depend on daylight for motivation. It’s hard to want to go out again after getting back from work in the dark. But I love that it winds me down naturally for the day, and I’ve been asleep by 10 every night I’ve been here and wake up raring to go.
In northern Europe, the sun rises after 8 a.m. and sets before 5 p.m. in winter… In summer, the sun rises early like in Panama, but stays out until well after 10 p.m. European daylight hours can be inconvenient, to say the least.
With the consistent sunshine you can expect on the equator, you never really need to plan ahead for the weather. Every day is perfect for the pool or the beach, with minor blips of monsoon-level rain to add to the spice of life in the tropics. I had a nice tan for nearly a decade, which was fun.
The Business Culture
This one depends on the location you’re talking about in Latin America, but when it comes to Panama City, there’s a much more modern business mentality than anywhere in Europe…
And this is true of most capital cities south of the border, as well as most other densely populated cities. It’s only in the small towns and fishing villages that you’ll encounter the “mañana attitude” that North Americans associate with this part of the world.
When I say business culture, it comes down to things like opening and closing hours, a more consumerist mentality, and even the ability to start or manage a business.
Europe is far less evolved on the topic of anything commercial than anywhere on this side of the Atlantic. Businesses don’t typically open until 10 a.m., close for lunch (at least an hour, if not two), and close by 6, 8 at the latest. Few things open on weekends. Laws inevitably favor employees over employers, and the taxes associated with running a business can be prohibitive.
I was shocked that many businesses open at 7 in the morning here and close at 8 p.m. at the earliest. Hours are consistent six days a week, and while you can’t count on things being open on Sunday, it’s becoming more of a norm.
Which Continent Is For You?
This is obviously a subjective question… all of the above-mentioned issues could be a pro or a con… or both… depending on your preferences, priorities, and perspective.
Do you like the idea of an anything-goes culture? Or are you a rule follower by nature? If you like order and calm, then Europe is more your speed. If you like chaos and unpredictability, Latin America will be more your speed.
Do you prefer stability and reliability over spontaneity and experimentation? When it comes to the weather, Latin America is more dependable, but when it comes to maintenance of the status quo, Europe is the winner.
If you like that feeling of off-road discovery and a no-taboos Wild West feeling, it’s Latin America.
If you like walking a well-paved road that’s clean and orderly—both metaphorically and literally—it’s Europe.
And, of course, these are grand generalizations. There are places on both continents that defy all these stereotypes, and places where they are true to varying degrees… I’ve tried to outline the extremes of the spectrum.
Which is for you? Come visit for yourself and find out…
Editor, In Focus: Europe