These days, as you know, Lief and I are dividing our time between Panama and Paris.
As we head into holiday season 2019, we find ourselves in Paris.
Meantime, back at LIOS HQ in Panama City, our entire Panama City-based Live and Invest Overseas team is preparing to celebrate our 12th Christmas in the Hub of the Americas.
They’re stringing white lights around the trunks of the palm trees growing in our back garden and pulling our store of tree trims from the office bodega… preparing to bedeck our fresh-from-Canada Douglas fir.
Our first Christmas in Panama City, 12 years ago, we bought our tree from the Super 99 grocery store near our apartment. We chose it from among the 4- and 5-foot trees leaning against the front of the store, baking day after day in the hot sun, took it home, and then watched as our little tree lost nearly all its needles well before the 25th rolled around.
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 friends. A big, fresh, live tree…
We were directed to a shop called Tzanetatos, on Vía 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’ve returned to this same spot for our tree every year since, remembering to wear sweaters. Some shoppers come dressed in snow parkas.
Celebrating Christmas in the Tropics all these years, we’ve never had snow, of course, but we’ve always managed the scent of pine in the office and fresh needles underfoot.
In our early years in Panama, we also enjoyed watching our son participate in his annual school Christmas pageant.
Jackson is grown now, nearing the end of his first semester as a sophomore at NYU Shanghai. He’ll be flying from China to Paris just in time to join the rest of the family for our Christmas in the City of Light this year.
Jackson attended Panama City’s French school his decade growing up in Panama. When we arrived on the scene, Paul Gauguin had a total student population, starting from pre-K, of about 75 children. When he graduated a year ago, Jackson was part of a student body that numbered more than 1,000. The school had moved a few years earlier from its original small house in a residential area of the city, to a building 8 or 10 times the size in the new Panamá Pacífico city-under-construction.
I was surprised when we enrolled Jackson years ago to discover that many of the students at Panama’s French school were 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 many more Panamanian families are opting for this approach to educating their kids.
Of course, not all the students at Paul Gauguin are Panamanian. Jackson was 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. Some of the parents of Jackson’s school friends were in Panama working with the U.N. and other international organizations. Others were here for work related to various of this country’s many infrastructure projects. They and their children migrated to Panama from Mexico City or Caracas, Buenos Aires or Santiago, Paris or Madrid…
And, again, their numbers have increased manyfold while we’ve been part of the charming community they create.
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.
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 de 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.
Over the past two-plus decades that Lief and I have been raising our children overseas, we have worried sometimes about the lives they’ve been living.
Jackson, for example, born in Ireland, went on to live and attend school in Paris and then Panama City. He’s an American by birth though his only experiences of the United States are annual visits to see his grandmother and cousins in Baltimore.
If you were to ask him, Jackson would tell you that he’s Irish, with the 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 Jackson’s 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 young guy without a country but embracing the world. Indeed, NYU Shanghai’s motto is “Make The World Your Major.”
At the French school in Panama City, Jackson connected with 1,000 other guys and girls just like him who, one evening each year, would join together to fill the tropical night with the sound of Christmas songs from around the world.
On behalf of my hardworking team down in the Hub of the Americas readying our Live and Invest Overseas HQ for the fast-approaching season, Feliz Navidad.
Enjoy this special time of year, wherever in the world you find yourself.