Living Local Or Living With Expats

Go Local?

Last month, we named El Valle de Anton, Panama, the World’s Top Retirement Haven.

“There’s nothing to do in El Valle,” one reader has written since to remark.

“You’d have to learn Spanish if you were going to retire here,” another has pointed out. “And you’d be living among Panamanians…”

When we moved to Ireland a decade ago, a friend, who had recently relocated his family from the U.S. to France, remarked, “You know, I think we’re doing this the hard way. Here in France, we’re scrambling to learn French so we can figure out what’s going on, because we’re always confused. We’re trying to make friends and to find a place for ourselves in a French country community where families have known each other for generations. We don’t understand French cultural nuances yet, so we’re committing one faux-pas after another. And we don’t have any other Americans around to commiserate with…no one to show us the ropes. We’ve really jumped into the deep end of this living overseas thing.

“And you have, too, in Ireland. You aren’t struggling with a new language [in fact, Lief and I would have argued that we were!], but you’re on your own in a foreign community. You’re living and working and sending your children to school among the Irish. You’ve plopped yourself down and are trying to fit in among the local community.

“It’d be a very different experience, I think,” my friend continued, “to move as an expat into an ‘expat community’…a place like Lake Chapala, Mexico, for example, where you’d be surrounded by other people just like you…other people who’ve already done what you’re doing and who could offer a word of advice when you needed one.”

The truth is, Lief and I hadn’t made a deliberate choice to go local. The alternative had never appealed to us.

Lake Chapala and other organized, developed communities of expatriates aren’t for us. Why go to all the trouble of moving to a new country, we figure, if the place you end up living looks and functions for all the world like the place where you came from?

For us, a big part of the point of this effort is the opportunity to find out how the Irish live, for example…what day-to-day life is like among the French…and, right now, how the Panamanians do things. In Ireland, we had not a single American friend. I guess there were other Americans living in Waterford when we were there, but we didn’t know them. We enjoyed the chance to make some Irish friends.

In Paris, we had a few American friends, but our daily interactions were among the Parisians. Which meant we had to learn a little French. And we had to respect French traditions. Understand French manners and ways.

Here in Panama, our friends are Panamanians. In the grocery story last weekend, I was surprised to hear English spoken with an American accent by a fellow shopper. It’d been so long since I’d had that experience in this country.

But that’s us. And, as my friend pointed out more than 10 years ago when we set out on this living abroad adventure, doing it the way we’re doing it is probably more challenging than it’d be to take up foreign residence in a place like Ajijic, Mexico, or Boquete, Panama. In established expat communities like these, the path has been cut. You slide into a way of life that isn’t dramatically different from the life you’ve just left. You don’t worry about learning the local language if you don’t want to. You don’t have to work to make a place for yourself among the local community…because this isn’t a “local” community. It’s a community where everyone is non-local.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Especially as a first step, an initial adventure abroad, it can be comforting to know that you can wander into the restaurant down the street anytime and find English-speaking companionship or that a bridge game or golf outing, again, in English, is only a phone call away.

And it sure can be nice sometimes to have someone to complain to–about the bureaucracy at the immigration department or the challenges of studying to take a driving test in another language.

After you’ve gained a little experience, maybe you begin to think about moving further outside the comfort zone.

I’ve known a number of people who left the States and became foreign resident retirees in Chapala, for example, because the idea of bridge clubs and weekly socials with other foreign resident retirees also from the States was irresistibly reassuring…only to find, after a few years, that they’d developed an appetite for something a little more exotic. They moved on, maybe elsewhere in Mexico…or maybe to another, more distant country, where they embraced the challenge of learning a new language and of making the effort to make a place for themselves among the locals.

This is what you’d do in El Valle de Anton, for example. You’d study Spanish. You’d ride your bicycle to the market for fresh vegetables. You’d hike in the mountains. You’d go on horseback to the waterfalls. You’d tend your garden.

You’d make local friends who you’d meet for dinner at the local restaurants…and, eventually, who you’d invite to come for dinner in your home.

You’d go to the beach every now and then. You’d drive into Panama City when you wanted an evening out.

Maybe a couple of hundred Americans are doing this already…getting to know what local life is like in a sleepy Panamanian mountain town where family and friends are important and crime is all but non-existent.

On the other hand, going local doesn’t have to mean slowing down. We went local in Paris.

The point is to recognize the choice…and then to be prepared for what follows after you’ve made it.

Kathleen Peddicord

Your New Life In Panama

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