My life in Panama so far...
Many, many years ago, back when they still printed Newsweek and we managed to live without iPhones, I was leading a quiet existence in Geneva, minding my own business, when my friend Dr. César Pereira Burgos introduced me to Rita, a bright young diplomat and my future Panamanian wife. César, a prominent lawyer and politician, went on to become my compadre (my son's godfather) and Panama's Supreme Court president. Love at first sight; we married a few months later. The timing was a bit off... I had given up a promising career at a Swiss bank to join the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and was on standby, waiting to be shipped on short notice to a country in need of humanitarian support. I had been carefully evaluated after a thorough vetting process, including language skills; I spoke Italian but not a single word of Spanish. It came as a bit of a surprise to be assigned to Argentina, of all places, especially considering my job involved interviewing political detainees, addressing the local military authorities and drafting complex confidential reports. I considered informing the ICRC of the mistake, but I reasoned it was not "my" mistake, and so I did what any sensible individual would have done: I grabbed a book called "Spanish for the Reckless" or something like that, and headed for the airport. Upon landing, I began to panic... was I supposed to say "buen día" or "buenos días"? Would my first words blow my cover? Amazingly, no one ever found out!
Forced immersion worked well for me: my first priority was to purchase the whole collection of "Mafalda" the local equivalent of "Peanuts", the Charlie Brown comic books. I studied the anthology carefully and internalized it (pat. pending). This was 1979, and my job as an ICRC delegate was to interview political prisoners and monitor conditions of detention. I owe a great debt to my first teachers, the detainees of Villa Devoto, a women's tough correctional facility in Buenos Aires. During two weeks, they had to stand in line, facing the wall in silence the whole day for the privilege of meeting one-on-one with a mute alien. I managed to convey my story, including the part about my Panamanian fiancée and the job qualification snafu. They had few opportunities to smile - that's all I'm authorized to say - but smile they did, and they mercifully took it upon themselves to teach me bits of Spanish, one after the other. When I returned to that same prison, a few months later, I was able to sustain a much more productive conversation, as I had promised. After three months of forced separation, I met again with my bride-to-be, in Panama, which I visited for the first time. Addressing my father-in-law in Spanish was priceless - especially considering I was meeting him for the first time, one day before the wedding ceremony...
About a year later, tired of being followed around by men with dark glasses, we returned to La Villa de Los Santos, in the Azuero Peninsula, next to Chitré, where we spent 11 years, mostly during the Eighties. I jumped at the opportunity to revive a dying liquor manufacture, scheduled for shutdown. I would travel occasionally to Scotland to purchase barrels of malt and bottle a Panamanian whisky, among many other spirits. After an epic meeting with the Scotch Whisky Association, I managed to take Panama off their black list. We also invented and bottled the first "seco" ever produced in Panama ("Seco Azuero"), the national drink that spawned the ubiquitous and more successful "Seco Herrerano". (After protracted skirmishes, they would eventually buy us out.) Once in a while, my French assistant would get high on his own supply and shoot the roof full of holes.
I was quickly adopted by the friendly people of La Villa (don't miss Corpus Christi and the Carnaval!). When I arrived, there were two famous Carnaval celebrations in the neighboring towns of Chitré and Las Tablas, but to my surprise none in La Villa, where the liquor manufacture was located. Given the considerable amount of alcohol consumed during Carnaval, this looked like a promising advertising opportunity. After consistently nagging the plant's owner, I managed to spend the whole advertising budget on Carnaval activities, financing both "Calle Arriba" and "Calle Abajo" the rival street associations, each with its own "reina" (Queen). My sister-in-law Bertilda, and cousin Victor each led the "bandera" (flag celebration) for the competing streets. As for me, I swirled and danced in the town's colonial plaza, surrounded by the plant's employees, making an ostensive display of drinking straight from my bottle of Seco Azuero. (I had a strict policy of no drinking outside business hours). Since no one is a prophet in his own land, that promotional stint did not generate a huge increase in sales. However the impulse was enough to spark a long-lasting tradition and the Carnaval of La Villa de Los Santos is now among the country's most celebrated.
My Ford M-151 jeep, in perfect military condition, became a local fixture - even more so during Noriega's times when a blue-eyed gringo wearing a military shirt (!), chewing gum and riding a jeep with U.S. military markings was somewhat conspicuous. On one occasion, a group of people protesting the lack of social security benefits blocked the road with boulders and logs, which were no match for my jeep so I managed to pass through. An elderly gentleman started shouting "Llegaron los gringos, llegaron los gringos" (meaning that the liberators had finally arrived) and they all joined in unison, which did not particularly please the soldiers... Once, at a time when rumors of an impending invasion were spreading, I was stopped at a checkpoint by a bewildered sentinel who yelled at me: "where did you get that car?!" I lowered my Ray-Bans slowly and deadpanned: "I'm just a scout... there are 500 like that, right behind me!" It took him a little while, but we both ended up laughing. (Panamanians have a jolly disposition... I can't help but remember the signs in Argentina: "If your vehicle stops, the sentinel will open fire!")
In case you're wondering, the term "gringo" applies to any foreigner that looks remotely American, and in Panama it's not a bad word at all. Panamanians tend to look up to the Americans, which not only built the Canal but also had the elegance to return it. A few weeks after the December 1989 invasion, I had the privilege to drive the American general Marc Cisneros from La Villa to Las Tablas (in my jeep!). As I was commenting about the region, I could see in my rear view mirror the frowns of the two soldiers sitting behind us. I apologized for using "gringo" when referring to Americans, which came to me naturally. He graciously turned to his aides to explain that in Panama, this word carries no negative connotation and went on to explain its origins. (According to him, it comes from a military song called "Green Grow [the Lilacs] heard around the campfires in Mexico during the nineteenth century). My American (good) looks got me in trouble only once: near the end of the Noriega's regime, when the whole country was in deep turmoil, I needed to purchase a spare part which I knew I could find only in the populous Avenida Central, a very colorful location - up to these days. In stark contrast with the sophisticated neighborhoods where proud towers keep sprouting, this is a rather poor area of Panama City, but it has always fascinated me, because of its authenticity. Simple people, real people, hard not to love them... Unwilling to have my car overturned, I shared a taxi. As soon as it dropped me in on a street corner, the stores started slamming down their metallic gates, one by one. A sizable crowd of Noriega’s supporters was marching, headed in my direction. I was quickly spotted and they started running toward me, shouting "gringo asesino!" (assassin). Luckily, a storeowner raised his gate just in time for me to crawl underneath. After banging construction bars on the gate, the thugs soon gave up. My rescuer asked me if I was trying to get killed! I could sense he was not convinced by my explanation that I was living in La Villa de Los Santos and therefore not a gringo in the strict sense of the word. Don't get the wrong idea... that extreme incident, which must be placed in context, cannot obscure the fact that Panamanians at large are a very special lot: witty, resourceful and warmly welcoming. Those national traits are surprisingly strong for a country founded in 1903, but they set them apart from their neighbors.
Keep in mind these were deeply troubled times... Panama is today a stable democracy with a transparent electoral process. Admittedly, that was not always the case. When I had the good fortune to meet him, General Omar Torrijos was bent on returning the country to a civil government and was no longer wearing his trademark hat and military uniform. Whether one agreed with his political views or not, he was very charismatic and is still genuinely beloved by many Panamanians. Together with President Jimmy Carter, he engineered the return of the Canal Zone to Panama, something that amounted to much more than a "deal", as Mr. Trump recently found out. (From 1903 to 1979, this 5-mile swath on each side of the Canal, was considered U.S. territory. Sen. John McCain was allegedly born there).
After the General died in a suspicious plane crash, Manuel Noriega who headed the army intelligence department grabbed full control, until he finally declared war onto the U.S., which led to the invasion and his demise. In May 1989, after Noriega's candidate lost the presidential elections he unleashed militias of supporters armed with metal pipes, carrying the Orwellian name of "Dignity Battalions". They intercepted the car of the VP presidential candidate Guillermo (Billy) Ford and clobbered him after murdering the driver. The spectacular photo of Billy Ford drenched in blood made the cover of Time Magazine and focused the world's attention on Noriega's regime. While CNN reported the drama in bloody details, the national news made absolutely no mention of it. We owned one of the two satellite dishes in the whole Azuero Peninsula, a monstrous 30-feet wide contraption, and we were appalled! I taped the gruesome footage and Rita and I headed for the neighboring town in Chitré to meet with my other compadre, Arnulfo Escalona, an influential opposition leader. I casually dropped the incriminating Betamax tape in the glove compartment of my Ford Mustang, fully aware of the curfew but sure I could handle it, since the guards knew me well. When we came at the bridge separating the two towns, twenty soldiers nervously turned their weapons on us and demanded prompt identification. There were some tense moments, since they had been dispatched from the distant city of Colón and we had not been properly introduced. Luckily, it occurred to one of them to ask if I was the one with the jeep... I told him that, yes, I was the gringo with the jeep, and that defused the tension. They searched the car for a good three minutes, but could not find the glove compartment, conveniently located under the armrest. We proceeded to Chitré and Arnulfo was predictably shocked by the violent video... After placing a few feverish phone calls he resolved to leave his residence immediately. We smuggled him out under a blanket and he remained in hiding for a few days. Those were tough, but interesting times... The Panama of today is resolutely different and enjoys not only political but economical stability. Back then, Panama City was a small provincial town with a couple of unimpressive small buildings. Today, the skyline reminds you of Singapore and the nightlife of Manhattan.
In 1992, our family left for Miami, FL, which is a great city very close to the United States, as the oft-told joke goes. Two weeks later, Hurricane Andrew blew the roof off our new house. Seven years later, we moved to New York City. We were working and living close to the Towers and 9/11 struck a nerve. I started wearing one of those I (heart) NY buttons, which had suddenly caught a whole new meaning. As a direct consequence - blissfully oblivious of a few fiscal implications - I decided to become a Swiss-born US citizen. (Not an issue at all, except when Roger Federer was facing Andy Roddick.) I returned to Miami in 2004, to brush up on my Spanish, and joined two prestigious real estate companies, as a broker associate. Real estate was booming thanks to the banks, desperate to give away toasters and mortgages without income verification. (If you owned a dog, you had to keep him on the leash. Otherwise he would come back home with a mortgage). In 2005, the market started to decline after the arrival in short succession of Hurricane Katrina in August, Hurricane Rita (no relation) in September and Hurricane Wilma in October. (By the way, did you know there are no hurricanes in Panama?). In October 2007, when the market was rumored to have hit bottom, Rita called me from Panama asking for the millionth time why we couldn't buy an apartment in the city. I made her a deal: I would put our Miami home for sale, and if it would sell then we'd move back to Panama. There were 17 homes - identical to ours - that had been listed for months in our neighborhood, and so I did not expect my phone to ring off the hook. I got exactly two calls. The second caller, a gentleman from Venezuela fell in love with the house (the perks of being married to an interior designer). Two weeks later, the money was in the bank. Not a bad call, since the market fell off the cliff a few months later... I stayed in Miami to pack our two cars and a 40-foot container, while giving Rita carte blanche. Her mission was to buy an apartment and surprise me.
After talking to dozens of self-styled "agents" she ended up buying a new apartment in the neighborhood of San Francisco, which offered a good price-value ratio (it still does). She immediately proceeded with knocking down a few walls and turning a drab closed-space kitchen into a welcoming open kitchen. Unsurprisingly, I was pleasantly surprised. The purchasing experience was very instructive. The enterprising lady who professed to be a real estate agent limited her role to introducing my wife to the builder, and neglected to answer calls or emails after that, except to complain months later that the builder failed to pay the full commission she deserved. So that was the real estate tropical style I had heard so much about! I favored a more traditional approach and after passing the local real estate broker license, I started researching the best company in town. Only one met my requirements. I made an appointment with Frank Morrice, the manager-owner, showed up without a résumé and informed him point-blank that I had selected him to hire me. That was a brief job interview! It was hard at the beginning to work without the benefit of a Multiple Listing System (MLS) the indispensable tool I was so used to in Florida. Worse: I was told that in Panama, owners used to work with several agents at the time, without signing listing agreements, and that the majority of agents had no license, no experience and no sense of ethics. It was literally a jungle out there! I decided to go against the grain and apply the knowledge I had gathered in the U.S. For the last five years, I have only assumed the responsibility of "exclusive" listings, as they are called in Panama. I am pleased to report the bet paid off... After consistent nagging from my part (could there be a pattern?) Frank has taken upon himself to lobby ACOBIR, Panama's main Realtors association for the creation of a Panamanian MLS. His efforts have been rewarded: since January 2013, the full-fledged Panamanian MLS is accessible to the general public, as well as to professional agents.
I realize this is not the typical expat story, although I am a professional expat: after living in France, Italy, Argentina, Ivory Coast and Senegal, aside from Switzerland and the US, a stubborn accent quickly betrays my origins. Additionally, my two sons were born in Panama and I am reasonably fluent in Spanish, so I might be a tad biased, but I love this country. And you will too, if you choose to embrace it instead of expecting it conform to your own country's standards.