January 22, 2015

Help Your Expat Kids Thrive!


Thinking about moving overseas with kids? Your children can thrive in new & unfamiliar surroundings. Mine did. 

I wrote this book in response to questions from parents. Its hero is my youngest son William, who faced the hurdles of blending & growing in rural Central America with bravery, tenacity & style.

When we arrived in 2008, my son was only half way through the 3rd grade. Today, he has successfully finished 10th, & he moves easily between the two cultures & languages he embraces.

It wasn't a cakewalk. Not by a long shot.
But, was it worth it?
Yes. Yes. Yes. And you can do it too!

Read the first few chapters, FREE. You do not need a Kindle for these.

Read Reviews.

January 8, 2015

The Two Year School Itch -- Here We Go ... Again?

William, 3rd from left, on his 16th birthday with friends.
In my Panama life, change happens in twos. School that is. Just as I think we are  gliding on a smooth ramp heading toward the end of high school, two years off, Bam! Change. Every two years, without fail.

We bumpity-bumped our way through the fifth grade and then sailed through sixth, both at Instituto Guadalupano. When seventh grade rolled in, William wanted a change, so, after the first trimester, he announced he wanted to give full-time homeschooling a try.  I had strong suspicions that this would not be the best plan for him, but I agreed to give it a good "go."

Yippiee! ... not!  While I love to teach and love the challenge of putting classes together, this came, frankly,  at a rotten time. We had just -- and I mean just -- opened up our restaurant and were working at a frantic pace to build it up. Still, I figured I could school my son form 8am till noon, and then work the restaurant.

I spent copious hours carefully piecing together a plan for finishing up seventh grade. I purchased courses in Monarch, a division of Alpha Omega/Switched On Schoolhouse, out of Canada, because this was their program that was live-streamed and offered interactive testing and immediate results. Perfect for the active, kinesthetic learner! William could study geography and history and science, and even some English in this way, online.  There were also supplements I either purchased or designed with hands-on activities and reading.  I had Saxon Math, and Khan Academy for math back up and also for some art history. Plus, I had outlined detailed scheduled, beautifully color-coded, to keep us on a good track.

All this look perfect, as they say, on paper. But not so much when the real live kid came into the scene. It just went to hell in a hand basket, and in a heartbeat.  William is  highly social and it was obvious he missed the camaraderie of the classroom experience. I figured that one out  the day I came home and, entering our gate, dressed in white, I was completely startled right out of my high heels by an unexpected downpour of water from above. On my head. And my white clothing.

I looked up and there, on the roof, grinning down at me with a mixture of fear and glee, was my own little Tom Sawyer ... and an empty bucket where the water had been.
I got it.
He was bored.

So the next morning, early, I packed him up in a mini fury ( he was in blue jeans, not a uniform, which is standard here) and dropped him off at the closest school, a sweet evangelical school just blocks from both the house and the restaurant.

We are not evangelicals, but I figured that this was the least of my worries.  My son grumbled as he entered, announcing he would of course "hate"  it and would not stay, to which I responded with "I'll see you at 2 pm. And behave! You represent your family! Oh, and just don't come out Homophobic!"

When I pulled up at the end of the school day, I was met with a grinning preteen. "Mom, I love the kids here and I know most of them anyway ... and... I need to get my uniform!"

And there he remained for a full two years at Colegio El Buen Pastor school (a.k.a The God Squad School) right through the eighth grade. He also learned a bit of saxophone from an outstanding musical teacher we supported. Plus.. there was no bullying, well, at least not from the kids! After all, they have to behave like Jesus. And for the most part, they really did. So it was both a good choice and also... a blessing.

On the one morning  a week, when prayers that involved "laying on of hands" took place, I just kept my son home, with no fight from the excellent director. I never had to explain why.

After eighth grade, and as the high school years approached, it became clear that my son, now fully bilingual (in a rural Panama farming town way), was going to need to beef up his English. By this year, the fairly newish international school, Academia Internacional Boquete (AIB) had added upper grades and I reasoned they'd had some time to iron out the wrinkles of newness, so we enrolled him for the ninth grade.

Just recently, in December, 2014, he graduated in good standing from the tenth grade. I was absolutely delighted by the English teacher he had this year and hoped she would be staying on. And I hoped also that my son would feel completely settled at school.

Too much hoping going on! Alas, the two year curse is upon us, once again! For reasons that have little to do with the school, my son recently expressed serious interest in returning to the USA to finish out his remaining two years of high school.

He is hoping for more organized sports of his choice and I suspect missing family connections, old friends, and feeling a need for more than what a rural town has to offer a young man heading toward adulthood.  Part of this was expected: teens and small towns don't always mix well. And of course the desire for change is partly due to personality and his particular interests. Finally, it does factor in that in seven years in Panama, my son has collectively spent only about seven weeks in the USA. He is simply ready for a change.

So, like a good dance partner, I am ready to spin either way.  Neither my son's dad nor I wish to live in the USA for now, having fully adapted ourselves to the gentle pace of Boquete life. But we will work it out.

Years ago, the news of another big change would have sent me into a crazed, mommy tail spin. Today, I take it with a grain of salt, knowing that nothing stays the same, accepting there is only so much I can control.  And I trust that if  I wait and pray and have enough faith that eventually all things come right, there will be a practical solution.

So, what's next? Who knows? More adventure...

July 12, 2013

My Panama Park Whore?

“Parkour” is supposedly  a discipline that grew out of military obstacle course training, but which has developed into a new and dangerous loose sport of free running and building jumping.  

Just check out any Youtube channel and you’ll see hyper energetic kids, such as my nearly 15 year old, engaged in  mind-boggling and dangerous Parkour.

So tonight, he and his buddy fairly burst into the restauant, breathless with excitement and news.My kid lifts up his Tee Shirt to reveal a new wound on his side exclaims:

“Mom! Look what Parkour gave me!” 

I glance down and see a not too serious rash-like thing that looks, oddly, more like a large hickey.

And of course, all my Mom ears had heard was:
“Look what that Park Whore did to me!”  

I was up on my feet faster than you can swat a fly.  

And then, all of us,  my son, his friend, the customer I’d been sitting with and I,  laughed so hard at the language confusion until we nearly cried.

But hey, just to be safe... Watch out for those Park Whores, I say.

May 23, 2013

My Ongoing Panama School Saga

The ongoing saga of how to educate my expat kid in Boquete, continues. Ugh.
I try to remain fluid on this issue, but today, having now shot past five years with this dilemna, I just feel like a good whine. Or, in keeping with the "fluid" theme... a good Wine.

So much about education is driven not only by the school systems here, (mediocre at best,) which are for the most part antiquated, old school, copy-from-the-board, rigid rote learning before exams, followed by forget it all tomorrow, but also by the type of child you have.

In the best of the school,  there are classrooms that are utterly chaotic and teachers who scream at the top of their lungs. Sometimes they make the children cry.

In one of the schools we were previously involved with, I have heard credible accounts from parents and students alike of older teachers actually bullying middle school students.  And I have heard believable accounts of  teachers logging onto  Facebook during class, or being entirely absent from the classroom for hours.

For the moment, the jury is out on the newer school we are trying. I believe the have a true vision of bringing something new, more creative and expansive in the way of educatin to the Panama school system. So far, I do see improvements over issues we have experienced before, but they too suffer from some very strong challenges.  The trouble is, I'm running out of time. My kid was in 3rd grade when we arrived; now he has officially hit high school, and he has to be prepared to enter a decent University in four or five years.

God did not send me a timid girl content to sit in a corner and read for hours, or create her own fabulous journals and turn in meticulously carried out homework assignments. Nope.  God sent me a fantastic,   fidgety, fast-moving, fast-thinking, fun, fiesty and incredibly charming boy -- now a young man -- who has claimed, over a period of five years, to have nary a home work assignment. Meanwhile, the schools have claimed he has had homework nearly every single day.  Go to that math!

And still the kid gets decent grades, which causes me to wonder:   Is this ability to get by using the least amount of energy a sign of early genious? Or am I seeing glimpses of a future, slick, super smart bilingual,  border hustler.  Hmmm.

Oh! And did I mention? During one night, several months ago, someone, maybe my higher power, pressed the "Automatic Download" button and apparently a program (I'm calling it Gene14to the 10th power) streamed directly into my child's brain. In case you are not yet familiar, this is the gene that ignites, around age 14, and turns  your previously sweet, loving, considerate, fun, thoughtful boy into a suddenly a sleep-till-noon, sometimes snarky, teenager.

And still,  I love him more than air and water. What can I say?

Meantime, he is now enrolled in the 9th grade in the the newer private school which claims to have the best curriculum, and truly has a vision, (but which has mandated personal computers/laptops -- a personal hell, if I'm being honest), and which, despite a few positive changes, seems to offer little difference in teaching style and is navigating some common but difficult challenges particular to so-called bilingual education.  Many teachers are wrestling with the super struggles of having class with some fully bilingual students, but also many students  many in serious need of the most basic ESL. Other teachers are trying to manage really chaotic classrooms, leaving little time for real learning and a wake of frustration.

An easy solution for me would be to supplement at home, right? And I know families who do this and for whom it just fills in the right pieces. Alas,, not so easy with a kid who is burnt after 7 hours of sitting still-ish and now chomping at the bit to get on top of a soccer ball.  Switching to homeschooling could be a solution but, the last time I tried that, full steam, it was a month of three hours of head butting, eventually getting things done, and then my kid was ready to play with a group. Trouble is, the "group" were all at school!

Alas, I find myself, still, sitting most uncomfortably on a big fence. Which begs the question: What next?  To be continued...

October 28, 2011

My (Former) Panama Restaurant

For three and a half years, from March 31, 2011 until August 15, 2014, my then husband and I owned a restaurant in Panama. We started with a whole lot of ugly, to wit: horrible blue and yellow fast-food style picnic tables with fixed, metal seats. Ouch.  No artwork, no outdoor seating, and a tacky, reflex blue sign that came out all wrong.  It took so long to get all our approvals that we nearly closed our doors before we opened them.  We worked 20 hours a day, 7 days a week for the first year, at least.  Larry built a rustic porch and bar out back which became the popular spot to hang out and drink margaritas, enjoy fresh fish tacos, and watch the chickens hunt and peck.

Larry is a genius in the restaurant business and he knew super fresh fish would sell.  But that was a double-edged sword; he was saddled with with the unbelievably difficult task of obtaining -- on nearly a daily basis--  fresh, whole ocean fish, straight off the boats (hours away from our mountain village) and and personally portioning out hundreds of pounds of the stuff himself.  While we were never a good match in our matrimonial life, in business our skills sets made a perfect marriage.  Larry did the fish, all pricing and portions and training of kitchen staff.  I painted the walls and ceiling and even some of the artwork, I  typeset all the menus, handled all internet marketing, and trained all wait staff. We were just both good at our jobs and the division of labor was a good flow.

I used to pull folks off the street and seduce them with my sexy food talk. And at first, and for a long time, I prayed to achieve an average of 30 guests at the end of both lunch and dinner shifts, combined.  We began with the six ugly tables, one waitress and two kitchen helpers.  We ended with eight loyal employees and regular service for between 100-150 guests daily, off season, and between 200 and 250 per day in season. We were usually ranked number 2 of 53 restaurants, and that behind the number 1 spot, a fine bakery and not our competition. We were written up in both the Panama Moon Guide and The Lonely Planet with high compliments.  The restaurant became a sort of "Cheers" for Boquete's classiest, fun people, a great core local following. But much of our business came from Panamanians and travelers.

My life, and all the adventure and drama that comes with running a restaurant, happened at Big Daddy's Grill, Boquete. I could not blog about the hilarious and perilous events that occurred during those three-plus years. But now I can... And I have some tales!

Coming soon, My Panama Restaurant Chronicles.  Meantime, below is the original post used for advertising purposes, before Facebook & Trip Advisor became the go-to sites.   Big Daddy's has, after just days, taken on a new feel, look and will grow with the new owner.  Best to them!

Home of Boquete's Original,
Grilled Fish Taco

Fish so Fresh, it was swimming yesterday!

Best Hand-Crafted Margarita
Outrageously Good Buffalo Wings
A Delicious Selection of Grill Items

Double-Washed, Daily-Picked, Organic Salad
Vegetarian /Vegan Options
Gluten-Free Options

A Food-Safety Conscious Establishment
Home-Made, Fresh Local Ingredients
Prompt, Friendly Service
Outdoor Seating in our Garden Patio

PRICES:  $2 - $8.95  
(Whole, Fried Corvina at Market Price. Filet Mignon Dinner, $13.95)

CASH ONLY. No checks, no credit cards.
NOON - 9 pm Tuesday- Saturday
NOON - 8 pm Sunday

Questions re: Jubilado/Pensionado Restaurant Discounts? Click:  www.mypanamalife.com
    Grilled Fish Tacos
    Mr. & Mrs. Big Daddy,  William, 2011. (Missing Dylan.)

    Mimi's Whole Corvina w/Patacones & Slaw
    Ronni's favorite Chcken over Salad, Strawberry Dressing
    Grilled Fresh Dorado/Mani over Salad,Lemon Dressing
    Informal, festive, inside dining area.
    Filet Mignon Tacos, Monterrey Jack, Fresh Salsa Verde
      Grilled Amberjack on Hydroponic Salad

      Made with "LOVE & BUTTER" from Elizabeth's kitchen
      Fish Tacos w/Hand-Dipped Rings, Avacado-Chipotle + Fruity Pico de Gallo 
      Grilled, Blackened Tuna Filet Sandwich (L)..Cheeseburger (R) + Rings
      One-Day Special. Fresh Grilled Tuna Filet Salad atop Organic Salad
      Home-Made Citrus Ice Cream w/Fresh Strawberry Mandarin Topping
      Dayra, Jim Omer, Gisela & One 3-lb. Corvina!
      Jim, Boquete Outdoor Adventure. Numero Uno Fish Eater!
      Shrimp Tacos, Double Slaw
      Big Daddy's Grill, Boquete, purchases it's fish directly from the boats of Boca Chica, Pedregal. Never purchased frozen or pre-cut ... never farm-raised.

      Depending on the catch, varieties include:  Tuna; Snook; Amberjack; Swordfish; Dorado; Corvina; Pargo; Shrimp & more.

      Fish is served GRILLED or FRIED, as a Sandwich on a  Bakery Bun; atop a large, organic Salad, or as a Platter... with a choice of fresh sides.  We've been told by people who seek them out that our Grilled Fish Tacos are some of the tastiest! Sandwiches (Fish; Chicken Breast; Vegan) are ample & served on a bakery bun.  For something Very Panamanian, try the  Whole Fish "Entero" ...
      Our Fried Chicken is juicy and cooked to perfection! Corn Dogs & Onion Rings are hand-dipped. It's been said by many that Big Daddy's Grill has the Best Burger in town, served with a side of Pickles, LTM plus  Cole Slaw, Fries or Rice & Beans.  Our Grilled & Blackened Tuna Sandwich has become a local favorite.  Portions are ample so you never leave hungry!

      Whether you are Gluten Free, Vegan, Vegetarian or just a Healthy eater, we have several options for those who don't want to sacrifice taste for freshness! Our large Salad Platters are  Organic, Hydroponic & Double-Washed & SAFE.  Home-made dressings include Strawberry or Olive-Lime. Vegetarians can fill up on Salads, Delicious Vege Tacos or our own, Home-Made, Vegan Burger.

      Citrus Ice Cream is Home-Made, just for Big Daddy's, fresh, light & topped w/Elizabeth's Strawberry Sauce. 

      Big Daddy's is known for it's hand-crafted MARGARITA prepared with our own Home Made Sour Mix & Premium Liquors, including Cointreau & Jose Cuervo Tequila!

      Dine in the peaceful setting of a Panamanian non-smoking "Patio" (a.k.a. the Secret Garden), in our casual dining room, or, for a busy street side view, out on the front porch.


      Elizabeth's Hand-Pulled Chowder, Personal Loaf Bakery Bread

      Vegan Burgers on Bakery Bun (hidden), Black Beans & Rice

      Chayote Soup w/Saffron, Lemon Grass & Secret Spices

      Chris & Lindsey on her Birthday




      Rodrigo w/our Kitchen Staff & Me. He grows all our Hydroponic Salads!

      May 4, 2011

      Restaurant Chronicle 1. My Panama Porn Dogs

      Yes, dear reader,  I said "Porn Dogs."  So send the kiddies out for ice cream. This one's for you.

      We have a small restaurant in Panama and one of our most popular menu items are our hand-dipped Corn Dogs on a stick.  We figured that since Panamanians love "meat on a stick" and also corn meal, Corn Dogs just seemed a natural way to go.

      It's fun to watch people eat a Corn Dog for the very first time. It turns out, there is more than one way to down a dog.

      Some folks will slide the whole thing off the stick and eat it daintily  with a knife and fork, the way they'd tackle, say, a chicken breast. Others cut it up into little bits or chunks.  Then there are those who turn it on its side, holding it by the stick, and nibble away, Corn-on-the-Cob style.  And the there's the X-rated way of attacking a corn dog.

      I have a regular customer who loves our "Double Dog" basket.  He's an elegant, older gentleman, but when he's in front of those two puppies, he exclaims, every time and  with each bite "Wow! Elizabeth... Tell Larry this is one good corn dog!"

      I always sit with him when he come is, partly because he's elderly and alone and I adore him. . But also because I'm afraid he's going to kill himself in the process.  Every bite he takes becomes a brain-bleeding, nerve wracking moment because of the way he eats those pups.
      Rather than practice "safe" eating methods, he holds the thing by the stick and then just descends, plunges actually,  straight down on it in what I can only describe as 'deep throating the dog'... or what I now refer to fondly as eating it "Porn Dog" style.

      The visuals aside, the bigger problem is that every time he goes down on that dog,  he exposes more and more of the stick. But instead of sliding the remaining food upwards,  he just continues shoving that dog straight down his gullet, -- stick and all --  until I truly fear he is going to stab himself in the uvula.

      One day, sitting at the next table,  a gentleman, also with a Double Dog basket, called me over to say he hadn't realized the Corn Dogs had "bread" on them and he was on a low-carb diet, so could I please take them away and cut off the coating for him?  Okay people. I do aim to please my customers.  But I couldn't help notice that he was closer in age to sixty than to ten, and, wondering for a teensy weensy second if he was next going to ask me to cut up his food in pieces for him, I was tempted, just for a teensy, weensy, split  instant, to just deep throat those puppies and yank off that bread with my teeth.

      Instead, I smiled, stepped away, and happily, gently, even tenderly removed the corn meal with a knife and fork.  Very respectable.

      April 20, 2011

      My Panama Life At My Doorstep

      My Panama Life happens right outside my front door.

      The Balboa Beer Truck

      The Taylors Drive By, Christmas, 2010

      A Bird In Hand

      Band Practice, Buen Pastor School

      Miguel, the Fish Guy

      Katy in the Middle

      Graduation Day, on to Middle School!

      G' Night, Horse.

      News About The Boys

      Mrs. Bliss told us there is a caterpillar here that is pink and fuzzy, and, if you touch it, its fur will stick in your skin and sting you! This happened to her daughter, Aylana. It was very painful and they had to pull the fibers out using tape! There are also scorpions and snakes, but I think there are more poisonous snakes in Florida.

      William is busy, busy. In the morning he does his home schooling (Dad is his teacher!). Then, around 9:00 he rushes happily off to the local, Catholic, Spanish-only school where he audits the 4th grade! He's been doing some skim boarding but we are seriously missing the skating. Surfing looms in the near future. For a change we finally have kids on our street to play with, (not to mention dogs and roosters, snakes, toads, etc.) and it is wonderful making new friends. Still, William really misses his friends and family back in Sarasota. It's wonderful to get messages from the folks back home.

      We send a special "Hello How Are Ya?" back to Nolen, Max, Connor, Emily W. and Teah!

      Larry is Mr. Handy! Between homeschooling and making repairs on the house, he is never without something to do. And we have gone from never seeing him, to having him around all the time. Hmmmmmm.....

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