Monday, October 31, 2011

a rainy Halloween

Halloween isn't officially celebrated here in Panama. In fact there is a politician trying to get a law passed preventing Halloween from being celebrated in the schools (I don't know which schools celebrate Halloween-it is certainly not that common). He claims it is unchristian and un-Panamanian--whatever, this is just political dissembling with some patriotic pretension. We, like many Panamanians, go to a private party.

We have friends that live in a gated community that invite us to their Halloween celebration every year. There are costume contests, games and all kinds of treats. My kids love it and look forward to it. Unfortunately, the rain never let up enough for much trick or treating but we had fun anyway.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 28, 2011

5 observations and last minute brownies

  1. Watching groups of kids dance elaborate, and impressively costumed routines will make you happy. There's nothing like seeing the usually shy kid, or even better the sullen kid, totally and joyfully get down with the group. The comparsa is a long-standing tradition at schools here in Panama. In my kids' school grades six to twelve participate in comparsas. Each grade prepares a dance routine for a competition. It's usually a mix of hip hop and latin. The parents for each grade all wear the same colour (they're called the 'barra') and try to cheer the loudest (including whistles and air horns) for their group. It's really fun and you can see how comfortable the kids get with the dancing by twelfth grade.
  2. I'm not much for make-up, but I do enjoy a pretty manicure. If we ever get invited anywhere remotely fancy I get a manicure. It might be incongruous with my bare face and messy hair, but I am a sucker for a pretty nail colour.
  3. Teaching can be kind of political. A student asked my why I was teaching firefighter instead of fireman. I said, because a firefighter could be woman. He looked at me knowingly and said, ah you're a feminist. I actually teach it this way to introduce the verb "to fight," but whatever.
  4. Running has been so good since the half marathon. I've been maintaining 30 km a week and it's just been fun and easy. I think I'm finally feeling the benefits of months of training.
  5. I love this video. It's not my favourite song on the album (I have way too big of a rock and roll crush on Carrie Brownstein for that). Spazzing out in outfield--I can totally relate to that (except I'd never catch the ball).

I have somehow given my daughter the impression that home baking is effortless. And thus, I found myself at 11:00 pm, scrounging through my fridge and cupboards for ingredients. She wanted brownies (well actually she wanted cupcakes but settled for brownies). I had enough flour, butter and eggs but no sugar, only powdered sugar and an odd assortment of chocolate (semi-sweet, unsweetened and a couple of tablespoons of cocoa).  I also found a bag of marshmallows. I figured I could add some marshmallows to sweeten things up--you're supposed to double the amount of powdered sugar when you use it in place of regular sugar.
Here's the original recipe:

These are cakey rather than fudgy. In my experience, kids prefer them like this.

1-½ cups flour
½ teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoons salt
⅔ cups butter
1-½ cup sugar
4 Tablespoons milk
2 packages semi-sweet chocolate chips (12 Ounce Packages)
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 eggs

Preheat oven to 325F.
Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl and mix to combine. In a large saucepan, melt the butter with the sugar and water. Bring just to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in one package of the chocolate chips and the vanilla extract. Whisk in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Slowly blend in the flour mixture, and then add the remaining package of chocolate chips.
Pour into a greased 9×13 pan and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

So, I made this with 12 ounces of chocolate (four ounces were semisweet, the rest was unsweetened and cocoa) and two cups of powdered sugar. I folded in two cups of cut up marshmallows. They turned out great.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

beauty parlour

I got a haircut yesterday. I just walked into a salon a few blocks from my house. There was a woman getting a manicure, another women having her hair blow-dried (a blower they call it-- one of my favourite Anglicisms) and a local morning show was on the TV in the corner. It was noisy and gossipy and it made me (awkward and unkempt) as uncomfortable as it usually does. The woman who cut my hair did a great job. I left relieved and thinking about beauty.

When I was nineteen I had a beauty epiphany. I was treeplanting at the time. This means I was living in a tent, in a camp, in the remote wilds of Canada. Showers, when they were working, were makeshift and neither private, nor hot. The only mirror I saw was on the truck. There was no place for a beauty regime in this setting. Yet the women were beautiful, really beautiful. This of course is obvious to me now, we were twenty and fit and tan--it's kind of what beauty is in our society. But at the time I was so surprised.

I started wearing make-up as a teenager and had just assumed it was necessary to look good. I really didn't think I could go out in public without make-up. I remember one morning when I was in high school, I had slept in, and had to go to school without make-up. I was so uncomfortable and embarrassed all day. That's why seeing beauty without make-up in a treeplanting camp was an epiphany. It changed my life: I stopped wearing make-up. I still don't wear much make-up (if any). That is not to say I don't care about my appearance, I just don't see the need to spend a lot of time on it. I am also not a frequent visitor to the beauty salon. Actually I'm the opposite.

I get a hair cut a couple of times a year. Sometimes I cut it myself. In Panama there are beauty salons every couple of blocks. It is not uncommon for a Panamanian woman to have regular weekly visit to the salon. Salons here are busy places, full of women getting their regular manicure or straightening. While I am pretty secure about my appearance, this aspect of Panamanian culture unnerves me. I speak Spanish passably well, but I don't speak beauty parlour at all. It's a good thing that the women who work in salons here are so gracious and unflappable, or I would never be brave enough to get my hair cut.

I admire Panamanian women. They are so often impeccable, matching everything, jewelry and heels. It honestly impresses me. But it is also very foreign to me. My daughter skinned her knee at school the other day and the teacher told me it would fine and that she would stil be able to be Miss Universe. Weird right? and weirder, it's not the first time someone said that to me. Last year when she cut her leg someone said the same thing. A Miss Universe title is about the last thing I would want for my daughters. But beauty is valued here in a way I'm not used to (and that totally baffles me) and this is why I'm so uncomfortable in the beauty salon. It is unknown territory.

I'm probably going to have to learn to speak beauty parlour.

Friday, October 21, 2011

5 observations and a recommendation rather than a recipe

representing Canada and looking a little dishevelled (what exactly was going on backstage)

  1. I'm pretty good at managing things on my own. My husband has been away on business all week and it's been fine. Well, until this morning when I couldn't find my keys. Houses here have security gates so you're not just locked out, you're also locked in. I wish I could say I kept my cool but, oh my god what if there's a fire! We found the keys of course, but not before I had worked up a good anxiety sweat.
  2. I invented a national costume for Canada. My kids' school celebrates United Nations Day and has a parade showcasing national costumes. So my kids were tapped to represent Canada. I told the organizers that there wasn't really a national costume. They didn't believe me so I invented one. I don't feel bad about this; the little girl representing England dresses up as the queen, and I saw a kid going into the school in a toga and laurel crown (Greece?).
  3. My youngest daughter does not feel particularly Canadian. She doesn't like International Day. She was born in Costa Rica and has never lived in Canada, so it's weird for her. She doesn't like it when people ask her where she's from. She used to say Costa Rica because she was born there. But she can't remember living in Costa Rica so that doesn't feel right to her either. She really would have preferred to wear a Panamanian costume like the rest of her classmates today. 
  4. The Graveyard Book is fantastic. We are loving this book so much. It is just the right amount of scary according to my eight-year-old. She is fascinated by the graveyard universe in this book and frankly, so am I. I'm glad we are reading it before the inevitable Hollywood adaptation.
  5. This is good. Feist sings "Undiscovered First" in the back of a London cab:

Instead of a recipe I have a recommendation. Make chocolate chip cookies on a rainy weeknight and eat them warm out of the oven with your silly, giggling children. Just use the recipe on the back of the bag of chocolate chips. You will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I have two daughters. There is four years between them, but they are close. I'm pretty sure that they are closer than they would have been had they grown up in Canada. As an expat family we are all close. We don't have extended family or even a tight circle of friends. I was registering the girls for next-year's school year, and I had to think for a minute for an emergency contact. It's mostly just us.

They sleep in the same room even though they have their own rooms. They have their own short-hand and sister language that is connected to English, and is related to the books and movies we read and watch. These are books and movies that their friends don't read or watch. It's like our family has it's own culture, with its own references and language.

Their connection seems deeper than just sisters, I feel like they face the world together. They bicker and tease of course. There is no shortage of door slamming if they are fighting. But still, there is a closeness between them that is beyond sisterly love. They look out for each other; they explain the worlds to each other. There is the world outside our door where we are foreigners, and there is the world that is our family.

It is an unexpected consequence of expat life, this closeness. And I am grateful for it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

rainy day contemplation

It's rainy and damp and first thing in the morning it feels as cool as it ever gets here in Panama City. We didn't even get to the park on the weekend because it was just too wet. It is contemplative, taking stock kind of weather.
I've been cleaning out closets and cupboards.  The musty mouldiness is not kind to clothes and papers and I need to go through and cull stuff regularly. In this climate there is no point in keeping anything you don't need. I like this about the tropics, it forces you to keep the junk at a minimum (which I could be better at--I don't think I dislike anyone enough to give them a Christmas gift in a mouldy gift bag from last year).
I hate throwing things out. The best solution would probably to bring less stuff in. I think about it when I am buying things. Do I really need this? Will I ever actually wear this? But I need to do better judging from the amount of stuff I got rid of this weekend.

Friday, October 14, 2011

5 observations and vanilla cupcakes


  1. The hem of my jeans is always wet these days. The streets of Panama do not favour walkers at the best of times and when it's wet like this, it's pain to have to walk anywhere.
  2. Clearly our rabbits are male and female (we couldn't tell before). So far I haven't found a vet who will fix them. This means we will have to get another cage and separate them and this makes me sad because they are pals.
  3. This last season of Breaking Bad was good. I just watched the finale and thought it was one of the best episodes of the season. I really appreciate the careful plotting of this show. The acting is good, but it's the writing that really impresses me.
  4. Hot black coffee with something sweet is one of the great pleasures in life. I fell in love with coffee all over again while enjoying a cupcake the other day. I don't eat many sweets and I've cut back on coffee and it was amazing how much pleasure this little indulgence gave me. I don't really miss sweets and coffee (I really feel better without them). But this particular cupcake and cup of coffee were heavenly.
  5. I like this song.  I didn't so much at first, but it has grown on me:

The most impressive thing I did in the kitchen this week was the birthday cupcakes. I really liked this recipe and the one bowl technique. I can't get cake flour here, so I just used the whitest all-purpose I could find an the texture was very nice. The recipe comes from Martha Stewart. Make sure you watch the video and see a fellow who is very enthusiastic about cupcakes!

Billy's Vanilla Cupcakes

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Twelve years old (how did that happen?)

My older daughter turned twelve yesterday. It was a good day.  I made many vanilla cupcakes to take to school. The tradition at our school is for the parents to dash in with a cake at lunch recess (it's only twenty minutes) and sing happy birthday with the kid's class. It's a nice tradition for middle of the week birthdays. After school she had quite a bit of homework, but she did it without complaining (I cannot say the same for her sister who complained quite a lot about her own homework). Then we went out for sushi. Even though it seemed kind of uneventful, she said it was her best birthday yet. I adore that child.

The books and stuff I ordered for her just arrived today.  So when she gets home I get to give her Jacob Have I Loved, which was my favourite book as a girl, and season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I'm not sure who will be more pleased (it might well be her silly mother).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Kiwanis park on Sunday

We had a rather rainy weekend in Panama City but we did mange to get out for some biking/running/walking in Kiwanis Park in Clayton.  I'm encouraging the girls to get stronger and faster on their bikes so we can all go for a long ride once the dry season starts.  They don't get tons of opportunity to ride but, they are both getting stronger.

The park was lovely, and green and not too hot, and their were millions of fireflies in the grass when it got dark.

Friday, October 7, 2011

5 observations and chocolate muffins

the road ahead

  1. I love reading to my kids.  Sometimes I'm lazy and slow to get there but it's the best.  We are finishing The BFG and are going to start the The Graveyard Book next.  We started The Graveyard Book once before but the opening scene is so scary we stopped.  My younger daughter loves stories about ghosts so we're planning to try again (maybe we'll skip/skim the murder scene).
  2. This is probably the last time I'll have to drill the multiplication tables.  My youngest is on the threes this week (why is 3x9 so particularly hard?).  I don't really enjoy math flash cards, but this is it so I should enjoy it (or something).
  3. My almost twelve year old cannot seem to get enough sleep.  It's freaky how tired she is (I keep getting paranoid that she's sick).  I read somewhere once that adolescents actually need more sleep (contrary to their love of staying up late) because of growth and hormones and I can totally see that.
  4. My cats do love me after all.  I was lamenting the other day how little my cats like to be held and snoodled, but then I noticed that they're always around.  They seem to like to like to  hang around me (laundry, bathroom, kitchen, wherever), they just don't like to be touched very much.
  5. Laura Marling is totally impressive (can you believe that she is just 21?).  I like her new album and have really enjoyed hearing her interviewed lately.  But this song from her last album is still my favourite:

This week's recipe is for chocolate muffins.  This is what my kids request when they want something fresh-baked.  I oblige them because this is so simple and fast and I usually have all the ingredients on hand.  I sometimes do half quinoa flour to improve it nutritionally.  My kids could do this recipe on their own and next time I'll likely let them.  Also, even though it's not a huge recipe, there's always left-overs for the lunch boxes.

Chocolate Muffins
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 heaping tablespoons cocoa powder
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (save 1/4 cup for sprinkling)
1 cup milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 400°.  Line 12 muffin cups with papers.

Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa, sugar (sift, if your kitchen is as humid as mine), and 3/4 cup of the chocolate chips into a large bowl. Mix all the liquid ingredients into another bowl. Mix the dry and wet ingredients together.  Don't overmix. Spoon into the prepared muffin pan. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup chocolate chips on top and then bake for 20 minutes or until the muffins are springy.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


origami mobile

I've been busy with some of my teacher responsibilities this week. There have been grades to hand in and also recommendation letters. I don't get asked too often to write recommendations, so it's really a pleasure rather than a burden.  I've had the privilege to teach some really smart kids and I like to have the opportunity to tell the world how great they are.

Last year a student asked me for a letter for some activity he was hoping to participate in. This was a smart kid, and not just test smart, but an actual deep thinker. Also quiet. Some teachers complained he didn't participate enough in class, which I never minded (I always knew I could count on him for an answer when his classmates were faltering). Quiet people are punished sometimes and I think there's actually a shortage of quiet observers in this world (and way too many people running off at the mouth, and way too much value given to said verbosity). Anyway, I was happy to write a letter for him. Once I had the letter, I wasn't sure of the protocol for getting school letterhead etc.. and I went to my department head. She told me what I needed to do, and told me to make sure I sealed the envelope before I gave it to the student. I did this and have regretted it ever since. He deserved to see the letter! He's a brilliant kid totally deserving of my praise. I decided after to give him a copy of the letter, but I didn't get the chance. It seems so stingy and it still bugs me.

This time I'll make sure the kids get to read my recommendations.  And I really can't imagine why they shouldn't.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Gamboa 21k

Heading down to the start in the rain
So I finally ran my much anticipated 21k on Sunday.  It rained the entire race.  Which seemed bad at first when I got out of the car, and seemed worse as I stood in line for the portable toilet, and dreadful as we all stood milling around, soaked to the skin, waiting for the race to start (6:30 start time was delayed to 7:00 because of the rain).  But it was totally fine. In fact it was great--I don't think I've ever enjoyed running more.
It was so cool, and green, and beautiful.  The rain was not torrential, but steady and the scenery on the course was spectacular. The jungle along the canal is gorgeous and the rainy misty weather only made the greens more intense.  The rain also kept the temperature down and I found that I felt much better than I had during any of the past sunny races.  Between the verdant gorgeousness that surrounded me and the refreshing rain, I enjoyed the run immensely.
My final time was 2:20.  Maybe not as fast as I would like, but probably not so bad for my first time.
finish line
So now I can cross half marathon off my 2011 to-do list and move on to the next thing.  A Panamanian driver's licence.  This will probably be harder for me than the half marathon.  I am afraid of driving and I haven't driven in the last fifteen years.  Panama is a driving city and my life will be better if I drive... but I dread it.