Obarrio, Panama City, from above
I’ve noticed that slightly changing the way you say certain things can really help you get things done here in Panama. For example, I was in McDonald’s one night. My kids had already hit the play area so there I was waiting in line behind about fifteen people at the one open register. When I finally got to the counter and started to order, I found the attendant staring at me with a dumbfounded expression on her face. I ordered the Happy Meal again, which here is called a Cajita Feliz (prononuced caheeta fayleez), con Mcnuggets.
“Que?” the lady asked me.
“Mcnuggets,” I replied.
I looked up at the sign once more to make sure they did in fact spell it the way we do in the States. They do. So I didn’t get what she wasn’t getting. I said it again, but tried to give it a Latin twist. Finally she said, “Ahhhh, macnoooogets.”
I laughed, nodded my head, and said, “Yes, maaaaacnooooogets.”
See, if I’d known the Panamanian way to order, I could’ve avoided all that wasted time.
I’ve found that Panamanians have a hard time pronouncing my name, which back home I thought was one of the easiest, most common names ever invented. My name’s Christopher. Sounds simple enough. The security guard at my brother-in-law’s condo doesn’t seem to find it all that easy. I’ve been called everything you can think of. One of the conversations I had with the poor guy still makes me giggle. He asked my name, so I told him, and this is what I heard in return.
“No, Christopher,” I replied.
“Ah, que? Lucifer?”
I shit you not. The guy called me Lucifer. I just busted out laughing. At that point I couldn’t even say my own name. It took him a second, but then finally he started laughing too when he heard me repeat Lucifer and keep laughing.
“Creeeestoooofffare,” I finally managed to spit out while cracking up.
“Oh Creeestoefare,” he said.
I was at dinner one night with my wife and our friends Dennis and Christie, an awesome couple we met in Pedasi. We were at Playa Venao, at a restaurant called El Sitio, one of the hottest places in all of Panama (hot meaning cool…meaning a great place) and Dennis wanted me to meet the general manager (who I think is also one of the owners), a guy named Assaf. The waiter spoke English…sort of. Dennis leaned over and said, “Is Assaf in?”
The waiter just looked at him like he had no idea what Dennis was asking.
“Assaf,” Dennis repeated. “Is Assaf around? Can we talk to Assaf?”
The waiter still didn’t understand.
Dennis looked back at me and at his wife and at my wife and just kind of shrugged, like “help me out guys.”
I didn’t know what to say. Dennis had mentioned that Assaf was the boss so you’d think the waiter would recognize the name right away, no matter what language we were speaking.
“Assaf,” Dennis said again, trying to stay friendly, but it was clear he was about to get rude.
Finally, my wife leaned over and asked him in Spanish if Assaf was available to chat. She said his name the exact same way that Dennis had said it. The waiter’s face lit up. He finally understood.
“Asssaaaaf,” the waiter said.
The look on Dennis’s face was priceless. He went slack jawed and just kind of threw his hands in the air.
“Is that not how I just said it?” he asked.
I thought the beer I was drinking was gonna shoot out my nose. I lost it. I knew exactly how he felt. I’ve lived here 3 years…you’d think I’d have caught on to these little tricks by now, but I’m still learning that drawing out your words can sometimes make a big difference.
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