The Vertical Village


They are called The Window, Oasis and El Tornillo (“The Screw“) – Panamanians are very creative in choosing names for the recently built highstorey-buildings in their capital. A report from one who was raised on the countryside and who now calls a 60-storey building her home. One of the reasons why this blog is called “Exploring a new world“

I never wanted to live in a high-storey building.

I am spoilt, I admit. Having grown up in a two-storey house, surrounded by a vast garden, cowbells ringing softly from the grasslands behind the house, weighing me asleep and all this immerged in the delicious perfume of fresh cut hay. I imagined nothing to be more unnatural than sharing one house with dozens, or let alone, with hundreds of people who didn’t know each other at all. As a kid, I even felt pity for those in my class who had to live in a 4-storey-building! On the other hand, most of them had a TV in their bedroom – but technical revolution at our home is another issue not to be spread here.

TV or no TV – I never would have changed with them.

I loved my small world. But all of a sudden, my teenage years arrived, and all at once there were sacrifices which life on the countryside demanded: going out no matter at what time, going shopping around the clock and listening to the sound of highways and techno music instead of those cowbells. I really wanted the other extreme! So I escaped after my graduation from school, first to Rome and San Francisco, and then to Berlin.

Wherever I lived, though, I have always tried to find an apartment in a green neighborhood –be it in Berlin, San Francisco or Padua, Italy. Of course, I had got stamped by my nature-soaked childhood. And, to come back to that TV set issue, since I always spend most of my life outside the apartment working, going out or being in the nature, I never (with the exception of two years) had a TV. And the highest floor I ever lived on was the 4th.

Well, I am living on the 40th floor right now, with 20 more floors above my head. And, guess what, the apartment comes with a big flatscreen TV in the bedroom. I don’t even know how many channels I have because I just don’t have the time to watch it. It is far more interesting to watch and meet my new neighbors.

To be honest, it wasn’t really my choice to move here, I have to say. After this introduction, one can imagine. When I knew in what neighborhood where we were going to be living in Panama City (“it is only for the first year“ – “What, for an entire year?!“) I actually repeated to my husband my vow from childhood: “I never wanted to live in a skyscraper!” – well, let’s not discuss where the “sky“ begins or ends and where things could “scrape“ on it. Of course, it is not literally a skyscraper – but when arguing I like to put things clearly.

In the end, my resistance was not really heavy. I was actually even curious to see how this vertical life really was. This will be part of the experience, I told myself.

The first weeks were tough, though.


Having always been an independent and working woman, I came to Panama without a job – but with somewhat of a 24/7 task taking care of a one-year-old.

And, yes, I got an idea of what anonymity and isolation mean in this absurd situation of living with lots of people next door and not knowing anybody. And when we met, people wouldn’t talk to me. A phenomenon I know well from my good old villagers in my hometown of 2000 inhabitants: Everyone who enters this little social organism at first is a suspect.

In the meantime I have learned that most Panamanians think at first sight: this “gringa“ doesn‘t even speak a word of Spanish, so don’t waste time and just ignore her.

But then I have this cute little someone on my side who shouts “Hola“ to just everyone – repeatedly, if they wouldn’t listen the first time: to the cleaning ladies, cash tellers, taxi drivers on the streets included (even with windows closed!). So that’s when everyone’s faces melt and conversations get started. Just like in my village back home. Children are one huge door opener. And Spanish, of course. After five weeks, people greeted us aloud in the supermarket, and I knew all people who frequent the “Area Social“ of our building. I also know people from the buildings next door. And I learned all sorts of gossip going around (or better: up and down) our building – the “who is who“ and the “who is with whom“ alike! Just that all the stories are not shared over the fence but in the elevator or in the area social.

Today, my life in a high-storey building is everything else but anonymous or isolated. Of course, it can be (and it was, fortunately just for a short time). But apparently, not in Panama: Sometimes it takes me twenty minutes and more to find my way to the exit just because of all the small talk on my way.

Of course, I had to slow down a lot. I used to walk long distances in Berlin, enjoying the forests and the parks there or riding my bike wherever I wanted. Here, I have to do everything by car because, particularly with a stroller, you often just cannot use those bumpy stripes I would not call side “walks“ but rather side-hobbles.

But I like this almost rural community of otherwise anonymous individuals in my vertical village.

Of course, nature is truly the factor I miss in PC. But there is some nature; you just have to look out for it a bit. Every morning I wake up watching the pelicans catch their breakfast. Those often who are done pass perfectly satisfied right on the height of my window. And then, this morning coming back from that little oasis of Parque Omar, I passed those young ladies outside our building. They were chatting along while they were taking their dogs out. And at that very moment I somehow felt a well known warm feeling like a hug: Welcome home!