Monday, January 01, 2007

Hi, I'm Here For My Panetone

Since Peruvians don't celebrate Thanksgiving (or Halloween really), around mid-October Christmas was definitely in the air in Lima. Decorations went up in stores and offices, Christmas trees and other paraphernalia went on sale, Christmas themed commercials hit the airwaves and the phenomenon that is the Panetone slowly started to creep into our periphery. The Panetone is a not as tasty incarnation of the fruit cake...I know what you're thinking, "not quite a good as a fruit cake! how is this possible?" Okay, I know some of you out there like fruit cake (admittedly, I had some this year for the first time in a long time and it was definitely better than I remember), but I am using the fruit cake reference to demonstrate where on the scale of delicious desserts the Panetone falls, i.e. near the bottom. The Panetone is about 10 inches tall, 10 inches across and usually weighs 1 kilo (2.2 lbs.). It is not as dense as a fruit cake and comes in several varieties, chocolate chip, almond, orange flavored, but the most common has pieces of red and green candied fruit and raisins. The first time I remember being really aware of the Panetone was while watching a commercial about a little boy who helps his mother slice the family Panetone. He insists they slice it into 9 pieces. She looks around the room and takes a mental count of everyone present (8 people) and confused by his request asks him why nine? He starts counting all the people who need a piece (I remember the commercial vividly partially because we saw it many, many times and partially because I have mastered my numbers in Spanish so I could follow along). He counts the 8 people in the room and then points to the "watchiman" standing outside the window as the ninth. She smiles, happy music plays, the end. Let me digress here and take some space to dicuss the watchiman.

A watchiman (and yes, that is the correct spelling in English and Spanish) is a person, usually male, who is something like a security guard. I say 'something like', because many standard in need of security places like apartment buildings, banks, stores, embassies etc. have actual security guards. The watchiman is something entirely different and they are everywhere, literally. For example, you decide to go to a restaurant or a bakery or a mercado or a deserted beach or basically anywhere, you pull into the parking lot and out of nowhere appears a person often with a brightly colored rag in hand to guide you into the parking lot (because it might be your first time) and to, as you get out of the car, point, with the first two fingers on his hand first to his eyes and then to your car, a gesture which means, I'm sure, "don't worry, should the hoodlums that we both know are everywhere in this city decide to break into your car tonight, I will be here to protect it, after all, I am the watchiman!" Secure in the knowledge that you are safely in the hands of the watchiman, you go on about your business. And, all the watchiman asks in response for this samaritanesque service is one nuevo sol (roughly 32 cents), really not a bad trade. We have a watchiman on our block as well, his name is Alberto and he is employed by the neighborhood to, well, watch. He is always out there, on the corner, looking not so fierce, but apparently fierce enough to keep danger at bay.

Now that we have dispensed with one Peruvian phenomenon, let us return to the story of the Panetone. A couple of weeks after we started seeing the watchiman Panetone commerical, we got our weekly newsletter from the Embassy containing a section dedicated to bonuses for household staff. Our regular followers will recall that we have a maid, and we have since added a gardener, Julio, who comes once a week to tend our rather small yard. So, with them in mind we carefully read the section on what to do about Christmas bonuses and discovered the following. By law (why it can still be called a bonus since it is legally mandated I don't know, but then, this is a country where it is illegal not to vote, so sometimes we just don't ask questions), maids must receive half of one month's pay as a Christmas bonus and the same again in July. However, if the maid has not worked for you for at least a year, you don't have to give them anything. The same applies to vacation time. They get all holidays off, but they cannot take time off until they have been employed for a year. We opted to give a bonus in spite of the law. After the laws about bonuses were explained, there was a final sentence which said, "Panetones should be given to maids, gardeners, drivers, nannies, etc." So, foolish person that I am, I thought, we have a maid and a gardener, we'll buy two Panetones and that will be that. Off I went to the store to purchase our two Panetones not at all prepared for the over 20 varieties available for purchase. This 3 block from the house errand took me nearly an hour as I stood in the grocery store staring at the different colored boxes wondering which were good or bad, which they would be happy with and which would be the source of an anecdote about the crazy foreign Senora, why some cost 20 soles and others 70 soles and on and on and on. I finally decided on a red one and a blue one (I am of course referring to the color of the boxes, I felt very much like I do when I make my picks for March Madness -- everyone knows that red and blue uniformed teams always fare better than pansy green or yellow ones!). I came home, gave the gardener his Panetone and put the maid's away until Christmas, mission accomplished...or not! The next day, the maid informed me that the bottled water delivery men had come to bring new water and on their way out asked where their Panetones were? What, the water guys? That wasn't in the newsletter! The following day she informed me that the neighborhood watchiman stopped by and said, "Hi, I'm here for my Panetone." I can only imagine her embarrassment having to explain to these men that we didn't have any Panettones for them and that, being the crazy Americans that we are, this was unlikely to change. So, I asked her, would others be by? Would there be more instances of "Hi, I'm here for my Panetone?" I could tell she didn't know what to say, but after some coaxing she finally admitted that yes, the street sweeper would be expecting one and the garbagemen, and potentially the mailman and really we should just go buy a case of them because that was how it was done and Christmas was just a few days away. A case of Panetones?!?!? But, what choice did we have, I mean, "Hi, I'm here for my Panetone", a statement like that was either unbelievably brazen or utterly commonplace and it was becoming increasingly clear that it was the latter and that we were the brazen ones. So we dutifully went to the store (3 days before Christmas, something we try never to do) and bought a case of Panetones. We stood in line to check out surrounded by other shoppers confidently and wisely stocking up on Panetones. We looked around the store mesmerized by the towers, the walls, the rows of Panetones. We took pictures of the mountains of Panetones (the pictures really cannot convey the volume of Panetones on display, every aisle had Panetones on the ends, in the middle, on the top stretching up to the ceiling, it was astonishing!). We stared open-mounthed at the people loading their carts with multiple cases, that's right CASES of these things. And slowly but surely we watched as thousands of Panetones all over the city were purchased and distributed to maids, car washers, teachers, party hosts, gardeners, nannies, friends, neighbors and the ubiquitous watchiman. Hi, I'm here for my Panetone indeed.


Lilita said...

so where is my panetone, huh? heehee! Rachael Ray makes bread pudding out of leftover panetone, in case you ended up with some of your case, though it sounds like you just might not have! Love the random traditions of our other countries of residence: the christmas goat, the barbed wire across the road to catch you on the day of the dead, the panetone racket, great fun all!

Natalie C. said...

Linsey, this was hilarious. I find myself thinking of this story in the middle of the day & cracking up. :)

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the above comments; this is quite the entertaining story! I will now remember that when I move to another country I need to diligently seek out the "cultural norms" not so normal to me :)


Anonymous said...

linsey this was AWESOME!!!! i have to admit i'm a little sad i missed the christmas peruvian panatone madness having been there in the summer... man oh man... and your description of the watchiman was perfect!!! they have those guys in mozambique too... every house has a barefoot, unarmed watchiman... but strangely i think i did feel a lot safer!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I want you to follow up to this topic :P


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