Monthly Archives: April 2010

Making “Short-Term” Aliyah (Immigration) to Israel

It was fall 1982, and I was glancing through the Chronicle of Higher Education when I happened upon an article about teaching shortages at Israeli universities. All able-bodied citizens must serve in the Israeli Defense Forces for at least two years. Following active duty they enter the reserves until age fifty-one and may be called up each year for a maximum of thirty-nine days. University faculty who have completed their regular tour of duty often meet this responsibility during summer months when regular school is not in session, and the story documented the problem Israeli universities had offering summer classes since many of their staff were serving in the armed forces. The shortages were especially acute in engineering, medicine, business, and computer science (emphasis mine).

The Givat Ram Campus of Hebrew University, Jerusalem Where I Worked For Three Months

Light bulbs popped! Trumpets blared! The article may have been published in a newspaper perused by thousands, but I felt like it was speaking directly to me. Most Chronicle readers would barely notice this tiny feature story buried at the bottom of page 23, and those that did would likely not appreciate its potential for generating an all-expenses paid working vacation. That is exactly what I meant about being tuned in to the hidden travel clues lurking all around. Working vacation invitations do not announce “WE WANT YOU” in 36-point type; instead, they are often couched within stories or casual discussions that require you to uncover and reveal their underlying opportunities.

I showed the article to my wife who was ready to dig out her passport and start packing immediately. Israel was particularly attractive as a destination because of our heritage–many Jews dream of going to Israel in the same way that Irish-Americans hope to walk the emerald green sod of Eire. Teaching in Israel would give my family an opportunity to spend months learning about the country and its people rather than simply whizzing past tourist attractions for a week or two.

I emailed my resume, references, and courses I was qualified to teach to the Chair of Computer Science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I soon received the following terse but positive response:

You are hired and will be paid $X for teaching course Y as well as $Z in
travel reimbursement. If these terms are acceptable please report to the
Computer Science office on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew Univ. in Jerusalem
on the morning of June 5, 1983. Thank you.

So much for “I’ll meet you at the airport,” “Let me help you find a place to live,” or even “I cannot wait to meet you.” However, unknown to us at the time, Israel turned out to be a perfect second working vacation. It allowed my wife and me to develop the confidence, independence, and “street smarts” needed to handle overseas travel on our own, without the crutch of helpful and willing hosts eager to smooth over whatever bumps might occur.

We immediately began preparations for our three-month working vacation Aliyah!

OK, What Comes Next?

In an earlier post entitled My London Epiphany I described how that first working vacation arrived as an unseen bolt from the blue, an unexpected invitation from someone I lunched with six months earlier. My minimal contribution was being convinced by my wife to take advantage of this opportunity. However, receiving a second unexpected invitation would be highly unlikely, so the question now is how do my family and I duplicate that magical London experience? (I would love to receive comments from readers who have worked overseas about how they obtained their first working vacation adventure.)

It had been more than two years since our return from England, eyes newly opened, eager to set off for points far and wide. However, rather than aggressively pursuing opportunities, I slipped into a holding pattern of work, home, and family. I was waiting for a call inviting me on yet another all expenses paid working vacation, but in two years the phone hadn’t rung and no offers were forthcoming. Instead I worked, bowled, and played poker. I was getting lazy and comfortable.

What I learned during this period of inactivity is a philosophy I have followed unfailingly for the last thirty years: It is almost always a losing proposition to sit back and wait for something good to happen to you by chance. Instead, you must proactively and aggressively campaign to make good things happen to you. It is generally a waste of time to wait for a travel opportunity to fall into your lap; instead, you must actively generate offers from the clues around you.

The Three Gorges Area of the Yangtze River. Part of Our 12-Day Stopover In China On The Way To Our Three Month Working Vacation in Mongolia

Every newspaper article, TV show, radio program, conference, or professional interaction has the potential to turn into a working vacation offer. For example, a magazine story about the construction of a university in sub-Saharan Africa could, with the appropriate email inquiries, lead to an invitation to work with the new faculty teaching classes and designing curriculum; a TV feature about a primary care clinic in Southeast Asia might be a clarion call for short-term visits from health professionals in the area of tropical medicine; that exchange teacher visiting from South America could be the source of a future invitation to visit his or her home country. Whenever you read about or hear about an overseas opportunity that might apply to you, initiate a personal or e-mail conversation with the people involved to determine if there is any way for you and your family to take advantage of this opportunity. No story, no article, no meeting, no lunch date, should be considered too small, too unimportant.

In this case my clue came disguised as a short and seemingly insignificant notice on page twenty-three of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a newspaper published for college faculty and administrators. Your eyes could easily have glanced over the story and never missed a beat. However, that tiny article became my family’s ticket to a second all-expenses-paid, three-month overseas adventure.

A Realistic Adventure Travel Option

In an earlier post, Long-Term Travel/No-Cost Travel, Redux, I listed two types of working vacations I would NOT be discussing in this blog–long-term positions and volunteer tourism. Their exclusion was not because I see them as unimportant or foolish; on the contrary, they are superb ways of combining work and travel. Their omission was simply because most professionals do not wish to leave home for an extended period, and most of us cannot afford to head overseas without being paid.

I now wish to add another exclusion to that list, one inspired by a review of travel blogs made in the hope of exchanging posts with like-minded scribes. I was looking for blogs focusing on short-term overseas employment for professionals and their families. Instead, what I found were descriptions of people enjoying life styles most of us would consider totally unrealistic. What I encountered were a multitude of sites I would place in a classification called “Abandoning The Rat Race And Seeing The World.”

One author blithely states the idea of regular employment gave her the “heebie-jeebies” so instead she decided to head overseas and has been traveling ever since. Another blogger describes how life is too short to wait for the next adventure so she left her job and embarked on a personal “odyssey of discovery.” A third encourages its readers to abandon the cubicle and see the world as he and his partner have done for the last few years. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Nowhere in the discussion of these exotic travels is there an answer to the obvious question “But how are you paying for all this?” (Although one site states they partially fund their adventures by playing the guitar in subway stations!)

I am happy these individuals have jumped off the work/family treadmill they so fear and despise, but many professionals like myself actually like what we do; many skilled workers are happy with their lives; the majority of specialists really don’t want to abandon their cubicle, laboratory, lecture hall, court room, or operating theater. They are happy with the salary they earn and are thankful for the comfort and convenience it affords.

However, many would also be pleased to add short-term adventure travel to their lives to modify their daily routine and “spice things up” a bit. That is the group for whom I am writing. The purpose of my blog is not to describe how to run away from family, job, home, and friends; it is not to teach you how to escape overseas to avoid relationships and responsibilities; it is not to explain how to have an “odyssey of discovery” by gutting your savings, spending your inheritance, soaking your ex, or living off your parent’s largesse. Instead, it is for skilled professionals who want a “temporary reassignment” whose costs can be met through meaningful contributions to a host country and which does not require anything as drastic as giving up their day job.

Although the blogs I described above make great “escapist” literature, most of us, in all honesty, are not going to quit work and head to exotic destinations while blogging for readers eager to live vicariously through our travels. However, it is totally realistic, as well as financially sustainable, to plan and carry out the kind of short-term working vacation I have been and will be describing. In the long run realistic always trumps escapist.

Negative Vibes

I have been arguing, convincingly I hope, that ordinary professionals like you and I can apply for and obtain exotic short-term working vacations. You don’t need a Harvard Ph.D., don’t have to be Chief of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, and don’t need a Pulitzer, Oscar, or Tony on the mantel to spend time abroad. However, what you do need is the belief that it is a real possibility for you and your family to leave home, job, friends, and relatives for a few months to live in a different place and experience a different culture. You must believe this is not just something “others” do; not something only “a lucky few” get to achieve; not something you see in a magazine and only dream about. You must think “I really could do this.”

View From Our Faculty Apartment at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan where I Taught for Two Months

Right now many of you may be doing exactly what I did after receiving that initial letter from Imperial College—conjuring up a long list of worries, doubts, and concerns. You are convincing yourself that, although I was able to pull off this summer working adventure, your situation is totally different, and it is impossible for you and/or your family to get away this year and, most likely, the next. After all, there is your elderly mother; the kid who attends Camp Potowotamie; coaching the soccer team; teaching summer school.

One thing I have learned during my years of travel is that there is never a shortage of reasons to explain why a chance can’t be grabbed, an opportunity can’t be seized, or an experience can’t be lived. I would never dream of attempting a rejoinder to each and every excuse you might wish to present. Instead, I simply paraphrase my wife’s final and most persuasive argument made to me all those many years ago: “Dammit, it was an adventure. You should go!”

Sharing That Travel Epiphany With You

In my last post I described how that first overseas working vacation to England was both a professional and financial success. But even more important is that in those three plus months I started my transformation from someone far too comfortable with his surroundings into, if not yet an experienced world traveler, at least someone open to new experiences and no longer afraid to venture beyond self-imposed boundaries.

I came to realize that this no-cost working vacation to England was not a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that came about because of some fortuitous lunchtime conversation or a miraculous alignment of stars, and it certainly did not happen because I am a world-class scholar with one-of-a-kind skills available nowhere else. This realization was the real travel epiphany.

I began to understand that, even though I was an unheralded and little known academic at a small Midwestern college, my skills might still be of use to not only Imperial College, London but dozens of other schools around the world. With a little bit of thought, planning, and effort, I should be able to locate additional opportunities to combine work and travel, mix professional, personal, and cultural growth, and contribute to and learn from others in my field. What is so stunningly obvious today—that I possess knowledge and skills of sufficient interest to overseas institutions that they would willingly pay me to live and work in their country—struck like a thunderbolt thirty years ago. I was determined not to let decades pass before my next working vacation.

My goal in this blog is for you to have that same travel epiphany–to learn that living and working overseas is a doable, affordable, enjoyable, and intellectually exhilarating experience whether for a month or a year; whether teaching, engaging in research, or consulting; whether in Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas; with or without family. You don’t need to be a superstar to take advantage of these opportunities, and you don’t have to be in computing. Institutions around the world are eager to welcome and host professionals in a range of fields, including business, infrastructure development, genetics, women’s rights, constitutional law, family medicine, urban planning, community theater, and conflict resolution, to name but a few.

You need to discard the mistaken belief that you have neither the résumé nor the reputation to apply for and secure an overseas position. What is most important is not your pedigree or field of specialization but simply a sense of adventure and a willingness to open your mind to the possibility of a short-term sojourn in a new locale.

Why Should I Close The House, Pack Up The Kids, and Head Halfway Around The World?

Fair question!  It isn’t trivial to plan and pull off a working vacation.  It takes time and effort to apply for a sabbatical or leave of absence; it takes time to rent your home; it takes time to find housing and transportation in the host country.  In terms of effort it would be far easier to relax, open a cold one, sit back and watch a Twins game.   Therefore, before I  delve into the minutia of how to find a working vacation, let’s talk a little bit about the why.

When we were twenty-something many of us relished the idea of living, not just traveling, abroad. We dreamed of heading off to Europe after graduation (and a good number actually did) to experience a new culture, make new friends, and mature as young adults and global citizens. We were not interested in the one-week “Highlights Tour” or a whirlwind dash past a few major tourist attractions. Instead, we wanted to settle down, learn the language, find employment, and become part of the local community. Why should this taste for adventure fade as we grow older? Why should we abandon our idealism and wanderlust because we are a few years past our college days? Why aren’t we still equally as passionate about the joy and excitement that comes from living and working abroad?

When you live in a community, rather than drop in for a few days, you have time to meet neighbors, attend social, cultural, and religious events, and participate in local activities. Everyday tasks like shopping, laundry, even getting a haircut require you to learn about the neighborhood and the people who live and work there. A long-term working vacation allows you to take those unusual but informative off-the-beaten-path excursions not possible in the jam-packed prearranged schedule of a one- or two-week family holiday. You learn about a culture not by observing it from a distance but by becoming part of it.

The Beach at Flic en Flac, Mauritius Where We Lived For Six Glorious Months While I Taught at the University of Mauritius

One’s own social and political orientation can be profoundly influenced by working vacations as you not only expand your understanding of the world but also gain insights into what is happening right here at home.   Travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you acutely aware of the terrible damage caused by our own homegrown zealots. Living in the midst of a culture struggling with racial or tribal hatreds sensitizes you to the hurt arising from intolerance, bigotry, and segregation. Working in a developing nation whose economic policies exacerbate the gap between rich and poor opens one’s eyes to the ugliness of greed and the shame of society’s tolerance of poverty amidst widespread wealth.

And, best of all, long-term overseas work and travel is a wonderful way to invigorate one’s  own daily life which, for many, can too easily slip into repetition and boredom–go to work, mow the lawn, eat dinner, fall asleep.  As the Roman philosopher Seneca said “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.”   For many professionals this type of transformative living experience can be far more rewarding than a Caribbean cruise or a week in some expensive beachfront hotel. A long-term working vacation is a wonderful way to combine the relaxation of a holiday with the intellectual growth and excitement of interacting with and learning from local residents and professionals.  And all this on the other guy’s dime!  Keep reading this blog (or check out my book) to learn how.

It Really is a No-Cost and Culturally Rewarding Way to Travel

When we returned home after our 3+ month stay in England I asked myself why I had waited until I was thirty-five to first attempt something like this. My accounting of income and expenses, completed for tax purposes the following April, showed that this English adventure cost a grand total of $1,500 in out-of-pocket expenses, about $3,800 in today’s dollars.  Our stay in London had been a break-even proposition, perhaps even generating a small surplus, due to my Imperial College living allowance, summer paycheck from Macalester, and rental income from our home in the US. The extra costs were due to family jaunts to Scotland, Paris, and the Lakes District. We could only marvel at how many things we had seen and how well we had lived at a cost that probably would not cover a two-week family stay at an upscale Caribbean resort.

Making it even more lucrative was my discovery, on the night of April 14, of the “Temporary Job Away From Home” tax deduction—an IRS fine point of which I had been completely unaware. If you work away from home for less than one year with the expectation of returning upon completion of the assignment—the very definition of a working vacation—you can deduct the cost of airline tickets, housing, and a per diem for meals and incidental expenses (M&IE). This can lead to a huge deduction with the potential to offset much of your working vacation income and a significant chunk of regular salary as well.  (However, I am not a CPA so check with your tax preparer or a good tax manual.  I don’t think the IRS will accept the argument “But Schneider said . . .”)   For example, the current M&IE per diem rate for London, set by the U.S. State Department, is $148/day. If you were to work for an identical 105-day period this would result in a tax deduction of $15,540–a great way to live and work overseas with not only your host country but also Uncle Sam picking up a portion of the tab.

The Campus of Imperial College, London Where I Worked for Three Months in the Summer of 1980

Not only was the trip a financial success, it was a professional and cultural success as well.  I initiated scholarly activities that resulted in two publications and just as my wife said—and how I hate it when she is right—they helped me achieve tenure. We had the opportunity to live in and be part of an international culture and to make overseas friends with whom we are still in contact today.  My children had the chance to meet and play with British children raised in far different circumstances and, although they are now 37 and 40, they still fondly remember their first overseas summer.

All my imagined doubts and problems were just that–totally imagined.  Not a single one of my deep-seated worries came to pass and none of my irrational arguments for foregoing this trip were valid.  I could think of nothing I would have changed over the course of those three months except, perhaps, to host a bit fewer house guests.

Living and Learning in Chiswick

The house our English hosts rented for us was a 120-year old three-bedroom Georgian in the quaint, middle-class suburb of Chiswick in SW London, an easy commute via the Underground to my school in South Kensington. While decidedly trendier and more upscale today, in 1980 the neighborhood had far fewer tourists, no boutique shopping, and no cutting-edge fusion restaurants. It was a lovely area of teachers, bus drivers, salesmen, and pensioners.

We quickly made friends with colleagues at work and were soon invited to dinners, movies, and parties. To repay their many kindnesses we threw a Fourth of July BBQ bash at our home complete with red, white, and blue streamers; hamburgers; potato salad; and a build-your-own banana split bar. It was a huge success as it seemed that my Imperial College colleagues were just as eager to learn about American traditions as I was to learn about theirs. The kids played in the local park, met neighbor children, and, as so often happens, this led to us meeting their parents, adding more names to our growing London social directory. We attended a nearby synagogue for Saturday morning services, were introduced to congregants, and in a short time became part of the local Jewish community, further choking our already-packed dance card.

Although England is not exactly an alien culture to Americans, my wife and I were experiencing new ways of doing things daily. We learned to shop like Brits—instead of a one-stop “Gonzo-Mart” for our food needs, we hauled our reusable straw bags (a new concept in the pre-green days of 1980) to the neighborhood butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger, baker, and dairy store. We chowed down on great Indian and Pakistani cuisine, common in London (their equivalent of neighborhood Chinese) but a bit of a rarity in 1980s Minneapolis.

Rare Japanese Fan At the British Fan Museum. One of Our Many Enjoyable Day Trips During The Stay in London

With three months, rather than three days or three weeks, to explore this sprawling metropolis we had time to see not only the “biggies” of the English tourist scene—the British Museum, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, and the Royal Observatory—but also to discover some oft overlooked sites and hidden gems, such as the British Postal Museum and Archives in Islington and the quirky but fascinating Fan Museum in Greenwich with its collection of over four thousand fans, some dating to the tenth century (see photo).

There were also days when we would not go anywhere but, instead, stay home, read a book, play board games with the kids, take a stroll along the Thames River only a few blocks from our house, and head off to bed at an early hour. This relaxed pace of sightseeing is one of the great benefits of a working vacation, and it leads to a far more manageable and enjoyable life-style than the all-day, every-day hustle and bustle of your typical family holiday.

I was quickly coming to understand and appreciate the personal, professional, and cultural benefits of a short-term overseas working vacation.   That summer in England was both my epiphany and my conversion.

A Willing Spouse

My wife is a far more free-spirited, adventuresome person than I, and it was she who convinced me to take that initial leap and head off to London for three months.  I am glad she did as we have been enjoying the fruits of that life-style for the last 30 years.

However, there is an admonition to this story that must be fully aired and discussed before diving into the details. Even though it may be a single professional in the family applying for the position, it is the entire family who will go, including a spouse or partner.  If you are married or in a committed long-term relationship, it is critical that this individual be a supportive and enthusiastic ally, not an unhappy, unwilling participant. It is unfair, not to mention unpleasant, to spend an extended length of time on an overseas trip in which you have no stake and absolutely no interest.

Remember when you were dragged kicking and screaming to that ballet, opera, or football game? In that case your agony lasted only a few hours and was soon forgotten. Now imagine the discomfort of attending an event that lasts one, three, or possibly even six months! This is a recipe guaranteed to produce unhappiness and marital discord. (Unhappy kids are a different issue that I address in later posts.)

So, before diving into the upcoming stories and eagerly sending off that application for a working vacation in Portugal, Panama, or Papua New Guinea, be 100 percent sure that both you and your life partner are enthusiastic about this undertaking and equally excited about the adventures that await. If that is the case then read on, and make certain your passports are up-to-date.

Now, let’s see, we had just arrived in London ….

My London Epiphany

My first working vacation was in 1980, and it came about as many of these first overseas experiences typically do–it fell into my lap.  I met some teachers from Imperial College, London at a professional conference.  They were working in the same area as I, and we had a lovely chat over lunch. We exchanged business cards and agreed to “keep in touch.”  Little did I realize the significance of those throwaway words.

Six months later I received a letter.  They had been awarded  a grant to bring a visitor to London for three months during the summer hiatus, and they were inviting me.  They would pay my airfare, housing costs, and provide a small monthly stipend.  All I would need to do is pay airfare for my wife and children.

Sounds great, right?  Well not to someone who had never traveled outside the continental U.S.  The idea of going to London was a lot to digest; the thought of actually living there for the entire summer was overwhelming and, to be honest, rather scary. I had a wife and two young children, a home, two cars, a lawn, and a garden. I was in a bowling league and played poker on Monday night.  You don’t just pick up and leave such pressing responsibilities behind. Or do you?

My fears kicked into high gear and I began to spew out arguments why this crazy idea could not possibly work. Who would care for our house? What about my quest for tenure? How would we pay the bills? How could we disrupt the kids’ lives? What about Aunt Edith’s seventieth birthday? My wife, far more footloose and adventurous than I (she traveled to Europe on her own the year before we were married) had a simple rejoinder for each: We can rent the house to responsible adults; Imperial College is a world-class school; the kids can play with each other and will quickly make friends; we can phone Aunt Edith on her birthday. All her arguments were thoughtful, reasonable, and logical, but in the end only one truly swayed me: “Dammit, this will be an adventure. Let’s do it!”

The biggest stumbling blocks to taking that first working vacation are the nagging doubts and fears that you can actually pull it off.   Right now many of you are probably doing exactly what I did all those many years ago—conjuring up a gremlin’s litany of imagined worries and problems.  You are convincing yourself  that your situation is quite different, and it would be impossible to get away from home this year and, most likely, the next. After all there is your elderly mother, the kid at Camp Potowotamie, coaching the soccer team, teaching summer school.

The Chiswick Bridge over the Thames in SW London--Only A Few Blocks From Where We Lived

One thing I have learned during my years of travels is that there is never a shortage of reasons to explain why a chance can’t be grabbed, an opportunity can’t be seized, or an experience can’t be lived. I would never dream of attempting a rejoinder to each and every excuse you might choose to present. Instead, I simply paraphrase my wife’s final and most persuasive argument made to me all those many years ago: “Dammit, it was an adventure.  You should go!”