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.
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.