Monthly Archives: April 2010

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.

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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!”

Long-Term Travel/No-Cost Travel, Redux

I received an interesting comment from a reader completing his 17th year of teaching at an overseas branch of the University of Maryland.  This individual, who is certainly integrating into the local community and becoming part of an international culture, writes  “I have yet to take advantage of the return ticket that UMUC will provide—and I don’t intend to!”  He is living testament to the intellectual benefits, personal growth, and plain old fun of long-term working vacations.

With one exception.   Most of us do not want to leave home, friends, and family for that length of time.  While we appreciate an exposure to another culture we also value our relationships, ties, and commitments back home.

I want to assure readers you can experience the benefits of long-term travel described in my last post without spending 17 years.  Some of my shortest overseas stays–6 to 8 weeks–have been the most rewarding, personally, professionally, and culturally.  Please don’t think a working vacation requires spending years away from job, friends, and family.  Even a couple of months is sufficient to have a unique, exotic experience. The longest time I spent working overseas is nine months, and while I have loved going away I have always enjoyed coming back, sharing my stories, and planning my next adventure.

I also received email from an individual chastising my blog for its”monetary orientation” and stressing the “no cost” aspects of working vacations.  They want me to mention the benefits of another type of overseas work–volunteer tourism, sometimes shortened to voluntourism.

I  am happy to mention this socially responsible form of international work, and I applaud the good work done by its adherents.  I am more than happy to post links to volunteer tourism Web sites for people to check out.

However, like leaving home for 17 years, this is also a form of travel that many of us are unable to consider.  Volunteers are unpaid and, in addition, often must shell out thousands of dollars to the agency arranging the opportunity to pay for staff, planning, insurance, and orientation.  Many people could not afford to take a leave of absence from work but not be paid for their efforts in the host country.  It is simply not economically feasible.

So, while I recognize there are different ways to live and work overseas, the type of experience I will be describing involves short-term paying jobs that cover much or all of your travel and living expenses.  If either permanent overseas employment or international volunteer work appeals to you then go for it, and I will salute your sense of adventure!  You just won’t be able to read much about them here.