Monthly Archives: May 2010

Pay It Forward

My mother (and probably yours) told me always be nice to people because, if you are, they will be nice to you.  Oh, the wisdom and prescience of motherhood!

Even though I would not be teaching in Australia I still wanted a place where I could retreat from home, family, and refrigerator to do my writing.  To that end I sent an exploratory email to the computer science chair at the University of New South Wales asking if the department could provide an office. I did not expect an enthusiastic response since I was not working there but, to my utter surprise, I soon received a letter inviting me to join the faculty for three-plus months and including a lovely office with all the accoutrements–telephone, copier, and mail.  It seems that a few years earlier the chair had a sabbatical in the US where he was treated quite graciously by the faculty and staff.  He saw my visit as a way to repay some of the many kindnesses he experienced on his own “working vacation.”   Pay it forward, Scene 1!

We touched down in Sydney after two wonderful weeks in Fiji and New Zealand and drove to our new home in Rose Bay, one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods.  We located these accommodations with the assistance of Dr. Tony Gerber, a young Aussie academic whom I had met for a total of one hour five years earlier.

At the time Tony had just completed his Ph.D. and decided, as do many new graduates, that he and his wife should see the world before settling down.   He arrived in Minneapolis where I was an untenured Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota.  Knowing he would soon be accepting a comparable academic position, he thought it a good idea to meet some of the junior staff.  Great idea, but it turned out that every young faculty member was too busy chasing tenure and promotion to give this overseas “newbie” the time of day.  Except for me, that is.  I thought it might be enjoyable to meet someone from such an “exotic locale” and chatted with him for hour or so in my office, although to be honest, I really don’t remember much about the details.

Obviously, though, Tony did remember, and he was extremely grateful for that small kindness.  Not only did he help us locate superb accommodations, he stored our considerable baggage while we toured the South Pacific (we didn’t want to schlep suitcases, books, and research materials), picked us up at the airport on our return, and stocked our refrigerator with the essentials for a first meal–although I still don’t understand how anyone can consider Vegemite a nutritional item!   Tony and his wife Kim introduced us to their friends and colleagues, and we soon became an integral part of their community.  They even invited us to a bagels and lox Sunday brunch–so much for the exotic locale!

Twenty-five years later Tony, Kim, and their children are still the closest of friends and were in New York a few weeks ago visiting our family.   We plan on returning to Australia and traveling with them (Tasmania and Lord Howe Island) in the not too distant future.  The moral of this post is to listen to what your mother said:  Be kind to people and they will be kind to you.  Pay it forward–Scene 2!

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Thank You, Mr. Wiley

Our third overseas adventure occurred in summer, 1985, about two years after our return from Israel. We didn’t travel in 1984 as I was busy trying to achieve tenure, successfully as it turns out. This delay illustrates the main difference between the short-term jobs described in this blog and the longer odysseys found in many of the “traveling nomads” or “working overseas” sites.

Unlike those individuals I do not give up my day job to travel but take working vacations as part of my regular professional life during summer vacation, sabbaticals, or unpaid leaves of absence. This means I cannot guarantee I will be able to go away in any given year; instead, our plans must be coordinated with the demands and responsibilities of work and family. The upside, though, is that I return from these overseas experiences to a job, home, and resumption of my regular paycheck. In my opinion short-term working vacations offer skilled professionals the best of both worlds–travel and employment–without the stress of having to restart one’s life whenever you choose to return. Furthermore, shorter trips allow you to experience multiple cultures, not just one. My family has been lucky enough to go on more than a dozen working vacations in the past thirty years, from Australia to Zimbabwe, Mauritius to Morocco, Turkey to Tibet, with new ones still to come.

This third working vacation was financed in a far different way from the first two in which I taught classes to cover expenses. In this case the “sugar daddy” was my publisher John Wiley & Sons, New York. In 1978 I authored a computer programming textbook that turned out to be wildly successful, selling over 100,000 copies. (Due far more to good timing than good writing.) In 1982 I wrote a second text that also did very well. In early 1985 my editor asked me to pen a second edition of the first text, and to free up time he provided me, to my complete surprise, with a generous grant to allow me to focus on writing for three+ months that summer. I am sure he imagined I would hunker down in my office, school library, or den, coming out only to eat, sleep,and sharpen my pencil. However, our publishing agreement only specified what I was to produce and when I was to deliver it, not where I had to write. That unplanned and totally unexpected publication grant was to become my family’s ticket (both literally and figuratively) to our next dream destination–Sydney, Australia. As I have said in many earlier posts, you never know how or when that next working vacation opportunity will present itself–over lunch at a conference, in a brief  article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, or, as was the case here, buried deep inside the legalese of paragraph 7 of my publishing contract.

Beachcomber Island, Fiji, where we relaxed on the way to Sydney, Australia

So, on May 20, 1985 I packed up my books, notes, research materials, laptop computer, spouse, and children (as well as scuba gear and flip-flops) and boarded a plane for Sydney, Australia, with stops along the way in Hawaii, the Fiji Islands, and the Great Barrier Reef. Thank you so very much, Mr. Wiley.  I couldn’t have done it without you.

What We Learned

By the time our family returned from Israel after three enjoyable months of work and play I had learned a great deal about overseas life that would stand us in good stead on future trips.

I learned that it was no longer necessary to sit back and wait for an attractive offer to fall into my lap; instead, every newspaper article, TV show, radio program, professional interaction, or chance meeting has the potential to generate a short-term working vacation. A magazine story about the construction of a new university in sub-Saharan Africa could, with the appropriate inquiries, lead to an invitation to join the faculty. A casual conversation about consulting positions could, with a timely and well crafted email, turn into a personal offer. A TV feature about a new clinic in Southeast Asia could be a clarion call to health professionals working in the area of tropical medicine, and that exchange teacher visiting your school from South America could become the source of a reciprocal invitation to teach in his or her home country. Whenever you hear about an overseas opportunity that might be applicable, initiate a personal contact or e-mail conversation to determine if there is any way for you and your family to take advantage of it.

Those three months in Israel demonstrated that my family and I could do quite well on our own, without requiring an extensive support system. Having a large circle of friends in the host country is wonderful, and having locals help with housing, banking, and shopping is a nice benefit. However, although useful they are not essential. Never let the lack of contacts or family ties stop you from planning and carrying out a working vacation. You will meet people and, at a minimum, have yourself, spouse, and children to fill up your days.

Finally, I learned that even in a country undergoing serious problems, such as the extreme hyperinflation encountered in Israel, these concerns should be seen as learning opportunities, not impediments to travel. Experiencing these problems yourself, as long as they do not threaten personal health or safety, can result in a better understanding of the financial, political, and cultural plights affecting much of the globe.

The beaches of secular Tel Aviv where we would spend many a Saturday afternoon when religious Jerusalem would close

Most importantly is that in those three plus months I started my transformation from, perhaps like many of you, a person who had grown far too comfortable with his local surroundings into, if not yet a sophisticated world traveler, at least someone open to new experiences and not afraid to venture beyond self-imposed boundaries. After my wife and I absorbed the lessons of this most recent sojourn we came to realize that our set of potential working vacations destinations had widened greatly. England opened up our eyes; Israel opened up the world.

Do It For The Kids

Jason Rehm, a fellow blogger, recently posted a comment about his family’s travel adventures. (Read about them at http://bodeswell.org) What I found fascinating is that he and his wife have been living and working in Mexico, Central America, and South America since August 2009, with their 5-year old son Bode.

One of the goals of this blog is to refute the “ready-made” arguments for not making that trip of a lifetime–exactly what my wife did for me when I began spewing excuses why we should not go to England. (Those fears and doubts are described in “My London Epiphany.”) I have already shot down a number of cop-outs such as “I don’t have the resume or the reputation.” (in “Negative Vibes”), “How will I ever find a place to live?”, (in “It Really Wasn’t All That Difficult”) or, most recently, “I don’t know anyone over there.” (in “Making Friends, Meeting Locals.”) I now would like to counter another all-too-common argument for postponing, or even forgoing, your dream trip–”Excuse me, Michael, I have young kids. What would you propose I do with them!” My answer is simple: “Take them along, just as my wife and I did many times!”

In the last post, “The $64 Question: Why?”, I gave three reasons for working vacations, including the joy and excitement of becoming part of a new culture. These joys are certainly not limited to adults; in fact, the personal growth and maturity that accrues from living overseas can be even more pronounced in young children. Just as we know that youngsters are far more adept at learning a foreign language or mastering a musical instrument, they are like living sponges soaking up the lessons and experiences of overseas life. Being part of another culture, even for a few months, is not only an exhilarating experience for parents, it can be a truly transformative experience for parents and children alike. So, let me now add reason number four for working vacations: 4) Do It For The Kids!

Some parents may fret about pulling children out of school during the academic year. Personally, I think travel is a fabulous learning experience, as valuable as anything presented in a classroom. However, if that argument does not hold sway, then I suggest taking your short-term working vacation during the Northern Hemisphere summer–June, July, August–when school is not in session, exactly what we did on our first three trips. There are other options including 1) home schooling, especially appropriate if one of the parents is a teacher, 2) attending private school in the host country (although a potentially expensive option), and 3) sending them to the local public school.

Whichever option you choose, though, please don’t use your children’s education as the cover story for not getting off your duff and seeing the world. My own kids, 10 and 7 years old when we started traveling, are now 40 and 37 and long removed from the experiences described in my blog. However, they still remember and relish their living, learning, and playing time in England, Israel, and elsewhere, and they hope to provide their own children with similar adventures. So please remember that fourth reason for planning and taking working vacations: Do it for the kids!

The $64.00 Question: Why?

In the last few months I have been blogging about my first two working vacations: England (1980) and Israel (1983), with 15 more to come if you can hang in there! However, there is a question that needs to be asked and answered before moving on, and that simple question is “Why?”

A reader wrote me saying he does not consider any trip that includes work to be a vacation. That’s a reasonable comment, and one that should be addressed. After all, you can buy a 10-day excursion to London or a two-week tour of Israel, so why complicate things with a job? Why leave all the comforts of home for an extended period? There is the money factor, but if you are a skilled professional you can probably afford a nice family holiday. So why a working vacation?

A couple of reasons were mentioned in previous posts:

1) Making friends. Sometimes you make lots of new friends (England); other times not so many (Israel). However, you will always meet someone, and these friendships can last a lifetime. My wife and I are regularly in contact with a young woman we first met in Mauritius. We just had friends from Australia, a couple I worked with 20 years ago, visit us in New York. These and other international relationships are an important part of our lives.

2) Living in a different culture. On the typical 1- or 2-week family vacation you will go on tours, see historical and cultural sites, eat well, and relax by the pool. Fun, yes, but you rarely have the opportunity to meet locals, participate in their cultural and religious activities, learn about the neighborhood, or get involved with community organizations. The country is defined by the airport, hotel, and views from the bus window.

However, there is another, less obvious, reason to consider a working vacation:

3) Becoming part of an international culture can help you better understand and appreciate what is happening right here at home. 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 greater insight into what is happening here in the U.S. For example, travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you acutely aware of the terrible societal damage caused by our own homegrown zealots. Living in the midst of a culture struggling with racial and tribal hatreds sensitizes you to the hurt—both physical and spiritual—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 our own society’s tolerance of poverty amidst widespread wealth. Living in a country struggling with 500% annual hyperinflation, such as Israel in 1983, makes you appreciate the (relative) stability of the U.S. economy and the need for vigilance and oversight of our own financial systems. (Note: These are my reasons, but I would love to hear from readers about their own overseas experiences. Share your thoughts about their personal benefits to you and your family.)

The Pyramids of Giza and The Sphinx--One of the Many Side Trips We Took During Our Three Months in Israel

For many professionals these social and cultural experiences are far more rewarding than a Las Vegas getaway, a week in Paris, or lounging on the beach. As Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely.” A working vacation is a wonderful way to combine the relaxation of a holiday with the intellectual growth that comes from interacting with and learning from other cultures. And all this on the other guy’s dime!

Making Friends; Meeting Locals

As I described in the last post our Israeli “dance card” was far leaner than in England–no neighbors inviting us to dinner; no family members arriving for extended visits; no departmental socials. Given that we would be here for 3+ months we wanted to expand our circle of friends and find playmates for our two young children.

Just like at home friendships are not limited to neighbors and colleagues. Instead, they grow from mutual, shared interests and activities. If you become involved with the local community, in whatever manner you choose, you will meet people and make friends naturally rather than having it be assumed and forced. To this end we attended religious services at a nearby synagogue and met some local congregants and their children. After work we would often head to a nearby community swimming pool, listen for English conversations, and if we heard any would introduce ourselves, especially if it was a family with children. My wife had the name of a distant cousin whom we had never met but contacted, met for coffee, and spent a number of enjoyable evenings. On Saturday afternoons, when little in Jerusalem is open because of the Sabbath, we would go on English-language walking tours and meet fellow walkers, often newcomers to the city like us. This strategy for making friends is no different from what you must do when moving to a new city in the U.S., the only difference being that we had three months, not three years, so we had to move quickly.

In the end we did meet some locals and participate in a few social and cultural events, but nowhere near as many as on our first working vacation in London. However, while locals, colleagues, neighbors, and overseas visitors can be fun (in moderation) it is important to remember that they are not absolutely essential, and you can have an exciting and stimulating short-term working vacation without them. At a minimum you have your spouse and/or children to help fill up the weeks and months with activities and adventures. Instead of a social calendar filled with neighborly dinners and departmental parties, you can occupy your free time with regional travel, family recreation, volunteer opportunities, and cultural immersion.

For example, our family took a local bus to Egypt, snorkeled in the Red Sea, hiked the Galilee, swam in the Mediterranean, spent a weekend at a kibbutz, visited the many religious and cultural sites the country has to offer (at a leisurely pace, I might add), and volunteered to teach English in a local public school. Even without a Rolodex chock-a-block with names we were involved, active, and engaged.

Sometimes there will be scads of locals, friends, and family to fill your free time, as was the case in England and future working vacations in Australia, Turkey, Kenya, and Bhutan. Other times you won’t meet as many people or make as many friends and will, instead, occupy your days with family activities–as in Israel and years later on a working vacation to Mongolia.

However, it really doesn’t matter as both types of working vacations can be thoroughly enjoyable and fully satisfying. Please don’t use “But I don’t know anybody there!” as an excuse for not taking full advantage of a working vacation opportunity.

This Was Different But Just as Good

Our first inkling that this second working vacation would be different was at the airport. In England we were met by Imperial College colleagues holding up signs and boisterously welcoming us as we emerged from customs; in Israel we walked off the plane alone and on our own. The second inkling came at the apartment. Although a beautiful two-bedroom in a lovely location, none of our neighbors either spoke English or were willing to try–so much for the “welcome wagon” model we experienced during our London stay. After moving into my Hebrew University office I strolled the building hoping to meet local faculty but no such luck as the halls were eerily empty.

I sat back and asked myself if I had made a big mistake. Had the dream of a second perfect working vacation been Pollyanna-ish optimism? Was this trip going to prove my ideas about traveling on the other guy’s dime all wrong? Fortunately the answer to all these nagging doubts was a resounding “No!”

I discovered that our experience in England, while enormously enjoyable and thoroughly satisfying, had been an anomaly. Deferential hosts eager to bring you into their community are more often the exception rather than the rule. Having local help finding housing, renting a car, and pointing out the best hardware stores, grocery shops, and ethnic restaurants is an unexpected and pleasant plus. More often than not your hosts will be excited to work with you and pleased with your contributions but too busy to act as mentors and tour guides. Colleagues may offer advice about places to eat and sights to see, but they will frequently leave you on your own to implement their suggestions. In some instances neighbors will roll out the welcome mat and become an everyday part of your life. It is far more likely they will be polite, hospitable, and invisible.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem, Just One Of The Many Fascinating Sites In This Fascinating City

What this working vacation in Israel taught us is that friendships do not happen automatically because of proximity—you live next door, you work in the next office. Instead, they grow from mutual, shared interests. If you become active in the local community, in whatever manner you choose, you will meet people and make friends naturally rather than having it be assumed and forced. Even though you may only be in town for three or four months, rather than three or four years, the process of making friends is no different from what you do when moving to a new city in the U.S., except that you must act far more quickly as you have far less time!

Having family members in the host city is wonderful, and having neighbors and colleagues help with housing, banking, and shopping is convenient. However, neither are essential in making your overseas trip a resounding professional and cultural success. Never let a dearth of local contacts in the host city prevent you from having a once-in-a-lifetime working vacation experience.

Now, how to make friends overseas? Next time…