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.
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…