Category Archives: Making Friends

Passover in the Land of Allah, Buddha, and Shiva

During our first months in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (62% Muslim, 25% Buddhist, 9% Hindu), we celebrated Id Al Fitri, the Muslim festival ending Ramadan, Chinese New Year, and the Hindu holiday of Thaipusam. Now it is our turn. As it gets closer to the Jewish holiday of Passover, my wife Ruthann and I are determined to have a real Seder, complete with Haggadah, matzoh, and concord grape wine.  The problem is we can’t find the fixings and, except for one American couple in our apartment, we can’t locate any Jews!  Since I am in Malaysia under the auspices of a Fulbright grant, I contact the cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy who, after numerous emails and phone calls, manages to locate a single Jew!  In this modern Asian city of 1.4 million, there are no synagogues, no Jewish schools, no kosher butchers, and exactly one permanent Jewish resident—Mr. Gary Braut, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn.  Gary was in the U.S. Merchant Marine and, on a tour of duty to SE Asia, had shore leave in KL. He liked what he saw and returned to start a new life. He opened an auto parts business that became quite successful and provides him with wealth, comfort, and ability to live an observant lifestyle in a city with absolutely no Jewish resources.

Gary Braut And Some of His Multicultural Staff at Precision Automotive Co. in KL

Gary is proud of his religious heritage and enjoys sharing holidays with any other Jews in town as well as those with no knowledge of Judaism–just as we have shared unfamiliar Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist festivals with friends and neighbors. A few weeks back he placed an ad in the New Straits Times (the main English language newspaper) saying, and I quote:

Passover Seder.   Let’s Break Matzoh Together.  Everyone Invited.  A Young Rabbi from Brooklyn Will Officiate. Call 03-XXXXX for Details.

Menorah Made From Used Auto Parts

It sounded interesting and we decide to go.  We drive to the specified location only to realize the Seder is not being held at home but in his auto parts factory, which is easily identified from the large menorah (candelabra) constructed of used mufflers and tailpipes. It is strange celebrating Passover in a foreign country, but even stranger holding it in a warehouse surrounded by machine tools, compressors, and ball bearings.

Gary has spared no expense in planning this celebration. There are boxes of Streit’s matzoh and bottles of kosher wine air freighted in from the U.S. There is homemade charoses (a ceremonial dish made from fruits and nuts) and matzoh ball soup prepared by Muslim women in burkas and headscarves.  They have no idea of the significance of these ceremonial foods but, nevertheless, do an excellent job. The biggest surprise is the presence of Velvel, a 23-year old rabbinic student from Brooklyn, complete with the payess (side curls) and tzitzis (fringes) worn by all Orthodox Jewish men.  He flew in from New York to lead the Seder for this one evening.  Afterwards he travels to Surabaya, Indonesia to minister to a dozen or so Indonesian Jews.

The other fascinating thing is the audience.  There are 35-40 people, but only six are Jewish—Gary, the rabbi, my wife and I, and the other American couple in our building.  The remaining 30 or so are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who are friends, employees, or locals who simply saw the newspaper ad and are curious to learn about this strange celebration. Most of the non-Jewish attendees are knowledgeable about Israel and the political unrest in the Middle East, probably due to Malaysia’s anti-Zionist foreign policy, but few appear to know anything about the religion. Their tone is friendly, inquisitive, and extremely polite.

There are Haggadot (Passover texts) for everyone, including comic book Haggadot for the children.  The rabbi does an explanatory Seder rather than a rigorously religious one, describing the history of the Jewish people, the role of the Torah (with parallels to the Koran and Bhagavad-Gita), the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and the reasons behind such symbols as the matzoh and four cups of wine. The attendees are fascinated and listen intently.  They ask numerous questions—from “What is this strange writing?” (Hebrew) to “How did Moses part the Red Sea?”  (tradition says with the help of God).  The rabbi carefully and thoroughly answers each question in a manner worthy of a skilled classroom professor.  The Seder lasts almost two hours but I hardly notice as I am enthralled by the questions, discussions, and explanations of this religious potpourri.

Following the ceremony we eat a delicious meal of fresh fish, hard-boiled eggs, potato salad, tomatoes, cucumbers, and kosher wine. We have salmon for the main course since, according to religious law, its distinct orange color let’s you know that you are eating the flesh of a kosher animal.  With other species it can be difficult to distinguish between kosher and non-kosher.  (The nearest kosher butcher is in Singapore, 300 miles distant.)  The meal is prepared by observant Muslim women using brand new pots, pans, and chopsticks to ensure they meet the strict Jewish dietary rules for cooking utensils.

When it is time to leave, our host presents all attendees with a gift—a bronze coin containing a likeness of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  Velvel explains the role of the rebbe in Orthodox Judaism by comparing him with a Hindu guru–a teacher and guide who leads the way to wisdom and understanding.  It is fascinating to hear a rabbi speak so knowledgeably about Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

That was a truly unique Seder.   Even 10,000 miles from home it felt comfortable to retell the Passover story, eat traditional foods, drink kosher wine, and sing traditional songs.   Now I feel embarrassed that I have chosen to hide my beliefs from departmental colleagues.  At my university it is customary to send cards to everyone in the department, regardless of ethnicity, wishing them a “Festive Chinese New Year” or “Happy Id Al Fitri.”  I myself received many such greetings, even though my colleagues know I am neither Buddhist, Hindu, nor Muslim.   However, when we first arrived staff at the U.S. Embassy, being overly cautious, asked me to maintain a low profile due to the rigid anti-Zionist stance of most Malaysian officials.  I was told that while no one would do me any harm, it would be best to keep mum on this issue.

However, attending this multicultural Seder convinces me to end my self-imposed silence. Malaysia prides itself on being a society in which all traditions live together in harmony.  In that spirit I decide to “come out of the closet” and send cards to my colleagues wishing them a happy Passover and explaining the holiday’s significance.  Then I sit back and nervously await the repercussions. Thankfully, there are none.  Instead, I receive notes and emails from my Chinese, Malay, and Indian co-workers thanking me for the good wishes and telling me how much they enjoyed learning about my religion and about a holiday of which they knew little or nothing.  Their curiosity and questions about Jewish practices and traditions continue over lunch and coffee for many days.

(Read more about our cultural adventures in Malaysia in On The Other Guy’s Dime:  A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)

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The Why and the Wherefore

I have argued, rather vociferously, for skilled professionals to take working vacations–short-term, overseas postings which pay enough to cover most or all your expenses and do not require you to quit your day job.  Well, a reader wrote me asking a rather simple question:  “Why the heck should I close my house, pack up the kids, and schlep halfway around the world just to work for a couple of months? I am quite comfortable where I am!”

Fair question.  In fact its a question that gets to the heart of this blog and its 112 posts!  It isn’t trivial to plan and pull off a working vacation–it takes time to apply for a sabbatical or leave of absence; it takes time to rent a home; it takes time to find housing and transportation in the host country; it takes time to plan activities and schooling for young children.  It is far easier to simply open a cold beer and enjoy a Twins game.   Therefore, to answer this straightforward question, let’s talk a bit about the whys and wherefores of working vacations.

When we were teens or twenty-somethings 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 a one week “Highlights Tour” or dashing past a few major tourist attractions. Instead, we wanted to settle down, learn the language, find employment, and become part of the local community, even if only for a few months. Why should this love of cultural adventure fade as we grow older? Why should we abandon our idealism and wanderlust because we have added a few years, a few pounds, and a few dependents? Why aren’t we still as passionate about the joy and excitement that accrues from living and working abroad?

The Beach at Flic en Flac on Mauritius Where We Lived For Six Glorious Months While on a Working Vacation

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 short-term working vacation affords you time to take those off-the-beaten-path excursions not possible in the jam-packed 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.

One’s own social and political philosophy can be profoundly changed on working vacations as you not only expand your understanding of the world but also gain insight into what is happening right here at home.   Travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you acutely aware of the 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 our society’s tolerance of poverty amidst widespread wealth. As Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice, and narrow-mindedness … .”

And, best of all, short-term overseas work is a wonderful way to invigorate one’s  own life which can, no matter how much you love what you do, slip into a pattern of repetition and boredom–go to work, eat dinner, watch TV, fall asleep.  As the Roman philosopher Seneca said “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.”   For many skilled professionals this type of transformative work experience is far more rewarding than a Caribbean cruise or a couple of weeks at a B&B.  A short-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!

(Read about our adventures living and working in Mauritius in my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.)


No Reason Not To

When first given the opportunity to live and work overseas I was rather reluctant.  After receiving an offer of a paid three-month visiting position at Imperial College I thought of dozens of reasons why this absurd idea would never work.  (These fears and doubts are described in “My London Epiphany.”) Fortunately, my wife Ruth is far more willing to consider new things and was able to convince me to give it a try.  (I think her exact words were “Dammit, this will be fun. Let’s do it!)  She was right, very right, and for the past 30 years we have lived all over the world happily letting others pick up the tab!

One of the goals of this blog is to play a role for you similar to the one my wife played for me–refuter of those “ready-made” arguments against the adventure of a lifetime; debunker of the beliefs that convinced you that living and working overseas is something only “others” do, not you or your family.  So, for those of you reading my posts but certain that I am not talking to you, please read on:

Argument #1)   Michael, you are a college professor, someone of high intellectual achievement.  I don’t have either the resume or reputation to do what you did.

Response:  “Negative Vibes”, “I Can Do This”

Argument #2)  Michael, I am far too busy at work to think about taking a month or two away from my desk.  No can do.

Response:  “It’s About The Time, Not Just The Dime”, “What The Heck Is A Working Vacation (Part II)”

Argument #3)  What would I ever do with our house while living overseas for a few months?

Response: “Don’t Be Afraid” , “How To Rent Out Your House”

Argument #4)  OK, but even if I do rent out my home, how will I ever find a place to live overseas?

Response:  “It Really Wasn’t All That Difficult”

Argument #5)  I don’t know anyone over there.

Response:  “Making Friends, Meeting Locals.”

Argument #6)  Mike, I am really worried about what to do my wife or one of my kids got sick while we were living overseas.

Response:  “Staying Healthy, Staying Solvent”

Argument #7)   Excuse me, Michael, I have young kids at home. What would you propose I do with them!

Response:  “Do It For the Kids”

Now I am sure you can come up with additional excuses I have not anticipated and not yet written about, especially if your goal is avoiding an exotic, no cost, overseas adventure with your family.  However, since you are reading my blog I can only assume that this is not what you want, and that you, like me, will eventually heed my wife’s sage advice given to me all those many years ago:  “Dammit, it was fun.  Go do it!”

Yogurt To Die For!

Our three-month working vacation in Istanbul resulted in yet another thoroughly enjoyably social, cultural and professional experience. We made close friends among the faculty as many had studied in the U.S. and were eager to renew professional contacts with American academics. We spent a good deal of time with Albert and the other summer school TAs who let us join them on excursions to local bars and music clubs.

The World Famous Kanlica Yogurt

Since I taught in the morning, afternoons were free for trips to tourist sites such as Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque, as well as more leisurely activities like riverboat excursions to the Black Sea, meetings with members of the Turkish Jewish community (courtesy of Albert), and a visit to the small village of Kanlica on the Asian side of the Bosporus. According to colleagues Kanlica is famous for making the world’s richest, creamiest, and most delicious yogurt. After traveling there by water taxi and enjoying a bowlful at a local restaurant, we could only agree. Our “yogurt outing” is typical of the delightful, off-the-beaten-path day trips you can take when given adequate time. Kanlica would certainly not be part of the typical four-day/three night “Highlights of Istanbul” packaged tour.

Since I did not teach on Friday (I asked the chair to schedule my classes between  Monday and Thursday) Ruth and I had time for three-day weekend jaunts to sights farther afield, such as the three thousand-year-old archeological ruins of Ephesus, the volcanic cave homes of Cappadocia, and the beach resort of Bodrum. These tours were purchased from a local travel agent after our arrival and paid for in lira, making them quite inexpensive.

The Riverside Terrace of the Bebek Hotel Near Campus Where We Spent Many A Pleasant Evening.

Many days we would not go into the central city but, instead, sit on the lovely outdoor terrace of the Bebek Hotel, walking distance from campus and overlooking the Bosporus. We would sip coffee (in the morning) or enjoy a glass of wine and a plate of meze (in the evening) watching river traffic sail by and the setting sun illuminate the Asian side of the straits.

To learn about a country and its people most visitors, ourselves included, head off to museums, historical sites, churches, mosques, and parks. Food, however, is an important component of culture, and a cooking class can be an entrée into a different aspect of a country’s history and traditions. Turkish food, although not as well-known to American palates as French, Italian, or Chinese, has influenced eating habits throughout the Mediterranean. My wife and I signed up for a cooking class that included not only cooking instruction—and eating, of course—but also an introduction to local agriculture, shopping habits, and Turkish mealtime rituals.

When thinking about how to use the extended time provided by a working vacation, consider not only the sites listed in The Lonely Planet but also some less well-known introductions into the traditions, habits, and customs of your host country. This includes not only cooking classes, but courses on language, dress, music, and traditional crafts; visits to people’s homes; sporting events; involvement with a local religious community; volunteering at a neighborhood school; or assisting at a community center or senior citizen home. It is difficult to participate in these types of activities on a tightly scheduled packaged tour, but they fit quite comfortably into a working vacation whose duration is measured in months not days. Colleagues and neighbors, as well as the Web, are good sources of information on how to locate and sign up for classes, home visits, community activities, and volunteer opportunities.   And finally, when deciding what kind of cultural experience you might wish to have, be adventurous and thoroughly unconventional, like my wife who signed up for one of the more unusual aspects of Turkish culture–at the Serap Su Belly Dancing Academy of Istanbul!

The Unexpected Teacher

Please welcome a guest blogger, Mr. George Christodoulou from onetravel.wordpress.com

As Michael has stated many times, you never know for sure where or when a short-term employment opportunity will unexpectedly appear. For me it happened on a visit to Cyprus that morphed from a brief pleasure trip into a working vacation.  My initial plan was to go for a holiday, but I ended up falling in love, finding a job, and extending my stay to six months. The friendly people and the gorgeous sights grabbed my attention and would simply not let go.

The Picturesque Village of Treis Elies Nestled In The Valley

Cyprus is filled with both natural beauty and old-world charm.  I spent the majority of time living and working in the picturesque village of Treis Elies in west-central Cyprus.  This tiny town is surrounded by mountains, vineyards, hot springs, fruit arbors, and wildflower trails. Near the end of my visit I spent about one week seeing other parts of the island and found that its tourist regions are, like most Mediterranean destinations, crowded, noisy, and similar to other island getaways.  Therefore, I spent most of my time in the regions surrounding Treis Elies enjoying hikes along high mountain passes, long walks through lush orchards, and leisurely meals with friends and family.

Before I went to Cyprus I had been living in New York.  It was a tough employment year, and I needed a break from the stress.   I had been a marketing consultant as well as a part-time language instructor teaching an after-school Greek class in the city.   In Cyprus, I would often while away the hours in my relative’s coffee shop enjoying the sun as it peered through the makeshift grapevine “roof.”  One day a man walked onto the patio and took a seat next to me.  He was the director of a program in the local school that taught English to children in the immediate area. After telling him I was a part-time Greek teacher he offered me a position because of my background in teaching a second language.

Teaching The Children of Treis Elies

Overall, that six month working vacation was an eye-opening cultural and social revelation. Even though I grew up in a home with Cypriot parents, I was fairly ignorant of the culture and mores of my ancestral homeland. My parents had been in America for about ten years before I was born and had started the process of acclimatizing to American norms and behavior.  My Cypriot background, like those of many second-generation immigrant children, was rapidly fading.   Spending a few weeks lounging on a beach could not begin to eliminate that cultural ignorance, but a six-month working vacation certainly would.  The people of Treis Elies, especially the children, took me in and taught me a great deal about their world, a world far more relaxed and  tightly knit than the stressful, anonymous life of a megalopolis like New York.  It was as if I had been transplanted from a large open forest into a tiny garden where everyone shared the same space. Ultimately, as a teacher it became more about what the students were teaching me of Cypriot life than about the English lessons I was giving them.

Sadly, after six months the program closed, and I decided to head back to America.  However, that working vacation experience and my memories of this trip will stay for a lifetime.. I return to Cyprus every so often when I want to relax and see friends and family.  I currently work for OneTravel (a company offering Cheap Tickets) as a travel writer using my life experiences as inspiration for my articles.

The (Almost) Kenyan Branch of My Family

It is not only President Barack Obama who has Kenyan relatives perched in his family tree;  I almost had some as well.

About a month before our departure from Africa we had our first and only overseas visitor, my sister Karen who came for a two-week stay. Ruth and I drove to the airport to meet her, accompanied by the Computer Science department chair, Dr. Tony Rogrigues, who insisted on joining us to ensure we got there safely. I tried to convince him that if I could navigate forty miles over the Ngong Hills to a remote archeological dig (see It Ain’t Just The Animals, People), and if I could drive  one hundred and twenty miles down to the Tanzanian border (see The Most Beautiful Place on Earth), I could certainly handle the short thirteen mile trip to the airport.  However, Tony remained unconvinced and plopped down in the back seat, not to be moved.

Zanzibar Island Resort Where Tony and My Sister Karen (But Not Us!) Spent Ten Lovely Days

The flight arrived on schedule, customs delays were minimal, and Karen exited the front door of the international arrivals terminal right on time.  On the drive back to our apartment my wife and I could already sense the “sparks” flying between them, both single and about the same age.   Tony joined us for some shopping and sightseeing on Karen’s first full day in town, and their growing closeness became even more noticeable–Ruth and I were already starting to feel like unwelcome third wheels.  Two days later Tony informed us that he and my sister would be flying to the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar for a beach holiday and would return ten days later, only one day before her scheduled return to the United States. So much for the family visit. We never even got a postcard.

Karen returned to Africa the following summer and spent a month in Nairobi, where Tony proposed marriage. However, he was quite adamant that he would not leave his home and teaching job at the university, so if she accepted the offer she would need to sell her condominium in the oceanfront community of Del Mar, California and move to Nairobi—a relocation of staggering proportions.  After agonizing deliberations, including many long and expensive phone calls to us, she decided she could not bring herself to leave her lovely home in California and relocate to Kenya.  At the end of the month she declined his proposal of marriage and returned to the U.S. Too bad; I was looking forward to some rather unique family get-togethers on the plains of the Serengeti.

In the forty or so posts on this blog I have repeatedly asserted that a short-term working vacation can be a life-changing experience for you, your spouse, and children.  In this case, though,  it was almost (but, sadly, not quite) a life-changing experience for my sibling.  I guess that, in the end, you never really know who will benefit from this type of transformative travel experience!

Settling In

We quickly settled into a comfortable routine in our new home.  I would take a bus to work each morning and write for anywhere from 4 to 8 hours while enjoying pleasant lunches and coffee breaks with new-found friends and colleagues at the university.  (If you cannot make friends in Australia you must be one of the more finicky individuals on earth as Sydneysiders are a most cheerful and gregarious lot.) While I was at work my wife and children (now 15 and 12) would run family errands–grocery shopping, post office, laundry, haircuts–or sample the leisure-time offerings of this most livable of cities.  They traipsed to and through the zoo, botanical gardens, museums, and historic neighborhoods.  They applied for and received Australian library cards and spent many happy hours at the lovely Woollahra Municipal Library situated right on the Sydney waterfront.

Evenings were often spent with a burgeoning circle of friends who would invite us to dinners, movies, and picnics–yes, it was winter but winter in Sydney often means temps in the 50s or low 60s, nice enough for outdoor activities dressed in a sweater or light jacket.  My son, on his cross-country team in high school, and I went jogging along the waterfront each afternoon and entered the “City to Surf” road race, Sydney’s answer to San Francisco’s Bay-to-Breakers run.  This 14 km foot race starts downtown and winds its way through city neighborhoods before ending at Bondi Beach where there is a giant celebration on behalf of the 70,000 or so entrants who can drag their bodies to the finish line, a cohort that included me–in a time of 1 hour 19 minutes, about 15 minutes behind my son.

Start of the Sydney City-to-Surf Running Race. That Is Me In The 84th Row, 123rd From The Left

On weekends (sometimes three days rather than two if the writing was going well) I would join my wife and kids to see the biggies of Sydney tourism–the Opera House, Rocks, Circular Quay, Harbor Bridge–or take out-of-town trips to Canberra, the Blue Mountains and Hunter Valley–Australia’s answer to Napa.  Occasionally the family made longer trips afield, including a rail journey to the outback city of Broken Hill, a place of such unique character and charm it deserves its own blog post, which I will happily provide next time.

As you might surmise from this brief description of our 3+ month stay, my family and I were making a good life for ourselves down under.  Critics of short-term working vacations will argue that three or four months overseas is insufficient time to get a real sense of a place and its people.  While I will be the first to admit that three months offers far less opportunities for cultural insight than three years, the fundamental point of this blog is that a short-term overseas stay is sufficient to provide you and your family with a memorable cultural experience.  And, best of all,  it can provide that experience without the need for you to be 1) independently wealthy, 2) willing to drain your life’s savings, or 3) living off the largesse of parents or an ex.

So, if you have the wherewithal and funds to leave everything behind and head off to Borneo, Burundi, or Bhutan for a few years, then good on ya, mate!  But if you are like me, with long-term family and job commitments that cannot be easily chucked, why not think about one of these shorter working vacations. They are a superb way to grow as a global citizen as well as refresh and recharge your internal batteries which can often start to run a tad bit low.