Category Archives: Making Friends

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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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…

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.