Exactly one year ago to the day, with my PhD thesis successful defended and four days before I was due to set foot on a plane I started the initial stages of packing for the biggest, scariest and without doubt the most life-changing adventure of my life.
This was not the first time that I had spent at the foot of my bed, in the room in which I had spent my formative years, my worldly possession splayed out in front of me considering what the future had in store. I had done this once before, almost a decade earlier when I first went off to university. My father still very clearly remembers that day in which myself and a car of my possessions were bundled into the back of a car and whisked across the country. He remembers that day for one moment where we said our goodbyes, he got back in the car and he saw one very scared boy.
I remember that moment too, but from the other side I remember it as that moment where my whole essence of being simultaneously freaked out as the moment of realisation that this decision was real and unchangeable dawned. I have genuinely no idea how long I stood on those steps outside the dorms over the car park after he drove away. In my mind, it was only a momentary pause whilst I gathered myself and in that moment I decided that I had put myself here and I was going to darn-well make the most of it. I went back to my new room, plugged in the stereo and played the Californication album. Before the first song ended I had met my closest friend for the year.
Two days before I flew, I had my packing complete and to see one’s life – all that one is, all that one needs condensed down into a few bags is both surreal and cathartic.
When your life becomes restricted to 40 kilos, it makes you seriously evaluate what is important to you. It also makes you realise how much in your life is just stuff. Stuff that you don’t really care about, stuff that you keep around because at some point there was a meaning long-forgotten, stuff that bears no real purpose, yet you’ve dragged it around for year after year just because you can.
On the day of my departure, the 22nd October (what does that tell you that I still remember the date?), I was quiet and mostly in my own headspace. Of course the usual worries of an infrequent traveller were there – where’s the passport? In your pocket where it was the last 4 times you checked. Where’s the cash for the taxi on the other end? In your wallet where it’s been for the last week. My parents had made me an English breakfast not because it’s good to travel on a full stomach but because I did not know the next time I could be eating meat from a pig.
We (the parents and I) got to the airport, outside of London in good time allowing us time for a coffee before I awayed. Despite everything, despite knowing why I was going, where I was going and having already visited my new place of work. It did not stop me outwardly looking like this:
I was actually a little better after I said my goodbyes and was through security, because then it was just me and I could put some music on and just be me in my happy place. But don’t get me wrong, even at age 26 saying goodbye to my parents was one of the most emotionally difficult things I’ve ever done.
Ironically, once I was on the plane everything became very easy. At that point I was committed. It was not like I could politely knock on the cockpit door and politely ask the pilot if he minded turning around.
Those first few weeks were tough. Incredibly tough (as you can read elsewhere). When you deliberately uproot your life to a new country, on a new continent, in a new culture, with a different predominant religion, where you do not speak the language, can’t read the signs and have no clue how to do even the most basic things – well then you can expect things to be difficult.
I like to think of myself as a mentally tough person and capable of enduring most things with ease. But without a shadow of a doubt, that first month of being in Israel was the hardest, perhaps the most stupid thing I have ever done.
I’m still reminded by one philosophy I was introduced to in that time. Most people in their lives identify with and define themselves by their relationships (partners and family), friends and work. In the event that one corner of the triangle is lost then most people will throw themselves into the other two. How often do we someone at the end of a relationship get drunk with friends and throw themselves into their work? How many times do we see people lose a job and throw themselves into their friends and family as a result? The advisor who told me of this idea said that most people can lose one of the trinity and be OK, strong people can lose two and make it work. I quietly sat there and thought “but I’ve lost all 3”. I’d just left a relationship of 6 years for a new job in a country where my closest friend (geographically) was a 4 hour plane journey away.
In those early weeks I made more than my fair share of mistakes and I did some things that I regret. Some of these things were done simply through not knowing any better. Some things because I was still stuck in old habits. But I think the worst thing that can happen is that when you’re whole life seems out of control is that you reach out for anything that resembles normality. Ultimately, the reason you left was to escape whatever that normality was – you were bored and/or unhappy with what that life was, if you weren’t then you would not have made such an extreme decision to move countries.
It took me a month to get past the desire to just apologise, thank everyone for the opportunity and just get on a plane. I never reached the point where I was actually look at plane tickets, but I did promise an alternative. Instead of leaving right now I decided that I would buy a ticket back for Christmas, actually taking some holiday, some time away from the stress and surround myself with people that love me in an environment that is easy.
Having a goal helped. Having a date helped. Knowing that I would be going back to a place where I wasn’t constantly having to think, to translate, to stay alert. I realised that thanks to less than dignified end to a PhD I had not had any real time off in over a year. Between defending my PhD and getting on a plane there had been about a week, which had been mostly filled with trying to see as many people as possible before I left and getting stuff sorted and ready – you know like a visa. That Christmas, I went back to the house where I grew up and slept more than 14 hours a day for the first week I was there.
As it turned out the PhD was probably the worst thing about the move. The strict deadline I had to get the thesis corrections done meant that any time that I was not at the new job and trying to wrap my head around a new project was spent with my nose to a different monitor.
After a month the cabin fever kicked in and I just needed to be out. After a quick phone call to a friend of a friend I ended up having one of the best nights of my life. This resulting in a re-evaluation of my work/life balance and a much healthier approach to things. It also showed me that things weren’t so bad and that no matter where you go, no matter the culture, no matter the language, people are people and at the end of the week people want to let their hair down.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Israel has made me reconsider my whole life. It has changed me in ways that I never could have imagined. I came here expecting this to be a big chapter of my life and to leave a different person, but I never realised just how much I could change whilst still staying exactly the same.
In those darkest of hours when the whole world is starting to become too much, you find your true colours, your true self. In your mind there comes a point where you can quit, you can run away and hide under a stone for the rest of your life or you can stand up, stare your problems in the face and move past them.
A move to another country makes you fiercely independent to an extent I never thought was possible. When you have literally no one around you, what choice do you have but to throw yourself in at the deep end. It forces you to be accountable. It forces you to grow up. It forces you to grow as a person.
In my time here I have grown friendships that will last for the rest of my life and yet in this whole time I’m yet to have a meaningful exchange with a native English speaker. A typical day at work involves Italians, Colombians, Israelis and Armenians in the office, lunch with Germans, and conversation with Russians and French to name but a few. I love that every day I learn something new about the world – this week I discovered that Jews don’t like looking at rainbows because it is apparently God remembering that after Noah he promised not to destroy all of us again.
In this time I have learnt that if you want something, then it’s OK to ask. If you’re struggling then it’s OK to ask for help. Fundamentally almost everybody tries to good. Stand in the middle of Tel Aviv with a map and a puzzled face and you’ll be swarmed by little old ladies trying to help even though they can’t speak your language. People ask you for directions and even if you speak only a few words of their language, they’re delighted that you took the time to try.
People are genuinely amazing, fascinating creatures. We all love to listen to a good story and no one has better stories than someone who has lived a different life to your own.
As I look forward towards the next chapter in my life, I look again to a new country and another new continent and once again a new culture. For this is the real truth, so much of our life is dictated by fear, fear of the unknown, fear of leaving the comfortable. But if you are brave enough. If you have the strength to be bold. To take that first step. Then you open yourself to a whole world of possibilities. When the whole world is yours, then why would you ever stay in a place that makes you anything less than happy. The hardest part of any journal is the first step.