Friday, January 3, 2014

Language Learning

When we first got to Israeli, I started an intensive Hebrew language course. For 4 weeks, I went to class every day for 2.5 hours of private instruction. Some days I even had an afternoon outing in Hebrew. I think my justification for doing this had two parts - it would keep me from getting bored and it would make it easier to find a job. I'm not sure if I really believed that knowing Hebrew would help with the job search, but I figured that it couldn't hurt.

Anyway, the plan was to take this course, look for a job, and maybe return to the course if my job search didn't bear fruit. Alas, I was lucky and started a job not too long after the course finished. I figured that I would come back to Hebrew "in a month or two," once I'd gotten my feet on the ground at my job. Work even offered to pay a bit for me to take classes. Eventually, the "maybe next month" turned into a full year of me not taking any Hebrew. Then one of the more powerful features of the foreign service came to the rescue - time.

If there's one thing that makes the foreign service life both terrible and amazing, it's the limited time that you have at post. I was able to use this to my advantage by telling myself that if I wanted to learn Hebrew more than just menu reading, then I'd have to actually commit to it, which would mean investing time (and money) in courses. Since I had had a good experience with the private lessons the previous year, I signed up for private lessons twice a week in the morning, for 2.5 hours. (Yes, my employer is amazing for supporting me with this...)

The first month was great - I was surprised by how much I remembered from the previous year, and the newness of it made it exciting. The second month was also good, but my head was swimming with all of the vocabulary that I couldn't possibly remember. The third month was tough - with anything, you start to plateau with how much you can absorb.

Part of what made the third month so hard is I started to really understand how little I know. I mean, it seems obvious, but when you're doing great in your little private lessons it's easy to forget the breadth of a language. What brought me back down to reality was an hour long conversation over Facebook with my Spanish teach/great friend from El Salvador. As we talked in Spanish, I loved how easily the Spanish thoughts flowed to me (something that doesn't happen in Hebrew) and then I also remembered how even though I can have great conversations in Spanish, I still struggle with understanding people with different accents and I struggle with stories that people tell when I can't get the context. It's much worse in Hebrew.

Anyway, I powered through and finished up the 3 months of classes. Every 2 weeks I had to write a story to share with others at a 'graduation' lunch and so I decided that I would spend a bit more time on the story for my last week. The story itself is like something a 2nd grader would write, but it does use present, past, and future tenses. I'm definitely proud of the progress I've made, even though it's highly likely that I'll never speak Hebrew well enough to have a conversation with a cab driver.

So now I'm wondering what's next. First - I need to get people at work to start speaking to me in Hebrew more. Second - I need to work on my comprehension. Getting people at work to talk to me is hard, mainly because I have to find the right people to talk to. There are those who are supportive, patient, and find good ways to help me improve and then there are those who find ways to denigrate my Hebrew - so, my plan is to identify the jerks and avoid Hebrew with them :). To kickstart my Hebrew-at-work, I agreed to read my little Hebrew story in front of everyone at work (30 people). It was a bit scary, but hopefully worth it (thanks to Michal for encouraging me to do it!). On the comprehension front, many have suggested watching TV (something I really don't do, even in English) so I think I'll start watching X-Factor, Prisoners of War (חטופים - the original Homeland). I may also take a co-worker up on his offer to lend me some of his kid's books. We'll see.

How bout you? How do you stay motivated to learn a new language?

Friday, December 6, 2013


As you can tell, it's been a really long time since I've posted. I've found that it's much harder to post here because life feels pretty normal - Sophie and I both work in an office, we're both enjoying our jobs, we both ride a bike to work - it's just that when we go on a trip, the places we go are in Israel (or other countries that are closer-to-us-than-they've-ever-been). I have thoroughly enjoyed working in Israel and I wish I could put my thoughts about this place into eloquent words, but, alas, it's much easier to talk about it over a glass of wine, so - uh - just come visit.

So, let's talk about Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving. I loved it when we were in the US and I think I love it even more being abroad. There's just something special about sharing a night of good food with good company, especially when the company is varied when it comes to regional traditions. For instance, we had a good friend in El Salvador who insisted that lasagna was an important part of Thanksgiving (I'm not buyin' it, but I'll eat it). Then there are the endless discussions about whether there's a different name for stuffing that is cooked inside the bird versus outside the bird (I contend that it's all stuffing since you end up stuffing yourself with it anyway). At the end of the day, Thanksgiving is great because the only expectation is to share it with others.

I didn't write about it, but we threw a "culebra" last year to celebrate my first month of working and it just so happened that it fell close to Thanksgiving, so we ended up throwing a Thanksgiving dinner party for my whole office. Sophie and I decided to reprise our roles as ambassadors of Southern Thanksgiving deliciousness this year and host them all again. All-in-all, we had fourteen Israelis, six Americans, and a Thanksgiving feast with everything: turkey, stuffing, cornbread casserole, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, pear & pecan salad, cranberry-apple crisp, two pecan pies, and a pumpkin pie. Yes, Sophie made a schedule for me to follow in order to get everything finished. Cooking the turkey was especially interesting since our oven is quite small - the 18.5 pound turkey was a bit crammed. I think next year I might just send them all recipes and ask them to bring a dish!

After sharing this experience with all of them, we then turned our focus to Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day. We sent out invites to a bunch of embassy friends and 28 responded that they would be coming. Yikes! We borrowed tables, plates, silverware, and glasses from neighbors. I think everyone had a great time and everyone was able to share their various family dishes. It was quite the spread.

Apple pie... mmmm....
Finally, some friends invited us to a third Thanksgiving on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, so all-in-all we took part in three Thanksgiving meals. We've been eating pecan pie ever since. How about you? What did you do for Thanksgiving this year?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Political Correctness

US work culture has become very politically correct. Of course I always knew this, but living and working in Israel has really opened my eyes to how much political correctness is ingrained in my everyday work interactions.

When I worked in the US, I distinctly remember conversations that would drift into issues about gender, ethnicity, politics, and other topics and, although I wouldn't say that anything particularly offensive was said in these conversations, I could feel the collective "this conversation is about to take a turn for the worse" and then I would witness the subsequent change-in-topic. Even if this change-in-topic didn't occur, if you were to tell someone later "hey, man - you should probably watch what you say about <topic> because that might offend <other person>," then that person would usually understand and try to adjust their behavior. I think I've taken that sort of interaction for granted.

Here in Israel, things are a bit different. With some things, there just seems to be much less ingrained empathy. Not to say people aren't friendly - in general, people are very friendly here (well, at least in our encounters mainly around Tel Avi) - it's just that when it comes to some things, people here are more unapologetic about their opinions or comments.

In my first few weeks of working, I was a bit appalled at the variety of topics covered. First there was the politics. The conventional wisdom in the US is that you shouldn't talk about religion or politics at work. Well, that idea hasn't reached Israel yet. I would say that most of my early lunch conversations revolved around these issues. Oftentimes these conversations would lead to arguments with raised voices - something that I both love (if I'm involved) and cringe at (if I'm just a bystander). I started working right around the time of the US elections, and everyone was interested to know who I was voting for. They were particularly confused when I would try to avoid the conversation by saying things like "well, I dunno, we'll see" or "I have my own opinions..." They'd badger me, not understanding how I either didn't know who I was voting for or how I didn't want to talk about it. I eventually caved, but I had a distinct feeling of discomfort if the conversation about politics involved more than just one person.

The other work conversations that make me uncomfortable are more gender related. Software engineering is definitely a male dominated profession, especially in Israel, but our office has quite a few women in it. As such, I try to avoid any topics or discussions that feel too much like a discussion that you'd have in a frat house, mainly because I feel like those conversations probably make the women in the office feel uncomfortable. However, I've had quite a few conversations that make me feel uncomfortable, and it seems like the women either ignore it or are just used to it (well, probably both). This past week, a whole-company (30 people) email chain got a bit inappropriate, leading to the office manager (a woman) telling us to stop the discussion. This particular email chain had about 20 replies, but I had immediately recognized the inappropriateness of the emails and was a bit surprised that the chain didn't stop sooner and that it required a woman in the office to say something. I was glad that the office manager had cut off the conversation, but some of my colleagues were confused about why the office manager had complained, saying things like "I don't know what the big deal is, that didn't offend me."

Of course I'm generalizing here - the US is not devoid of confrontation or offensive emails - but when it comes to the workplace I'm used to, being politically incorrect seems to be more the norm here. On the one hand, it's a bit refreshing to hear more unvarnished opinions from my coworkers. On the other hand, I understand the importance of political correctness and I have to say that I actually find a lot of comfort in political correctness.

Share your thoughts - international workers out there - have you experienced these differences-in-workplaces? Has this made you more aware of the goods and bads of American work culture?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Life in Israel (Part 2)

So, I had written a fair bit more in the previous post but it seems to have disappeared. This is because I tapped out the post on my phone, and the Blogger app had, for some reason, created two post entries that I thought were the same, so I deleted one of them. Guess I chose wrong. Oops. With that in mind, I thought I would just make a new post and finish my previous thoughts.

I've been working in Israel for over 3 months now. It's been a great experience. I love the people I work with and Klarna TLV is generally just a fun place to work. There are days where I miss the convenience of working from home - the Aeron chair, no socks, 15 second commute - but overall I've enjoyed having more human interaction.

As other trailing spouses have pointed out (more elegantly than I will), there are some definite drawbacks to working in the local economy, especially in Tel Aviv. The first and most obvious is that my vacations don't typically overlap with Sophie's, which means that we can't really use our vacation days efficiently. The other less obvious problem with working in Israel is that the US Embassy & USAID in Tel Aviv work the Monday-Friday schedule, while every other business in the region works a Sunday-Thursday schedule. This means that I have every Friday to myself and Sophie has every Sunday to herself, and we can't do overnight things on Saturday night (or Thursday night). It also means that there are very few shared 3-day weekends. Ze basa.

I'm not sure if I've made this obvious, but I don't really speak Hebrew. I took some language classes when we first got here and at the time I felt pretty confident with basic social interaction, but that knowledge and confidence has faded a fair bit over the last few months. Everyone in my office speaks English very well, so it's felt sufficient to just know English, but there are days where it's hard not knowing Hebrew. With people in my office it's easy, but if I go to a conference or a MeetUp, I have to build up my confidence to blast into someone's space and start speaking English with them. I consider myself fortunate that there is another person in my office who doesn't speak Hebrew, and it's been interesting to me how much I notice when he's on vacation. If we have an office get-together and people are milling around beforehand, I'm very aware that the only person speaking English is the person speaking to me, so it makes me feel like a bit of a nuisance sometimes. This is of course to-be-expected, but I've found it interesting how very different it feels when the only English I hear is the conversation I'm involved in compared to when I can hear another English conversation, however soft or far away it may be. Having that other ongoing English conversation is oddly comforting. Anyway, I'll probably start taking more Hebrew classes in the next few weeks, which might mean that I'll say more than just 'sababa' (cool), 'boker tov' (good morning), and 'man yanim' (what's up?) in the office, but no guarantees.

Not knowing the language also has its perks. Consider this. I was interested in making a pound cake, so I stopped by the grocery store and found all the necessities except for the cream cheese. Well, I did find cream cheese, but it's the Philadelphia brand and a block of it was the equivalent of $5-6. Since Israel has a lot of dairy products, I figured that there was probably an equivalent product that cost more like $1, so I got to work comparing the letters on the Philadelphia box to the letters on other cheese containers. I couldn't find a match, so I decided that I would get the nice, English speaking cashier to help me. She very confidently told me that they had 'skim' cream cheese, and pointed to where it was. Now, I say that I don't know Hebrew, but I can mostly read and I can especially read it when it's just an English word written in the Hebrew alphabet... and I knew that this container said it was cottage cheese. So now I was left with the awkward experience where if I rejected the cottage cheese, I might make the nice cashier feel bad, and it wouldn't make much sense for me to buy the Philadelphia cheese, since I had just complained about the cost. So, I decided to just buy the cottage cheese with the off-chance hope that maybe, just maybe, I was reading it wrong. When I got home, I confirmed that it was in fact cottage cheese, and I tried to figure out how to handle the situation, so I googled for cream cheese substitutes and discovered that some people actually substitute pureed cottage cheese for cream cheese, 1:1. סבבה, I thought, so I opened the cottage cheese container and the top of it was completely smooth. I stupidly thought to myself "wow! I bought pureed cottage cheese!" and dumped it into the mixing bowl, only to discover that the cottage cheese was, in fact, normal, chunky, cottage cheese. Oh well. The pound cake actually turned out just about perfect and tasted a bit lighter than the cream cheese version, and so now I know that I can put cheaper, lighter cottage cheese in my mom's pound cake recipe - something I never would have discovered in my normal, cheap English-labeled Philadelphia cream cheese world of yesteryear.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Life in Israel (Part 1)

It's been quite a while since I posted anything on this blog. Part of that is because I've been busy, but I think part of it is that I also know that there's a much higher liklihood that someone I know in Israel will read the posts. In El Salvador I felt like I had a fair amount of online anonymity because I felt like, at most, my embassy friends would read it.
However, I'm not in El Salvador anymore. I quickly realized that once we got to our high rise apartment in Tel Aviv along the beach. We can drink the water. We can walk almost everywhere without fear of being robbed. Most people that we meet speak English well. Life is different here.
As I said in my last post, I got a job in the "local economy" working as a software engineer for Klarna. They're a Swedish company who enables online payments centered around "try before you pay" and they opened an Israel office about a year before I started.
So far it's been a great experience. I think I was a bit naive when I was doing my job search at the beginning. I assumed that employing me would be easy peasy, so I was looking at a large breadth of companies. Looking back, I think that it would have been hard to work at some of the smaller places because, well, they really didn't seem to have well functioning HR departments and, like it or not, I'm an anomaly. Not being an Israeli presents all kinds of weird annoyances to working here.
First, there's the national ID. It's a 9 digit number where the 9th digit is a checksum digit. This means that every system where you enter your ID will deny you if your 9 digits don't check out. Of course, US passports have 9 digits, so I figured I could use that in most places. Nope. This means that the insurance agent does things like... making up a random number that involves my birthday and passes the checksum validation and then uses that on the official documents for me. What could possibly go wrong with this? This debacle has also meant that I have been unable to get an Israeli credit card through work... they just can't wrap their head around the fact that a non-citizen would want one of those.
The other thing is taxes and pensions. While I felt reasonably secure in El Salvador that I was paying the correct taxes, I have no such feeling here. Hopefully the tax people (yes, plural) will assuage my fears.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Unemployed no more!

I start a new job tomorrow! I'll be working as a software developer for a company here in Israel. I can't wait!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Off to Israel

Our final days in the US were quite quick. We had a wedding to go to in Knoxville on the night before we left, and since Sophie was in the wedding, we had to drive up there the day before. We had a great time at the wedding - since a significant number of our friends from DC and Chattanooga went to the wedding, we were able to say a final goodbye. However, we did have to wake up in Knoxville the morning after the wedding and make the 2 hour drive back to Chattanooga, pack, and get on our plane.

We were looking forward to an easy day of flying, but of course, we were mistaken. Our flights were Chattanooga to DC, DC to Newark, and then Newark to Tel Aviv. Unbeknowst to us, United had decided to cancel the DC to Newark flight we were on, meaning that we would miss the Newark to Tel Aviv flight. This happened a full hour before we left Chattanooga and United could have notified us and instead flown us to Charlotte and then on to Newark, but that would be too logical. Instead, we were caught off-guard and didn't find out that the flight was cancelled until we arrived in DC. At first, the United people told us that we could only fly out on the flight that left the next day, which I was actually pretty happy about, since we could have spent the night in DC and had another night with friends. However, it is quite annoying to change plans so drastically, so we asked the obvious question of whether there was another way for us to get to Tel Aviv, perhaps on a different carrier. We soon discovered that we could take a later flight to Newark, taxi to JFK, and fly out on an El Al flight, albeit 4 hours later than our original flight. What fun!

Of course United would pay for our taxi fare to JFK, right? Well, sort of. They did pay the $85(!) fare to JFK, but they neglected to give us enough money to pay for the tolls and tip, which amounted to about $40 more. You'd think that this thing is common enough that they'd know what the total cost of the far would be, but I digress. When we got to JFK, we were asked a few silly questions about who packed our bags, but the people at El Al weren't joking. I felt like any response that was perceived incorrectly would lead to us not getting on the flight, so I decided to keep my snickering to a minimum. The people at El Al were nice enough, just very serious. There was a bit of discussion between the security people before they came forward and asked us, in an incredulous tone, "why did you get your Israeli visa in San Salvador!?" When we answered that we were living there at the time, their eyes brightened and they welcomed us into the ticketing line. We got our tickets and headed to the gate. Of course, at this point it was around midnight, so the TSA people manning the security line were not in the best of moods, and I guess I can't blame them.

When we actually arrived at the gate, there were a lot of people sitting around, waiting. I couldn't help but notice that the gate attendants were occasionally walking through the seating area checking for unattended bags under seats as well as checking the trash cans for what I can only assume to be bombs. Also, about 45 minutes prior to boarding, a pair of heavily armed Port Authority (I think) men came and stood out front of the gate. Like, with large rifles that I'm used to only seeing in Central America, not the US. Needless to say, this made me wonder what the hell we'd gotten ourselves into. Then there's the rather odd slogan of El Al - "It's not just an airline... it's Israel!" All of this made me a little antsy. Once we got on the plane, though, that anxiety went away. The flight to Tel Aviv was uneventful and comfortable.

We arrived into Tel Aviv at night and were met by one of Sophie's coworkers, a friend who we'd met back in DC a few years prior. Of course our bags hadn't made the trek from Newark to JFK, but El Al assured us that we would receive them the next day. We arrived at our new place in Tel Aviv and promptly went to bed. Our social sponsors were nice enough to stock our fridge with some food, and they also left us with a huge amount of a delicious chicken and rice dish.

We woke the next morning to a great view of the Mediterranean, a view that we'll have for the next 4 years. After months of preparation, anxiety, excitement, and nervousness, we had arrived and settled into our new home in Tel Aviv!