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A Love Story from Long-Distance to Zero-Distance

LauraTrevorWeddin_20200827-101830_1Trevor and Laura at their wedding in Vancouver

My Experience as a Canadian Postdoc in Israel

My wife Laura said to me "What is today, only Monday? Ugh, three more days till the weekend, then two more weeks till the end of the month, then six more months till we go back to Canada." When I heard this, I was gutted. This Israeli adventure I had taken us on, Laura was counting down its days like a prison sentence. She had moved here for me, for love, and she could not wait to leave.

Laura and I met while playing on a recreational league softball team in Toronto, Canada. I immediately noticed her, a friendly, fun teammate with manicured nails who rode her bicycle to games. She was beautiful, and while we would wait for our turn to bat, she shared her dried mangoes with me. She had an easy, musical laugh, which I tried to elicit by coming up with silly, spirit-filled cheers to call out to our teammates at bat. "Get a hit Serene— Be mean! Come on Laurie! Smash it— Make 'em sorry!" Laura was a good player, too. On defense, we teamed up to turn several double plays. I first asked her out by email . . . which she ignored. But eventually, after a game one day, I asked her in person. We started dating and we clicked.

Fast forward three years: we had just moved into an apartment in Toronto. As I finished my PhD in inorganic chemistry, I was awarded an Azrieli fellowship to do research as a postdoc in Israel. A great opportunity for me to work with one of my chemistry heroes, I jumped at the chance. Laura had recently started a new job in Toronto, so we decided it was best for me to go and for her to stay.We started the long-distance chapter of our relationship, Laura in Toronto, and me in Israel.

Laura on the balcony in the Yemenite Quarter, Tel Aviv
Trevor enjoying a quiet moment in Mitzpe Ramon

As a Christian, I was excited to move to the land I read about in the Bible. The Red Sea, the Jordan River, Jerusalem, Bethlehem. The geopolitics and tense security situation did not dissuade me; those factors just added to the excitement of the experience. Plus, the beach! I love sun, surf, partial nudity, and amusement projectiles. I liked seeing people's surprised reactions when I told them I was moving to Israel. Such an exotic destination, an adventurous move I felt, compared to my colleagues finishing their PhDs who tended to stay in Toronto or move to the USA or maybe Western Europe. I did not have family or friends in Israel, or any connections really, other than the few emails I exchanged with my research group leader.

So, I moved to Israel. I lived in Rehovot, a few minutes walk from the chemistry lab where I did my research at the Weizmann Institute of Science. My lab is in one of the older buildings on campus, right next to the lab of Chaim Weizmann himself. In a hot, bustling country, Weizmann's lush, green, peaceful environment was a science oasis. Everyone I met seemed to be a brilliant scientist. Free of the undergraduates and non-scientists at universities I am used to; the coffee queue is 2-3 people long instead of 20-30. And so many adorable cats everywhere. Driven to pursue a career as a professor, I threw myself into my new research project trying to make chemistry greener using new boron materials. To keep my spirits up I joined the Rehovot Owls rugby team, which was more of a beer drinking team, but it was such a blessing to have a whole bunch of yanshufim new friends. I had to learn my first Hebrew words to know where to pass the ball, yemina or smoleh? And when to be chazak!

Laura and I visited each other in person every two months or so. In between visits, the seven- hour time difference between Toronto and Israel made it difficult to connect, but we settled on a routine where she would call me in the mornings before she went to work, which was in the afternoon after lunch for me. On weekends we would enjoy longer video calls.

Have you heard of the "five love languages"? According to author Gary Chapman, we experience love in five ways: gifts, affirmations, physical touch, acts of service, and quality time. My primary love language is physical touch. If Laura and I are in the same room, we are likely touching. So, it was awfully hard for me to be away from her. However, I had plenty of distractions in my new life in Israel, which was filled with novelty. New friends, new culture, new language, new research challenges. This was the excitement that I wanted when I chose to come to Israel for a postdoc.

However, Laura did not have this novelty. Her life in Toronto was the same as before - minus me. While we were apart, every small obstacle that came our way seemed double the size it would have been had we been together. Like when Laura had noisy neighbors keeping her up all night, or household pests, or being all alone in an apartment chilled by the Canadian winter. The distance made it hard to help or provide much comfort, and Laura had to face these challenges all alone. There were small obstacles in our relationship but there were larger ones too. In smooth patches it was tough to talk just for twenty minutes per day, but in rough patches it was tough to quarrel for just twenty minutes a day. The trials of our long-distance relationship sapped our energy, making it easier for each of us to feel lonely and overwhelmed.

Eating hamantaschen in Toronto, Canada, missing Israel!

We were apart for one year, which was long enough. We decided to turn our long-distance relationship into a zero-distance relationship, so I encouraged Laura to move to Israel to be with me. She asked for a multi-slide PowerPoint presentation addressing the details of our lives here. I painted a picture of us, united at last, lying together in the sun. Trade those Canadian snowbanks in for Middle Eastern palm trees! Trade those midnight Toronto racoons in for the adorable cats of Israel! Join me next to the Mediterranean Sea with a matkot paddle in one hand and a cool drink in the other! Take a break from your stuffy office and enjoy some leisure, adventure, and possibility! What will we see? Where will we travel? Who will we meet? She was convinced and took a one-year leave of absence from her event planning job and joined me in Israel.

I tried to prepare a bit for Laura to come. Since most of my friends in Rehovot were rugby guys or chemistry postdocs, I thought it would be better for us to find an apartment in Tel Aviv, where there would be more opportunities for her/us to meet people. So, we began to apartment hunt.

Years earlier back in Toronto, our home city, searching for an apartment was not exactly our favorite activity. It was a chore: looking through all the listings, finding a good one, going to the good listing's open house and seeing that 30 other people also want it too. But Tel Aviv apartment hunting was a whole different challenge.We were new to the culture and could not speak the language. My friend from Tel Aviv warned me it would be tough, pointing me to a Facebook group called (in Hebrew) "Tel Aviv Apartment Hunting Makes Me Sad" and yeah, it was no fun.

We would log on to the Yad2 website to search for listings and google translate the Hebrew listings so we could find out the location of the apartment. Then, if we wanted to see the landlord's contact information, we clicked on a link which showed a screen full of Hebrew script that we had to type out in order to see the contact info. I would snap a picture of the script and send it to my friend who would translate it, send it back to me and I would type it in, hopefully before the link expired. Then I would call the number and hope that the person spoke English. If not, I would shout into the phone, "slicha . . . bevakasha, ani rotse <<take a look>> at . . . <<apartment>> shel ha". If lucky, I would go to the viewing. Inevitably it was a tiny run-down apartment renting for way too many thousand shekels per month. After several repetitions of this cycle, and as our moving date grew closer, we began to worry.

It was this worry that led us to go above our budget to rent a tiny studio apartment in Kerem HaTeimanim (Yemenite Vineyard). Right in Carmel Market, five minutes walk from the sea. For the first month we went jogging on the boardwalk, spent our weekends at the beach, and explored the bars and restaurants of Tel Aviv via "Lime" or "Bird" electric scooter. We immediately put a hammock on the roof and watched the birds and the stars. We made friends with the neighborhood cats. We also donated a fair amount of blood to the neighborhood mosquitos. Our bedtime routine involved sealing the perimeter of our home, followed by a mosquito hunt led by Laura, who developed a technique of felling mosquitoes hiding on the ceiling by throwing a carefully aimed pillow at them.

After the novelty and excitement of Laura's first month wore off, loneliness began to set in. Laura had to build the ingredients of her life in Israel from next to nothing. Her visa did not allow her to work, so her days had many free hours. She took over the household work, cooking, cleaning, and bills, but she only knew me, and I was in the chemistry lab for the whole day, five days a week. At this time, Laura described to me how she was counting down the days until we would go back to Canada, which filled me with disappointment and guilt. I thought we were going to have an adventure together that would make our lives better, but now Laura's seemed to be worse. I questioned myself. I did this to us; Laura made this sacrifice for me. Why? So, I could have an adventure, publish research papers, chase my dream of becoming a professor? A bit selfish is it not? And what if I took my shot at being a professor and came up short?


Laura in the Negev

 Laura took the initiative to start meeting new people on her own during the hours I was at work. Laura volunteered at the Arab-Jewish Community Center in Jaffa, where she tutored kids in conversational English and helped a high school student pass her final English exam. Inspired by the buildings in and around our neighborhood, she started an Instagram account called "Doors of Tel Aviv" where each day she would post a picture of a unique door she saw in her travels around the city. Each new thing she tried gave her more confidence to try the next thing.

A competitive improviser in her high school drama class, Laura had always spoken fondly of improv, but she seemed to have retired from it. She found a local English-speaking improv club and decided to try it out. The night of her first improv meeting, I made sure to come home from work early. Prone to shyness, her "bail percent probability" on going to such an activity full of new people was going to be high. So, when I got home, I encouraged her, blasted some pump-up music, and told her to go get 'em! She came back better than she left, energized and more confident to go out on her own. Her trips by herself in the city led her to practice a bit of Hebrew. To improve her language skills, she enrolled in and volunteered for a private ulpan called "This is Not an Ulpan". She had such a great time that after her first week of classes our rooftop was full of new friends. By day Laura attended classes and explored the city with her new friends. By night, she would teach me the Hebrew she learned and practiced. She adapted, adjusted, and became more confident. She would find spots in the city and say, "oh you gotta try this place for sabich", "you gotta go to this cocktail bar's happy hour". "This store has the cheapest groceries". "Let's check out this Hebrew rap show". During a Thursday evening party on our rooftop, one of my Rehovot chemistry buddies took me aside and said, "Trevor, I'm impressed.Look at all these people who came to your party - I did not know you had it in you (to make all these cool friends)". Well, I did not.Laura made all these friends and I was so proud of her.

Our friends! I am so grateful to our friends! Israeli friends who taught me what was up and helped me get settled. Azrieli Foundation friends who welcomed and nurtured us, chemistry friends who helped and encouraged me in my work, rugby friends who took the piss out of me, expat friends we experienced Israel with. All these kind and generous people who had us over for Shabbat dinners, took us camping, showed us the country. We shared our adventure, experiencing it with them, the struggles, successes, and celebrations. We are eternally grateful to our friends who made our time in Israel unforgettable, vibrant, and fun.

First, we survived, then we thrived. Sadly, it felt like as soon as we really got settled in Israel it was already time for us to move back to Canada away from all the new friends we made. We are now both back in Toronto, Laura returning to her job here, and I moving on to my next opportunity. Our time in Israel was so many things to us: an adventure, a way to see the world, a cultural immersion, a lesson in friendship-building, a relationship test, and an exercise in constructing a life together from scratch. I will always be grateful to Laura for her act of love and sacrifice to go from long-distance to zero-distance in Israel with me. 

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Wednesday, 23 September 2020

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