After taking my A level exams and leaving school, I embarked on a gap year. This was 1993, and back then, taking a gap year was not as common as it is today. Only two other students from my school took a gap year at the same time that I did; everyone else either went straight to university or got a job. Thanks to my weekends spent working in a bakery, I had saved enough money to be able to afford to take a year out from education, so persuading my parents that this was the best decision for me was not quite as difficult as it otherwise could have been.
So what did I do with this new-found freedom? Why, I went to live in Israel for three months, working as a volunteer on a kibbutz, much to the surprise of, well, pretty much everyone really. I wanted to escape, to get away from everything that was familiar, including my family (not that there was anything wrong with them; I was just an eighteen year old who needed his independence). More of a lifestyle choice than a job, my three months working abroad were transformative. It was my first time living away from home, my first time traveling alone, my first time to be completely free from anyone that had known me up until that point, my first time working in a foreign country, my first time to really go on what I considered to be a proper adventure. It felt wonderful.
One of the most unexpected outcomes of this experience was that I became closer to my family, despite the fact that I was now thousands of miles away. I was a prolific letter writer, eager to share with my family all the things I was doing and seeing in Israel, and my maternal grandfather, in particular, really opened up to me in the letters he sent me in reply.
My grandmother had suffered a stroke a few months before and finally returned home from hospital the week after I went to Israel. Just as my world was opening up, my grandfather’s world was shrinking around him, becoming more restrictive; suddenly, he was my grandmother’s full-time carer. He wrote: such a lot to do, what with looking after your Gran, and washing up and cooking, finding time to get in the garden, and getting the shopping (it’s) a full-time job.
He wrote to me about how my grandmother was doing, how she was happy to be home again, but also wrote to me about his experiences abroad during the war, stories that he had never before, or since, talked about. The war was something he never discussed, I assumed because it was too painful, which was in stark contrast to my other grandparents who talked about the war almost all the time. I was writing to him about Israel, and in return he wrote to me about India.
Life as a kibbutz volunteer
I didn’t receive any wages; instead, volunteers were given free board and lodging (including all meals) and a small allowance in the form of credit that could be spent at the kibbutz grocery store or pub. The actual work that I did was menial at best, but all volunteers were rotated around regularly, so we experienced a variety of jobs. During my three months there I operated the dishwasher in the kitchen, trimmed hedges with a petrol-powered chainsaw, cleaned the swimming pool, moved old furniture around on a tractor and trailer, pulled up weeds, helped with deliveries to the food store, and worked on irrigation.
More importantly, I met and made friends with people from America, Australia, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and France as well as from all over the UK; some of them are my friends still.
One of my most treasured possessions is the journal that I had written during my time in Israel. It was the first time I had made the effort to write a journal, to record my thoughts, feelings and experiences. I would love to tell you that it is a literary masterpiece, full of insight and wit, a wonderful example of travel writing that only an exceptional eighteen year-old genius could have written, but of course, it is none of those things. The language is clumsy, the writing dull and often cringeworthy, but it remains an artifact from a time, long ago, when a young guy went off on an adventure for the very first time.
Here an excerpt from my kibbutz journal:
Today, a very embarrassing thing happened to me. I walked home after work to have a shower, as usual. Our bathroom: there is no bath, only a sink that’s hanging off the wall, a hosepipe-like shower and a grubby toilet. Oh, and there’s no lock on the door (we’re lucky to have a whole door). I undressed and was about to step into the shower when I decided to shave first. I’d shaved half my face when the incident happened; there I was, standing naked at the sink, then the door suddenly opened. It was Christina, who saw me, screamed, and shut the door. So far we have avoided bumping into each other, but within the confinements of the kibbutz, it is inevitable.
Three months later, I returned home, changed; suddenly, the world seemed full of opportunities, with more (so many more) places that I wanted to explore. I knew that I wasn’t going to be restricted by seeking employment only in my home country; I was heading into the future with my eyes wide open to the world. In short, I had developed a sense of confidence which had previously been lacking.