'We Came to Israel From London for 48 Hours, to Get Vaccinated'

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Noga and Lee Vakin.
Noga and Lee Vaknin.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Noga and Lee Vaknin, 48 and 16; live in London, flying to Frankfurt and from there to London

Hi, where are you flying to?

Noga: To London. We live there and came for 48 hours only to be vaccinated. We’ll repeat the trip again in another three weeks. In the hope that his father will do the same thing soon. It’s very difficult to get here and then be in quarantine after not having seen the family and friends for so long.

How long have you been living in London?

Noga: We moved there five months ago. We hoped that this situation was going to end more quickly, but it doesn’t look like it’s going in the right direction. My husband is a security officer for El Al, he got the job in London and it’s for three years.

What do you do there?

Noga: I’m supposed to enjoy life there. But at the moment life is a bit on hold, so I’m at home. I’m a graphic designer and I work remotely with clients in Israel. We also have two younger children.

How did you cope with the move, Lee?

Lee: It was a little hard to leave my friends, but I think it’s an incredible, powerful experience. I’m in 11th grade and I’m attending an international school, so I meet kids from all over the world. I have friends from Japan, India, Germany and other places. We had four months of classes before the Christmas lockdown. We had frontal lessons for entire days, and it’s interesting to learn in English. It was a bit hard to see my friends in Israel in lockdown while I was going to school in London.

Were you envious?

Lee: They heard I was going to school and were envious of me.

Is school different compared to Israel?

Lee: Totally different. There are subjects I never would have studied in Israel, like economics or the theory of knowledge, which is like philosophy. History is not compulsory and you can’t study Bible at all there. The approach is very different: We show the teachers respect, and they show respect to us. You have to call them “Miss” or “Mrs.” The teachers are nice and helpful, there’s a personal relationship with them. It wasn’t like that in Israel. There are also smaller classes, of 15 to 20 kids; there are even some with five kids.

Noga: He integrated smoothly, but his siblings not so much. The little one is in the third grade and she doesn’t know English yet. She’s still getting acclimatized, via Zoom at the moment. Just before the lockdown, she started to play with girlfriends a little and was happy to get up in the morning, at last. Before that it was pretty nightmarish – crying, crying, crying. The middle one is in seventh grade. It’s a bit hard, but he’s all right.

What led you to think about moving abroad at all?

Noga: It was by chance. My husband got his discharge from the career army and he didn’t know what he was going to do next. It was a calm year, he was home, at last he was around. Then suddenly they called from El Al and offered him something [in London]. He said, “No way. If my wife hears about this, she’ll leave. It’s out of the question, we just moved into a new house two years ago.” He was persuaded to come to an interview and it developed from there. At first it was really tough to say yes, because things were good for us. But everyone who had done it said it was an amazing experience for the family, and that opens new worlds for the children.

Were the children in favor?

Noga: It has to be said to their credit – other than the youngest, whose opinion we didn’t really consider when we embarked on this journey – that they wanted it. We actually knew two years in advance that we were doing it, so we had time to prepare. But the fact that they wanted to go is amazing, certainly at Lee’s age. He had Scouts here, he was a group leader.

How did you inform them?

Noga: We held a meeting and told them officially. But we knew that if there were problems, it could endanger the whole thing.

Lee: Dad and I were on the way to the dentist, and he told me that you were [both] thinking about it. I always had a dream of living abroad for a time. I had hesitations about how hard it would be to leave my friends and the Scouts and start over. But I understood that it would be better to have the experience than to pass it up.

What hesitations did you have, Noga?

Noga: Moving is very difficult for me. Just moving from one place to another in the same city was very hard, I was in crisis. But I worked hard on myself. I decided we were going to go for it, and I’m happy with the choice.

And you’ll definitely come back?

Noga: Yes. It’s not that we left because things were bad for us. And Lee’s going into the army in two years. We went in the knowledge that it’s temporary, because, bottom line, this is where our life is – for good and for ill.

Haim Shemo.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Haim Shemo, 40; lives in Kibbutz Ein Carmel, arriving from Costa Rica via Frankfurt

Hi, Haim, where are you coming from?

I arrived from Costa Rica via a connection in Germany. My luggage stayed there; that’s a painful issue. Two surfboards, a suitcase and a trolley. Anyone who came from Central or South America – their luggage stayed somewhere in Germany. All I have on me is what I took on the plane: a laptop and a camera.

What do you photograph?

Mainly surfing. It helps us improve people’s surfing, to analyze the body and the motion. I have a surf club in Haifa called Galish, which is my main occupation.

Shemo surfing in Costa Rica.

What took you to Costa Rica?

They have the best waves in the world, sun, tranquility, calm, good food. I was there for two months giving lessons.

What does the schedule look like there?

You get up at 5:30 A.M., start surfing at 6:00, come out two hours later, have breakfast, rest a little and then back for surfing for an hour around midday. Then you come out of the water, eat, rest and surf again from 4:00 to 6:00 P.M. Every surfer has to be in the water in the morning and the evening. That is a must.

Did you see an improvement in their surfing?

It’s a dream of a place to learn how to surf. The shape of the wave, its structure and the fact that there are good waves every day allow for significant improvement. In Israel, you can have one day of waves and then a week and a half without. In Costa Rica there are long, regular waves. I surfed there on a [single] wave for a minute and a half. That gives you time to learn.

When did you start surfing?

In the 1990s, when I was 10. I’m from Haifa, I grew up in the Neve David neighborhood, near the beach. It’s not such a friendly neighborhood; the options were to hang out on the railings, to go to the sea or to play soccer. I didn’t really relate to soccer, so I went to the sea. I remember myself there from the age of 3, with my parents and the lifeguards and the hasaka [giant paddleboard used by lifeguards], and then at the age of 10, after seeing the surfers every day, I had the courage to ask one to let me try. Right away I bought myself a surfboard for 50 shekels, all my savings at that time. Three years later, for my bar mitzvah, I didn’t want any parties, all I wanted was a surfboard for 1,400 shekels, which was crazy then.

What do you still like about surfing today?

It’s been 30 years, and I’ve decided to pass it on to the next generation. I love teaching no less than surfing, sometimes maybe a little more. I work with the Center for the Blind and have two blind pupils. When you see them succeed at surfing, it’s a lot more satisfying than catching a wave three or four meters high.

How do you teach a blind person to surf?

It takes two instructors in the water. One helps the person verbally, says when the wave is starting to come. The blind person has to use all their senses and understand how to feel when the wave arrives. You explain when it’s time to start paddling, and after a few times they get it. By the end of the day, they can stand on the surfboard – at first it’s for a second or two. Of course we’re not talking about professional surfing, but to lie on the surfboard, to paddle and then stand on it – they do that incredibly. By the way, there was a competition this year for blind surfers, and one of my pupils, Tomer, participated, and finished in third place.

Where did the idea for helping the blind come from?

One day a charming mom came to the club with an autistic child and asked whether I could work with him in the water. Of course I replied in the affirmative. I felt fulfilled by that more than by anything else, and so I looked for more projects.

What difficulties come up in teaching an autistic child how to surf?

The first year, it meant taking him by the hand to the waterline, laying him down on the surfboard and sending him into a wave with another instructor, who was waiting for him. At first he only lay on the board. Standing came after about a year. Today, we’re four years later, and the boy attends surfing day camps like all the other kids. He sits by himself, takes a surfboard, enters the water – he’s independent.

Amazing. So, besides the club, what’s waiting for you in Israel?

I’ve come back to a wife and two children, a complete life. She didn’t think it would be two months, and neither did I.

How does surfing fit in with family life?

My wife is my antithesis. I met her 16 years ago, when she was 18, and today she’s a high-tech person. The children surf with me in the sea, my wife is very pleased – she has quiet and it all works marvelously.

Does she surf, too?

Only on the internet.

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