I met Jacobien, a Dutch lady who lives in Jerusalem, when I joined a group of people she was leading on a tour to Mea Sharim, an ultraorthodox Jewish area of Jerusalem. Jacobien has married an Israeli, Eytan, and has been living in Jerusalem for 13 years now. She has two children, one of whom was born in Holland and one born in Israel. Since 2009, she is a licensed tourist expatguide in Israel. Thank you Jacobien for this very interesting and complete interview!
What’s your professional background?
I was trained to be a social-financial advisor in Holland. I started to work for an NGO and after five years I shifted to a Municipality as head of the Social and Welfare department. I also worked as an author for schoolbooks and as a copywriter.
You were living in Holland with your husband and daughter. What made you decide to move to Israel?
We had been living in Holland, my home country, for more than ten years, and I suppose that we viewed the possibility of moving as an opportunity to start something new. After my husband received his PhD, from the University in Groningen, this became a real option. He applied for several Post-Doc positions, in Norway, the United States and in Israel. We chose Israel.
Although Eytan was born in Israel, we came here as expats. He started with a two year contract at the School for Pharmacy at the Hebrew University. We came with the idea of staying for two years, but things went their way: his contract was extended, After that, he worked for a pharmaceutical company and is now teaching at a College for Engineering. So here we are, thirteen years later. But it is not only his career that made us stay here. After all you can be a scientist everywhere in the world. The truth is that although we are aware of the complicated situation in our region, we live here because we like to live here. We both have works that we really love, have good friends and enjoy the environment.
When you arrived you had no job. How did you feel about it?
I didn’t feel the immediate need for a job. I viewed two years abroad as some sort of break, legitimate or not… Especially when you go somewhere outside the EU, you face a lot of restrictions or at least bureaucracy when it comes to permits of all sorts. I went through several stages. One day you progress very fast, another day, you are totally stuck. At the beginning I was very busy simply surviving, which is an occupation by itself. You have to find your way through a new way of living, you move around with your map, you get lost, and you keep on going, or else your world becomes smaller and smaller.
Another challenge is to create a total new circle of friends and a network. Although I missed some of my friends and family back home, I found that starting with new relationships generates energy. You can start over with new friends, meet people you would have never met back home, become flexible in using languages. School, when you have children, the neighborhood and a club or study are helpful.
Through a friend I connected with the Jerusalem Expat Network, where I met people who have been living here for quite a while. New horizons opened for me. The advantage of being an expat is that even if you cannot work professionally, there are still lots of things you can do. Being foreign makes it easier to cross borders and checkpoints. I see that that is helpful in many ways. Not so long after arriving, the position of Speakers Coordinator for the network became available and I applied. I held this position for a few years. It was sometimes stressful to find a suitable person for every monthly meeting, but it was also a way to be active in a public sphere. This and the fact that I was thinking seriously about a professional career, since our stay here in Jerusalem was prolonged, brought me to take actual steps in that direction.
So since your professional background was not useful here, you decided to reinvent yourself and to become a tourist guide. How did you go about it?
I did not really reinvent myself. I am a trained mediator. I know how to connect people to complex material that matters to them. So here I connect people to a partly (everybody has to some extent some knowledge about this region) unknown and complex country. Besides at school I loved History classes and Storytelling.
For me guiding means to connect people to this region by broadening horizons, by experience and through good storytelling. Living abroad means you get lots of visitors, you take them around; you see places, discover things. The next step for me was to put the knowledge I gained by living in this country into a professional framework.
But your knowledge of reality and languages is very vast, have you actively worked on it?
Yes, I have, although I did not have a real plan from the beginning. I studied Arabic and Hebrew. Not to become a scholar, but in order to communicate with people here. The nice thing is that my efforts paid off, because even before deciding to become a licensed guide, I had already put a lot of energy in studying languages and learning about the ‘what is going on’ reality here. The next step was to apply for the Offical Lisenced Tourguide Course. This is a two and a half year University study. Fortunately I enrolled and this course gave me a very broad knowledge of the region. Actually I never stop learning. I always check bookstores and libraries for interesting books or newspapers or magazines. There are many nice libraries in Jerusalem. And I collect stories.
What were the practical steps you took to start working in the tourism field?
At the beginning I worked a lot through my network from the Tour guide Course and from word to mouth contacts. I still do that, because it usually involves smaller groups, and I like working with small groups.
Then, I have contacts with different diplomatic missions here. People that work here are usually very knowledgeable about the field they work in, but like to get informed about other aspects. They want a deeper insight of how things work here. I specialize in well-defined areas. The Mea Sharim tour is an example. I also take their families or visitors around when they do not have the time to do it. Or when they want to enjoy with friends I can organize a trip with transportation, food etc.
Furthermore I live in an area where many bed and breakfasts are situated. Through them I sometimes receive clients.
Still, even with all the above contacts, it is a lot of effort to stay in the picture. That is why I asked the network of Dutch speaking guides whom they were working for, which agencies, and I contacted them. This is more massive tourism. The disadvantage is that these are usually tours of more than a week… I established good contacts with a few agencies. When you do a good job, they will call again, and at that point it is just a matter of organizing your agenda.
What are the administrative requirements to work in Israel?
You have to have a particular visa that states that you have unrestricted permission to work. Because I am married to an Israeli, I was granted a one-year visa, with work permit. For the last three years I have had a Permanent Residency permit, which I have to renew every five years. I do not have an Israeli passport. That is an advantage, since it enables me to work in the West Bank.
For the last two years I have been officially self-employed. I hesitated because this status implies a lot of advanced tax payments, complicated calculations, etc. When I work for a big agency, they employ me. But when an organization hires me for one or two days, now I am able to give an invoice…
Being self-employed does not give a stable income. Tourism has low and high seasons and here it is vulnerable to all sorts of crises: political, military, economical… People cancel a lot. But I love the work, and because of my different sources, I am still doing ok.