My career journey: heading overseas

mental health
The early days - Part 2

Chantel Davies


January 22, 2023

Living in Israel

The opportunity to spend a year at the Jerusalem Botanic Garden in Israel came about by accident: I saw a leaflet in the college library advertising scholarship opportunities for horticulturists and botanists. I never expected to be offered a place, and there was intense disapproval from home quarters that meant I was unable to celebrate what felt like a massive victory for me.

Leaving the UK was something I was very keen to do. Perhaps it was the place where I grew up, and my own circumstances, but there had been a strong lack of feeling of belonging. Combined with few opportunities to improve my life where I was, I knew I needed to get out.

Horticulture has always done that for me - provided an escape either physically, mentally, and often both together.

I settled in pretty quickly and the placement got off to a good start. We were provided a flat near to the botanical garden, which itself was next to a small supermarket. There were two other people coming to the end of their scholarship terms, and I was initially sharing with them, a gardener from Waddesdon Manor, and a tree surgeon who was starting his scholarship at the same time as me, but for a period of 6 months; I opted for 12 months. A third person was due to arrive shortly after, although he was eventually escorted back to the UK by his parents. It seems he had some type of mental illness which was deteriorating.

The tree surgeon left after about a month when he found out his girlfriend was pregnant.

After that, it was me, the gardener from Waddesdon, and a very pleasant French man who was doing a bit of travelling and volunteering.

By Christmas I was alone in the flat. The garden staff were not particularly sociable, and my line manager was a Jekyll and Hyde type of person. My neighbours were very good and kind; they shared a lot of hospitality and knowledge of Judaism and Jewish culture, inviting me to their garden area for feasts and festival celebrations - pretty much most of October that year was spent at their place listening to Jewish songs and stories.

An elderly couple who lived in the flat next to mine on the top floor had survived Auschwitz. The man played the violin and would often apologise for the ‘noise’, but it was such a beautiful sound to hear that I would ask him to play as much and as often as he wanted.

It was a turbulent year to be there. The man who ran the botanical garden sacked everyone with any botanical or horticultural qualifications, retaining various people from his moshav to work. The head of the outdoor team, who was a really nice guy but had no idea how to manage a garden, cut down a beautiful Paulownia tomentosa and drilled a hole down the centre of the heartwood.

There were only two scholarship recipients by that time; we couldn’t be sacked because we technically weren’t employed there. Over a period of about three months we kept things ticking over as best we could, along with the Palestinian labourers who did most of the hard landscaping and cleaning. We put in some extremely long days, working far more than we were supposed to. It was very disappointing when the staff came back and we requested time off that we were told we could not take any, and would not be getting any additional time in lieu that had accrued. The same people who had been given the boot at a moment’s notice, and whose jobs we were covering, were now telling us to “move on” and “that’s all in the past”.

I went to Egypt for a couple of weeks and took my final month at the garden as holiday. There was no farewell or thank you from anyone. The whole situation overshadowed the experience of living in a different country, learning about the native flora and contributing to an interesting and important project. At the time it was the only botanical garden in the Middle East, but due to political tensions, only Israelis and occasionally Palestinians could visit. Citizens of most other countries outside the Middle East could spend time there.

In the end I was glad to leave. I was tired of the hostility and resentment from other garden staff, the blatant sexism from senior men at the garden, and the perpetual sexual harassment I received every time I ventured outside my flat. My pale skin and blue eyes attracted a lot of attention, which was incredibly jarring, more so because I was teased at school for being so pale. It was entirely unexpected and I was utterly unprepared to deal with the very poor attitude to women. It didn’t make a difference whether the man was Israeli or Arab, religious or secular, young or old. I was seen as an exploitable resource and it changed me in ways I still carry with me.

My next post about my time in Israel will focus more on the plants and my travels.