story by HEIDI HODGES
Even though he’s seen more of the world than most people, Door County is home to Jacobs. It always will be. Last year he returned to the peninsula, after exploring the globe for the last several years.
“I grew up here. Went to Gibraltar,” said Jacobs, explaining that he didn’t do much traveling when he was young, outside of an Amtrak trip to San Francisco.
The travel bug hit him when he participated in his school’s traditional 8th-grade trip to Washington D.C. “It was mind-blowing. It was so cool,” he remembered. “That’s when things started taking off.”
On that trip, he gained a dawning realization the world was bigger than our peninsula’s shores, and he longed to explore it.
The first opportunity to stretch his wings came when he went on a 10-day French class trip to Paris, France and the Loire Valley with teacher Karen Johnson.
Learning French came relatively easy to him. During that first overseas trip, he discovered that applying his newly-developed language skills opened doors.
And with that, he knew, “there was a big world to explore.”
It didn’t stop at French.
It was not long after the Cold War had ended, and Jacobs found himself drawn to the Russian language. “I had a cousin who had come home from university and had a textbook with Cyrillic letters,” he said. The look of the language fascinated him.
There was also an exchange student from Russia at his school that year, and he was acquainted with a Russian family who lived in Sister Bay during that time. Plus, there was a calendar he remembered from the first grade with a photo of a Russian church on it—the Golden Onion—that fascinated him.
He was so interested, he took to the then-fledgling Internet in the late 90s and started learning Russian.
But there was another motivation—perhaps rooted in teenage rebellion. He wanted to do something counter to common sentiment. “I had heard this constant narrative about how evil Russians were,” he explained. “I have a strange attraction to things that are bad for me,” he joked.
He bought a Lonely Planet phrase book, and then, during his senior year of high school, took a correspondence course.
At the time, school officials were not encouraging. A counselor suggested he would “get confused” learning more than one language at a time.
Jacobs reflected on it. No, it wasn’t confusing, he said. In fact, “It was the biggest accomplishment of my life, learning it.”
But Russia had to wait. After his senior year, he became a Rotary Club exchange student, heading back to France. “It was a gap year,” he explained. “Technically, I went to school, but I ended up working there,” instead of really studying.
Unfortunately, “it was not the best experience in France,” he said.
But there were a lot of positives. “I became really independent,” he explained. “And really good at French. And, I traveled through Western Europe.”
But, most importantly, “I mastered myself.”
When he returned in 2000, he enrolled in Lawrence University in Appleton and focused on his prime interest, Russian. “It’s a brilliant school,” he said.
Then came the best summer of his life. It started in June 2001 when he was hired at Wilson’s in Ephraim, a job he loved. Then, in August, Jacobs left for a university semester abroad, in the small city of Kurgan, Russia.
There he learned the Russian culture, first hand. During his stay, he lived in a city near a chemical weapon destruction facility and a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant “that kept blowing up,” he said, remembering the accidents that seemingly routinely happened.
He was in Kurgan during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
“It was interesting because people (there) were very sympathetic,” said Jacobs. While the event was, of course, horrific, the reaction of his Russian friends was compassionate and thoughtful. “It was cool on a personal level. In France, I didn’t have that level of camaraderie.”
The strength of that camaraderie cemented his interest in Russia.
He returned to the U.S., finished college in 2004 with a major in Russian language and literature, and a minor in French.
After graduation, he was offered a teaching position at the Russian university where he did his semester abroad. “They invited me to come back and teach English,” he explained. He agreed.
Despite his multilingual abilities, the job proved very difficult. “Teaching English is a very different skill. I was not a good teacher (at that point.) I wasn’t effective. I had no guidance and no materials.”
So in 2005, he returned to Wisconsin again, this time, setting up camp in Neenah where he taught Russian and French at a Catholic school, something that came easier for him. “The students and staff were excellent,” he said.
But living in Neenah was not for him. “I was more homesick there than in Russia,” he said.
Door County beckoned, and he returned home. “Every time you leave and come back, you are more in love with it,” he said.
He worked summers at Wilson’s from 2007 through 2011, as a cook. “The bosses are amazing,” he said. During the off seasons he traveled, including extended stays in Mexico and Brazil.
During those trips, his language skills once again shone brightly. While in middle school, Jacobs had studied Spanish, and before he left for Brazil, he spent three months working on Portuguese. After just six weeks in Brazil, he had a good grasp. “I read a Brazilian novel on the plane ride home,” he said.
“Brazil is the best place,” Jacobs said, remembering the trip. “The food is great, people are friendly, it’s not too expensive. Yeah, there’s some danger. But the weather is great.”
In 2010, he took a month-long trip to Moscow, visiting friends he made while living in Kurgon. In his absence, Russia had gone through an economic boom, he explained. What he saw in Moscow during that trip was impressive. “I was blown away by it and thought I should move there.”
Coincidently, at the same time, “A girl I went to college with asked me if I wanted to teach English there.”
A seed was planted, but there was still a little more globe-trotting travel on his plate before he was ready to commit.
In 2011, he returned to Russia, in the city of Samara, and began teaching English. “I spent two and a half years there. Purely on my own. It was a great feeling of freedom.”
He was 30 years old. And it was the start of six years of living and teaching in Russia.
Back in Russia
The first two schools he worked for during this time were “heavy handed, Russian-style, top-down management,” he said. To make matters more unpleasant, his apartment was burglarized a month after he arrived...ironically, right after he received his first paycheck from school.
“The school seemed to be the ones who did it. I absolutely believe that,” he said, especially when he learned other teachers had the same experience.
“It was the biggest bump in the road, right off the bat,” he said. “After I survived that, I wanted to see how far I could take it.”
While in Samara, he met and married a Russian woman. The relationship lasted two years and ended in divorce, “Russian style. No bureaucracy got in the way. It was really easy. But I did lose my cat.”
Jacobs ended up moving to St. Petersburg where he continued teaching. Then he landed his last teaching job in Russia, at Lexica school, in St. Petersburg, a “brilliant school. I loved it,” he said.
“The management was all Russian women. It was really nice, really honest.”
During his last year, he was named Director of Studies at the school. “I was rather surprised and very honored.”
The pull of Door County was still strong, however, and in 2017 he yearned to return. But bidding farewell to Russia would prove profoundly hard.
“I was leaving friends, all my things. And telling my company I was leaving was really hard. I owe them everything. I don’t feel good about it, but I did what I had to do,” he said.
Once back in Door County, he worked at Wilson’s again and started at Dorsal Co. in Sturgeon Bay.
“I’m happy to be with family again,” he said.
Yes, travel is definitely in his future. “But I don’t think I’ll live abroad again,” he said.
That’s not for lack of opportunity. While on his 2016 trip to Afghanistan, his tour guide explained he was building an English language school in his city and offered Jacobs a job. It was something Jacobs briefly considered, “But I was pretty fried on teaching and just wanted to be home.”
Back in Door County, he’s happy spending time with family. And, during his spare time, he’s been hard at work producing a rock music CD.
It’s his second CD, actually--the first is available on Amazon and iTunes. The multi-talented Jabos writes, plays guitar and sings. Playing in rock bands is something that’s followed him through his life...in fact, he played in three different bands while living in Russia. “It was a real experience,” he said. He was even in a Russian music video.
A Global Perspective
In between his longer stays in Russia and France, and visits to Brazil and Mexico, Jacobs has traveled to exotic, far flung locations.
In 2010, he visited China and Korea—both North and South.
Because he stayed in the same North Korean hotel as most visitors, he was familiar with the poster that American Otto Warmbier allegedly stole, prompting Warmbier’s controversial arrest. (Warmbier later died in 2017).
In 2016, he visited Afghanistan, with a tour operation called Untamed Boarders.
While living and teaching in Russia, Jabobs visited many former Soviet countries and central Asia. He even had a tour of Chernobyl, the region decimated and abandoned after a nuclear power plant explosion in 1986. “It’s arguably one of the worst things we’ve ever done (as humans)” he explained. While it will likely never be safe for human habitation because of radiation levels, it is now considered safe for short tours.
Last year, he visited Sweden, which was a pilgrimage of sorts, he explained. Jacobs is a fan of Swedish rock, and one of his favorite bands from the ’90s hailed from the small town he visited. “It is a small city of about 10,000 people, right on the water. It reminded me of Door County,” he remembered.
During his travels, things weren’t always rosy. He did run into some trouble along the way, like when he was detained in Uzbekistan for speaking Farsi. “That was not cool. They thought I was a Tajik spy,” he said. And, he was “grilled” after visiting the unrecognized country of Abkhazia, near the country of Georgia by a Russian “superseiriousspecialsecret service agent,” he wrote in an email.
His ability to speak Farsi and his fluent Russian would occasionally raise eyebrows. During the incident in Abkhazia, “I was questioned and he (the guard) would start talking about Shaquille O’Neal. So, I told him he had to buy Shaq’s rap album,” he said, explaining the bizarre situation.
Jacobs says he knew it was a terrible album (called Shaq Diesel), but was just trying to show he was, indeed, American and not a spy. “It was a little scary because Abkhazia is an unrecognized country. There was no American embassy (for me to call.)”
But with all his travels to “dangerous” locations, his most dangerous encounter was being mugged in France, a place many people think of as benign.
He is unfazed by the troubles. Usually the danger of most locations is overstated, he explains. “If you are respectful and interested, it opens doors,” he said.
“I sometimes feel afraid. But I still do it. It’s those times in life you grow. The world is not as scary as you think it is,” he said, with a few exceptions, of course, like countries experiencing wars.
“For instance, there are parts of Brazil that are extremely dangerous. But there are parts of the U.S. that are, too,” he said.
His trip to Afghanistan was a good example. He learned enough Farsi language to get along, and he grew a beard to better fit in. It was a profound experience. “Not everyone is out to kill you, he said.”
Trips like that “usually make you smarter. I’d like to do more Untamed Border adventures,” he said. “I would like to do Africa, specifically Ethiopia. And the South Pacific.”
But right now, he is enjoying exploring the United States and even the remote parts of Door County.
For people yearning to travel? His advice is “figure out what you want to do and do it. Don’t listen to (the naysayers.) Get to know yourself. And, importantly, try the food.
“Any type of travel is useful. Maybe don’t go to Afghanistan right off the bat,” he suggested. “Engage in solo travel. Learn a foreign language. It’s a bonus, but not essential.”
And “step into a place that is a bit uncomfortable and scary. You have to do it for yourself.”