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Month: October, 2012

Halloween Hits Kangs

I received a call from Eric, our head teacher today, asking me to bring my camera to school. In a show of seasonal enthusiasm which would put your average apathetic British family to shame, Kang’s Academy cast aside the first four lessons of the day (2-3 hours) in order to throw a Surprise Halloween Party for the throngs of kids attending today – and the teachers get to join in!

As taken by Eric. Believe it or not, that’s not an artificial ‘hardworking’ pose.

I in no way claim to have an indepth knowledge of any other language than English. I can say mon chien c’est un papillon (French: my dog is a butterfly), wo ist das krankenhaus, mein hund ist kaput (German: where is the hospital, my dog is broken) and hola, mi perro es muy bueno con la cerveza (Spanish: hello, my dog is very good with beer), but  cannot converse with any semblance of normality or fluidity unless my dog is the subject.

Every damn photo…

Similarly, many of my students are unfamiliar with words such as story, but can happily reel off zombie, phantom and/or werewolf at will; this came in handy as they incessantly played ‘Ghost, Ghost, Zombie!’ (a variation of ‘Duck, Duck, Goose,), running trenches into the floor with the tiny pounding and slipping of their Angry Birds-socked feet. As Meg is still in possession of the voice of a lifetime chain-smoker, she was all too happy to take over at the face-painting station while I led the Activity Gauntlet – and her clientele were all too happy to assault me in waves of ghosts, spiderwebs and surprisingly artistic moonlight vignettes.

Blindfolds courtesy of whoever was wearing a scarf at the time.

On a more pressing note, I’ve been humming/falsetto-singing Adele’s Skyfall all bloody day. I’m not getting any more soulful, alas.

There’s always one, and it’s usually him.

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Sneezing In Cinemas

What’s that? Having a cold and watching a film are hardly a suitable premise for a blog entry? Shame on you, unbelievers.
Indeed, we have overcome a major hurdle for our Western sensibilities and managed to both enjoy and comprehend a Korean cinema experience. Of the many varieties of geekdom I adhere to, among the top three would be that of the James Bond universe: as any like-minded fanatic and/or social outcast would understand, I couldn’t resist watching the recently-released Skyfall at the local Lotte Cinema.

One would normally assume that any kind of self-respecting movie theatre – let alone one under the Lotte banner, one of the largest multifaceted corporations in Korea – would be a relatively easy thing to find in the wild. Directions on a horizontal plane were of no issue; I’d already Google Mapped the place, not to mention double-checking with colleagues. Upon walking among the numerous skyscrapers, however, it remained veiled in shadow. Meanwhile, James Bond was doing something with motorbikes and Turkey, and had been for five minutes already.

It was only after a particularly thoughtful baker walked us outside to point upwards that it transpired our target was, in fact, on the ninth floor. Horizontal directions: check. Vertical directions: rarely an issue beforehand, but to be considered from this point onwards.

Watching movies in Korea is a surprisingly straightforward affair. Animated films, ie. those where dubbing is less of a crime against cinema, are almost always translated for Korean audio (I still haven’t seen Brave), whereas the cinemas have enough of a cultural bone in their bodies to know that watching a live-action film with subtitles is far preferable to a stranger’s voiceover. This time, we were the foreigners laughing at the language’s nuances while our neighbours just got the scripted facts.

Bella (so Meg named from afar), the entirely ineffectual guard dog at a local hardware store who we love.

Also, we’re both currently phlegm factories. Thought I’d throw in that bit of alarmingly offensive alliteration right at the end, just to spoil the whole thing for you. Meg sounds like something out of a smoky Raymond Chandler bit, but is less enthralled by the sound of her misbehaving larynx than I am. I blame it on a lack of cinematic appreciation.

해피 할로윈 , or Happy Halloween. Also, Autumn.

Firstly, to settle any optimism regarding my adoption of the local language – I do still have to use translation software for everything Korean. If the hangul in the title says something offensive, Google did it.

Once again, I have shamefully abandoned my post(ing) for something nearing a week and, again, this is due entirely to a mixture of laziness, preoccupation and phlegm – all of which I blame the pupils for. I shall, in future, attempt to manage the blog a tad more regularly, though I don’t want to fall into the Twitter trap of sandwiches and bowel movements for material.

Secondly but nonetheless foremost: we live in an unbelievably beautiful country. Over the last two-to-three-weeks our surroundings have done the whole Autumn/Fall bit by transforming colours, etc. – but there’s something about Asian countries and doing Autumn properly. Although very picturesque, I’m always a tad disappointed by the frequent combination of ‘orange leaves’ and ‘grey skies’ Britain offers around this time of year; in Namyangju, we’re surrounded by mountainous quilts of crazy reds, yellows, oranges and greens, and the trees don’t seem to shrivel and die with the leaves so much as have a fabulous makeover, darling.

Not to say we haven’t had our share of bucketing rain; rather than the gradual ‘dimmer-switch’ effect of English weather, it’s a black/white issue in Namyangju. If we wake up and it’s [sunny/rainy] outside, it will remain [rainy/sunny] for the majority of the day. This makes day-plans, or the lack thereof, significantly more straightforward – we’ve watched both Kill Bills, eight Family Guys and two David Attenboroughs this weekend.

In true spirit of All Hallow’s Eve, Meg and I edged our way to the Jinjeop Crew’s bash, rudely ignoring the faux pas of our self-isolation from anybody since our first week. There’s something to be said for the comfortable culture-shock between a world of noncommunication and a room filled with people who suddenly understand you; not to mention realising the increasingly Shakespearean gestures required for daily shopping are no longer necessary.

Being led primarily by American/Canadian expats, the party was fantastically different to anything I’m familiar with from home – in that it actually managed to maintain some form of structure without losing anything in the way of fun. In the spirit of the season, it was a Mad Men Murder Mystery party: a 60s-themed, alcoholic affair endeavouring to the period standards of misogyny and polite distrust (to clarify: this was the theme, not the actual atmosphere).

Think of something between Mad Men and Poirot; prior to the party, we had our own characters and stories to perform throughout the evening, which itself consisted of interviewing one another and forming intense character-oriented enmities. To demonstrate: a new face for me was a certain Sam Rios, with whom I got along famously. His alter-ego Melvin Ponce, however, I detested with a method-actor’s bile.

The key to the evening was that nobody actually knew if they were the murderer. My character, Cal Joyce, I knew to be having an affair at the time of the victim’s death. The murderer themselves? My beautiful wife, Juliet Joyce – as played expertly by Meg herself. Suffice to say, she was less than penitent.

Loathe though I am to be That Guy who thinks quoting Dylan is original (Bob, that is – not Thomas ), the times are indeed a-changing – as barely a month’s nature photography indicates. It’s suddenly impossible to find a wholly green bit of wilderness, and feels somehow like the year is carrying us away with it already. We’re meeting new people every week – while waiting for a (finally cancelled…) late-night bus we spoke with a Korean/Canadian gentleman, Joe, who reassured us with no uncertainty, ‘Hey, don’t worry. First time I try kimchi it tasted like s**t.’ Not that we are particularly averse to the stuff – it’s just comforting to know that we don’t have to like eating everything. Convenient, as the stores aren’t hugely picky about which bits people like to eat.

To pay respects to the rudely overlooked Mr. Thomas earlier, and to compliment any fears of insufficiency:

Don’t be too harsh to these poems [this blog] until it’s typed. I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty: at least, if the thing’s bad then, it appears to be bad with conviction.

Living & Leaving Sheltered Lives

When moving to another culture, a foreigner’s first impulse is to nest in his or her habitat; that is to say, one surrounds themselves with as many familiar things as possible. While the point of the experience is to experience something unfamiliar and exotic, there are days where you just want to slob around and watch The Lion King without requiring English subtitles.

For both of us, ‘familiar’ consists of the following: tomato soup (exists here but very rare), marmite (even if we found someone who’d heard of it, it’s nowhere to be found) and the presence of a dog on a day-to-day basis. We know that our situation prevents us from actually owning a pet with any kind of permanence, but have nonetheless found ourselves in contact with a local(ish) canine shelter on our days off.

Two of our closest friends in England are in the volunteer business of fostering dogs from shelters in their area, in order to find loving families for them elsewhere. To clarify:

Adoption = have a pet to own forever and ever, not just for Christmas etc.

Fostering = relieve a potentially overstocked animal shelter of adoptable dogs, cats etc. with the intention of independently finding homes for them.

You wouldn’t think he actually loved being picked up, would you?

Fostering is not so much a ‘responsibility-free’ adoption scheme (unless you’re a particularly lazy/awful human being) as a rewarding process of integrating unloved and/or potentially traumatised pets back into a ‘home’ environment. After being informed of the predominance of ‘Kill Shelters’ (the dogs have 20 days to be adopted before being euthanized, regardless of health or age), there was no way we couldn’t try to help.

After getting massively lost and flustered, we found our way to the Yangju Animal Shelter a little way north of Namyangju (our hometown, for the amnesiacs/English-speakers out there). In contrast to previous rants regarding my intolerance of the crowds thus far, we met nothing but wonderful people on our journey (with the exception of an especially intolerable girl who decided that shoving me into an elderly dear getting on the train was highly preferable to waiting 1.5 seconds); such wonderful people including a petrol-station attendant who took time off his shift to call a taxi for us when we got off the bus too early, and an employee of the Yangju Culture Centre who actually drove us down the road himself.

He seemed to like me. I now love him.

A kilometre or so down the road, there was no confusion as to where the animal shelter was; the open fields of the countryside seemed to carry the enthusiastic barking and yapping of over two hundred dogs. We immediately met up with Ula, our English-speaking contact and volunteer at the sanctuary, and the tour began.

Angel, another cyclops pup, also adorable beyond measure.

Firstly, despite the unbelievable efforts of the staff and volunteers there, it is a sadly underfunded and overstocked shelter; it spans roughly two acres, divided between the main house (for smaller dogs, eg. puppies and ‘toy dogs’ who would suffer from actual exposure to any kind of elements) and two separate areas for larger canines. Each pen usually holds two or three dogs chosen for their ability to get along, often consisting of one terrified animal and one ‘protector’ who seems to address the humans while the other hides in their kennel.

Within moments, our trousers were stained and paw-printed with enthusiastic greetings by the dogs – every time we left one pen, the neighbouring dogs went berserk with optimism because it was their turn with the humans oh boy oh boy. We met some familiar faces from the website, including adorable yet sad-eyed Lennon, Kang (one of the many apparently obliviously cycloptic dogs we met) and Floyd – who we will admit we do have our hearts set on, provided we are deemed suitable temporary owners.

Ball ball ball ball ball ball ball

Although requiring extensive paperwork and permits by the sanctuary board, it’s encouraging that they’re so particular with the prospective owners of their dogs. It would be far more convenient for them to throw care and caution to the wind – the shelter grows exponentially, as it takes in far more dogs than it gives away to families – but they actually care about the animals, a trait not necessarily consistent with many such facilities in the country. The ‘Kill Shelters’ have a death row of 20 days, whereas the Yangju Shelter has five-year-old dogs who were born there.

The toy dogs unite forces against Meg.

It looks sad, but Lennon just wanted a go with the humans.

Although we can’t spare much time to volunteer – the journey alone will prevent us from going up on a hugely regular basis – Meg and I are set on helping publicise and foster the dogs there. Expect considerable gushing over ad-aaaawable dogs over the next year or so.

Apologies for the unusual seriousness of this particular blog, not to mention the length. If it provides any remote comic relief, we properly stank of poo the entire journey home.

Where The Consumers Go Hungry

Holy cow, two posts in as many days! Don’t worry, I don’t think I have nearly as much to say. Rather, I feel I should maintain at least a vaguely consistent writing schedule (my Facebook history shows I can happily go for months on end without even attempting to communicate with the world). Not to say that I don’t check my sites every single day anyway, and/or moan when nobody has contacted me. Logic, fairness and a basic awareness of socio-interactive relationships matter not.

I suppose this entry is inspired mostly from the sad realisation that, while an amazing and blind-mowingly big place, the rumours of Seoul being a Golden Fleece in terms of cheap shopping are mostly justrumours. This is in no way an issue I take with the city; rather, one I take with the Western optimistic fixation on exploiting slightly less-developed countries.

Standard ancient/techno architectural schizophrenia in Seoul.

Take, for example: upturn all the things in your immediate surroundings (finish your ramen first, or you’ll ruin your computer) and the majority will have MADE IN CHINA scribbled on the underside. This is not a little-known fact to anybody who, as a child, demanded such China-made treasures as Power Ranger Mega Zord sets or Natural History Museum dinosaur figurines. EVERYTHING comes from China, and in response it is hailed as a Mecca for anybody wanting a cheap suit/camera/human being for general household chores/mobile phone. (to clarify: we fully intend to hop over to China sometime for some light Western exploitation in the form of cheap suits and cameras. Just so you know where we stand.)

It transpired in a recent conversation with my adult class at school that Samsung and LG, both South Korean companies (this in itself being largely news to me) make no grand statement about their origins – not because of shame or anything so silly, but because the companies are worried that being attached to South Korea will lower international respect for them and raise issues of product quality, etc. . I know for a fact that, if I could have any phone right now, it would be a Samsung Galaxy S3, and I have at least two LG computer accessories I have used on a regular basis. These are not ‘third-party’ companies; they make up about 80% of domestic and corporate appliances in South Korea (phones, air con, computers, kitchen devices etc. etc. etc.), and I’ll bet most of you own something made by either/both of them.

The sheer level of mirrored chrome is as confusing to the eye as it is in the photo, I assure you.

What other kind of douches are there?

As a result, it is both reassuring and, on an immature/spendthrift level, disappointing that most fashion and electronics  cost pretty much the same as anywhere in the developed world – which is to say, entirely out of my reach. Head hung low, I return home and try to fool Korean sites into believing I’m Korean so I don’t get ripped off by sellers. This is difficult when my level of Hangul is easily surpassed by your average household pet.

Having said that, I just got a fabulous haircut for £5 which included a head massage and a complimentary bottle of conditioner. It felt like having my head batted by an enthusiastic and highly trained kitten.

On Mountains, Tourism and Chipmunks

It would appear that my compulsion and my ability to communicate these past few days have been at odds with one another. I would like to emphasise that this is due in part/its entirety not to the fact that I have not done anything to report, so much as I have felt done for by something. 10 hours of borderline-vertical hiking will do that to you.

As promised/threatened, we have completed our tour of the Seorak mountain range at the appropriately-named Seoraksan National Park, North-Eastern South Korea. That is to say, we did in fact finish it last Sunday and I have simply been rubbish in updating about it. As such, the complaints to follow are somewhat outdated and no longer applicable to my health and/or being.

As taken by a lovely old couple I initially offered to take photos of with THEIR camera.

Seoraksan is – I am told – the finest national park in South Korea, and I’d believe it. Mostly for the spectacular vista of mountains, rivers and Buddhist monasteries replete with authentic Buddhist monks, but partly due to the evidential (and, by now, expected) hordes of kitted-out Koreans competing for floor space. Never before have I been in a queue on an isolated mountainside – but more on that fun rant later.

Firstly, we knew we were passing into the sticks of Korea when the bus-stop posters changed from adverts for Psy and Samsung to those of livestock and heavy machinery. Although Sokcho (nearest major-ish city) is the main commercial hub of the area, it’s about half the size of Bath, UK (for non-Bathonians: not all that big), and somewhat isolated amidst the mountain ranges.

Before any adventures were embarked upon, we prepared ourselves for the arduous task of finding accommodation within walking distance (ie. a radius of several miles) from the national park. As it turns out, this was significantly less of an ordeal than expected; although all hotels were apparently fully booked (oh no!), this was specific only to ‘English’ rooms (I beg your pardon…?). It would appear that, in light of the tourist industry, hotels seek to accommodate Westerners in their natural environment, versus the ‘Korean’ rooms for locals.

Perfectly comfortable, if alarmingly pink at times.

This double-take-inducingly huge Buddhist statue leaps out of the surroundings.

Was this an attempt to discriminate and distinguish foreigners? No. Was this an indication of Tourist Prices and unfair conmanship? No. The difference? English rooms have elevated beds, Korean rooms have floor-quilts. This is apparently enough to deter your average Western traveller, which in turns deprives me of a certain amount of respect for said travellers: it was actually a fine night’s sleep, and we even found a (mostly) English movie channel. We watched The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with the rose-tinted appreciation of those deprived of their mother tongue.

Hiking Day. 5:30AM. We wake up feeling more bizarrely invigorated than any late morning so far in Korea. I promise myself that late mornings are nonetheless still preferable. Our hopes of a Lonesome Walk are instantly dashed by the (admittedly drastically reduced, but reliably present) string of similarly-minded walkers by the road, which we take as a sign to Speed Up as we march two kilometres to the gates of Seoraksan.

Filling our water from the convenient monastery spring (a trend to follow on our riverside journey; the mountain water was delicious and has yet to go awry digestion-wise), we were all set for the nigh-vertical hike. Whilst challenging on occasion, strenuous at times and cripplingly exhausting at others, the views were spectacular. The higher we went (and we went high), the further into the seasons we went; as the air gets cooler, autumn comes quicker for the foliage. As such, we left summer and wandered into autumn over the course of three hours.

Upwardly mobile, we made good time. Although there were the inexplicable throngs of walkers (who presumably must have been on the mountain well before dawn, unless they sprang from the very cliff itself) to bypass for fear of developing beard growth while shuffling along, we generally reached the final slope in good time. This was the point when the ever-present and totally English social rage phenomenon known as the Red Mist began to descend.

This was induced by a number of factors: firstly, the hill in question was roughly one-and-a-half kilometres in horizontal length, regardless of upward angle; secondly, the angle in question would make even the hardiest chewing gum roll

These inviting pools taunted our sweating selves the entire journey.

stubbornly off your average school table; thirdly, we’d been hiking for around four hours already by that point, and finally fourthly, we were competing against thousands of bus-driven walkers who cared little for pedestrian dual carriageways. The fact that it transpired these walkers had only the downhillwalk to accomplish before getting the bus on the other side did little to abate our gasping profanities as we climbed alongside the path through bracken and grainy slopes.

Our original, apparently short-sighted target. Sigh…

The way we had just come. Suffice to say, we were proud.

On the other hand, the view from the top was staggering. Meg nearly got shoved off a platform in favour of a family photo (someone out there has a blurred photo of my ear as I stormed past the shot) and we realised that our intended goal was, in fact, an extra (and, by our timing, impossible) 5-6 hour hike further up the mountain – but we were still a vertical mile from anywhere and I could see over most people to the scenery beyond.

Chipmunks are EVERYWHERE on the mountain – far more so than squirrels in England.

After failed delaying tactics, we catch up with the back end of the walkers…

The return journey consisted mostly of muscle-strained and wobbly legs, significantly denser queues and the hilarious event of Ben Robins standing on a loose rock and nearly plummeting into a wholly scenic ravine before possibly having his life saved by yet another demonstration of the Korean ability to casually and thanklessly prevent the death of a fellow stranger (see also: subway train-door rescue). After that scene (and, in fact, after this sentence), my ignorance and intolerance of the local ways of life became somewhat more reserved. My punishment: two tiny scratches on my unprotected camera lens – I had put my only filter on my more valuable 50mm lens only the day before – which are largely superficial but a reminder of my errant ways nonetheless.

This has by far been the longest of my blogs, by way of apology for my muteness and also as a means of justifying having loads of photos on here. It’s literary/pseudo-journalistic masturbation at its finest, I’m afraid. If, however, such made up/naughty words are your thing, there’s a button at the bottom of the page flashing FOLLOW in large, friendly letters; I’ve had several (two) people asking if there’s a means of following the blog via email updates, and am on good information that this is the way to do it. If not, at least I shall be very disappointed.

Where the mountain would be impossible to climb without serious experience, these rattling metal paths served to corral walkers.

Class & Cuisine

Standard message on the board which the students now demand I write, or they’ll speak Korean intentionally. Note Ben Teacher illustration by said students.

As of three hundred minutes ago, we have now been in Korea for a whole month, give or take a few hours. This is cause for celebration, and as such we are masochistically torturing ourselves with ‘Puppies For Adoption, Or Else Euthanasia’ websites. Apparently Korean policy is only to hold ’em for 10 days before putting them to sleep, so we wish to save every single stray in the country.

But that’s (for our landlord’s sake, hopefully not) another blog’s material. Practicality, for the time being, prevails.

I feel that, as it has been the primary purpose of my expatriation, I should probably give some insight into the experience of teaching at Kang’s Academy, Yang Ji Ri, Namyangju, South Korea. It is (save for weekends) my daily habit/occupation and, prior to actually arriving here, single greatest source of fear/dread/insecurity – so I should probably clarify what it’s actually like to teach here, now that I’m relatively adjusted.

In a word, mad. Wonderfully, consistently, borderline-violently mad. Gone are the preconceptions of orderly, subdued/filial-fear-induced disciplined private school students – which is a relief because that would be tedious – and instead there are sugar-propelled armies of children charging down the corridor emitting war-cries or swinging around your waist as you try to wade through them. In the UK, a teacher must be careful not to physically touch the students for fear of unpleasant accusations, etc.; here, it’s impossible to shove them off you as they attempt to hug, hold hands, piggyback and/or spar with you en route to the class. It’s adorable and alarming in equal measure.

Lisa (or Sarah; identical twins who I’m sure are messing with me) does her weird eyelid thing. It’s kind of a craze with them.

Pictionary results for ‘Mystery/ Sherlock Holmes’. Amazingly, they guessed the answer from this.

This has more upsides than down, in my personal opinion. I’d rather have to tell a class to sharrup on occasion than spend the whole lesson tiptoeing around mute zombies, and I get classroom kudos from the fact that, while they insist on challenging me to arm-wrestles (at which the tiny girls actually seem to be better), I tend to win. Being able to quote Avengers and having a basic knowledge of Pixar/Mario/Pokémon gives me something of an edge as well.

As with any school, there’s a wide spectrum of enthusiasm towards education; some of the kids don’t give a toss and push erasers up their noses, others are model students whose hands always shoot up regardless of teacher bribery (mostly games at the end of the lesson and ‘merit’ teacher signatures). There are always the ‘grey zone’ students – I have one, Scott 2 (as he proudly emphasises), who spends the majority of the lesson engaging in aforementioned nasal-eraser experimentation or removing his socks and threatening his fellow students with them – and yet can, in a split second, usually answer questions correctly, regardless of if he was actually listening. I’ve started making up unrelated questions to mess with his tiny head as a result.

Conflict arises after cooked poultry crisis.

Key point: character spontaneously chunging into a chicken.

I should also mention that every student has an English name at the school, save for the clever ones like new girl Su, who imaginatively chose Sue as her English name. I believe this is in order to practice interacting with one another using English terminology and naming systems, but there’s something weirdly paternal about having to choose their name if they don’t have one already. With help from the class, I have named Eric, Tom and Gina (I have no idea who offered ‘Gina’, but she liked it): if my errant brother is reading, he has been brought to Korea in spirit.

You can’t please everyone.

The infamous Greg Davies (of Inbetweeners fame) aptly has this to say on the subject of working with schoolchildren:

“Kids’ behaviour is all of the following things: it is wonderful, it is horrific, and it is – my favourite – Really F**king Odd.”

I believe.

To draw back from the working environment slightly, Meg and I (primarily the former, if I’m to be honest) have been experimenting with Korean cuisine of our own, despite no definable oven facilities other than a questionably-functioning rice cooker. For the sake of originality, I have resisted Instagram-effects, but have nonetheless been snapping my food until it congealed aesthetically before my hovering camera.

With any luck, my next post (if a few days off) will consist largely of triumphant crowing after a 9/10-hour hike through the Seoraksan National Park wilderness; apparently we’ve got ourselves booked on a bus and will be losing ourselves in the craggy geography of Korea’s backwoods, despite having neglected to actually find somewhere to stay just yet. We’ll be the ones shouting from the mountaintops; not that anyone will understand what we’re shouting at them…

Crowds, Chaos and Recreational Rage

For better or worse, Seoul knows how to collect and transport human beings. Such an enormous space is nonetheless chocka with at least two people per square centimetre or so, and it appears that public gatherings are a true testament to such statistics.

I will apologise in advance, and draw particular attention to the latter part of the title; at present, Meg and I are merrily cursing and castigating the majority of the populace after a particularly intimate day with Personal Space Invaders.

There’s no escaping them, apparently.

I know that, as English natives, we are accustomed to a culture of social aversion to one another, never allowing ourselves to be in the same breathing space as another human. This has its upsides and downsides; while we are free to shuffle and scratch at our leisure, we lose something in human interaction (and are incapacitated when presented with a bus full of half-occupied seats). In Korea, however, space is a luxury, and personal space is relatively mythological.

This was particularly driven home as we embarked across Seoul to a fireworks show this evening. Being the well-prepared things we are, we aimed to be there an hour before the show itself, in order to get a good spot. As we reached the station, however, it became apparent that this was not to be: see photos for reference of the sheer scale of the similarly-minded crowds.

Getting on the train felt like the horizontal equivalent of crushing cardboard boxes with one’s own body weight, or – possibly more literally – like a rugby scrum. We tethered ourselves to a pole in the carriage and made ourselves as small as possible alongside hundreds of others who, quite contrasting with ourselves, seemed surprisingly content with their present lot in life. The heat was equivalent to the metropolitan pit of Hell, yet no shouting/swearing/complaining was to be heard from anyone but ourselves.

On a more positive note, we witnessed an amazing reenaction of the ‘safety guide’ videos otherwise ignored by commuters: a girl who, after failing to rugby-tackle her way into the carriage’s enormous brick of humans, trapped the handles of her bag in the closed doors as the train was about to depart. Two men on either side of her (in the five-second window before the secondary ‘safety doors’ shut on the entire bag/her arm) pulled emergency levers by the door simultaneously, then yanked the bag free before silently retaking their places waiting for the train. No words of exclamation or thanks were exchanged, they just did it. On the Tube in London you’d get laughed at before becoming a YouTube sensation.

Meg, enthused by the train journey.

However.

Arriving at the riverside park, it was obvious that we were not early. The park was swarming, miles across, with locals setting up for the fireworks show. We found a spot roughly 3ft x 4ft on the grass and claimed it for ourselves (ie. Meg passed out and slept on me while I tried to reach my Soju on her other side). An hour later – 35 minutes later than planned – the fireworks start…and we are instantly overrun by a mass of families who seemingly erupt from the earth behind us, kicking my camera out of the way and standing on our food and drink as they completely block our view of the fireworks display in a human Great Wall of Korea. The three minutes of pyrotechnics we saw before giving up and leaving were spectacular, though.

Despite the rabid love of air-con here, there’s a limit to its effectiveness underground…

The last laugh’s on us, though – they had to get home at the same time as two-thirds of Seoul.

There are photos here of our day in Insadong as well, but I’ve spent my energy and creativity ranting again, so am running out of adjectives. It was good. I saw a small dog, and a wooden sword which Meg wouldn’t let me get.

Brief as it was, we LIKED our patch.

Discerning Dinner and Strange Plaices

Octopus. ‘Yum’, I hear you cry.

I’ve had 24 hours to digest now, so I’m fairly sure I’ve escaped the grasping clutches of Tempting Fate.

The grisly remains: the mollusc-like things in the middle were apparently as ‘living’ as the undulating things in the shell.

Last night was an Educational Experience in many ways. Firstly, it is entirely the norm for the director to take out the whole staff (at great expense, I guiltily suspect) to a local restaurant after work. Secondly, it is also entirely normal for the entire group to drink merrily and continuously; I’m still not entirely sure who was meant to be driving, but everyone turned up hale to work today. Thirdly, such merry drinking is rarely, if ever, a good idea the night before teaching, especially when one is expected to live up to one’s energetic expectations in the classroom.

Fourthly and finally, it is apparently customary to ingest food which, over the course of the meal, appears to gradually require less actual heat to prepare in the kitchen. By this, I mean that the last thing I ate actually wriggled in its beautifully-prepared little grave – leaving me with a mixture of guilt, intrigue and hedonistic gluttony. I never even knew its name.

Relatively few worries about the mortality of this fish, at least.

Despite our phobia of consuming anything intestinal, tentacled or still-respiring, I took childish joy in slurrrrping several octopi limbs while Meg eyed me with disgust and rage, clearly having doubts about this man she was stuck with in Tentacleville. Nonetheless, I persisted in my carnivorous endeavours, gleefully downing shellfish with varying levels of consciousness and mobility. We were proudly presented with an enormous, somewhat belligerent plaice which made a heart-wrenching bid for freedom, flapping about the tiles at our feet, before being wrestled to the kitchens by its unsmiling executioner. When next we met, it was on a bed of (as it transpired, artificial and therefore inedible) noodle-like strands, raw and beautifully prepared. I can only hope to have a similar experience when I go.

A pot of, for pathetic English tongues, Unbelievably Hot Stuff.

Dining in Korea, especially with Koreans, is particularly poignant to observe – even if one observes in hindsight, with gochujang still smeared about the mouth. As Westerners, we are particularly prone to the defensive this is MY food attitude towards dining, regularly resorting to wielding utensils as a deterrent to reaching fingers. I know of one particular incident whereby a (otherwise peaceful and lovely) friend of mine defended her pizza from opportunism by burying her fork in her assailant’s tendons, thereby disarming said poacher and saving her dinner. I know that my chopsticks are a barely-discernible blur to spectators when presented with a group-size pan of dak galbi, but this is a result of both my own greed, and my culture’s encouragement of said greed.

(사진= Photo, I believe) – taken by Amy’s phone, featuring (left → right): Eric, myself, Amy, Jun, Meg & Sunny. The pictured beers show that this was the START of dinner.

When eating with others, I realise that is must be a relatively violent scene for them to behold: a smear of sauce across the table, a mumbling and smacking of lips and three people’s dinners are gone. And yet, I found myself defeated by two-thirds of the way through the meal, while the rest of the school hadn’t broken stride in their conversation. Apparently patience is not only a virtue here, it’s a recommended dietary technique. I’m taking notes.

Also, an entirely unrelated but nonetheless bizarre story to end on: yesterday morning, shortly before school started, the staff room was filled with the heartwarming sound of tweeting infant birds. This in itself was not entirely unusual – plenty of trees around – but for the fact that it was coming from a bag in the very confused Sunny’s hands. As it turns out, a young student had decided (without her parent’s knowledge, I gather) to purchase two chicks from just outside the school, casually bringing them in with her. We placed the entirely confused birds under a colander in the kitchen for their stay.

Terrified beyond reason, I believe.

I am duly informed that they were intended as pets, and choose to believe this to be the case.

* A note, for credit/information: the majority of photos in this particular post are mobile-phone pictures taken by either myself or colleagues. Had I actually brought my camera to the seafood slaughter, I would have taken more.

 

 

Palatial Wanderings

Another bloody Seoul skyline.

I slouch here at the keyboard, reeling (happily) from another enormous saucepan o’ Dak Galbi and trying to mentally piece together the last few days.

I notice that my posts have become less a form of travel-writing/long-term journalism than an excuse to cram as many photographs into a single entry as possible. Arranging these posts is a task which I’m sure I could make easier for myself had I the know-how concerning WordPress, but for now largely involves hitting the ‘preview’ button until it makes some kind of aesthetic sense. Anyhow.

A pigeon vainly attempts to imitate the carved column’s avian nobility.

We are once again the guilty/proud owners of yet another fine piece of home-improvement in the form of a replica Victoria Station clock, courtesy (once

Meg’s expression when she knows she’s said something wicked and has absolutely no intention of apologising.

again) of the wonderful Ryu family (who have, under cover of darkness, just left a bag of grapes by our front door and run away) and their shop. We’re hoping that such concepts as ‘passive/aggressive present hints’ are a more specifically English tendency, otherwise we will have to start actually succeeding in refusing such gifts. They’re all too aware that our guidebook says to refuse gifts from Koreans three times before you can confidently accept, and as such he ensures that they insist at least four times. All we had given them was coffee…

Homemaking is word of the week for us now, as we seek any means of making our nest ours – so far consisting mainly  of purchasing photo frames and a printer/hammer and nails/clocks/chest-of-drawers/artificial foliage for that George Of The Jungle homey feel/incredibly kawaii (look it up) toothbrush holders which we discovered in the cupboard. Photos to follow, provided I/we tidy the house before I finish typing this (ooh, antichronological authorship…). Note that this is a home still in progress.

We recline luxuriantly in the gardens of Korea’s ancestral nobility. Tourists.

In terms of our means of self-amusement/justification during these five days’ freedom, we’ve once again wandered into the capitol to see what we could see – in yesterday’s case, Gyeongbokgung Palace (main royal/governmental seat in Korea for the last half-millennium or so) and Namdaemun Market (oldest/largest market in Korea, home of gadgets, clothing and world’s least considerate human traffic). Both were an exercise in awestruck tourism, wish/lustful ownership and quiet rage toward our fellow man/women. I found a camera lens for significantly  less than I would in England and wept quietly.

Meg is drawn, magpie-like, to the shiny things.

I would like to pause this stream of consciousness to emphasise that, despite the blog’s apparent intolerance toward human beings this is not so. It’s simply that offensive human beings are significantly more fun to rant about.