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Lunch At Michelle’s

IMG_1249I wanted to call it ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s Lunch At Michelle’s’, but the title wouldn’t let me use a strikethrough. First-world problems.

What’s this? Two posts in a week? I spoil you.IMG_1235

Normally, I would have a blog post to brag about a particular holiday/month/season in extended tedious detail, cramming as many photos in as is conceivably possible. This time, however, I’m going to describe the one-off experience of a luncheon invite from one of my adult students, Michelle. Ordinarily, this would be a matter of ‘coffee and bikkits’, or chimaek(Chicken + Maekchu[beer] –  they LOVE their contractions) – but this particular feast was an education on Korea in edible form.

If our flat had this view, there'd be SO. MANY. PHOTOS.

If our flat had this view, there’d be SO. MANY. PHOTOS.

IMG_1241My previous experience with Korean food is relatively minimal. I know the basics: gimbap, rice, vegetables and meat wrapped in seaweed not entirely unlike sushi; bibimbap, a big ol’ bowl of vegetables, rice and gochujang sauce; dak galbi, possibly the most delicious thing ever done with saucy chicken; pulgogi, a mishmash of beef strips, glass noodles and rice, etc. etc. I have eaten more food than I actually know the name of, alas.IMG_1253

A quick introduction to Michelle and her family. Michelle is one of my longest-running students, having been taught by both myself and my predecessor John (and, I would imagine, possibly before) at Kangs Academy. In contrast to many of the other students at the school, Michelle has an extra-Korea past; before marriage, she was a professional opera singer in Moscow for seven years (another man I teach was a tenor in Florence) and still teaches several of the students’ children. I have also taught her son, her sister and her niece/s throughout the year – no pressure to behave over dinner, then.

FeastAs it turns out, the event was joined by a total of seven of my students, all of whom apparently working to make an unbelievably sumptuous Korean feast. If I’m to be honest, I recognised about half of the spread, but enjoyed everything regardless. Michelle had made(from scratch, including the soy sauce) – beef ribs, pork with kimchi, spicy chicken and potatoes, unnamable boiled roots, bamboo shoots, kimchi chige(soup), kimchi just for the hell of kimchi, black-bean rice, glass noodles, dotorimuk(sesame oil over vegetables and acorn jelly), potato-and-octopus tentacle pancakes (less scary than they sound), seasoned soy sauce, sautéed vegetables and, for dessert, homemade fruit yoghurt. I’m certain they had Korean names, but buggered if I could tell you what they were.IMG_1295

Seating arrangements aside (I love the aesthetic of low-table Korean dining, but my bloody massive legs make it like trying to cram a gorilla into an eggcup), I was totally absorbed by the meal. Not ordinarily being a great campaigner of kimchi, I devoured the pickled cabbage with a newfound relish while Meg stared in shock and revulsion at my sauce-smeared features.

It was so thoroughly enjoyable that I condescended to doing the ‘peace sign’ thing with everyone afterwards.Peace Sign Thing

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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.

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.