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Towers, Bears and Geese

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Under this mystique of sophistication, wit and impeccable gramm(er)ar, it may surprise you to learn that, deep down, I can, on occasion, be profoundly lazy. I’ve never been one for footing balls or chasing steeples – anything where there’s the slightest chance I might embarrass myself in front of large groups –  but have come to love the rare, glorious moments where I can experience the suicidal joy of snowboarding. If ever I were to find myself plummeting down a sheer mountainside, I’d like to at least be strapped onto a fibreglass spatula. On the slopes, I can at least be assured that falling over and embarrassing oneself in front of large groups is a commonplace event.

Living in the green low(ish)lands of Somerset, mountains are a bit sparing to come by – so this pastime, while immensely fun, has had a habit of occurring roughly once every two-to-four years:

2006: Lapland, Finland; -25° in the Arctic Circle, with the Aurora Borealis above and a swearing, pre-bearded Benjamin falling over a lot under the watch of an ex-military snowboard instructor

2008: Wanaka, New Zealand; having already blown the backpacking budget on skydiving and hostels, went all-out on the Treble Cone slopes in Wanaka. Got stuck in a white-out on the mountainside, managed not to fall off the mountain

2011: Ehrwald, Austria; never one to actually pay for anything if I can get away with it, managed via Mum/’s magazine to blag a travel-piece on Ehrwald & Mt. Zugspitz. Brought brother along, drank weissbeer, managed not to fall off the mountain

2015: Bear’s Town, Namyangju, South Korea; two years after I’d previously lived 20 minutes away from Bear’s Town ski resort, I travel across the entire bloody country to finally get there. Confidently avoided any potential falling-off-mountain scenarios.IMG_7572

Swallowing the guilt of leaving Millie in the care of our fellow dog-addicts for one whole night (pathetic, I know), we occupied ourselves for the 4 hours to Seoul on the now-familiarly-far-too-hot bus – Meg by sleeping 80% of the journey and myself by discovering Banner Saga on the iTunes store.

After a now-familiarly obnoxious reunion with Lori (the only remaining Namyangju-based member of the obscene Osan Crew of 2012/13), we detoured back to Jinjeop via the astonishingly shiny and alarmingly tall Lotte World Tower – the name given to the work-in-progress tower we watched grow in Jamsil when we’d pass through on a weekly basis. I remembered it as a wee bairn of a building, all scaffolding and catherine-wheel blowtorch embers in clear view of street level. Understandably, I feel, I initially failed to recognise the looming, perspective-distorting behemoth of a skyscraper sticking out of the ground when we arrived. Already 94 storeys high, it’s still got another 29 to go – and will be the fourth tallest building in the world, after the Burj Khalifa, Shanghai Tower and the Abraj Al-Bait – and will be the single tallest building in the OECD (ie. Western economic world).

It's a big 'un.

It’s a big ‘un: still another third to go.

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I’m throwing out these statistics to try and convey the whoah, cor blimey, f**k me effect the place had on me. Of course, being Seoul, the bottom seven or eight storeys have already been devoted to a top-class, glass-plated, esculator-bound shopping mall with no possibility of convenient escape. Giving in and lending our custom to a Hard Rock Cafe on the top floor, we ate our burgers, experienced all-American (read: incessant badgering) treatment by an entirely bilingual and very lovely pan-cultural staff, considered self-harm while waiting outside H&M for a full hour and finally, somehow, managed to get back to Lori’s home castle.IMG_7632 IMG_7639 IMG_7636 IMG_7631

Hard Rock Cafe - just in case you accidentally find yourself abroad.

Hard Rock Cafe – just in case you accidentally find yourself abroad.

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I’m already over-budget on words and I haven’t even got to the cold bit.

Bear’s Town was a surprise in a number of ways. Firstly, the journey from Lori’s to the slopes took a total of twelve minutes (a fact which I would have exploited far more beforehand, had I known). Secondly, for three of us to get everything – snow jacket/salopettes, boards, boots and lift pass – cost a total of 170,000 won, or 50-60,000 each: about £35 for all I needed to go snowboarding for a day. For anybody not familiar with ski prices, that’s laughably cheap. Thirdly – and best(ly), the nature of ‘slow mornings’ in Korea meant that for practically the entire day we could slide around the mountain with relative freedom from crowds, and nip back up the mountain lift in no time at all.IMG_4352

Seriously damn stylish.

Seriously damn stylish.

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Meg always finds a new friend.

Meg always finds a new friend.

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Before I describe the day, I’d like to point out that Meg is now not only willing, but suggesting we go back for Round Two. I emphasise this point in contrast to the stream of profanity which flowed from my beloved girlfriend’s mouth as she passed through the inevitable ‘falling over and swearing a lot while you hate everything’ phase of snowsports. However, less than an hour into the experience, thanks in no small part to Lori’s expert guidance and my ability to not fall on Meg while I helped her balance, she was braking and manoeuvring like a star. I took this as my cue to try out the full stretch of Big Bear (comprising both the smaller Little Bear slope and the remainder of the immediate mountain) – which, I’m egotistical enough to admit, I managed well enough without actually falling over once, and somehow succeeding in doing that quick ‘zig-zag’ thing (shop talk) which speeds the board up but, more importantly, looks cool. The girls would have been so impressed but, sadly, had been diverted by churros and chocolate dip by this point.IMG_4355

It wouldn't be Korea without some form of dwarfish mascot.

It wouldn’t be Korea without some form of dwarfish mascot.

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'F#@k.'

‘F#@k.’

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It’d been a long day’s slipping, sliding and swearing, and we were all feeling the après-ski, pre-galbi glow of a good day’s farting around. We’d been waiting at the highway-side bus stop for a while when we heard the group of jindo guard-dogs barking at something interfering with them behind our shelter and, upon peering through the scratched plexiglass pane, it became apparent what was riling up the previously silent hounds.IMG_7684 IMG_7689

'You from round here, stranger?'

‘You from round here, stranger?’

Murderer's eyes.

Murderer’s eyes.

I wasn't the only victim.

I wasn’t the only victim.

I like to think I normally make a point of avoiding unnecessary profanity in this blog, but trust me when I say that these feathery sons of bitches were goddamn mean. Two rough-as-arseholes geese seemed to be making a point of harassing the guard-dogs, hissing and honking, for no apparent reason other than their own avian satisfaction. I made the fatal mistake of leaning round our transparent hut to try and get a shot of them, and the bastards rushed me. I wasn’t the only one – a fellow Korean Bear’s Town-goer tried to get a few snaps but was himself harangued and honked at as we both tried to get away from their jabbing faces. The bus miraculously arrived just as I was wondering if geese somehow had teeth as well as beaks, and we left the flapping psychopaths to further torment the poor canines.

Shaken and terrified.

Shaken and terrified.

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I can't do Dalk Galbi's food-pornography justice.

I can’t do Dalk Galbi’s food-pornography justice.

We consoled ourselves with the somewhat predictable choice of dalk galbi (how I love thee), gathered our stuff, bid adieu to Lori and found our way back to Dongseoul Bus Terminal. One sauna-bus and The Grand Budapest Hotel later, we were back in Gwangju; aching, goose-traumatised and tired, but home.

hur hur hur

hur hur hur

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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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Snow, Sun and The Point of No Return

Frozen BridgeFor fear of repeating myself, I’ll just stop apologising for the blog irregularity. I shall instead pine over what an epic it could have been, were I possessed with even the slightest degree of self-motivation.Representative Of My Focus

Snowy BoughsThe half-way point of my Korean indenture has come and gone, as of last Friday(ish); six months down, six to go. In a manner not entirely unfamiliar to a pathological videogamer, I’ve bypassed the ‘snow’ stage and have almost reached the bossfight – the ‘fire’ stage of Korean summer. We’ve still got spring to go yet, but the schizoid weather of late has me confused as to whether or not I’m experiencing it already.Lost Dog

Puppy LoveI’m starting to feel less like a fish out of water, so much as a bloated twat (see: pre-natal fish) in its natural slovenly environment. ‘Slovenly’ in this case being restricted specifically to kicking range of my Geek Desk, thus far impervious to any tidying attempts on either mine or Meg’s part.Snowed UnderSnowy Hills

In the early months, I could feel the surprising curiosity of bypassers on the street, or hear the hilariously un-sly ‘ka-chick’ of a Samsung Galaxy SIII’s camera as I joined the doubtlessly fascinating photo-archive of Westerners caught reading, breathing, picking their nose etc. in public; now, I’m either significantly less interesting or significantly more oblivious to such things. I may still sometimes be the object of fascination to an old dear bent ninety-degrees at a bus stop, but they’re part of my everyday now.

Also, I was totally staring back at the guys sat ON the lake.

Also, I was totally staring back at the guys sat ON the lake.

Seoul RooftopsAs for what’s changed – I now teach the newly-reopened Kindergarten class of Kang’s Academy, which is a refreshingly immature and chaotic break from some of the miniature sadists bestowed upon me otherwise. Basically, it’s my job to throw things at five-year-olds and herd them, screaming, under whatever shelter they might reach in time. Suffice it to say, lesson plans are fairly redundant.Dogs On Ice

Millie is still roughly the size, shape and colour of a bottle of coca-cola with Mentos stuck to it, and suffers from a similar reaction to oxygen every morning. While she’s picked up the ‘go to your bed’ instruction like a champ, Unconscious Humans are free game in the early hours. If I wake up to the sight of a puppy’s sphincter one more time, I’ll patch Velcro onto both her bed and her bum.Intelligent Leap

Public GatheringThe Americans still won’t behave, which is ideal; if there are any fellow Englishmen/women struggling to differentiate between work and ‘not work’, make friends with one of our louder cousins. You’ll find yourself not only buying, but actually wearing food, drink and silly hats within a matter of weeks.Hat Love

Noble BeastTime and schedule will tell how the next six months will go. As with any major reinvention of your life, it’s hard to tell if I should exclaim that it’s ‘already’ or ‘only’ halfway through at this point – but I’ve no particular worries to concern myself with. I’m actually starting to save money, despite my worst intentions; I’m part of a repellent horde of immediately loveable friends who I will have more than a little difficulty departing from this September; what’s more, I’m doing something not only fun, but remotely self-improving with my wicked little life.Wrapped Up

It may be another six months before I hear a crowd of English accents or see anything even remotely resembling a field – but, half a year in (that’s one two-hundredth of a century), I’m at least happy that this has been the right thing to do. If anybody can’t say the same for what they’re doing at home, I’ve got a few email addresses you might be interested in.Winter Scene