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The White Stuff

IMG_8556Time for a (slightly) more up-to-date update.

Reviewing much of my earlier ramblings, I realise that, given particular weather conditions, I am an angry little man. In the summer of 2013, I sweated, fumed and swore as I squelched miserably through crowds of un-moistened, calm people both above and below ground as I barged about the country. I couldn’t possibly have identified more with the ‘rubbish weygook’ stereotype if I’d actually wanted to: I was cranky, vague from the heat (the only Hangeul my memory permitted me was either offensive or unrelated to any given conversation), and I offended more passers-by than I could hope to apologise to. Summer is not my friend, and vice versa. [stay tuned 5 months from now, happy readers]IMG_8561 IMG_8672 IMG_8639 IMG_8666

It seems only fair, then, that the polar (so to speak) opposite of Korean weather transforms me into an infantile, happy moron who likes to grin at the sky whenever white stuff falls from it. I came to Gwangju preparing myself for a disappointing show of snow this winter; nestled in Jeollanam-do, among the southernmost provinces, the city usually has a more mild climate, ie. hotter summers, fewer winters. (This only occurred to me after I’d signed the contract.) That being said, I’m happy to boast that we’ve had no shortage of ice-lined socks and snowball-sodden wool gloves since December.IMG_8624 IMG_8726 IMG_8733 IMG_8545 IMG_7567

Arguably the best part of the weather is the wondrous sight of tiny dogs losing their tiny minds in snowdrifts, charging about with brainless abandon until their pitifully tiny feet are frozen and the snowflake-donuts on their noses have completely obscured their faces. Millie always regrets snowbounding afterwards, yet manages to forget before every new walk – helpfully.IMG_8336 IMG_8360 IMG_8367 IMG_8406 IMG_7561 IMG_8450 IMG_8757IMG_7456
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I only managed to partly cripple myself a few times on the ice, and both times were either heading to, or returning from our Dalk Galbi local so it was a fair trade.

Pre-snow mug.

Pre-snow mug.

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Backtracking: Autumn in Gwangju

IMG_7369I believe The Doctor once said something about wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey ‘stuff’ making up the universe, so by that logic I’ll now cram in a few vague observations of autumnal Gwangju, 2014. Spring and Autumn are the two most lauded seasons in Korea, and with good reason; winters here are to be reckoned with and the summers can kill a pasty Englishman on sight, so it stands to reason that the climate wouldn’t half-arse the seasonal vestibules in-between.IMG_8139 IMG_8122 IMG_8102

Arriving in October, we’d optimistically assumed that we’d be missing the wafting tail-end of summer and be welcomed by orange foliage and cool breezes. Sadly, we miscalculated; the seasons were a bit tardy last year, and the heat didn’t give up until well into November. By that point, I’d all but renounced my cool-weather wardrobe and was sulkily preparing for the temperature shock of a capitalised WINTER as soon as December came about.IMG_8128 IMG_8105

Sometime around mid-November, however, colours other than GREEN and SHINY (being a prevalent colour in Korea) started to pop up. On our first joint-school outing with the entire staff, we went on a professional jolly to the multicoloured Gangcheonsan County Park – a local(ish) mountain range, the lofty heights of which were achieved only by our fellow weygooks and our manager Sean – despite having to traverse a 50m-high, creaking suspension bridge with at least one acrophobe in our midst.IMG_7374

The Hans Teachers meets Reservoir Dogs.

The Hans Teachers meets Reservoir Dogs.

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Front to back: Molly, a deeply enthusiastic Perry, Sean’s ear, and Greg.

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The school/s in their entirety.

The school/s in their entirety.

In a further fit of foot-itching wanderlust, we (briefly) went on a nostalgic trip to Seoul – which, reassuringly, instantly filled us with the twitchy English rage we’d missed so dearly. We’d somehow totally missed the Christmas lights around the city when we’d lived right next to it, so on the upside we had new scenery to admire in standstill human traffic. Meg and Molly both bought socks, to ensure the 6-hour round trip wasn’t wasted.

Seoul Subway. We'd missed you.

Seoul Subway. We’d missed you.

Meg's worthwhile socks.

Meg’s worthwhile socks.

Molly's worthwhile and meaningful socks.

Molly’s worthwhile and meaningful socks.

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A very enthusiastic Mario.

A very enthusiastic Mario.

Despite our relocation to the opposite end of Korea, familiar faces followed us; our briefly-met fellow foreigner Mark just so happened to have moved to a school in Yeosu, a local(ish, again) seaport town. Home to the 2012 Yeosu World Expo, the city is a weird blend of close, bustling, typical Korean alleys and great, shiny, hi-tech monoliths left over from the Expo. Sadly, while spectacular the event cost significantly more than it made, so now the whole area is almost totally empty – leaving one with the impression of a post-civilisation, dead city (see: Serenity, Fallout, The Last Of Us etc.) but with shinier edges. The centrepiece of the ‘city’ is a great, arched hall, the ceiling of which is one great 218-metre long digital screen with life-size whales, sharks etc. drifting around; the hall is flanked by escalators and conference halls, which – to my great disappointment – were all sealed off and thus unexplorable. Still, for an overimaginative child of a fictionally-post-apocalyptically-obsessed media generation, I could happily find a stick and flail about on a zombie-hunt for hours.

Meg, yours vanity-struck truly and Mark, all devouring rice-burgers.

Meg, yours vanity-struck truly and Mark, all devouring rice-burgers.

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While a slightly abbreviated season, the punchy colours around Gwangju – a noticeably more floral city than Seoul – are exactly how Lonely Planet et al. advertise them. Sadly, the elegant, swaying, vibrant colours have since been obliterated by a mighty shit-ton of snow. We remain optimistic that Korea will make it up to us on the other side of the contract.IMG_7352

Deck The Halls with Bowls of Kimchi (Fa La La) – Also, Happy New Yesterday

IMG_8689[NOTE: This was intended to be uploaded before New Year. To summarise: it was good and I’m still alive.]

I helpfully documented the cooking process.

I helpfully documented the cooking process.

I type this in the post-joyeux glow of Christmas in Gwangju. I’m on the bus, fiddling with the volatile nature of IOS Autocorrect as we speed away from our token remaining workday this week; while Christmas is a given holiday, nobody East of Dorset seems to have heard of nor gives a fig about Boxing Day, so our festive celebrations have been sandwiched between obnoxiously normal work days.IMG_8690 IMG_8701 IMG_8704

Not to say that Christmas has been compromised. Granted, a few ingredients have been a bit fiddly to come by – our gammon steak was achieved masterfully by Meg pickling the hell out of a block of processed ham, and our options of dead-and-cooked bird included ‘with’ and ‘without’ head – but enough greed has been fulfilled, enough food has been et and enough booze has been quaffed to qualify as a Successful Christmas.

A battle for the ages.

A battle for the ages.

Perhaps a brief summary of events between this and the (shamefully distant) last blog would be considerate. We’re well, truly and properly settled into our big, shiny base of operations, we like our routine and we really like our city. Looking back – much as we loved Namyangju – we made a fair few compromises living in the distant wildlands between Seoul and North Korea, interspersed sporadically with wrath-inducing trips to the most impatient city west of Tokyo. Here, we’re close enough to greenery to feel like we’re breathing actual air whilst having enough access to civilisation that we don’t have to mount an expedition for the weekly shop.

Molly with her miniature polar bear.

Molly with her miniature polar bear.

Our school is absolutely wonderful – more detailed outline surely to follow – to the extent that we haven’t once begrudged actually acting like adults and doing our job. It’s tiring and sometimes feels like it’s turning my brain to soup, but compared to the working hours of our Korean colleagues we have nothing to complain about. Plus, I got a jar of Nutella for Christmas (route to a man’s heart, etc.).
IMG_8038 IMG_8432I suppose a fairly significant side-note: once again, Millie The Slightly Weird Dog lives with us in Korea. As above RE: our school, will expand on the chaos of her transportation in a practical post shortly (something of a blogtacular back-log happening here) – but I’m overjoyed to report that our freakish little Border Collie-like-thing has the daily company of our friends Molly and Perry’s equally minute Pomeranian, essentially removing most of the guilt of going to work for hours. I will be getting home to the sounds of brainless joy and vigorously-sucked underwear shortly.IMG_8061 IMG_8367Rest assured, recent radio silence is a result of overwhelming creative disorganisation and comfort, rather than for a lack of positive things to say. My intention is to put up a few detailed/practical posts concerning Gwangju and Korean bits and bobs; if it happens before 2016, I’ll call it a win.

This Blog Took A Year To Make.

Seasonal Types

All The Seasons  I actually had the idea to do this blog a little while before coming to Korea. My style of photography – something which I’d like to change slightly, if I’m to imitate professionalism at all – tends to focus more on the spontaneous world than the staged wonder so many artists manage to capture. I’m fairly confident that, if there’s a big ol’ bird circling above, I can snap it before it dive-bombs into the nearest tree; I can usually manage to capture the gargoyle expressions of friends as they theatrically emphasise their foreign-ness in very public spaces – but the ability to actually plan anything eludes me. Premeditated, orchestrated photography – model shoots, actual art, patient nature shoots – is something I have wanted to explore for a while, but this year’s focus on educational professionalism rather than artistic has taken me back a bit.

That being said, low-level OCD has its perks. I wanted to start, carry out and complete a year-long project documenting the shifts and changes in my local Korean environment and geography; the schizophrenic topography of Korea means that, depending what time of year you visit, there’s a completely different country awaiting you, and I wanted to (try and) capture that.Lake Bridge

My plan, as scribbled onto the back of a 2012 Sainsbury’s receipt for Monster Munch and milk:

1)      Take a photo and/or panorama from the same spot, in the same way, every time I happen to be there.

2)      Make sure there are spots in the area I actually visit on a semi-regular basis.

3)      Make sure the photos are neatly arranged on my computer so I don’t spend a solid four days rifling through the bastards in order to actually do the project

4)      DON’T FORGET TO DO THE BLOODY PROJECT

Incredibly, the lust for Monster Munch throughout the year may have subliminally propelled me into doing it.Under Construction

Crossing View

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View From A Bridge

Many/most of these sequenced landscapes are taken from Onam Lake, the actual name of which still eludes me – the frequency with which I’m there with the hairy tongued beast (Millie, to clarify) and its proximity to the house makes it a no-brainer. In addition to the trees, however, I’ve included a few shots of the work-in-progress (and catchily named) Lotte World Premium Tower as, aside from its curiously Lego/Minecraft-like construction process, it will be the tallest building in Korea when it’s finished and we’ve watched it grow over 20 floors since we got here.

Now, a quick detail of Korean seasons and the accompanying weather, from a year’s veteran’s point of view:

September – October(ish): AutumnAwesome Autumn

Korean Autumn is spectacular. All of those movies with Chow Yun-Fat and Andy Lau (yes, I know they’re Chinese) where they duel dramatically under unrealistically kaleidoscopic foliage? That is precisely how it looks and feels to walk through woods while the trees shed their bright yellow/red leaves. Meg politely asked me to stop making ‘sword-swishing’ sounds with sticks in public. I politely persisted.

Autumn weather is ideal if you’re a pasty-skinned Englishman unfamiliar with direct sunlight; it’s just cool enough to warrant a light jacket, but not so cold that you have anything to mutter about while waiting at the bus stop. Unfortunately, for the aforementioned reasons it’s also the single most popular time to be in Korea, so be warned if you’re going to the more popular spots – although, as we discovered when hiking Seoraksan, sometimes the rage for one’s fellow man is worth the sights atop an orange mountain.

November-February(ish): WINTERWicked Winter

I really can’t capitalise ‘winter’ enough. I love the cold; any excuse to hide beneath an enormous coat, or wrapping up thoroughly enough to make identity, gender and/or species totally indistinguishable is welcome to me. However, the measly -5°C we’re used to in Blighty is poor preparation for the casual -26°C sprung on us mid-winter in Korea. However, the country does winter properly – with snow an’ blizzards an’ monochromatic landscapes an’ that – and it’s unnervingly exciting to take a stroll across the massively deep lake’s surface being supported by a slightly harder form of water.

March-May(ish): SpringSplendid Spring

Spring is rather like the anti-Autumn of Korea; the weather is similarly mild (if generally warmer), with the foliage performing an energetic reversal of Autumn’s natural disrobing by throwing on an enormous coat of green, pink and yellow. In contrast to the April showers expected by English custom, Korean Spring is surprisingly dry, making it fabulous for walks, Korean exploration etc. before THIS happens –

June-August(ish): SUMMERSodding Summer

I capitalised WINTER due to the excruciating temperatures experienced at the time, and I give SUMMER the same treatment for very much the same reason. My vampiric Englishness did not prepare me for the months-long feeling of being part-man-part-slime while cursing my past self for not bringing more shorts. If you like flammable weather, it’s great; bright blue skies (mostly), bright green scenery and the perpetual justification for throwing oneself into bodies of water have their perks – but, if you’re a sociophobe like myself, prepare yourself for the throngs of like-minded campers who set up seasonal residence with huge tents in every spot you might personally like to have had a picnic. Also, in contrast to my expectation of ‘summer’, it’s the wettest month in Korea – so, prepare thyself for moistness.

And so, I present to you the life and times of Korea. I’m going to absolutely pine for the Korean seasons and their bipolar conflicts with one another when I return to the ‘what season is it now?’ ambivalence of England –  but, if I don’t miss the countries I temporarily call home, then what’s the point of travelling?

Progressing Panorama

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The Four Seasons of Jinju Apartments

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IMG_2523Time for some long-term observations, I think. We’ve lived here for over nine months, and have seen our distributed share of sun, old leaves, snow, new leaves and yet more bloody sun. ‘So,’ I hear you cry, ‘what cave or warren do you ferret away from the weather in?’ My questionably proud answer would be: Jinju Apartments.IMG_7868

If I mention Jinju to my ever-socially/fashionably conscious students, the typical response is ‘Oh! Dirty.’, or ‘Oh! Old.’ While I can’t entirely refute either accusation, I’d like to do a bit on the merits of Jinju Apt., if only to be bloody-minded and contrary. Not to mention the fact that it’s my home.

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IMG_3499Truthfully, one of the more frequent nouns to be associated with the apartment complex is ‘ghetto’. Visually speaking, this is not entirely without base; we’re basically talking about a square kilometre or so of five-story (dwarfed by the newer, slightly more pretentious accommodation surrounding it) concrete bricks with homes egg-boxed into them. Aesthetics aside, however, it lacks the exciting criminal element of real ghettos; the most severe noted crime to date has been the opportunistic theft of one £1-equivalent laundry basket used for our recycling – pilfered from its ‘somebody take me’ hiding spot in front of the bins while I nipped to the shop. Other than this heinous act, it’s entirely devoid of misdemeanor, instead rife with old dears wobbling up and down backstreets, picking herbs from the verge or cackling wickedly over their allotments.

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IMG_5160Unlike the rapidly-mutating geography of Namyangju throughout the year, Jinju remains reassuringly consistent. Ok – sometimes we find snow outside the front door, sometimes a tarmac-sizzling fish head neglected by the amateur butchers down the road; but inside our little English space, the world outside seems surprisingly far away. Unlike the newer, hastily-built apartments dotted about Onam and JInjeop, the apparently vacuum-formed concrete of Jinju effectively soundproofs the entire house against even the most obnoxious of airmen.IMG_9729  IMG_4059

IMG_3799In pre-snow winter, it’s pretty much the same as the rest of Korea, or indeed the world: kind of wet, kind of grey. Throughout the rest of the year, however, it remains true to the kaleidoscopic schizophrenia of Korean seasons, cycling at speed through every available natural hue until settling on the ever-dominant green of summer. Millie, in her infant naïveté and general doggish madness, is confused on a daily basis by the unreliability of her territory, making sure to soil and destroy any maverick flowers growing from the previously barren earth.

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As for the house/flat itself, to quote an amazed student upon inspecting photos of the interior, “Wow, teacher! Jinju is old, but your house looks like hotel!”

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IMG_2047I’m unsure as to the precise accuracy of this statement, but it’s far from poverty; we’re very proud of our little space. It’s more than big enough for two (provided only one culinary genius is working in the kitchen at a time, for fear of slightly claustrophobic rage-induced spatulacide), and our living room/dining room/den/boudouir/gaming hub/pole club is possibly my favourite place in the country. In winter, the thankfully universal ondol heating takes care of you in the minus-twenties, while the solid concrete walls deter summer heat, oppressive as it can frequently be for English albinos.

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IMG_1491The Four Seasons it ain’t, but we won’t be moved from our Korean den. I wouldn’t trade our slightly decades-stained home for any of the generic obelisks spiking the countryside; we’re right outside our favourite dak galbi restaurant, we’re 40 minutes away from one of the world’s biggest cities and we’ve got Onam Lake within ten minute’s walking distance. This entry has been as much for our successors as for myself – speaking from experience, Jinju Apartments doesn’t immediately impress, but it’s a fantastic place to live and I love every fish-head and twisting alley in it.IMG_5154

Except the ones where the adoring stalker-children live. I avoid them.

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