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A Cross-Countries Trek

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We’re actually in Gwangju, South Korea. Finally.

Four-year anniversary breakfast.

Four-year anniversary breakfast.

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This would normally be the point where I’d use a cocky expletive to proudly declare our arrival at our destination – however, as it stands I’m just bloody glad we’re in the right hemisphere. Who knew, suitcases with broken handles aren’t much fun to pull?IMG_7140

We’ve been staying in a rather fabulous little hotel (not a love motel, as it turns out – either that or we just haven’t found the expected ‘vibrating bed’ function yet) for a few nights now, kicking the final throes of jetlag by totally escaping sunlight and accidentally sleeping until midday. We’ve managed to make a bit of a Korean tour up until this point (appropriately, our hotel is the Hotel Food & Tour, whatever that actually means), the timeline for which started as such:

Meg's reaction to being woken up for this photo.

Meg’s reaction to being woken up for this photo.

Step one: Actually succeed in claiming seat/s on Etihad’s aeroplanes. The journey was essentially successful, save for the vast majority of things which seemed to go miserably wrong.
*despite best intentions, my suitcase was STILL too heavy and I had to throw away two beloved pairs of trousers. RIP, light blue scuffed jeans and tan chinos
*an Abu Dhabi security machine ate my credit card

Abu Dhabi's bafflingly shiny airport interior.

Abu Dhabi’s bafflingly shiny airport interior.

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oh my god dak galbi I missed you

*we intelligently bought FOUR LITRES of classy-bastard alcohol without considering the weight implications for the rest of the journey across the world and then Korea
*we were stuck for (not exaggerating) a full decade at the passport booth with slowly-dislocating collarbones under the weight of baggage
*due to aforementioned passport delay, it took so long for us to get to baggage claims that they’d declared our bags as ‘abandoned’ and would have incinerated my socks (and everything else) had we not stopped them
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IMG_5519*upon finally succeeding in crossing onto Korean soil, we discovered that our solitary remaining credit card didn’t work abroad and prepared to make a life for ourselves within the airport à la Tom Hanks in The Terminal (soon rectified by the fourth attempt at Skyping the bank; danced like insane people and scared a family)
*laboriously pulled ourselves through what felt like every single Seoul subway station we managed to avoid the first time around, and managed to break off my suitcase handle (nearly causing a human avalanche of surprised Koreans when it got stuck on a moving escalator).

Familiar directions...

Familiar directions…

Meg's tactical coat-baby (like a clothing turducken)

Meg’s tactical coat-baby (like a clothing turducken)

However, I list these purely because misfortune is more entertaining than success. To make use of our gleefully-gotten free days before teaching, we opted to push ourselves on our lucky friends and colleagues in Namyangju to see a few familiar sights before Korea 2.0 began. Armed with our duty-free rum and wild, jetlagged stares, we usurped fellow Osan Crew member Hailey’s old room while staying with likewise Korea veteran Lori; in the space of two days we managed to see our old stomping grounds at the lake, briefly meander through the lichen-tastic Jinju Apartments, gorge ourselves to the point of masochism at my desperately missed Dak Galbi restaurant and scared the hell out of our old school director whilst baffled ex-students milled about us. It was wonderfully surreal to see our old workmates, getting soju-slurred with Eric and caffeine-twitchy with Monica respectively – however, one does not marinade in nostalgia when one is expected elsewhere.IMG_5428

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Lori sees you.

Lori sees you.

Ceremonious lakeside gibbon-run.

Ceremonious lakeside gibbon-run.

IMG_5498Fast-forward a day of relative success discovering and figuring out the cross-country KTX bullet train, we left our comfort zone and ventured to Korea’s southern half. Immediately, Gwangju feels different to Seoul; most notably, there’s green stuff lining the streets and you can actually see the sky without branded buildings reflecting it back at you first. Our area, Chipyeong-dong, has everything you need from a built-up commercial district while also being a few minutes’ walk away from long river walks and marshy horizons along the outskirts of the city.

Fleeting doorway shot at Kangs.

Fleeting doorway shot at Kangs.

As it turns out, we have.

As it turns out, we have.

IMG_5478From our (non-pornographically clandestine) hotel  we’ve ventured out to our home-to-be at Landpia (details to follow once we actually move in), and met up with four of our fellow colleagues-to-be at Hans School (same promise as above). Due to self-inflicted terrible timekeeping, I’m actually writing this after our first day of work – however, (see above two addendums) on that note.

Our non-clandestine hotel.

Our non-clandestine hotel.

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After The End

An-yeong, OnamI’ve been writing this blog – erratically, I’ll, admit – for over a year. My very first posting I planned for before I even arrived in Korea, just to show my dedication to self-publication! True to human nature, my last posting comes with slightly less exact timing with relation to the end of my year in Korea; I’ve been in England for almost two weeks. But no matter! I can round off one adventure and still keep the story alive.

He said.

My last shot of (other) home.

My last shot of (other) home.

Last Galbi

I write this, be-robed upon the same bed I sought to terraform for a year before Korea, full of oblivious optimism, self-satisfaction and the most hideous English cold conceivable. It figures that, regardless of the East Asian proclivity for weather extremes, it’s vague English meteorology which bungs me up like a cork. Adjusting to England has been a strange process; wheras in Korea I was comfortable with the ten words or so I was capable of squawking at the staff in shops, I have no excuse not to communicate like an intelligent ape-descendent with my fellow Englishfolk. My first extended shop transaction, I forgot basic grammar, my name, how to use CHIP & PIN in the shop and where the exit was. I felt exactly as foreign as in Korea – but I think I’m getting the hang of it now. Also, I have found it’s more of a subtle art swearing at people who actually understand the profanities you’re using.

Buglife Last Run Last LakeDragonspy

The last known location of Josh & Chris.

The last known location of Josh & Chris.

Outta IncheonOur return-journey from Korea, I’m ecstatic to say, is OVER. Not because I’m glad to be rid of Korea – far from it – but, in the grand scheme of Enjoyable Adventures, this particular journey wasn’t. Our flight route took us from INCHEON – MOSCOW – PARIS [stay in hotel overnight] – CALAIS(train, then meet with Meg’s family + car) – LONDON. Now, to clarify: I try very hard not to adhere to cultural stereotypes. Some are funny – English people are insufferably polite, Americans are hilariously noticeable in a social situation, Korean people REALLY like their reflections etc. etc. – but generally I assume that, to quote Depeche Mode, ‘people are people’ regardless of what you expect of them due to their origins. However – every Russian staff member on Aeroflot scared the hell out of me, and almost every Parisian milked our wallets dry and made us angry (a €25 taxi fare for a four minute drive? Really?). C’est la vie.Under The Seat

Cup DrinkerOn the positive side, Millie was a star the whole journey. Of course we were sat within spittle-range of at least two bawling infants between Korea and Russia, but Millie remained horizontally invisible in her little bag under the chair or on our laps.

 

[NOTE: For anyone wanting to bring their smaller, harrier family members from Korea to England, fly with Aeroflot. The service is diabolical and the water is non-existent, but they will take any (obviously, rabies/tapeworm, etc. – inoculated) animal up to 6kg on the plane with you, saving a WHOLE lot of chaos and worry on your part! Flying to England itself, however, will cost you a hella fee in Heathrow to move your pet – so, as we did, I’d recommend flying to Paris and travelling by land. You’ll save THIS much money and your dog/cat/ferret/pig/flying monkey can stay with you the whole time.]

Parisian RainWe were in Moscow for a total of twenty-five very rushed minutes, and spent the trans-European flight chatting to a lovely bearded Frenchman about the merits of travelling. After this point, however, the journey gets a bit squiffy. Remember, we’re carrying three huge suitcases, three cabin-bags and a dog amounting to exactly 99kg between us – and, helpfully, the third of our enormous bags is naught but torn fabric and purely theoretical wheels by this point.Paris Boudoir

 

 

Spiral Stairs

The bags stayed PUT.

Carting that amount of luggage across the world is a Herculean feat, particularly when it comes to physically carrying the buggers yourself. Wobbling and sliding our ways through the labyrinthine Gare du Nord was somewhat undignified, as was attempting to lift said luggage up four floors of serpentine Bohemian staircases when we finally found our Moulin Rouge-esque hotel. Va te faire foutre, quoth we, and instead just took out whatever clothes we needed, leaving the behemoths downstairs.Armed Youths

Paris, yeah?Gare du NordIn the morning, we succeed in returning to the station (only €12 for three minutes’ journey this time), avoiding truant youths attempting to cheat money and cigarettes out of passers-by before themselves being chased, screaming, out of the station by enormous guards; navigating through the crowds of passengers and alarmingly fully-automatically armed soldiers, we found our train. All 18 carriages of it. Of course, due to the unwieldy size of our luggage and excruciating effort in carrying it, and to the general nature of the world, we were in the furthest conceivable carriage, a little under a kilometre down the platform, with five minutes until the train left. Those five minutes were, quite possibly, the worst of the whole bastard journey.

Frenchland

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Meg's LandFrom that point on, the journey’s effort and reflections we passed onto the family. Meg’s mum and brother, having just driven from London to Calais via the cattle-grid-esque le Shuttle, retrieved our weak forms from the train, squashed us into a slightly-too-small-but-bloody-comfortable vehicle and, thankfully, took over the rest of the navigation. I believe we were on a train under the sea at one point, but surely that’s delirium talking.

So, here I am, in England. I remember this place.Familiar Countryside

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

catbridge

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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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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Jeju (2): Divine Sex Ed

Halla TreesOur third and fourth days held the promise of either/or climbing Hallasan, swimming at Jungmun or daring the erotically artistic Loveland, and we had company – the bafflingly inexhaustive Pete, whose Wednesday plans we completely ruined by coercing him into joining us instead.Loveland I

Loveland is a miracle of Korea; in a country where sex and sexuality are pretty taboo subjects, it’s only a little baffling to be presented with an ‘art sculpture park’ completely devoted to vivid displays of every conceivable sexual position. As mentioned before, Jeju-do was and is the traditional honeymoon spot for Korean couples – and also used to serve as the Sex Education Island. The ancestral dol hareubang (‘grandfather stones’) dotting the island aren’t accidentally phallic, apparently. Loveland is basically an opportunity to act as obscene as possible, and does in fact encourage such acts by making the statues interactive. My apologies for any/all of the following images.

Loveland IV     Loveland II   Loveland III

Seogwipo BeachJungmun Beach demonstrates much of the essence of Korean tourism: it’s beautiful, exciting and completely crowded. The waves (for an Englishman of tame seas) are clothes-destroyingly strong (as certain people found out – but Meg would kill me for mentioning it) and the weather is fine – but, for the sake of the lifeguards’ ability to maintain order, the entirety of swimmers are restricted to a 100m stretch of the beach, meaning that personal space is a purely theoretical concept.

Above The CloudsFor the gamely traveller, challenges are always a plus when it comes to exploring hitherto unknown lands. The volcanic island currently in question has one, very obvious, geographic challenge – the volcano itself. Hallasan (‘Halla Mountain’) is the tallest mountain in Korea at 1950 metres, and – spoiler alert! – we went ahead and climbed it, along with mad Australian Pete.

CHAMPIONI say ‘mad’, as the walk was a tough one. Around 30-35 degrees, on a humid island, walking up another bastard hill, the travel guide predicted a walking time of 9 hours. We were very proud of ourselves – we made it in around 5-6 hours (Meg reaching the top slightly before me, because she’s a machine)…but Pete spent a little under two hours in total waiting either at the top or bottom of the mountain for us to arrive. I don’t understand how a human being can manage the whole thing in 3-4 hours, and have yet to determine his actual species.Halla Caldera

Crowded DonnaekoOur final day, while sad, promised relaxation at Donnaeko Waterfall – in contrast to Cheongjiyeon, an actual swimmable watering hole and river. Admittedly, our first impression was less than positive – the narrow river was hugely overcrowded and the rocky crannies and nooks were stuffed with rubbish and nappies – but, in a fairly sizeable river plateau between the bottom and the waterfall itself (as the river ran in large, wet steps), we could claim for our very own a peaceful 50-metre stretch of aquamarine water, forested sunlight and actual cold water. After a spectacular few hours of not doing much other than appreciating the environment, we dove into the waterfall, admired the mountain-goat ajummas clambering in their visors over and under the falls and – sadly – embarked for the airport.

Donnaeko Sunlight     Donnaeko

Jeju-do is well-deserved of its popularity; it feels like a completely different country, rather than simply a separate province. Having never been to Hawaii, I can’t comment on the accuracy of ‘Hawaii of the Orients’ – but I can see where they’re coming from.Leaving Sunlight

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Jeju (1): Visiting the Island of the Gods

Cheonjiyeon FallsBlowing the dust off the blog…

It’s been [INSERT QUANTITY OF MONTHS] since the last update, for which I blame (if not my own mutant ability to procrastinate) the unbelievable cooking-temperature summer which Koreans deal with so casually – while I spend most of my day peeling myself off chairs and pavements.Seogwipo Bridge

I am the unconventional proud owner of a coveted smartphone courtesy of the stupefyingly generous Hailey, which means that I can join the masses in zombified silence in public spaces. I’ve already unlocked the secret characters in Temple Run – don’t pretend you’re not jealous.

An upside of having such an unnecessarily advance device is that now I can surprise myself on a daily basis with my Big Day countdown app, which currently reads 28 days. That makes exactly three weeks before I’m back in the greenish-grey sanity of England, and ‘conflicted’ is the word of the day. I would be lying to say that I’m anything less than hyperactive at the thought of going home – but I’m starting to notice the things which won’t actually be there when I leave Korea. But sadness can wait for a later blog! It’s taken me long enough to post this bugger.

Woven HorsesFor the majority of Koreans, holidays are often spent within Korea itself; when you’re surrounded by either ocean or possibly-psychotic Communists your options are, alas, limited. Either families visit each other in Busan/Seoul/Gwangju/Gyeongju etc. etc., or visit the beaches in the neighbouring province of Gangwon-do – but the sought-after holiday spot (and, according to my classes, ‘abroad’ destination) is Jeju Island, a small-ish dot on the Korean map stranded in the southern sea.

Grandfather StonesHistorically a traditional honeymoon spot, ‘the Hawaii of the Orients’ (so I have been told) is chocka with exciting geography, history, exhibits, weather and food. Unfortunately our holiday coincided with the single most popular time of year to visit, so much of this was seen between shoulderblades.

You know what? I retract that last passive-aggressive statement: what we expected was to only see sights over the tops of crowds. In fact, we (mostly) had ample room to travel.

Jeju CoastJeju Island (roughly translated as ‘Island of the Gods’) is predominately divided between two places-to-be: Jeju City, next door to the airport and bustling with hustle and shops and nightclubs and other familiar things – the alternative being Seogwipo, a substantially smaller harbour-town with more countryside than cityscape to offer. We chose the latter in an optimistic attempt to minimise forced human interaction for a few days.Seogwipo Market

Seogwipo was a good bet. The city is thriving with markets, vegetation and a staggering number of restaurants of all different flavours. Typically, we managed to repeat-visit two places in the five days we had, but hell – it was a holiday.

Part of our reasoning for picking Seogwipo lay in the options to explore the area – while Jeju City has plenty of museums and hilarious sculpture parks (which I shall address momentarily), we wanted to see the actual, breathing volcanicity of the island itself. Our choices were:

(Days 1/2)

Meggit & BeanCheonjiyeon Waterfall – a very pretty spot, but ill-chosen for the first visit; the peak season was particularly self-evident as coaches spilled multitudes into the small canyon hiding the waterfall itself. Never have I wished to join ducks swimming so much; Jeju is even more equilateral than Seoul or even Daegu and the heat can be awesome. As in, the actual definition.

Seogwipo Bridge ThingSeogwipo – the city itself, although built on a bastard hill, has something to see at each level. On top of the hill (ie. our hotel) you can gorge yourself on any kind of conceivable food (we had the best Dak Galbi thus far tasted in Korea. Twice.) Further down, you can find arts & crafts, music venues, and street sellers such as a fantastically bohemian Nepalese couple we met at a street-stall; I am now the thoroughly proud owner of a hand-made bansuri flute which, while distinctly un-Korean, is possibly my favourite souvenir thus far purchased here.

Dak Galbi Mashita!

Meg Eats     Ben Drinks

Mr. KimOn our very first night there, we encountered a lovely, if initially odd, gentleman by the name of Mr. Kim. We went on a merry adventure about the city with him as our guide, clambering over coastal rocks in the dying light and drinking into merriment; apparently just having friends for the evening made him ‘very, very happy’, which was only a little heartbreaking for us when we couldn’t find him afterwards…Bright Trees

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An Ode to the Old Gent Who Stole My Cigarettes.

Worn ShoesSmiling, open, evidently-fed,

An-yeong haseyo, he said.

In digital military camo clad,

Forwardly friendly, but possibly mad.

He did offer Oreo cookies, foil-arranged,

We did take food from person most strange.

‘Alas!’, he gestured, with miming at bags –

‘Your Korean is tragic, and I’m out of fags!’

As I am genteel, I withheld him not:

He inspected the packet, and pocketed the lot.

Baffled was I, though they cost but two-fifty;

To argument for its sake would be unsociably thrifty.

Instead I smiled, confused to the core,

As our incommunicable friend buggered off out the door.

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True story. I never even knew his name.

I gather he was very impressed with my acquisition of Meg, who herself is under the strong impression he was complimenting my manhood. I haven’t dwelt on where his information came from.

Meg's name came next, but Millie ate it.

Meg’s name came next, but Millie ate it.

So, apparently my concept of diligence and persistence stretches as far as a bi-monthly posting. Future Ben will thank himself for this gift when he attempts to reflect nostalgically without having to put too much work into reading every blog.

My accomplishments since the dawn of 2013 have thus far included:

'Guilt' isn't a sufficient noun.

‘Guilt’ isn’t a sufficient noun.

– Long-term fixing the toilet with a now-unwanted hairband of Meg’s, thereby ensuring a relatively plunger-less existence;

– Successfully extracting a totally oblivious puppy’s internal reproductive organs, leading to a solid month of guilt induced by stoned puppy and the sad realisation that said puppy will not spawn further puppies a la the movie Gremlins;

– Purchasing a small, stuffed dog for aforementioned wombless canine which has instantly become an object of love, abuse and cannibalistic violence in our absence;Iced Lake

– Nearly losing puppy down the lake’s one ice-fishing hole while dashing across it;

– Discovering canine fellowship with local meandering hound (whom we’ve taken to calling Jin), with whom Millie goes entirely berserk and dashes tirelessly through the snow;The Most Graceful Dance

– Furthermore, discovering that, while loathe to damage any of our actual possessions (bar a slightly sucked slipper), Millie enacts scenes of carnage with any tissue-paper within reach when left alone;I Didn't Do It

– Acquiring promised Christmas Xbox from greatly loved noisy ‘Mericans only to discover that antiquated trigenarian of a TV suffers a stroke when attempting to link up devices, prompting me to scour Seoul’s own brand of Craigslist in search of justifiably cheap device;

– Almost managing to wriggle out of debts from home after discovering that expatriation is not a substitute for responsible finances;Rakkojae, Seoul

– Successfully managing to be a creative and/or mature photojournalistic professional shooting  a hotel review, two coffee shops and a clothes store for UK’s Cereal Magazine: http://readcereal.com/ . This basically means I drank my body weight in free coffee and ran around giggling for a while before falling onto a mattress on the floor. The fact that the mattress was a traditional Korean bed in a staggeringly elite traditional hotel doesn’t detract from the day’s childish indulgence.Meg's SaunaPatio Suite

I also now share my late bedtimes with Millie, as I carry her barely-conscious form up and down the goddamn blasted stairs every night before falling over in bed. It’s good to share routines.Royalty's Tiny Thrones

Oh, I Remember You: Happy 2013…

Lake WalkI hide my face and shame in my hands as to the lateness of this post. The word ‘backlog’ springs to mind – and I blame the puppy entirely.

In true tradition of photography and the Internet, I have taken approximately as many photos of Millie as I have either Meg or myself since arriving in Korea – and then some. Lightroom’s ‘photo tab’ reaching 1,300 photos in need of editing has delayed any autobiographing far past the changing of the year.

So, in summary:

MILLIEConvincingly Innocent

Millie is, without question, the most ridiculous thing we could have acquired whilst living in Korea – and is the most irresponsible thing we could ever manage not to regret. She is under 6 months old, under 3kg, under a foot high and far more intelligent than the majority of dogs I have known. Within a week, she was housetrained, accustomed to being left at home for extended periods and was able to walk without the lead.Puppy For Christmas

The sight of her bounding and vanishing in the snow is justification alone for us saving her life – and we have given up any fantasies of fostering her off to another family. She’s coming to England, and she will see actual fields for the first time.

Apologies in advance – there will be a significant increase of animal photography from here on in.

WORKSanta, 'Cause

School continues in its oddness and wildly bipolar energy levels. Christmas Eve brought the Kang’s Christmas Party; a day devoid of anything resembling work, in favour of chasing sugar-crazed children around the school in full Santa Claus regalia. I have only myself to blame: not twelve hours previously, I made the fate-tempting mistake of saying to Meg, ‘I really, really hope they don’t make me wear a bloody Santa costume’. The fat-man trousers fit nicely, which was an added ego-crushing bonus.

PLAYTrees Lining Snow

For our treasured five days’ holiday, Meg and I had managed to reach Christmas Day itself without forming anything in the way of Holiday Plans. We eventually settled on an expedition to the as-yet undiscovered Songnisan National Park, bundling our wonky-tailed housemate off to fantastic dogsitter Bernadette en-route.

Barking Up The TreeSongnisan was a true revelation on many levels. Firstly, the weather was, for the most part, gloriously sky-blue. Any deviation from such weather was entirely in the form of heavy snowfall, resulting in a staggeringly beautiful mountainscape and real Isolated Mountain Town feel to the place. Finally – and perhaps most fantastically: not a soul could be heard. Since our arrival in Korea, we haven’t experienced anything so aweseomely quiet – so we proceeded to do the honourable thing of seeing how many obnoxious noises we could bounce off the distant slopes.Mountain Town

We almost – but not quite – managed to get up to one of Songnisan’s peaks before realising how laughably unprepared we actually were for the journey. As it transpires, snow + cold weather = ice, and ice + hill = hilarious scenes of foreigners grasping hold of any protruding foliage in a vain attempt to escape death. Next time we will bring crampons, partially so Meg can laugh at the word.

FESTIVE FESTIVITIESOur Card This Year...

Before leaving England, we resigned ourselves to the prospect of a quiet, potentially sad Christmas; we’ve never spent one on our own, and I was slightly worried about how the day would feel. I hadn’t taken into account The Americans, however.Let's Make A Noise Now

A short-ish while before Christmas itself, we all decided that one big, disorganised, obscene, alcoholic occasion would be infinitely superior to three or four sad alcoholic ones. Presents were planned, stockings were stocked and dinner (we thought) was doomed with only two hob-rings to cook for four.

It was a triumph anyway.

It was a triumph anyway.

Or, indeed, five, as we welcome the newest initiate to Team Obnoxious: Shawn Hewitt, fellow airman of Aaron’s and talented lyre bird of any offensive noises thrown at him. Never before have I seen a man so quickly accept insanity and bypass the usual social insecurities which precede it. We were proud.

True Love And ShawnNow, in England we’re a reserved lot. Christmas presents among friends – if, indeed, any – are usually a matter of ‘buying a drink’ or ‘getting a silly joke toy’, or ‘forgetting’ etc. etc. This Christmas, however, a certain amount of pre-planning went into it. So much so that, between our small group, both myself and Hailey each got an Xbox, Aaron got a THX speaker system which reduces sperm count in a three-metre radius and Meg got her very own fitness pole for Korea. Hooray for capitalism, and Merry Christmas to all.Sitting Patiently

I’m unsure if a belated New Year’s Resolution counts, but mine concerns the semi-regular maintenance of this here blog. I realise that such a resolution, including the acknowledgement of the resolution itself, is riddled with noncommitment and nonspecifics. An excellent start.

Night WalkAlso, our adored petit chien just stole practically an entire chicken breast from Meg’s plate without alerting either of us. We don’t know if we should chastise or compliment her.

On Social Nuisances and New Arrivals

Ice DripsSo, we now have a third housemate. She doesn’t work, she doesn’t contribute and she rarely cleans up after herself – but I’ll get to that bit later.Snow Flowers

We’ve been enjoying/surviving the winter conditions with varying mixtures of excitement, tolerance and ice-induced pain; as it transpires, my most sensible of black shoes are entirely ill-suited to a frictionless surface, and Meg has had opportunity aplenty to marvel and/or laugh at my steadily increasing rage after the eighth slip.

Aaron StrikesThe Adventures of the Westerners continue with the newest episode in the series – Hailey & Aaron do Itaewon. In true form, I spent the majority of the day cowering behind my camera as the Americans presented themselves to the public in ways I could never manage whilst sober. The weekend brought much in the way of education and hilarity, as Aaron took Hailey & I on an epic tour of the War Memorial of Korea Museum, complete with statistical information and unbiased historical backstory. His otherwise rude gesticulations at the North Korean-fashioned mannequins were met with relatively little reprobation.Hailey Retaliates

Aaron IntrudesShortly before reuniting with the otherwise busy Megan Coast – see later for purpose of absence – we had the pleasure of encountering the usual chain of enthusiastic shop-merchants and publicists dragging in tourists from the street. Aaron had ample opportunity to test-drive his new Noise (O-OOHRGH! : a mix of the previously described U-UGH! and a chortling walrus) when confronted with an eager salesgirl outside Nature Republic (huge Korean skin-products chain: think Body Shop meets Marks & Spencers). The conversation went something like:

I think Hailey won.

I think Hailey won.

SHOP ASSISTANT: Would you like to try new skin lotion? Only 3,000!

AARON: O-OOHRGH!

SA: Also, 30% off all products!

A: O-OOHRGH?

SA: Free service products when purchasing!

A: [fading into distance past SA] O-Oohrrghh….!

Kudos to her professionalism – though Aaron was doing a marvellous impression of being On A Day Trip at the time, so perhaps he wasn’t the specific target market. I hasten to add that Hailey is nothing if not encouraging of such behaviour.

Now, for the Development. Despite the looming forces of Logic and Practicality, we have done exactly what a major percentage of travellers would recommend against.

Meet Millie.

Millie

I’m hoping your initial reaction is closer to oh my GAWD she is so CUTE I want to HAVE her for CHRISTMAS rather than a stern disapproval. I know she’s going to be a pain at times, and I know things might be a bit more complicated – but I also know that we literally saved her life from the Kill Shelter, and you can’t send THAT face back to be put down. Places like that prove that you can keep a good dog down, unfortunately.Tiny Dog

I am fully aware that the Internet is not lacking in pet photos, and that your darlings are never as interesting to someone else –but puppies are invariably more interesting/adorable than the young of our own species, so my apology is largely for show. Millie is four months old, and we have had her for three days of that – but she is (mostly…) housetrained, she can be left alone for extended periods without issue and is the single most affectionate being on the planet. Basically, she’s better than most people’s neighbours.Millie's Favourite

Millie's CoatI know I wouldn’t mind sitting on my soft bottom and watching crap TV all day while everyone else is at work.

This blog has been a warning to you: there WILL be more dog-photos to come, and I WILL assume that people actually want to see them. I will take your silence as assent.

The Weather Outside’s Delightful

Snow TowersSnow GirlAs of December 1st, 2012, Seoul has become a Snowy Place To Be. This fits with Benjamin Robins nicely, and he has sought to shed as many years of maturity as possible in the last week. Given that my first reaction to the snowflakes was to rush outside the school and frolic merrily, I believe this has been accomplished. Moi In The Snow

There’s something about catching snowflakes in your mouth, tongue lolling out like a brain-damaged Golden Retriever, which makes you feel that much more like an eight-year-old. The now-concerned students who may have seen this act are concerned.

Meg in NarniaThe timing of my camera repair, as it turns out, couldn’t have been much better; the snow teased us for the first weekend or so, abandoned us entirely on Tuesday and fell with a mighty whumph on Tuesday. As if I weren’t already giddy with prepubescent meteorological madness, Wednesday brought something approaching a blizzard: sadly, the school had to remain closed for the day and we were bereft of what to do…

This is what we did: we had dinner in Itaewon. Talk about 'responsible grown-ups'...

This is what we did: we had dinner in Itaewon. Talk about ‘responsible grown-ups’…

To Work In The SnowThis, to me, is proof enough that my 6-year curse – never to see snow wherever I may live – is only specific to England. Call it my Christmas present to the homeland that I decided to leave.

Meg gets into the Christmas spirit.

Meg gets into the Christmas spirit.

Also, amidst the delirium of Christmas songs (good and bad), newly acquired Bailey’s and Marmite (oh my god) and tree decorations (only three sets of lights broken so far), our friends the Ryus have included our typically confused selves in their shop display, albeit in miniature form. We were sufficiently amazed.

How ADORABLE is that?

How ADORABLE is that? Note Billie the Dog also.