Loving Life

My friends seem to have decided that I have some kind of Jekyll/Hyde situation going on, for they now treat me as two very different people. Our names are Winter Hails and Summer Hails.

Winter Hails made her appearance around October or November, and was with us until about the middle of June. She is a tranquil soul, and has absolutely no desire to be in the company of other people, save for the occasional quiet meal or coffee with no more than one or two close friends. She forces herself to join in when there’s  a special event like a birthday party, but is ready to go home after about an hour or so. She hates the loud music, the noisy crowds, the small talk and mingling. She is always the first one to go home, and it will be weeks before she is seen again. She is a mature, dignified, sensible grown-up who enjoys reading, writing, cooking, and probably pottering in the garden, if she had one.

But now, for the second year running, Summer Hails has arrived in a confusing, chaotic and whirly hot mess. For some inexplicable reason, she is almost the exact opposite of Winter Hails. She gets bored after too many quiet nights in, plans activities with as many different people as possible, and survives on far too little sleep. She goes out for dinner on a Wednesday night (having already been out on Tuesday), for example, and drinks soju until the restaurant closes, then drags her companions into the first noraebang she sees on the way home, spending the next two hours singing the most ridiculous selection of songs you can possibly imagine, before dancing home and sending a variety of entertaining and insightful emails to a large number of lucky individuals, before realising it’s after 4am and not actually the weekend. She wakes up a few hours later, stumbles into work worryingly hangover-free but decidedly confused and disoriented, and plows through the day on autopilot, trying to work out whether she can schedule in a quick nap before repeating the entire process again that night… and the next…

She takes on projects, she gets more work done in a single evening than Winter Hails does in a month, she goes to art galleries and museums and pretentious coffee shops and baseball games and movies, she parties, she volunteers to tutor a friend, she develops strong opinions about everything, she studies a language, she practices guitar with manic determination, and when there’s nothing else to do, she turns a quiet and civilised post-work dinner into a party.

I don’t know that I find either of these girls particularly appealing, but Summer Hails does seem to be a lot more popular. She is also way more positive and cheerful, which possibly has something to do with it. Last night she stepped outside the restaurant to take a phone call, and, looking around her, was suddenly overcome with the wonders of being alive. She floated back in to her companions, all hippy-dippy-like, and began to extol the virtues of Korea, and the lifestyle, and the culture, and the neon lights, and the food, and the people, and ohmygoodness let’s go to a noraebang right now, guys!!!

Must be something to do with Vitamin D and sunlight, I don’t know. Whatever causes it, it’s quite good fun. :)

Apart from finding all those sent emails the next morning. And then reading them.

C’est la vie

I’ve become friends with my French teacher from last month (I’ve now moved up to the next class), and am greatly enjoying the whole socialising-in-French thing.

I can’t quite explain why I love French so much. I always have. At school, the French teachers liked me because I really, really, really wanted to learn. My third form French teacher found out that I was crazy about The X Files, and bless him, faithfully taped each week’s dubbed episode for me from a French TV channel, so I could combine my two passions – The X Files and French! He cut out articles about the show from French magazines, and engaged me in conversation about it as much as he could, just to encourage me to practice speaking. He was great.

By the time I was in Sixth Form, I could speak French fairly well, and was one of a small handful of students who chose the language as an A-level subject. It was intensive, and hard work, but unlike with my other two subjects, it never felt like work to me. I simply loved it, that was all. I enjoyed writing essays in French about French novels. I loved chatting to the language assistants. I even delighted in studying the grammar. I read French novels and plays for pleasure. My teacher pushed me harder and harder, seeing my passion for the language – he gave me extra, more challenging work to do, and I did it cheerfully. (Yes, I was that student!)

So anyway, I suppose I’d forgotten the delight I took in speaking French, over the years of not speaking it or hearing it at all. Being suddenly plunged into 2-hour classes several times a week, as well as real conversation in social settings at the weekend, has brought it all back. And the fact that I’m in Korea, speaking French, tickles me for some reason! I’m nowhere near as confident or as good as I was when I was 18, but the regular practice has brought my listening skills back up to speed, and I’m sure the ability to speak (without every other word being “uhhh…”, I mean) will follow eventually. I may even be able to pronounce words containing the letter ‘r’ without sounding like I’m choking on a hairball, one day.

Anyway, on Friday Lucy and I went for dinner at a Korean BBQ place, which was a huge mistake given that the last thing I need on a hot summer’s evening is a bucket of white-hot charcoal on the table. Sweating profusely and frantically fanning yourself, when it takes every inch of your concentration to follow someone chattering in French in a very full, very noisy Korean restaurant is not easy, let me tell you. But only in Korea, then again, have I experienced girls wandering in from the street with baskets full of little ice packs, cheerfully distributing them (free) to everyone in the restaurant who looks too hot, and then leaving without a word! You had to punch the plastic package a few times until something popped, and suddenly it became freezing cold to touch. All around the restaurant, people were frantically punching away, and then sighing in relief as they put the ice packs to their foreheads. Just one of those little moments I love!

We ended up in the Mojito Bar (not really its name, but it’s the only place in Daejeon that knows how to make my favourite drink properly), drinking cocktails with folk I’d never met before – and switching to English for their benefit, to my aching brain’s relief. The barmaid gave me a “take-away mojito” when it was suddenly decided that we were going back to Lucy’s apartment. I have never in my life heard of anyone getting a take-away mojito, but I must say I’m a fan of the concept. You will never feel classier than when you are skipping merrily through the streets at one in the morning sipping rum through a neon pink straw from a plastic cup, let me tell you!

We encountered Lucy’s neighbour, “Ken”, on the way in, and he got swept along with us. Ken (his ‘English name’, not his real name) is a Korean English teacher who – I soon discovered – cannot speak English. This is a fairly common phenomenon, worryingly enough. But anyway, he seemed a pleasant sort of fella and was also able to miraculously produce a box of hot fried chicken seemingly from nowhere as soon as someone mentioned being peckish.

Vodka was consumed. Conversations were going on in a language that wasn’t quite English, or French, or Korean. And then all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, there was a violin and a book of Irish fiddle music.

And you know (for finally, I reach my point), no matter what your reasons for learning a foreign language may be, you just never see a possible result being this: you, sitting in the apartment of people you met less than 2 months ago as if they are old friends, teaching the words of Danny Boy to a Korean English teacher who can’t speak English, while the violinist plays along as if she is in fact an Irish girl in a local bar in Dublin somewhere, and not a French girl in an obscure little city in South Korea.

C’est la vie. Well – mine, anyway. :)

It’s rude to stare.

As I sat on the train home tonight, I became conscious of the fact that a woman was staring at me.

She was sitting a few rows further down the carriage, after the middle break where the seats faced the opposite way, towards mine. When I spotted her, she didn’t even react – just continued to stare at me with a curious, almost frowning expression on her face. The longer it went on, the more pissed off I became.

It had been a long day thanks to a fabulous Friday night that involved a leisurely dinner, speaking French, mojitos, speaking Korean, laughter, speaking a weird sort of Kofranglais, and a spontaneous violin-and-vodka-accompanied singsong. All most enjoyable at the time (which was about 4am, in the end), but regrettable from the second I woke up and discovered a group of workmen using jackhammers in my head. Not only had I run out of drinking water to ease the trauma (and the shop down the street might as well have been 500 miles away, for all the chance there was of me dragging myself down to get some), but approximately halfway through my hangover I had to get up and go on a train journey to watch one of my best friends starring in a play in another city. This was something I’d been looking forward to, of course, but the getting there was Not Fun At All, given the major reconstruction work that was apparently underway inside my skull. I also managed to have a mild but upsetting skirmish with a friend via text message in the midst of all this, and dropped my subway card in a puddle of what I can only hope was spilled beer.

So there I was on the train, anyway, having survived the day but still feeling fragile enough to be longing for my bed. And this bitch was staring at me for no apparent reason. It’s the sort of thing I’d usually try to ignore, but with my nerves on edge and my head imploding, this tactic was rather more difficult. I sat there, trying to match her stare, but she didn’t back down, and I became more and more irritated.

Then I realised that a man a few rows behind her was also staring at me. This was getting to be beyond a joke! And, to my horror, as the train whooshed its way homeward, I became aware of more and more starers. They were everywhere. Gazing at me. Sometimes frowning, sometimes sniggering, sometimes just staring curiously and intently. WTF??! I had to resist a very strong urge to leap up on my seat and shout out the words to a particularly aggressive and insulting Korean baseball chant I happen to know. What a load of rude, insensitive, cruel, nasty idiots. I spent the journey getting increasingly freaked out and maddened, until at last, to my relief, Daejeon Station was announced as the next stop.

I stood up to head for the door, glaring angrily at all the freaks who had tormented me so. And that, of course, is when I realised that there had been a TV screen right above my head the whole time.

The Circle of Life

Bzzzzzzzzzzz! Bzzzz-bzzzz-bzzzzzzzzzzz!

I pause midway through my sentence and look nervously around me. Terri hastily pushes her chair back from her desk, her eyes darting around the room. The buzzing stops.

Errr… yes… I continue uncertainly. So, I woke up with a jump, and the only thought in my head was –

Bzzzzzzzzz! Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! BZZZZZZZZZ!

– what the hell IS that?! I conclude with a great deal of anxiety. The buzzing continues noisily, and we wonder if it might be the computer. It is not. Both of us are understandably on edge after each recently having a class interrupted by the appearance of one of these horrific things…

…so obviously it is now completely impossible to continue with our conversation, given that we may be about to die grisly and gruesome deaths at the hands of some ginormous multi-legged mutant creature.

Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! Bzzzzzz-bzzzz-bzzzzz!

We gaze suspiciously at Terri’s desk. It may be time to think about tidying your desk, I advise nervously, wondering how many millions of horrifying crawly things are living under her mountains of paperwork and coffee cups.

Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

The buzzing becomes continuous and we become semi-hysterical. Then we find the perpetrator – an upside-down winged thing which is approximately the size of a Yorkshire Terrier – lying on its back next to the desk. We are trapped and helpless. I absolutely cannot cope with this sort of emergency situation when I haven’t even taken my first sip of coffee of the day from the mug in my hand.

HELLLLLLLLLLP!!!!! we bawl, practically clutching each other and holding our skirts up around our knees.

BZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!! goes the Thing.

Oh, for goodness sake, says Chris, entering at a run with Dani and seeing the flesh-eating piranha-with-wings, it’s just a baby dragonfly. 

He picks it up gently as Terri and I back around the edge of the classroom, gibbering in fear. It’s tiny! Look at it! It’s cute! What did you think it was going to do to you? It’s only a little baby. Dani, also amused, opens the window for him, and the pair of them release the Creature as if they are performing a symbolic gesture and setting free a beautiful white dove in the name of peace and harmony, and not rescuing us from a dangerous wild animal that was trying to kill us. They are practically cooing over it, in the manner of proud parents over a particularly cute baby. I just don’t understand some people.

The Creature soars free from Chris’ hand… straight into the open and waiting beak of a passing bird. The incredulous dismay on the faces of Dani and Chris is priceless.

Birds are our friends.

A gift.

We went on a field trip yesterday – a Korean-language one this time, so I don’t know exactly what it was about! But it seemed to be educating the youngsters about forests and conservation and that sort of thing. It was a very small museum-type place with various tree-related displays and posters, and friendly ‘guides’ dressed in outdoorsy ranger uniforms, showing the children videos about forest fires and giving them lots of information. They seemed to enjoy it, whatever it was.

At the end, however, we were led to a long table laden with all kinds of tree parts – thinly sliced twigs, berries, evergreen leaves, sticks, etc. – along with a circular wooden disk and some glue. Teacher can come, too! said the guide in Korean, ushering me kindly to a chair in the midst of the children. She was very sweet, including me in the class and making sure I understood all her instructions, although really, it wasn’t too hard to figure out that I was supposed to make a pendant using the tree-related materials and glue in front of me. It was great fun. Here’s my finished piece of jewellery:

When we were just getting started, an elderly man sat down next to me – possibly the owner of the centre. He, too, spoke no English, but we introduced ourselves politely and had as much of a conversation as I could manage in Korean. He told me that his granddaughter, currently an English teacher at a school similar to ours, was born in America. I think he was telling me that I reminded him of her (I’m very distinctly Korean-looking, you know!) – either that, or maybe he just has a soft spot for foreigners who come here to teach English. I don’t know. Anyway, we had reached the end of my Korean conversational abilities, so he began work on something of his own while I turned back to my necklace and assisted glue-covered infants with theirs.

(pinched it from the school's website!)

He watched me intently as I helped the children with their artwork, and he spoke at length to my Korean colleague about me, but she doesn’t speak enough English to translate. I began to feel a little paranoid! But I needn’t have worried. When he finished his necklace, he turned back in my direction and held it out to me, telling me that he’d made it as a present for me.

Slightly surprised, I accepted it with both hands and gave a polite little bow of gratitude, to which he said something in Korean and clasped my hands in his for a few seconds before walking away. I didn’t understand most of what he said, but I got a few words. Teacher. Children. Happy. Love. Thank you very much. 

That was enough for me.

*After I wrote this post, my director mentioned the necklace to me. Apparently the old man told her that it’s a crane, and symbolises a long and happy life, which is what he wishes for me. :) I love little moments like these! 

Beans in your ice cream, ma’am?

Teachers, please come downstairs.

The announcement came over the speaker system, and I reluctantly left my air-conditioned classroom to fight my way downstairs through the heat haze. I was rewarded by the sight of a large box on the office table, full of ice-packed containers delivered by a grateful/cunning parent – one huge tub for each teacher. Hurrah! Patbingsu season is here!

팥빙수/Patbingsu is the ultimate Korean summer dessert. It is as elaborate and mind-bogglingly huge as only Korean desserts can be, but is based on two simple ingredients: shaved ice and red Azuki beans. Yes: beans.

In Korea, certain vegetables are often used in desserts, alongside fruit. Tomatoes, for example. Yes, I know they’re technically fruit, but would you decorate a chocolate cake with something you normally find in a salad, or in your cheese sarnie? Koreans do. Many times, I have watched curiously as a colleague casually picks a piece of tomato off the top of a cake, scoops up a load of whipped cream and chocolate sauce with it, and pops it into her mouth. You can also buy fruit salads which contain grapes, pineapple chunks, sliced apples and bananas, pieces of orange… and tomatoes.

That’s a fairly easy one to adapt to, however. What is a little more difficult is accepting the presence of beans – whole, chopped, or in paste form – in just about any dessert you can think of. I am not a fan of the red beans in general. Most foreigners strongly dislike them, while Koreans can’t understand the problem, proving (to me, at least), that it’s just a matter of what you’re used to. For us, beans belong in savoury dishes. On top of your toast or with your sausages and chips, for example. In a pot of spicy chili con carne. In soups and stews. But when they start appearing in your ice cream and your cakes, your taste buds go into a state of confusion.

It’s not repulsive. It’s not even unpleasant. It’s just… odd. And yet, there they are. The most popular usage of these beans seems to be in sweet breads and pastries. You bite through the intensely sugary glaze and soft, sticky bread, and find yourself with a mouthful of lumpy, gritty bean paste. I think it’s an acquired taste.

I have, however, found two desserts in which I can tolerate and even enjoy the presence of red beans. The first is 붕어빵/Bungeoppang, a street vendor snack best enjoyed on a freezing cold winter’s day.

They’re fish-shaped crispy waffle-type things (!) with red bean paste inside, served piping hot, and they’re actually really good. Only while they’re hot though. As soon as they cool down, the crunchy exterior turns soggy and chewy, and the paste loses its sweetness and tastes like… well, beans. Not so nice. Definitely a snack for scarfing down quickly by the street vendor’s cart! And very cheap, too – you get 4 or 5 for 1,000 won (60p), and one is usually enough for me – two if I’m hungry. Sharing with friends means you’re getting a hot, tasty, filling snack for just a few pence each! Red bean win.

And to go right back to where we started, dessert number two is of course Patbingsu. I don’t have any photos, sadly, but I’ll get some before the summer’s through. In the meantime, check out the Google image results for an idea of how many different ways there are to make this dessert. There are dozens – probably hundreds – of variations, but all involve red beans (팥/pat) and shaved ice (빙수/bingsu). The ones I’ve had were take-away versions served in huge plastic tubs packed in ice. These ones aren’t piled high with ingredients like most, due to lack of space, but are instead covered with a layer of tightly compressed shaved ice, perhaps to keep everything in place until you eat it. You start by chipping through the ice on top of the dessert with your spoon, at which point some things will appear and start to mix with the melting ice. Fresh cream, perhaps… little pieces of tteok… chewy jelly bits… fresh fruit… ice cream… cereal flakes… there’s apparently no limit to what can go in a patbingsu.

And there, at the bottom, is your generous stash of whole red beans. You mix it all up in stages as the ice melts, and half-eat, half-drink it. It’s delicious, and extremely soothing on a sweltering day. The beans do occasionally become a bit too much for me towards the end, but mostly I enjoy the combination of flavours and textures. Eating it perched on various items of furniture around the office with colleagues is also fun, as everyone tends to trade pieces that they don’t particularly like in exchange for their favourites.  I was a little confused the first few times colleagues casually reached over and seemingly threw stuff into my food, but now I cheerfully scoop a spoonful of red beans into their tubs in exchange for my favourite chewy jellies, without breaking the conversation.

Red beans: another unexpected but generally enjoyable cultural experience. :)

In search of an adventure.

The sun is shining!

It is a little slice of heaven, for although the temperature has soared with the appearance of blue sky, the sweaty, sticky, swirling steam bath of the past few weeks has temporarily lifted. I can once again step outside without a blanket of Pure Wet settling around me.

As I walked to school this morning in the sunshine, I got that feeling that I often do while in Korea – the sense that my life here is really a sort of working holiday. I mean, yes, certainly, I have to go to work every day. But what is my job? Am I sitting behind a desk, filing papers and crunching numbers and stressing about deadlines? No, I’m laughing (well, mostly!) with adorable little children with whom I spend the day engaged in messy art projects and singing songs from my childhood and watching cartoons. Granted, there are bad days from time to time, but for the most part, it’s a dream job for me.

And all the while, here I am in this foreign, exotic land where everything is bustling and nothing is humdrum. People are walking around in shorts and flip-flops, fanning themselves as they seek out a shady pavement table, where they sit and drink iced tea and watch the world go by. I could be lazing on a white sandy beach on a tropical(ish)  island within a couple of hours if the notion takes me. Downtown, every night of the week is party night, with the streets resembling those of a popular holiday resort, and people drinking cocktails on terraces. There is an endless supply of tourist attractions and off-the-beaten-track places for me to explore, without ever having to pack a suitcase or board a plane.

So why do I spend so much time in the same place, cooped up in the same little apartment, browsing the same time-wasting websites, watching the same TV shows, going to the same restaurants and bars, repeating the same familiar, enjoyable-but-tired experiences? 

Actually, I know why – I am a creature of habit, and it’s very easy for me to settle into a routine, get stuck in a rut, and then find that a year (or several) has simply disappeared without me having done anything. Thankfully the whole issue of my now dangerously close 30th birthday has been nudging me out of this tendency of late, as I have this thing about wanting to have packed as much excitement into my 20s as I possibly can, and I’m nearly out of time!

The point of this post (as I know it’s looking uncertain as to whether there is one) is that I had actually abandoned the idea of going anywhere during my precious one-week holiday at the start of August. Me! The eager explorer! The girl who rides wild horses in the Mongolian wilderness and hops from one European country to another, staying with total strangers! Nah, it’s all too much effort, I decided when I realised that everywhere nearby that I wanted to visit would just be Too Frickin’ Hot at this time of year, and when my notions of seeking out the cold (in the form of wild bear watching and volcano trekking in Russia) proved to be ridiculously expensive and complicated to arrange. Instead, I would simply hole up in my air-conditioned apartment room and watch TV.

This would have been a horrible waste of one of only 2 weeks of holiday time I get in Korea. And no, I still don’t want to pay lots of money to suffer in the heat in some other country, but it occurred to me this morning that there’s so much left for me to see in the country I’m in right now. Why not go on the road for a week? Just me, myself, my camera, my guidebook, and a small backpack. And of course, a fresh new notebook and pens.

I will seek out the unusual, couchsurf with Korean families, tour the big cities, amble through the little villages, eat only foods that I haven’t yet tried, and experience more of Korea than the comfortable 1-mile radius I’ve been seeing lately. And yes, it will probably rain on me for the entire week, and yes, it will be uncomfortably hot, and yes, I will be a big walking puddle of sweat, but sure I’ll be on my own and no one will know me, so what the hell.

And after all, I live in Korea. If it’s not fun, home is only a short train ride away at any given point!

Suggestions, ideas, facts about potentially interesting Korean places, challenges, photo requests, or anything at all that might give me ideas for my itinerary, are all welcome via email or comments or whatever. Alternatively, just accept what you get. :)