Easing the pain.

I spent this weekend teaching bar staff in various Korean cities how to make a hot toddy.

I have been struck down in the pribe of libe, by a nasty cold/flu-like virus that is working its way through my group of friends and knocking us down one by one. There was nothing I felt less like doing than going to Busan for the fireworks festival on Saturday, but as it was also a friend’s birthday party, I couldn’t really give it a miss. A nap on the train did not improve matters at all, and walking though the suddenly (and unusally, for this time of year) rainy and windy streets probably made things even worse.

Do you know what a hot toddy is? I asked hopefully of the barmaid when we settled in at a seafront place to watch the fireworks. She did not. Would you mind trying to make me one if I tell you what to put in it? I asked. She seemed uncertain. I’m very sick, I told her pathetically. She looked a little nervous, but nodded bravely and ended up serving me a soothing, warming, lemony, sugary whisky concoction that took my illness away. Well, the third or fourth one did, at least. ;)

Sadly, the effects of the hot toddy are only temporary, and after having half-slept, half-coughed all the way back to Daejeon yesterday afternoon, I was mumbling things about wanting to be left alone to die (I can be a tad melodramatic).  But I had to go to The Local to watch the world cup final, obviously, so death had to be postponed for a few hours. I think it may be the first time in my life that I have half-crawled into a pub, taken off my shoes in silence, and curled up on a sofa with my coat pulled over me like a blanket. Whimpering.

Will I go and ask Pete if he’ll make you a hot toddy? asked Irish Friend One in some concern.

The bar owner was not – as it turned out – overly familiar with the hot toddy manufacturing process, but he cheerfully obliged, emerging from the kitchen with a look of great concentration at one point to ask a truly wonderful question: “So, um, should I just fill it up with whisky, then, and add a little hot water? Or half whisky, half water, maybe?” Irish Friend One was starting to look a little alarmed.

Pete brought me my steaming drink from the kitchen and hovered around to see if it was OK. One sip nearly blew my head off, but as my head was mostly full of unpleasant gunk by that stage, it wasn’t actually a bad thing. By the time I’d finished my first glass, I was cheering and yelling at French rugby players without a single cough or sneeze. By the time I’d had two, the rugby was over (dommage! :() and I was involved in a singsong with random strangers who’d gathered around our table. By the time I’d had three, I was whirling around the dance floor with said strangers, in a very noisy but hearty rendition of Don’t Stop Me Now. Just your average rainy Sunday night fighting off the flu.

Pete, always in tune with the mood of his patrons, crossed the dance floor to switch on the disco lights following this unexpected turn of events, and looked incredulously at me as I was twirled in front of him by a large bearded man. You look realllllly sick, Hayley! he remarked cynically. I actually think he suspected me of having faked illness just so he’d make me a drink that wasn’t on the menu and involved him having to leave the bar and go into the kitchen.

If only. Sniffle.

I would do anything for coffee, but I won’t do that.

Oh, urrrrrrghhhhh.

You know I don’t like mornings, right? That should not be a surprise at this stage in our relationship. Mornings are bad. They are cruel and filled with unpleasant sounds like alarm clocks and neighbours’ alarm clocks and people moving around outside. They demand that you get out of your nice cosy bed and do things that you won’t have the energy to do until after at least 2 cups of coffee, like, for example, stand up.

They are even worse, however, when you have a cold. No matter how much better you were feeling when you went to bed, by the time you wake up in the morning you will again be at death’s door, your head heavy with what feels like an entire swimming pool inside it. Your nose no longer functions. Your cough makes you sound like you’re on 80 a day. When you groan self-pityingly it comes out as a raspy, gurgly sound.

There was no time for coffee to improve matters this morning, as I dazedly hit snooze for approximately an hour and was 15 minutes late for work, so all I could do was grab my bag of ground coffee and bring it with me. My intention was to take it into the classroom of Sarky Teacher (a fellow coffee enthusiast), who has a little French press there. Occasionally we go to the little coffee place to share a coffee together, with me bringing in the odd bag to keep her supplies up.

However, as I struggled up the stairs and along the corridor, tired and aching and coughing, I could hear her with a couple of the other English teachers, obviously starting to make the coffee. They were chatting in the way that groups of women often do… loudly, with shrieks and giggles. This sort of thing irritates the hell out of me in the mornings, even though I’m generally at the centre of it all later on in the day. And when I’m not feeling well, it’s just unbearable.

I slunk past the door unseen, and took refuge in my own classroom, shutting out the painful din of Morning People.

I was still dying for a coffee, of course, but what to do, what to do? Going in, demanding coffee, and then leaving as soon as I got it might just possibly be seen as a little rude. And I couldn’t face the Morning People conversations, I just couldn’t. So, in utter desperation, I poured my coffee into my cup as if the grounds were granules of instant coffee, and poured hot water in to form the most unappealing sludge you ever did see.

I didn’t think this through, I murmured despairingly to myself as I poked at the sludge with the end of a pen and realized that it wasn’t, as I had for some reason hoped, going to sink obligingly to the bottom of the cup. And yet still I could not make myself throw it away and go face the Morning People.

I found a paper cup in my art supplies cupboard, and proceeded with a disastrous attempt to decant the coffee from the sludge.

I ripped up some pieces of card and used them to try and scoop out as much sludge as possible.

I used tissues to try and clean sludge from around the rim of the cup.

By this stage, my desk was swimming with coffee and sludge, and I had half a cupful of coffee with a generous helping of grounds floating around in it.

I drank it. I have been picking bits of coffee out of my teeth all morning, and have come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to learn how to be in the company of other people in the mornings.

Alternatively, I could move my coffee machine from my apartment to my classroom…

Why I don’t eat chicken pakora

The Sister sent me a DVD for my birthday, which turned out to be another one of the best presents I’ve ever had. It’s been a good birthday for that! She’d filmed friends and family back home giving me a birthday message, and talking about childhood memories, growing up, random drinking stories, that sort of thing. I laughed and I cried!

One story that made me laugh was the Chicken Pakora incident. When The Sister and I were both living in Glasgow, there was a little Indian food takeaway place between the subway and my apartment – both an excellent and terrible position for such an establishment, as it meant that it was very convenient to enjoy Indian food as soon as I arrived home, and also that it was very convenient to enjoy Indian food as soon as I arrived home. Y’know?

Anyway, my favourite thing from the shop – especially as a post-pub snack – was the chicken pakora with spicy sauce. One fine evening, some of us were heading back to my place for a few drinks and a sing-song (no doubt) after an afternoon described by The Sister on my DVD as follows:

“I think it was something to do with Guinness… (puzzled look of far-off wonderment)… we had big Guinness hats on, I remember. I don’t know why… (nose wrinkled in confusion as if trying to understand this vague and distorted memory for the first time)… I think you just had to drink a lot of Guinness to get a Guinness hat. I don’t even think it was St. Paddy’s Day.”

The Sister is quite the storyteller. ;) So, unable to pass the takeaway place with its impossibly alluring exotic aromas, we went in and bought lots of unhealthy food, including the obligatory chicken pakora. Back in my apartment, the containers were opened and strewn about the table, the Beatles were put on the stereo, and everyone was cheerfully chatting and digging into the grub.

As I took my first bite of pakora, I felt an unpleasant sensation. Instead of making a heavenly crispy sound as I bit through the batter, it made more of a sludgy noise. And instead of my teeth biting through to steaming hot, tender chicken, they met hard icy coldness. Yes, the chicken pakora was, in fact, still in a semi-frozen rather than deep-fried condition.

I spat it out immediately, with quite a lot of dramatic flapping of my hands and clutching at my throat. The Sister looked at me, understandably concerned, being on her fourth or fifth bite of pakora herself. What’s wrong?

It’s not cooked! It’s raw! It’s still half-frozen! I gurgled hysterically, my Guinness hat sliding off my head as I continued to spit out air. The Sister was panic-stricken. I’ve already eaten loads! she howled, joining me in the spitting and flailing around. I asked her why on Earth she had just continued to eat half-frozen chicken, and it turned out that she’d never had chicken pakora before. I thought that’s what it was supposed to taste like! she wailed, before promptly running to the bathroom, where she remained for quite some time.

I have never eaten chicken pakora since that day, about a decade ago. Vegetable pakora all the way. You can’t give up entirely on pakora just because of one traumatic raw chicken incident! I imagine I steered clear of Indian food for at least a few weeks afterwards, though…

Where everybody knows your name

For the first time in my life, I have something that I think I could actually call ‘my local’.

My familiarity with the place has come about as a result of the rugby World Cup and the fact that there aren’t exactly a lot of places to watch the games ’round these parts. Gradually, it has become a bit like a close friend’s living room, to the extent where we have no qualms about making ourselves at home. We move the furniture around because we want the comfy sofas and they’re too far away from the big screen. We select the music, and often just sit around shouting requests at whichever one of us volunteers to sit at the computer.

The other week I was hungry and saw a delicious-looking steak sandwich sitting on the bar, which turned out to be something the owner had thrown together using leftovers for his supper, and not on the menu. But I want a sandwich, can’t I have a sandwich?  I asked pleadingly, gazing at the sandwich which was at that moment the only thing I wanted in the whole wide world. He obligingly made one for me out of the remaining leftovers, and then everybody was envious, and now, a few weeks later, it’s so popular it’s going on the menu. I imagine they’ll call it “Hayley’s Sandwich”, for that would be the appropriate thing to do.

We wandered in on Sunday afternoon, straight from the train station after our Busan trip, to find that they hadn’t actually opened yet, or even cleaned up from the night before. This was the moment we all realised we might be spending too much time in this place, for the barman simply brought us in anyway and told us to pour our own drinks while he vacuumed.  I helped him with some DIY chores (no, really), someone else pulled pints, someone put on a movie, and we kicked off our shoes and curled up on the sofa to spend a relaxing couple of hours in ‘our’ living room before everyone else arrived for the match. When you don’t actually have a living room of your own, this sort of thing is like a little sliver of heaven.

We watched rugby, we ate dinner, we had a bit of a singsong with some people who lingered, and then – when everyone had gone home – I sat on the sofa with Irish Friend One and South African Friend Two, and watched Catherine Tate clips on YouTube for several hours. We toasted the beginning of my thirties when the clock struck midnight, and then the owner poured himself a drink, turned on the karaoke machine, and joined us for some celebratory singing.

Yes, maybe I am spending too much time in the pub. ;) But it’s just so much fun…!

It was the best of times, and it was… no, that’s all. Just the best!

Having made peace with the idea of turning thirty, I allowed myself to be whisked away for a mystery weekend, my only instructions being to be at the train station with an overnight bag at 9.30am on Saturday.

As it turned out, my friends had planned the most Hails-perfect weekend imaginable to celebrate my 30th. They took me to Busan, where the sun was splitting the skies, and we ate lunch on the beach before going on a ferry cruise around the nearby islands. I fed the gulls who followed our boat in a squawking frenzy, obviously used to tourists throwing fishy snacks to them. They took the food directly from our outstretched hands. :)

This was tremendous fun, after my initial panic when the first one swooped down at me and thought I was going to lose a finger or two.

We watched the rugby semi-final in an Irish bar, cheering frantically for France, singing La Marseillaise, and doing happy dances when they won. Dinner in a Turkish restaurant (delicious lamb… mmmmm…) was followed by an artsy and smoky little underground jazz bar.

To understand how very, very me this is, you need to realise that I have a dreamy notion that one day I will live in Paris, making a living as a writer, and spending my days in bars exactly like that one. I will be drinking wine or coffee, and perhaps smoking a cigarette in a very cool and artistic manner, or nibbling absently on some cheese, while scribbling poetry in my tattered notebook, surrounded by sexy floppy-haired Frenchmen all doing the same. You have to love it when your friends play along with this sort of nonsense. It was fabulous.

And the very best part was that they documented the whole weekend with photos, which they then had printed and put into two beautifully decorated albums, along with handwritten letters from each person, ticket stubs, and so on. They presented these to me as a surprise at my birthday dinner last night, along with a coffee machine (and coffee, mugs, coasters, cookies…), and handmade gifts in the form of painting and writing.

I cried. But they were the best possible kind of tears.

Whatever my issues were with turning thirty, they’re all gone. I might be a bit of a scatterbrain and a dreamer, and I might have no real idea of where I’ll be in 6 months from now, never mind in another ten years, but it doesn’t matter.The reality has now sunk in: I must be doing something right to find myself spending my birthday surrounded by friends like these!

1001 days ago…

1001 days ago today, I was sitting on a sofa thousands of miles away from where I am today. Curled up on that sofa,  on a bitterly cold winter’s day in Estonia, I was compiling a list. It was a list of things I wanted to do, achieve, or experience before I turned 30, whether they were huge, important accomplishments or tiny little fun moments. And now, here I sit on the final day of my 1001.

No, I didn’t finish it. I didn’t make it to Russia (I came close this summer, but the expense and the hassle of red tape put me off and I decided I’d rather go at it from the other side when I’m back in Europe!), and I didn’t milk a cow. I didn’t drive a car on a road trip, I didn’t swim with dolphins, and I gave up on ever being able to speak Korean.

What I did do, however, was have a pretty damn amazing 1001 days. Well, OK – they weren’t all amazing. ;) But overall, it’s been a great few years! I crossed 84 things off my list of 101, and I think that’s not half bad! I tried new foods, new attitudes, and new activities. I travelled a lot and ended up living on the other side of the world, quite unexpectedly. I did good deeds and I indulged myself. I painted, wrote, played the guitar, spoke other languages, read classic novels, went to the theatre, and watched foreign films. I explored local markets in various countries, went horse riding in the Mongolian wilderness, visited a concentration camp in Poland, and went on an overnight train ride across China. I discovered I loved things I would never have tried were it not for the List, such as the thrill of cheering on my local team at a Korean baseball match, the pleasure I now get from studying geography and actually knowing where a lot of the countries are (!), and the fun of behaving like a child now and again by building a snowman or climbing a tree. I found out that really cool things can happen when you invite a random stranger out for coffee, I did volunteer work, and I pampered myself in natural hot spring baths.

Oh, and I tried teaching, as per no. 74. I think that one worked out rather well!

I’ve been freaking out about turning 30, you know. The end of my youth, the feeling that I’m meant to be sensible and organised and secure by this milestone in my life, all the things people normally panic about when they reach a something-zero. But as I write this post, and look back over all the stuff I’ve done over the past 1001 days, I don’t feel scared or sad any more. I feel positive, and even a wee bit proud of myself. I was right when I wrote that post 1001 days ago: I did arse around aimlessly for a large portion of my 20s, and I would be one depressed almost-30-year-old right now if I’d stayed in that slump, just existing but never doing… but now, as I prepare to raise that birthday glass of wine, I’m looking back and thinking Hey – I made up for it in the end!  I crammed as much as I could into the tail-end of my 20s. That list was a lifesaver! And you know what? There’ll be another one very soon, full of new challenges and goals, as well as some of the old ones I haven’t given up on.

Goodbye, my sweet twenties. Chapter closed. We’ve had fun, and I’ll miss you, but now it’s time to look ahead. There’s so much more to see and do, and I’m on a roll. Bring on the thirties! I’m ready.

And anyway, life doesn’t even begin till I’m forty, so I’m told. ;)

Magic

OK, so I am aware that being a kindergarten teacher has turned me into a big sap, and I apologise for that. I almost posted this picture on Facebook but decided against it for fear that I was becoming like one of those parents who post every little detail of their children’s development (but seriously, who needs to know – in graphic detail – that your baby’s constipation is at an end?!). In this case, the children aren’t even mine, so it’s possibly even more boring to the disinterested observer.

But I can post whatever I want on my blog and call it ‘expressing myself artistically’, so here I am to tell you that I just had the best ever start to a week that I could not have been dreading more. Open House is happening on Thursday and Friday (there were actually teachers running around in the corridors yelling “STRESS!” this morning), everyone is tense, it is the last week of my twenties, and I have a sore neck. Ugh. So I sat down at my computer this morning with my coffee, several performance scripts, and a red pen, feeling less than joyous, when one of ‘my’ little 6-year-old girls (my best kindergarten student) appeared shyly at my classroom door. She had that sweet, innocent look of nervous hope and excitement that the little ones often wear when they’ve made something for a teacher. Will she like it? Will she see how hard I worked on it? Will she be pleased?

Clutched in her hands were a brightly colored little sunflower, carefully crafted from children’s modeling clay, and a tiny homemade envelope containing a handwritten note. Teacher, good morning, she said shyly as she came into the room. This is for you!

Honestly, it was the cutest and most welcome sight. When I made the appropriate wowwwwwww noises of surprise and delight, her nervous smile changed into a big, beaming grin, and she almost broke into a run in her eagerness to deliver her gift to me at my desk. It’s a sunflower, she said proudly. And I wrote a letter, too!

I made a big fuss of her and her offerings, and she left looking as pleased as Punch while I carefully arranged my sunflower and note on my desk. It does something to me, a little moment like that. Makes all the other stuff worthwhile. A little girl who I love and look forward to seeing each day spent some of her weekend making something for me and writing me a lovely note in the language I have been teaching her to speak. And just like that, my tired and somewhat pessimistic mood vanished, and was replaced with a smile, energy, enthusiasm and patience in my classes, even for the children who insisted on doing the exact opposite of what I told them. All because of a sunflower and a few sentences in a child’s neatest handwriting.

Magic.

잡채 (Japchae)

What is japchae? I’ll tell you what it is. It’s one of the main reasons I will never lose any weight in Korea, that’s what it is.

I can eat japchae until it’s coming out of my ears and my stomach is screaming “Stop!! For the love of HUMANITY, stop!!!!”. Today at lunch time I groaned miserably and picked up another (erm… what would be the chopsticks equivalent of ‘forkful’?! Think of it, and insert here. I am too full of japchae to care.) from the bowl in the centre of the table. Sarky Teacher  looked at me and shook her head, not so much at the fact that I was forcing myself to eat more (for this is normal behaviour in Korea), but more because I was moaning about it. Oh, shut up and eat, she mumbled impatiently in Korean, before realising nervously that I might understand that. (I did, as it happened. Choog-olay? I retorted grimly, placing the unnecessary japchae in my mouth and shutting up. Choog-olay? means “Wanna die?”, and we got it from a Korean comedy movie where the ‘sassy girl’ character used it in response to absolutely anything she didn’t approve of. It is a very useful phrase when dealing with Sarky Teacher!) Yes, japchae is the kind of food that has you eating more even while feeling so full that your groaning starts to get on your colleagues’ nerves.

It’s often served on special occasions in Korea, and I always make a beeline for it at wedding buffets. Our cooking lady also makes it fairly regularly, placing huge piles of it in bowls strewn across the table. It’s a cold noodle dish, something I couldn’t quite cope with the idea of when I first moved to Korea. Noodles aren’t supposed to be cold! I whimpered, chewing with a confused expression on my face and pushing the bowl away. Nowadays, I can honestly say that although I’ve tasted the dish served hot once, I didn’t enjoy it half as much.

The japchae noodles are called dangmyeon, and they’re more… hmm… transparent and sticky than the more spaghetti-like noodles I’ve had anywhere else. They’re stir-fried in sesame oil (which I only started using in my cooking when I came to Korea, and I have to say I’m a huge fan) with loads of spinach, some soy sauce, garlic, onions, carrots, and mushrooms, and served at room temperature with a sesame seed garnish. It’s a delicious dish, although it’s also the reason I now keep emergency dental floss in  my desk drawer.

Japchae is one of the Korean banchan (side dishes) that I would happily eat as a main meal. It is comfort food. The type of food you could pile into a big bowl and binge on with your glass of wine or nice bottle of beer in front of Saturday night TV. At lunch time, however, it is served as an accompaniment to the main meal of rice and soup (it is always rice and soup), along with various other banchan like kimchi, pickled radish, black beans…

And so you see why I am bloated and uncomfortable yet again. In the olden days, pre-Korea, I used to eat a sandwich for lunch. Now I eat a meal larger than any meal I would’ve had at dinner time, and also have to teach 3 or 4 classes afterwards, too!

To think I thought I was going to starve when I first got here…