Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Fall is in the air

Fall is finally showing its face today.

"It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life."--P. D. James

Isn't that quote just too true? Fall is my favorite season, and yet it really is mostly miserable. Cold and wet, the ever-encroaching darkness of winter. But when I think of fall, I remember the good times: changing into my marching band uniform behind a bus, choking on diesel exhaust and making jokes about dickies; crisp evenings at football games, not caring much who was winning, just enjoying clarinet conversation; going to the apple orchard, the pumpkin patch, and with freezing fingers picking out a perfect pumpkin that somehow went lopsided by the time we got it home; raking leaves as a youth, and jumping into the piles, right before coming inside for mom's homemade hot chocolate.

The foreign teachers here have been positively itching for fall to start. Up until today, we've been enjoying temperatures in the low 70s, walking around with no coats until all hours. For the first time, I had to wear a coat to and from work today, and I was wishing I had a scarf on the way home! The leaves are slowly starting to change, mostly to red and orange. We are sitting at the base of a tree-covered mountain, so I'm hoping that one day I'll walk out of my room to find the mountain fiery with fall colors.

We have a new set of kids today, about 400 of them. This is almost twice as many as we've had in the weeks of last month. We've all gotten spoiled, enjoying days where we only teach 2 classes. This week is a wakeup call to the fact that we're actually supposed to be working here! It's depressing. :-(

Of course, this melancholy might not be affecting those teachers who are teaching "Basketball", "Ultimate Frisbee", or "HackeySack". Yes, I said hackeysack. The vocab list for the "class" actually includes the word "dude". I don't know whether to applaud the realism, or cry a small tear...

I found a further dose of realism today in reviewing the lesson plan for "Medical Center" that was put together by our head teacher, Braden. (He's from California, and about my age.) In talking about how to get the kids to discuss symptoms, he recommended walking over to a kid and pretending to vomit on them, and to elicit the word "diarrhea", to walk around the corner into the pharmacy and make "violent pooping noises". I just have to say, every lesson plan here--without exception--would be improved by a recommendation to make "violent pooping noises" at some point during class. We could just blame it on the kimchi... :-)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Puttin' on the Ritz

From October 1st through the 7th, I enjoyed a lovely week of vacation; it was in celebration of Korean Thanksgiving, known as Chuseok. Some of the teachers had the money to travel a bit around Asia during the week, but I was not in such a fortunate position. So, I made my own plans!

My first goal for the week was to go to CostCo in search of cheese, meat, and other hard-to-find ingredients. One wouldn't think that it would ever be hard to find cheese and meat, considering that they constitute half the lineup of the average American supermarket, but here it's a real trial. Actually, it's not hard to find meat, per se, it's just hard to find beef at a reasonable price. If you'll recall, I once spent $7 on a ¼ pound of ground beef at the Carrefour. However, since CostCo specializes in bulk buying, you can get a much better deal there, specifically 2 pounds for $14. I know this still sounds unacceptably expensive, but if you look at in terms of the previous beef purchase I made, it's an absolute bargain.

Cheese is another matter entirely, because it really is impossible to find cheese you'd actually want to eat at a regular grocery store. The CostCo sells large blocks of cheese, even Tillamook brand from Oregon, a personal favorite of mine. So, I made a big list of all the recipes I wanted to cook during the week, and a correspondingly enormous list of ingredients to shop for.

Sadly, I was thwarted in all attempts to purchase anything resembling Mexican ingredients like chipotles and tortillas. Italian ingredients fared slightly better, with me actually lucking into some real salami! And I was able to get staple items like chicken stock and NutriGrain bars as well, so it wasn't all bad. I then went to the Carrefour later to finish stocking up on things like fruits and vegetables.

I was able to make Lemon Chicken and Rice Soup, which was so delicious! And a new meatloaf recipe (the one from Tyler's Ultimate on the Food Network), also yummy. I made tacos from the Old El Paso taco kit I got (only thing Mexican in the whole place). And I also made Creamy Rice Casserole, which was so filling I had leftovers for days! I didn't get to make half the things I wanted, still, it was so great to spend my vacation doing some real cooking for once. I really miss it. (I'm not sure if I mentioned it before, but I bought a $100 toaster oven that works almost as good as a real oven. It drastically improved my quality of life!)

The second thing I did on vacation was to take the Seoul City Bus Tour. This is a great option for anyone visiting Seoul, as it's cheap ($10) and takes you to all of the most important monuments, palaces, and neighborhoods of the city. It's really too too much to do in one day. There are 27 stops (some just being hotels) on the route, and we went to 3 of them before we were just too exhausted to continue. The nice thing is that the buses run all day, so you can get off at a stop that interests you, and every half hour a bus stops back so you can get on and continue to sightsee. We went to a palace, a type of living history museum of life in old Korea, and the Seoul Tower. It was a warm day, and we had an enormous lunch, so this may have contributed to our lethargy, but oh well!

The palace grounds were calm and elegant. There was an incredibly peaceful feeling there that made one just want to sit for hours in the shade, enjoying the breeze and some conversation. The living history museum was a bit more dull, but because of the holiday they were having some performances and demonstrations. There's a great clip on here of a guy whacking a big mound of rice into submission. Eventually the rice is turned into sticky sweet candy. We ended our day at Seoul Tower, with fantastic views of the city. It was impossible to believe that I live out in that madness.

The best part of my vacation, BY FAR, was the two evenings I spent at the Seoul Ritz-Carlton with my friend Emma. (She was going to travel to Japan with Ryan, but ended up not being able to. So, I invited her to come to the Ritz, and by splitting the costs, we were able to stay two nights instead of one!)

I've stayed at a Ritz before, but Emma never had, so it was quite an experience for her! Starting with the bellboy who took our luggage from the cab and disappeared with it ("Will he know where our room is?") to the bellboy who carried our luggage down to street level for us so that we could catch a regular cab instead of the ones waiting up at the Ritz for twice the price. I'd like to think that Emma is now spoiled for any regular hotel she visits in the future, as inevitably happens once one has stayed at the Ritz.

The hotel was just beautiful, starting with the floor-to-ceiling marble lobby. We were guests on the Club Level, so once we came in we were immediately escorted to the Club Lounge, where a private concierge checked us in while an attendant made us some tea. The Club Level is great for so many reasons! You enjoy "5 complimentary food and beverage presentations" throughout the day (believe me, we arranged all of our plans around them), although you can really go in at any time because there is only a half hour between presentations, plus you can get drinks whenever you'd like. They serve: breakfast, mid-morning snacks, afternoon tea, hors d'oeuvres and cocktails before dinner, and chocolates and cordials before bed.

My favorite part was ordering tea. It's hard to get real English tea here in Seoul, but they had it. Plus, their tea service is very pretty, with simple porcelain tea pots and cups, but cream and sugar in solid silver holders on a silver tray. Exceedingly elegant. I would have loved to have been able to steal a set, but I am not that brazen. I did manage, however, to make off with 4 small plates, a knife, and a spoon. How I missed a fork, I don't quite know.

The food isn't bad, either. It's all in small portions, but you can have as much as you want. For the first time, I tried caviar. Let's just say I won't be snorking it up on a mother-of-pearl spoon any time soon, but it wasn't all bad. Mostly just salty. They also had goat cheese, among others, and the most delicious little pastries.

The staff in the Club Lounge really makes it, though. They will do anything (within reason) for you, and treat you like an old friend. Saturday morning I woke up with a very sore throat, so when I came in for breakfast, I asked for tea and mentioned my throat in passing. Later that day when I came in for afternoon tea, the attendant asked how my throat was feeling. How nice!

Our room was great, simple yet elegant, with a nice view of the city and Seoul Tower. We stayed in the room most of the time, enjoying the cable television (we only have 2 watchable channels here at school). We got to know the room service staff quite well, even though it cost us an arm and a leg. I spent a total of about $75 on room service, for only two meals! One meal was a sandwich with fries($19) and hot chocolate ($10 for two cups worth). The hot chocolate was straight out of my youth, exactly like my mom used to make, so I considered it worth the investment. The second meal was a different sandwich and Caesar salad ($16). I know a $16 salad seems excessive, but when they wheel it in on the lovely little trolley and set it up like a table...you just feel like Pretty Woman and you could care less about the price.

We ate dinner at the hotel's Italian restaurant, The Garden, one time. It was a really gorgeous night, so we ate outside. It had great ambiance, and food. Umbrellas, dashing waiters, quiet conversation. The only thing missing was twinkling white lights up in the trees! There was a middle aged white woman sitting alone, and I wanted to ask her to join us, but I didn't have the nerve. We ended up seeing her in the elevator and it turned out that she's the director of a local English school. We could have had some great conversation with her, so I really regretted being such a chooch.

Our two days naturally flew by, and too soon we were on our way back to school. But, as if to round out our magical Ritz weekend, the security guard at school actually let our cab drive through the gates and up into the grounds so that we wouldn't have to walk so far with our heavy bags. That was the first time that has ever happened, so I attribute it to Ritz Magic.

Speaking of weird, magical things...on this past Saturday night, I went out to dinner with some friends. We started out looking for this Thai place called Buddha's Belly, but we just could not find it. So, we ended up waiting to get into an Italian restaurant nearby that was run by an actual Italian-American (this is quite rare here). While we were waiting on a bench outside, we started talking to this Korean guy (mid-30s) who was hanging around by himself. Turns out he likes to practice his English on foreigners. He kind of pissed me off because the first thing he said to me was a comment on how fat I am (I keep wishing I knew the Korean for "No shit, Sherlock."). Eventually, he started talking about other things, and it came up about how we were waiting to get into this Italian restaurant. Well, out of nowhere, the guy starts singing in Italian! O sole mio!! I couldn't believe that I was sitting on a bench in Korea, listening to some guy sing "O sole mio" and "Santa Lucia" in fairly decent Italian. Very bizarre. And of course, I couldn't get the songs out of my head the rest of the night! The food was great, though, and definitely worth the wait, even though we were seated next to some obnoxious prick from the New Jersey area who thought the whole restaurant wanted to hear about his oh-so-important business deals. Sorry, keep those impressive tales for your bored-looking Korean girlfriend.

Anyway, that's the full update! I hope all is well back home. Try not to worry about the North Korea thing. The South Koreans aren't worried at all, I promise!

A musical experience

So, it occurs to me that I am total shit at keeping this travelogue updated, and I don't know why that is! I think it's because so much stuff happens and then it becomes overwhelming to think about writing it all...

At any rate, when last I wrote, it was right before my 29th birthday. (Jesus...almost 30!) Unfortunately, I was down for the count the week of my birthday. More stomach problems. I was worried enough to actually go to the emergency room this time. Had the works done (CT scan, x-rays, blood work, EKG, etc...) only to get a diagnosis from the doctor that there was nothing actually wrong with me. This is total bullshit, because there must be something wrong with me if being sick like this totally knocks me out of commission for a week at a time. I just am so frustrated at this point! I believe that it might be gallstones, but the test I really need for that is an ultrasound, and the doctors keep saying I don't need it or that I'm too fat! Katie tells me that an ultrasound or hida scan are the only ways to really diagnose gallstones. So, I still don't feel like I've been adequately evaluated. *sigh*

However, it turns out that even in the midst of feeling like crap, and what with being on the other side of the world and all, I still managed to have a great time on my birthday. This is entirely thanks to the great friends I have here, who went out of their way to make my special day special.

My friend Emma, from England, was the Cooking Class teacher that week, so she made a little chocolate birthday cake for me. She even went above and beyond and made Cadbury chocolate frosting for it! It was delicious, even though I couldn't eat much of it. But as always, it's the thought that counts!

And the presentation was just as thoughtful. I had been hibernating in my room all week, feeling sorry for myself to be sick on my birthday. Then Emma came onto Skype and told me that I had to come over to her room for a little bit. So, I walked over there and as soon as I walked in the door, I was told to close my eyes and walk forward slowly. When I got to the point where I would be able to see around the corner and into the room, Emma said to stand still so that the motion-sensor light overhead would go out. Once it did, she told me to open my eyes, and there before me were her, Ryan, Daniel, and a cake lit up with candles. It was so sweet! Emma even made me a birthday card (she is deeply into card making, in general, and is quite good at it). Overall, it was a surprising and happy birthday.

The weekend after my birthday marked the end of our intensive summer program, so the school held a thank you barbeque for the teachers and staff, just like the one we had when we all first got here. Again, the booze was entirely free, although yours truly abstained as I was still getting over being sick. It made for an amusing evening, watching everyone getting annihilated whilst singing karaoke and dancing like fools. Fortunately, I remembered that I brought my digital video camera with me to Korea, so I now have plenty of crazy blackmail footage involving table dancing, lap dancing, and fall-over drunkenness.

At the end of the night, lots of people went out to the clubs, but some of us were just too old and/or sick to tag along. So, myself, Daniel, Emma, Mary (from MN), Kane, and Eva (both from NZ) decided to hang out around the big fountain for awhile. Kane plays the guitar, sings like Jack Johnson, and looks vaguely like Justin Timberlake, so he should definitely be famous someday. It ended up with him getting his guitar and Emma getting hers, and a little concert ensued.

Eventually, a couple of our bosses and the head Korean teacher, Kyle, came over to play in the fountain (literally, they were shit-faced and splashing each other). Kyle plays the guitar and sings, too, so he ended up borrowing Emma's guitar. He sang us several Korean songs, and he was fantastic! The songs were great, too, like folk music. Some people define coolness by the hip beats a DJ spins, but I think that an impromptu jam session by a fountain can be a far richer way to spend one's evening. Maybe this is my age speaking...and I don't mind.

I got to hear more Korean music the next weekend, on Mary's birthday. We first went out to a special dinner for a meal called "galbi", which means grilled meat, specifically pork in our instance. It's such a neat setup.

We sat outside, around this cluster of small tables. Each table has a hole in the middle, in which is set a rocket-hot bucket of coals. They then place a grill grate over it, and the super-thin pieces of marinated meat on that. You can always spot a galbi restaurant because inside they have long silver exhaust vents dangling over the center of every table. Of course, outside, no vents are needed; the smoke just blows away (mostly right into my eyes).

Supposedly, the true measure of a galbi restaurant is the quality and quantity of side dishes that they offer with the meat. This restaurant had two kinds of pickled radish, a dish of a salad/coleslaw mix, garlic pickles, some kind of seafood soup, a few dipping sauces, and different kinds of lettuce with which to wrap up your meat (no bread here!). It's not a bad way to eat, certainly healthy for you, but I did find myself missing something more substantial to eat with the meat. Also, you have to share all the side dishes with everyone, including the soup. This makes me twitch a little, thinking about everyone's germs mingling...but it's common here, so I try to stifle my phobic tendencies and go with the flow.

Anyway, dinner was great. Afterwards, we wandered through the area (a big place for foreigners to hang out, called Hongdae), looking for a bar. We ended up at a place called Tin Pan Alley. It was fantastic! Groovy R&B was playing when we came in, which set a nice, smooth tone to the evening. And the DJ actually let us request music, which was unusual, but sweet. We had some drinks, and split a couple orders of cheese sticks and nachos (I told you this area was for foreigners!). After an hour or so, the place started to fill up with westerners. Soon, you couldn't move because all available floor space was being used for dancing. Everywhere you looked, the people were white. It was a little weird! But the music was great. When we left, they had just got done playing some old favorites-"Uptown Girl", "Like a Prayer", etc...

We decided that we should go somewhere else, and Kyle suggested that we try this tiny bar that he always goes to. So, Kyle, Mary, Daniel, and I went there. I would never have even see the door to this place if I had been walking down the street by myself, let alone have gone in. It was clearly a "locals only" type of joint. I'm so glad we went!

There were two rooms, front and back, but people were only sitting in the front room. I say room, but really, it was more like a generous sized closet. The entire space (both rooms) was probably only slightly larger than my room here. In the front room, there were two tables. Because Kyle is a regular, we were invited to sit at the main table with the three other regulars who were already there. Two men and a woman, plus the woman who ran the place. There were some snacks in the middle of the table, dried fish, purple grapes, and peanuts. (The grapes here are amazing...they taste just like a little burst of Welch's grape juice. Of course, they have seeds, which can be annoying if you forget and just crunch into one.)

Anyway, we ordered some beers and went through the complicated ritual of pouring. You are never supposed to pour your own drink, only your friends' drinks. And if you're younger than them, you must hold the bottle with both hands, etc...

After awhile, Kyle was asked to sing. A guitar magically appeared from somewhere and, despite being fairly intoxicated, he started in. Wow, he can really sing. There are about 8 clips on here from that night (my camera only records 30 seconds at a time, unfortunately), and I urge you to watch all of them (they can sometimes take a long time to start, but don't give up!). They are dark, because the light in this place was very low, but you can hear Kyle singing crystal clear. He's so good!

Eventually, one of the other regulars started singing, too. The lady who owns the joint started pulling musical instruments out of god knows where so that we could all play along. I got the tambourine, my friends got some wooden sticks and a washboard. One guy was playing bongos. It was fucking amazing. Even though we didn't know the words to the songs, we were all pretty decent at keeping the beat. :-)

I would NEVER have had this experience as a regular tourist in Seoul. 3 Americans in a tiny bar with 5 or 6 Koreans and some lively music. I'm so grateful that Kyle thought enough of us to let us come to such a small, personal place with him. I'll always remember that night when I think of my time in Korea.

Anyway, there's lots of other stuff to talk about, but I'm going to leave off for now. Hopefully you'll be getting another post from me soon! Take care everyone!