Thursday, March 22, 2007

46 Pizza and blueberry jam

Husband called from the office Friday afternoon last week to say he had been called to a Happy Hour with his department so he would be later home.

Expecting him to then roll in after midnight smelling of beer and regaling me with talk of the "one shot" Korean drinking style, I was quite surprised when he rocked in at 8.30, not a hint of beer about him and not asking for supper.

Turned out the happy hour was a pizza happy hour and so instead of getting to leave the office nice and early on Friday night to go and hang out with your friends, go to the pub, maybe have dinner with your wife for the first time all week, these hardworking accountants like to really splash out on some Pizza Hut delivery items and eat at their desks. Cool. Yeah!

But what a Pizza Happy Hour it turned out to be. A Special Pizza experience was had by husband which he will surely never repeat, but will live long in the memory.

Koreans love to, VERY occasionally, eat Western food. I don't especially blame them for finding our foods odd, indigestible (lots of cheese and batter and stuff) and unpleasant since the main experiences they have of western food in Seoul are Pizza Hut, MacDonalds and Burgerking, and those Steak places called Outback which are ranker than rank.

But still they persevere, and instead of all piling out to a cheap, atmospheric local street bar for noodles or barbecue and a few beers they ordered the "pidja" and tucked in.

But in Seoul, the Pizza Hut offerings do not come with extra pepperoni, or cheese crust. No, the crusts here can be stuffed with sweet potatoe puree. Can you imagine?

Husband is not a fan of pizza anyway, being a self-diagnosed lactose intolerant. But he was doing his bit for team spirit and munching away when one of his colleagues looked at him, and asked, "But don't you want to dip your pizza?"
"In what?" he asked (what would I want to dip my pizza in? he thought)
"In the blueberry jam?".

Pizza practially hanging out of his mouth he said, he looked around, and everyone was doing this. "Mmm, very yummy pidja with boobewwy jam, MashiSOYO!!!"

Has some cruel american had the last laugh here? Did someone once tell a lie to a Korean about the secret to enjoying a good pizza? Any ideas?

46 Eating car tyres

We are getting quite into rocks in our reading. Magic School bus goes to the centre of the earth, Why do caves have stalactites? - that sort of thing.

And when we were reading about caves the other day we came to a section on Bird's Nest Soup. So I read about how the tiny birds weave the nests using their own spittle, and then I said to the girls,
"And guess what? People in China like to eat the nests in soup!"
"Eeeuuww," they said. I think this sounded even worse than having to eat vegetables.
"Mmm, well, people in China like to eat all sorts of strange things that we wouldn't like to eat," I continued.
"Do they like to eat car tyres?" asked one of my daughters.

44 How to hide 5 goldfish for a whole day

With Number one's 6th birthday coming up, I asked Number Two what she would like to give her.

"A pet," came the unsurprising reply.
"What kind of pet?" I asked, fully expecting it to be a puppy/kitten/hamster/horse.
"A goldfish'" she said.
"It's a deal," I thought.

Number two is quite savvy. She had obviously worked out what kind of living creature she might get away with, and she was right. No objections to pets that kind be cheaply and easily replaced without anyone ever being any the wiser.

So the Saturday before the Monday birthday, Number Two and I set out to Lotte Mart at Seoul Station and headed for the pet department. We bought five fish, two plants, a bubble machine, some black stones and some food. Highly successful.

Took them home and put them in the vase we have, hidden in the bathroom (we have two, so Number One was not allowed in). But Number Two just could not stop talking about the fish. "When can we feed the fish, Daddy?"
"Oh, you are a silly one, what are you talking about fish for? ha ha ha" said Daddy, trying to cover up the give away at breakfast the next day.

Skyping the grandparents in the evening, she wanted to tell them what she had bought for her sister, so I took Number One away to chat in another room. After she had divulged her secret she came wondering through.
"And I am going to call the last fish Selina", she told us proudly.
"What fish?" asked the soon-to-be-birthday girl.

A noisy, change the subject tickle attack seemed to put her off the scent and she was delighted and seemingly surprised to be presented with a tank of fish the following morning. Sometimes life is so simple. Number Two received a comprehensive lesson in how to lie about things and keep secrets from her sister. Perhaps not so simple for the future.

43 Six year old in da house

Big event this month was not Big Seoul Sister's 35th birthday, sniff. No, I have been usurped by my offspring who commanded attention and fantastic quality presents galore. BSS had to make do with a fairly severe hangover (but not as bad as the one after the surprise Karaoke party which saw me vomitting through the first day of my 34th year muttering to myself through gritted teeth, "have you learnt NOTHING in the last 10 years, you idiot?"), a walk in the rainy park, and a small (have you seen the prices?) Hyatt-baked birthday cake.

The big Six finally arrived for daughter number one, a small mountain of presents making its way from the UK in the weeks preceding the event (thank you everyone). Her birthday wish was to go to MacDonalds after she got back from school and have an Oreo icecream (big dreams when you are six). So that was a good, easy wish to satisfy.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

42 Coming back to Korea

After 3 weeks away from Seoul, as I rode the bus to the airport, I was wondering how it would feel to be going back. Would I be dreading leaving the cosy world of the UK with its soothing Radio 4 Today programme as a constant background, fresh porridge for breakfast every morning, fabulous countryside and its wild and windy beaches? Not to mention the fantastic shopping. But we don't mention that since the credit card bill arrived.

In fact, sitting in the departure lounge in Dubai (don't ask why, long story... and even longer route) the sound of Korean being spoken all around me was lovely. The departure lounge in Heathrow had been silent, but here were people chatting happily to each other and the sound was good.

Studying the faces around me, I was struck by what a strong-looking bunch the Koreans are on the whole. They generally have good skin, are stockily-built and have expressive eyebrows that show a lot of character.

Yet the way they wear their clothes is very different. To a foreigner, the style can be quite remarkable. Korean men tend to wear their trousers held up by a belt that is not very far at all below their nipples. This makes even the ones who are in good shape look pretty womanly. Most people wear glasses, and the older guys (often the rich ones carrying the real Vuitton attache cases) wear the big, plastic frames so loved by the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (and which probably provide the confirmation that the rest of the world needs that he is utterly bonkers).

Culture shock or not (see the Horrible Hangang post), I like the Koreans so far and can only imagine that three years here will give us a good glimpse of a very unusual people.

41 Horrible Hangang

Could it be that after such a seamless and enthusiastic arrival to this place, I am beginning to suffer from delayed culture shock? It is either culture shock or the delayed effects of the 9 hour jet lag on returning from the UK that have served to make me see the place thru different eyes of late (and perhaps combined with the total frustration of not being able to fully understand the lingo).

On Sunday afternoon, we decided to take the girls for a go on their new scooters. They have what they call a river side park here which runs along both sides of the huge Han river.

Unfortunately they also built Seoul's major motorways along both sides of the river. Normally we go to Yeohido, where the cycle path is further from the road, but we didn't have time so we went to the place closest to our house. We had to park under the motorway in the middle of four lanes of traffic then cross the traffic with kids and scooters to get to the underpass into the park (Nice!).

As we went through the underpass we could see the river. "Oh, how lovely," I thought.

Emerging from the subway into the "park" (notice the use of inverted commas) we found ourselves in a concrete jungle. The "park" is actually a cycling track which runs under the motorway along the river, surrounded by concrete pillars and waste ground and with the muddy banks of the river sliding by. "Gosh, this is a very urban place," my husband ventured to say.

Hangang Park was quite busy with cyclists wearing full body gloves, shades and air filters over their mouths sometimes playing loud music from the speakers attached to their bikes. They also had cycle bells which did not adhere to the traditional "ting ting" of an actual bell. The bells on these high-tech wonders sounded like you were being shot at by an invading army of aliens.

We also saw a really very fat lady standing on a skate board which was being pulled along by a small, pug-like dog. The dog was wearing a harness that looked as if it could quite possibly have been purpose built for the job. She stood, poker-faced as she glided along the pathway while the dog made strange rasping noises as moved along.

This being Korea, the infrastructure is all very well maintained, but ii is all, sadly, so far from the traditional interpretation of the word "park". If, like me, you had just flown back from a glorious weekend in the stunning Hampshire countryside complete with pheasants, deer and enormous views of magnificent pastural land, you too would have been almost crying.

There was so much petrol in the air it made our mouths taste odd. Looking across the river we could see lots and lots of utilitarian, severe-looking blocks of flats and yet more motorway. Looking ahead we saw the Banpo Bridge which is a two tier bridge of, you guessed it, motorway. The only thing puncutating the wasteground was a series of red signs saying "Danger". What of, we wondered? Falling cars? Later on we saw some English graffiti on one of these saying "Again... what of????". Deep frustration felt by many perhaps?

When we got home, husband said to the girls, "Well, that was fun, wasnt it?"
"No, not really Daddy! We will not go back to that place", our eldest daughter replied.

40 Panic attacks in the classroom

It has been a while since my last blog session. Been away, got back and went straight to school having missed a few days. You would think I had not spent a whole term slaving away at this wretched language. Unbelievably difficult to learn, I have zero capacity to remember the sounds of the new vocabulary that we learn. And I have retained a tiny proportion of what we covered last term. All a bit depressing really... if I hadn't put so much effort in already I would be tempted to give up, but I feel that I have done so much that I shoudl push on to get results. I had to resist a strong urge to throw my book at the teacher, burst into tears and stomp out of the room, shouting "I can't DO it" on Friday.

I resisted the urge, did masses of homework over the weekend, listened to nothing but the practice CD on my ipod and seem to be getting back into the swing of things.

Imagine my delight after another tough study session, to finally get up to the computer for a relaxing session on my newly upgraded blog site, to find that the whole bloody thing has been turned into Korean script. AAAAAAAAgggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Monday, December 11, 2006

39 Turkey for a Turk

I read a letter to the Economist the other day from a Turkish person, complaining that for the whole of December people make poultry jokes to him. Apparently, Turkye (the real name) just means Land of the Turks which has quite a grand ring to it, I thought, and in no way brings to mind images of wobbly-chinned, flightless birds.

And on Saturday we invited some friends around for lunch, and since I had been at Costco and they were selling frozen British Turkeys, I decided to buy one and cook it for this gathering. I have never cooked a turkey for a Turk before. It was a triple honour to have 3 Turks tucking into their turkey. Perhaps this should be a new verse for the 12 days of Christmas...

Monday, December 04, 2006

39 Christmas shows

Eldest daughter is now singing the full programme of her school Christmas show, for most of her waking hours. They have practiced it 250 times, she told me today, so it promises to be excellent. There is rebellion among the Year 1 boys who are playing travellers and are required to "skip around" a bit - they don't like the skipping and the braver of them are refusing to skip in dress rehearsals. We await the show to see if they are persuaded otherwise!

We don't need to wait to hear the music which we have heard non-stop. As she brushes her teeth,her dulcet tones ring out: "Thousands and thousands of angels in the skyyyyyy, the Shepherds couldn't believe their eye - ey- eyyyyysssss".

Getting dressed, she mixes it up a bit: "It's a long way to travel to Bethlehem, tra la la, and Mary did a poo in her pants tra la la, baaaayyy beee Jesus got wee in his hair, And we all go to Bethlehem."

We are glad the kids are getting some of the Christian stories through school, given our particularly lame effort in this area. Not that we wish our kids to grow up fearing the Almighty and quoting passages of the Old Testament at us, but we feel we ought to at least let them become familiar with a Christian upbringing. Our Muslim and Jewish friends who also have to send their kids to the same school (on account of there is not very much choice in Seoul for English Language education) don't share quite the same view, and have been quite alarmed to hear their children saying grace before dinner, and talking authoritatively about the birth of Jesus Christ the Lord! "I just really hope he doesn't say any of this in front of my mother in law when she comes to stay," said my Israeli friend! ha ha.

Our school is probably the least religiously-hardcore of all the foreign schools in town, but because it follows a British curriculum, the Christmas Term has a heavy nativity-theme. A new school just along the road from our house is an American school, apparently funded by and run along quite christian zealot principles.

Seoul is full of illuminated crucifixes punctuating the city sky line at night, from all the Christian churches. Over the last 50 years or so (I should check details but it is pretty recent) many Koreans have shifted their afilliation from Confucian and Buddhist beliefs to Christianity. The missionary zeal is still strong and I am forever being accosted on the street by missionaries wanting to save my soul, or having my door bell rung by Jehovahs Witnesses.

38 Brass Monkeys on the Korean Peninsula

It is seriously brass monkeys here now. The temperature has dropped about 15 degrees (that is C, not F) in the last two weeks and the days are now hovering around or below zero degrees. If, like us, you haven't had a cold winter in eight years, you really really notice how cold it is.

Korean women get a name for having a penchant for fur, and I can see why. It is not so much because of vanity, but because they make for the warmest coats you can buy to protect you from the icy Siberian winds. Any minks running around in my garden would not last long.

It is amazing that there is a population here at all and they didn't all freeze to death going out to check that their fermenting cabbage vats were not going solid during the winter months. But then they did invent under floor heating systems which must have been a joyful discovery for them!

They are a tough looking bunch in winter - the dark warm clothes seem to accentuate their hardy build - or perhaps it is only the hardy tough looking ones who take to the streets on these chilly days. All the skinny super models probably stay at home and watch Style TV - number 555 on the cable TV network and even worse than "it's-crap-but-it's-the-best-there-is" BBC World.

Frighteningly, it is still about seven degrees off the average winter temp of minus seven. Since that is the average, and it goes down to minus 20 sometimes. I don't think we will be able to go outside if it gets down that low. Or if we do make it out the door, we will be wearing so many clothes it will be hard to do anything other than roll down the hill forming a human snow man.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

37 Koreans in the Rain

The first time I saw Korean people in the rain, it was from the shelter of the bus stop while I was waiting for the school drop off. A tour group of Koreans were leaving a bus and having to make it about 3 metres across the pavement to the safety of McDonalds. They were running as if the sky was raining white hot iron filings on their heads, shrieking and grabbing at any form of plastic bag or umbrella device they could lay their hands on.

It turns out that they believe that the rain makes you sick, and so they are afraid of precipitation. And since it doesnt rain here much except during the summer monsoon, they are perhaps not as used to it as people who come from soggy countries like England!

On the way back from Taekwondo tonight there was a miniscule amount of wetness in the air - we wouldn't even describe it as spitting in the UK. But everyone was walking along under their umbrellas, terrified of getting sick. A lady helpfully told us to put our hoods up and hats on or we could get rained on (gasp in horror).

Surely if rain really made you ill, approximately 60% of the UK population would be permanently off sick?

36 First snow

The temperature has been plummeting here, and I have been buying tights, furry boots and jackets like there is no tomorrow. After 8+ years of living in hot places we have zero cold weather kit. The first day that it froze, our eldest daughter didnt even have a coat to wear to school so we got her to do star jumps on the pavement while waiting for the school bus. An emergency trip to Doota clothing store in Dongdaemun market ended in the purchase of a very nice pink duffel coat for her.

When husband was sent to Shanghai on a business trip, he was also drafted into action with a shopping list of items that he dutifully found. Coats for the girls, a very nice Marc Jacobs handbag for me (lucky old me) - you must always have the essentials!

And this morning the garden table is dusted with snow. Breakfast was a debate about whether it was snow or frost. An official inspection revealed that it is indeed snow, but only a tiny bit.

Youngest daughter was determined to skate down the slide because of the "huge" quantity of ice on the slide. I cannot wait for a big snow fall.

More snow later in the morning caused great excitement in my Korean class, but the rest of the day was damp, wet, cold and dark - reminiscent of a raw winter day in the UK. Still, with most days here being bright blue icy cold skies, the odd wet one is no problem.

35 Life Changes

So all of a sudden our lives have changed with the news that both our fathers have got forms of cancer. Just as we were bidding goodbyre to our friends who came to stay, husband received a call from his dad to tell him that he has been foudnt o have a 9cm tumour in his oesophagus. A very scary thing to discover, and it was a real jolt to get the news. So we thought about it over the weekend and decided that we ought to go home for Christmas and lend some support, see him and everyone.

And walking to the Emirates office to book our tickets the sun was shining and I was looking around at everyone going about their business in the crisp clear air. And pondering that here I was knowing that my dear father in law is so ill, and there he is in Scotland living and knowing that he has this horrible thing inside him, while the rets of the world continues to spin and go and be busy. And a horrible thought crossed my mind... that previous times when we have had awful news out of the blue, there has always been a follow up hit. Just when you think that that things couldn't get worse, they do.

So I booked the plane tickets, went home and sat at the computer to check my emails. Suddenly my skype rang and it was my dad. Most irregular, he rarely calls if my mum is not around, and certainly not on a weekday morning. "I have something to tell you," he said. "I have also been diagnosed with cancer, but mine is at the other end'". Shit, rectal cancer, that is possibly even worse than oesophagus, I thought. Actually, he has cancer of the prostate, the reference to the "other end" was just his way of breaking the news in a slightly confusing way.

So we seize the day, don't waste a minute, and treasure our loved ones. Even if they can be frustrating at times, we will surely miss them when they are gone, and you never know when that is going to happen.

Friday, November 03, 2006

33 The sad ending of Doogie the Dog

The last time I mentioned the neighbours' dog, I was reporting his tragic demise while his owners were away on holiday. We had left him at the vets, and the animal doctor was making the necessary arrangements to dispose of him. In Korea, by law, you must cremate your pet when they go.

The kids were altogther pretty confused about Doogie. While he was staying with us, they liked to sing his name: "Doogie Doogie Doogie, Doogie the Dog," to the tune of my husband's ring tone. Since he has died, they are now singing, "Doogie Doogie Doogie, Doogie is dead", completely matter of fact. I dont think that they quite get it.

Due to time pressures, I ended up taking the youngest daughter with me when I went to pick him up after the cremation. We walked into the animal hospital to a waiting room full of live pets, and said to the girl on the desk, "I've come to pick up Doogie," giving her what I hoped was a knowing, secretive and furtive look and hoping she would cotton on quickly and make it as non-obvious as possible that I was here to collect a pet that hadn't got better.

She looked at me blankly, so I had to glance around to make sure noone could hear "You know, Doogie, the dog who died," I hissed at her.
"Oh yes, oh I am so sorry," she said, reaching under the front desk and presenting me with a neat, square little cardboard box.
"Here he is."

"Thanks, how much is that?" I asked.
"That will be 200,000 won," she said (US$200 to do a small dog - bloody hell, I thought, Korea really is expensive!). I counted over the notes, and we started to leave, whereupon the daughter piped up, "Where's Doogie?" she asked.

We stepped outside and I had to explain that Doogie had been made into powder now because he was dead, and he didn't need his body any more and he had gone to live with the angels in the sky and could probably see again now that he was in heaven and play with all the other dead dogs spirits, just like in the Disney film Brother Bear. But that he wasnt coming back. Again. Ever (although his owners were coming back in three days and I wasn't looking forward to that at all).

We took the box home and waited the three days for the neighbours to come back. They have been so good about it all, and it makes us feel even more awful than we already did. Added to which, the darn children keep asking our neighbour where the bloody dog is, nearly every time we see her. She remains so cheery, but I suspect that she has shed tears about this loss and sorely misses her strange little blind companion.

We are never looking after anyone's pet ever again. No class pets, no friends' pets, no relatives' pets. And we are not getting a pet of our own for a very long time.

32 Introducing Hangeul Mal

So my last update was October 10th and it is now November 3rd. My comfortable easy life ended abruptly on October 16 when I started a course at the Ewha Women's University to try to learn this damn lingo, Hangeul Mal or Korean. For four hours a day, five days a week I am sitting in room 218 of the lnaguage centre trying to make head or tail of a language that certainly has me baffled so far. The Korean alphabet was invented in the 15th century by some scholars who were commissioned by the reigning King in order to make things simple and enable people to easily communicate. Apparently until then, they had all been struggling with various systems mainly based on Chinese characters and this had been too hard for them or something. So in true far east style (Why do cell phones from around the world not function in Korea or Japan? Because they have their own independent non-cooperable systems), they made up their own.

The alphabet, I will admit, is amazingly systematic and easy to learn. If you can ignore the fact that depending on their position in a "letter", the individual characters an have totally different sounds: an "s" positioned at the front of a word sounds like an "s", but at the end of a word sounds like a gorilla grunt, a truncated Ugh sound without the "gh" bit, but with your mouth in position to say it.

Once you have remembered that, you need to start getting to grips with word order. As far as I know so far, time seems to go first, then the subject or the object(it doesnt matter which because you have to remember which mini-marker word to put with each part of the sentence to identify it)and the verb goes at the end (and has various different endings depending on whether you are talking past, present or future and also if you are being polite or casual). If you are using a time expression you must remember to say "Ae" after it, and if you are denoting a place you must also say "Ae" after it - Koreans would do well in Liverpool!

Oh yes, and they have two systems of numbers: a sino-Korean and a pure-Korean set. But when they tell the time, they like to use the pure-Korean for the hours, but the Sino-Korean for the minutes and seconds.

So you can see that it is a positive doddle.

Add to all of this the totally weird sound of the language which makes remembering even a simple syllable quite hard to master, and you are looking at an interesting challenge! Korean numbers 1 - 10 sound like this:

Se(t) (you dont fully pronounce the t)
Ne(t) (same as above)
Ta Ssot
Yor Ssot
Ill Gop
A Hop

In fact, I am totally loving learning it, and in the three weeks I have been going we have really learnt a lot.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

31 Food Guide Update

I have just updated my food blog to include the tale of the raw crab lunch which you may be interested to read about. Click on my food blog link to see it.