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:

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

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.

Monday, October 09, 2006

30 Nuclear test day

So Kim Jong Il has gone and done it and tested one of his nuclear weapons in the middle of a hill somewhere less than 400kms from where I am sitting I expect. All a bit mad really, from the country where some of the annual festival events include coordinated dance routines with 6000 people all dressed in chicken suits strutting their stuff.

Not for the first time, we find ourselves watching BBC World from unnervingly close to the action, but of course being the mere mortals we are, being utterly powerless to do anything about it. Dinner party chat this weekend touched on subjects like escape plans should the shit really hit the fan (train to Busan and fast ferry to Japan, perhaps?), and how far the Won will likely devalue in the event of serious manoevrings from the international community. Then chat moved on to the really serious issues of the nearest place to buy Marmite, and whether the rumours of waterproof nappies being available in one of the foreign supermarkets here were really true!

And to top it all, nuclear threats aside, there was a terrible accident on Sunday afternoon. Doogie the blind 14 year old dog that we were looking after for our neighbours while they are in the UK was involved in a very small accident when a car came down the hill too fast. He was just clipped by the car and sustained no physical injury, but it seems the shock of the event was too much for him and he died of a heart attack or stroke on the spot. Total nightmare. We called the nieghbours who have been very good about it, but they dont get back until Friday. It is awful waiting to face them, and instead of Doogie and his mummy and daddy having a joyful reunion, to present them with a box (jar?) of ashes. He is due at the crem today and I will have to go and pick him up tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

29 Bloody North Korea

We have been talking lately about how great things are here. We love our house, husband is happy in his job, kids are settled in their schools, the country is great, Koreans are lovely, food wonderful, culture immensely interesting etc etc.

The only thing that could really blow all of this for us, baring injury, is the threat of a North Korean spac attack that hits the South Korean economy (or worse, the Won) badly and leaves us faced with an evacuation to... um, where would we go?

So imagine my surprise and dismay when I flick onto the news today and find that the headline is that bloody North Korea is threatening to test its nuclear weapons. Aggghhhhh. Brilliant.

And having been so pleased with ourselves for managing to leave Thailand weeks before the coup, this rather diminishes our self-congratulations. Yes, well done guys, move from a country where a major political event results in zero bloodshed and everyone just carries on as normal, to a place where the insane dictator who lives about 70kms from your house is deciding that now is the time to flex his nuclear muscles. Oh yippedy doo dah.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

28 Interesting days

I am loving Seoul. Our day-to-day in this glorious end-of-summer weather is darn near perfect. Leaving the house early each morning, Child 2 and I make our way through the crisp morning air to the road where we catch the blue 110 bus to her pre-school. If I use the smart money card to pay my fare there and catch the bus back within 30 minutes of dropping her off, they don't even charge me for the return part of my journey, such is the efficiency of the public transport system here. You can hop on and off all day long if you want without paying a new fare each and every time.

Last week I went to get my driving license. Husband's secreatry accompanied me to help me through the Korean forms I needed to fill in. I reckon I could have managed without her since people are so helpful and I only needed to write my address a few times and do an eye test (learning the Korean alphabet was useful for the eye test part which was picture symbols and Korean letters). But I doubt I would have been able to go through the whole process in 27 minutes which is what we managed to do together. I havent actually driven yet (rather afraid to prang husband's new exec mobile given my shocking record of minor traffic incidents), but will soon take to the roads.

Korean driving skills are in stark contrast to their naturally homogenous and nationalistic outlook. Once in their cars, every Korean is his or her own man (or woman). Lanes are drifted across at speed, vehicles are cut up with gay abandon. People park all over the place, taxis wait on pedestrian crossings, and motorcycles zoom down the pavements. In a way this is liberating and highlights the individual character of the people which can sometimes become subsumed by a reluctance to critisize anything or anyone Korean, either because of national pride or a desire to be respectful. In other ways, it represents a severe threat of an accident in the early days of driving before one is fully accustomed to driving on the right hand side of the road.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

27 Some observations

We have just had our first electricity bill of US$900 for 4 weeks. So I am writing this inside a fairly dark house at night, and without air con!

Koreans love spam, that gross fatty mashed up ham that comes in a tin. Spam hampers are on massive displays in CostCo food stores and for the Chusok festival, Spam hampers are big presents. The last time I came across Spam was when I wrote my first promotion for Glasgow's Evening Times' marketing department. It was my lofty duty to write the copy for a reader competition to win one of two Spam hampers donated by a local supermarket, and also the first time I ever saw my own words published in print. I worked really hard and the competition was one of the most successful of the year - I am still not sure to this day if this was because of my terrific and enticing copy that had readers buying multiple copies of the paper just to enter the competition. Or whether it was simply a reflection of the disgusting eating habits of some elements of the population in the West coast of Scotland at that time.

Some friends of ours have just announced that they are pregnant with a baby due in March next year. Our daughters were delighted with this news.

"Guess what, remember Peta and Steve?" I asked them, "Well, Peta has a baby in her tummy so they are going to be a Mummy and Daddy next year."
"Cool, so they will be a Mummy and Daddy instead of just being visitors," observed our eldest daughter.

Last weekend we had a trial run looking after our next door neighbour's elderly dog in preparation for possibly looking after him for two weeks while they go on holiday.

Dougie Dog is a 14 year old, westhighland terrier/jack russell cross who had a stroke a few years back and so when he is tired and one side of his brain shuts down, he walks around in circles. He is also blind. He was born with no tear ducts and so his eye lids basically rubbed out his vision. To correct this problem, he had an operation to transfer some of his saliva glands to his eyes with the result that when he eats, he now also cries.

Dougie moved in on Saturday afternoon and seemed to settle down. At tea time, we fed him according to instructions, and he wolfed his food down. He then became quite agitated, walking around the house (occasionally bumping into things) and began to make a strange sound. He was howling. His owner had sent a list of his habits and the howling rang a bell in my memory.

"What do we do?" asked husband
"It said something about howling in the 'looking after Dougue guidelines' that our neighbour sent," I said, "I'll check it on the computer."
"Check it quickly," said husband as the howling levels rose to 'loud' on the Howl-o-meter.
Rushing over to the lap top I opened the Dougie doc and scanned down.
"If he howls(yes, like a wolf)," it said, "then he needs to vomit. Take him outside and he will dig a hole and vomit into it then cover it over," I read.

Husband grabbed the howling hound and raced around to the garden where Dougie dug several holes (narrowly missing the onion and lettuce patches) before finally depositing his entire supper in one and then frantically covering it up with his nose.

We stood back and watched. "What a f**++ed up animal," observed husband.

Meanwhile the kids were in a state of high excitement throughout this episode. Being a 14-year-old, stroke-victim dog, Dougie is not up for much in the way of games or activities. The howl - dig - vomit routine had them rivetted every second.

Telling the grandparents on Skype later that weekend about our latest exploits, Dougie Dogs displays were a major feature of the childrens' news home.

Monday, September 11, 2006

26 Whoever said the Koreans aren't friendly

Today I went to the Post Office to send a letter home. Not only was I given personal service from the manager, but I even left carrying a cup of freshly made coffee! No complaints there.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

25 Tears of saudades and cookie robbery

Child number 2 is really struggling with the move from Bangkok to Seoul. She misses all her friends and teachers and our maid dreadfully, and is very tearful. It is completely gutting to see her tiny face crinkled up in a deep sob, gasping out the names of the friends she wants to see, begging to go back to Bangkok.

After a particularly harrowing session of this, I took her up to bed and lay with her on her lower bunk while her small body shook with her sobs. Child 1 sat up in bed,
"What's the matter with her, Mummy?" she asked.
"She's missing all her friends in Bangkok and she is feeling a bit upset," I said.
"God, Sxxxxx, I'm missing my friends in Bangkok too, but I'm not crying" she spat.

Child 2 sniffed and tried hard to control herself, but failed and descended into yet more wailing, flailing about and general misery. Eventually she was soothed by the promise by Child 1 to sing her a funny Wiggles song, preferably including Captain Feathersword. (We are yet to break the news to them both that Wiggles Best Friend and star of Wiggles Safari, the Crocodile Hunter Steve Urwin was killed by a sting ray this week. How will they handle the grief of that?)

But during the wailing hour with child 2, I had noticed some frenetic activity going on in the background. Cartoonlike in the speed of floor covered, a joke as far as subtlety was concerned. While Child 2 was crying in my arms, Child 1 was taking the opportunity to rob some cookies from the kitchen and sneak them back upstairs.

Depositing Child 2 back into bed, I noticed some debris, well, crumbs actually, falling from the top bunk.
"What is that falling out of your bed?" I asked.
"Nothing Mummy, well actually they are crumbs but I haven't been eating anything" she replied.
"Are you sure? You know that if you eat in bed the ants will come," I countered - ants being one of the children's biggest fears having lived in places where vicious red and black ants would appear all over the place, even, to stereotype, in our pants!
"No, nothing Mummy," she said, "now can you go downstairs and do your work now please. I want to sing the funny Wiggles song to Sxxxxx."

As I left I leaned up to look through to the top bunk, where Child 1 (let her henceforward be known as sneaky sod) was lying in a perfect impression of a child trying to go to sleep: thumb in mouth, tucked into bed, eyes gently closing.

Since Sneaky Sod is the daughter of the original sneaky sod (aka me), I decided to test out her capabilities to date. So as I made to leave the room, I leant up and gently whispered "Do you think you are being a good girl or a little bit of a naughty girl tonight?".
"A GOOD girl Mummy" she insisted (to her credit, without a hint of delay in the response - very convincing).
"Are you sure there isn't anything you might like to tell me?" I probed, not wishing of course to challenge her if she was telling the truth, but as sure as hell that whatever she had up there was for eating.
"No, Mummy, will you just go and do your work now, please. I want to go to sleep, " she said. "Ok, I'll just come up there and give you a cuddle", I countered.
"No, umm, no, Mummy I don't want you to come up in my bed today. I will come down and give you a kiss"
"It's OK," I said, foot lightly on the bottom rung of the ladder, "I want to give my special girl a BIG cuddle tonight" I said, and saw her visibly shrink.

As my head came above the top bunk, she knew she couldn't be seen to lunge for the loot and hide it, she just had to lie still and hope that the stupid blind numpty (which she obviously thinks I am) wouldn't notice the box of chocolate filled wafers lying at the side of her bed.

"Night night, darling" I cooed. "Shall I just take those biscuits downstairs with me so that you don't get ants in your bed, then?" I asked.

"Yes, please," She groaned, "Sorry for lying, Mummy".

"Night night, sweet heart. Don't do it again," I murmured, already mentally preparing a weekend of truth teaching to our cheeky little sneakster. Talk about Cat and Mouse - the more she knows we are on to her, the sneakier she will become. The sneakier she will become, the less we will find out or the more extreme our detection methods will have to be. And, luckily I am not a paranoid mother, but it is obviously a short step from cookies in bed to mainlining heroin....

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

24 Fish fish fish

Our weekend sort of disaapeared in a whirl of busy days and evenings. Friday night we stayed out too late with friends from here and a mate who was at uni with us, and who we saw a lot of in Hong Kong - he know lives in Beijing but was over for a conference in Seoul. Subsequently, we woke too late to be bothered to rush to cacth the buses taking everyone to the US American Chamber summer picnic which was a couple of hours out of town. Not to be put off, we jumped in the car and headed off with a tourist map of Seoul to guide us! Miraculously we found the place but by 1pm all the food had gone and they were packing up so it effectively cost us $100 for four slices of disgusting Pizza Hut pumpkin pizza which was the only food left. It then took us 3 hours to get back because we got hideously lost, but all quite enjoyed spending some time together!On the way back, husband called one of his colleagues who was stuck in the office to join us for an early supper barbecue, but he then got rather entrenched and didn’t leave until after midnight!

And then on Sunday we went on an exciting (not!) trip to CostCo followed by a 1 year birthday party for one of husband's colleagues kids. It was really interesting since 1 year is a big one for Koreans. The birthday child gets dolled up in traditional dress which is very sweet and colourful and then has to choose from a range of items placed in front to show his destiny: Rice = contented life (never hungry), String = longevity, money = money (this is Asia after all), pencil = scholar and these days they all have a computer mouse as well = geek I suppose! It all came with a very nice buffet brunch so we were happy, and it was an interesting experience all round. Fortuantely the hostess spotted us heading into the wrong party in a room next to hers and managed to rescue us before we sat down at the wrong party and started tucking to their food! The chances are that both families were called Kim or Park or something, so there was a hgh chance that we could have gone to the wrong party and never realised.

Today I went with my next door neighbour to the wholesale fish market and brought a rather fine looking snapper to bbq for the girls for tea. It is a really great market and I think we may be eating a lot more fish on the back of that visit. We had lunch there as well in a cafĂ©, sitting on the floor (as was everyone else) with our legs crossed under the table. We had a big bowl of fish soup with fried seaweed and some gloopy stuff which we identified as vegetable of some kind, maybe aubergine, and the ubiquitous Kimchi (fermented cabbage). It was surprisingly good. I am not a big fan of fish soups but we couldn’t understand the menu and so had to point at something that looked appetizing on another table and there was a lot of raw fish around, so the soup looked like the safest option.

The weather is terrific. Bright sunny skies and cool mornings and evenings. Happy with! Cannot wait for my first autumn in 9 years!!!

Daughter 2 has been off school with a heavy cold and VERY SLIGHT temp but we had parent teacher conference on Friday and they threatened us with the wrath of god if we send a child to school sick, so I thought I had better not do my usual : dose her up with Calpol and take her anyway!! She WILL go back tomorrow.

There is a man cleaning our windows at the moment who is rather unnervingly having a pretty lengthy conversation with himself in Korean as I speak. He is definitely not on the phone to anyone! How funny is that? Ha ha.

Friday, September 01, 2006

23 Big Seoul Sister pulls

Our end of Itaewon road could also be called Shitaewon. It is full of knock off hand bag shops, tailors popping out onto the pavement and asking if you want a cashmere coat (in 34 degrees, um, no thanks), fake sunglasses etc. Bit of a jumble sale.

So I am waiting to pick up child 1 from the bus the other day and am approached by a smiling guy, wearing US-style street wear: baggy jeans, super baggy T-shirt and baseball cap. Not wishing to be a grumpy cow, I smile back.

"I'm Jimmy," he says, "I be your friend." Really, I think.
"Where you from?" he asks
"England" I say, trying to sound polite but also slightly distant - I am not sure if I want a new friend.
"Oh England, I be your friend, how long you stay here?"

I sit down to wait for the bus and Jimmy sits down next to me, staring at me in a weird way.

"You stay here with your boyfriend?" he asks.
"No, with my husband," I answer thinking that will probably do the trick.
"Your husband black?" he asks.
"Um, no he's from Scotland. There aren't a huge number of blacks up there. Where are you from?" I ask.
"I'm from Ghana, you been to Africa?" he asks me.
"Not yet," I reply, "What do you do here?" I ask him.
"I'm a trafficker," he tells me.
Oh christ, I think. "Oh really, um, what do you, ah, traffic?" I ask.
"Oh, cars, trucks, other stuff."

We sit side by side until the bus arrives and my blonde daughter steps off in her cute gingham uniform. Starting to make our way home, I consider going to Starbucks rather than let Jimmy, the Ghanian trafficker of god know's what walk us to our door. "Smile at Jimmy," I tell my daughter. She has a good stare and smiles back and Jimmy saunters off.

So now I have a friend at the bus stop. Lucky me.

22 It's crap but it is the best it is

Continuing the BBC Prime theme "it is crap but it is the best there is", let's talk pubs.

If you grow up in the UK the chances are you spend a large amount of your youth in pubs: outside in the garden in the summer, inside with a fire blazing in the winter. We all try the scabby city pubs, gorgeous country pubs, tiny local pubs hidden away and only known if you live there - just great pubs all over the place, and even crap pubs that you only go to because you can walk home (the Riverside in Christchurch, for example).

There are about 3 pubs in Seoul, maybe 4. The first one is run by a guy called Gunter who has a a kind of hybrid bar called the 3 Alleys. Not really a pub, nor a bar, nicer than a drinking hole and with reasonable pub grub, the 3 Alleys has a bar surrounded by diner style booths, darts and pool. In the front there is a kind of hotel dining room style conservatory room - the kind of place you would take your folks to Sunday lunch and have a sherry before your Avocado and prawn marie rose starter (with melba toast!). Drinks are served by wait staff which is great, so you dont have to get up, but most of the locals sit at the bar and chat with the landlord.

Opposite 3 Alleys is a second floor place called Scrooge Bar. This is Korean owned and last weekend we piled in there to watch the New Zealand South Africa rugby match. The atmosphere was good and I thought that it seemed like an alright bar. Went back in last night to find two military police checking for wayward soldiers, an empty bar blaring Guns n Roses and decided to leave. Ugh, not a nice spot to spend time.

There is another American Bar which I havent visited yet, and a bar called Jesters. And I think that it about it. Apart from the bar in the British Embassy which only opens on Friday nights, and frankly, is a bit weird (feels like the bar in the sixth form centre when I was at school where you paid with tokens and there was a strict limit of 2 pints per head per night (although when laced with additional potions this was truly plenty!)).

We have decided we are going to try and find some more Hofs - Korean bars with korean grub and cheap beer. Much cheaper these places are: about 3 dollars a beer, good food served on the table, and the kind of place where Korean's go out in the evening. If we have to spend the next three years in the 3 Alleys we may well go mad.... keep reading though, because I bet in about three months we will have decided that the 3 Alleys is not so bad, and it will become our regular haunt. We are soooo lazy.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

21 Coffee, coffee and more coffee

I have been to four coffee mornings in the last week as a newcomer to Seoul meeting ladies from all sorts of countries who are all busy making lives for themselves in Korea. From helping the needy to selling their own businesses, the meetings are full of a totally random selection of nationalities and characters.

I remember long ago my first coffee morning in Brazil, where the new girls were called Red Roses and we had to wear a sticker with our names on, and introduce ourselves to the group. It was pretty grim and we all squirmed with embarressment. These days, the coffee morning is a short cut route to meeting the people that you need to have a life - social life, working life, support network and information source point for everything from where to buy chicken livers to maternity bras, how to get to various points of the city and the countryside and the best place to ski etc etc.

There is a massive variation in characters. This morning the group ranged from a super confident older ambassadors wife from South America who practically signed us all up for tango lessons on the spot, to a Korean American lady who has moved here from New Jersey, speaks Korean and is yet too daunted and timid to have even tried taking the subway. A New Zealand girl introduced herself as having joined the group so she doesnt stay at home and drink Martinis all day, a Russian woman told how organising parties for the organisation had saved her life and given her a new purpose and a Dutch lady explained how she and her sub-committee visit organisations who have requested charitable help from the organsation and tried to recruit people for the trip she will make this week to an old persons home which has been cut off from Korea recently by a huge flood which washed away their access road.

Meeting people from all over the world and every kind of background is one of the best things about living abroad. Individual national groups tend to be very home focused but international groups are much better at getting out into the local communities, and because of their make up, people tend to be more outward looking and interested in their new foreign environment than in trying to re-create the best of the home country in deepest darkest asia. I cringe when I hear of people who are rendered miserable because you can't buy, for example Salad Cream (disgusting stuff at the best of times) in the regular supermarkets here. Ok, from time to time I may moan that the price of coffee here makes your eyes water and the fact that fresh herbs come almost dead in the packet. But equally, I dig the fact that half the ingredients in the shops are total mystery items to me and that every time I set foot into Seoul I see or do something that I have never experienced before.

Monday, August 28, 2006

20 Prime Time

At the barbecue we went to it was generally agreed that cable channel BBC Prime is "crap, but the best there is" - a funny but true assessment of the telly available to us lot all living away. We haven't had cable for five years and were so excited to have the channel that shows Ab Fab and here in Seoul we are connected. And for the last two nights I have watched some, and can truly say that it is a load of crap. What is it about British Telly and their obsession with murders....

19 Boozy nights

Another boozy weekend kicked off at the British Embassy in Seoul on Friday for a Korean British Society barbecue hosted by the Ambassador and his wife in their huge residence. After a bbq overlooking the perfect lawn and rose beds of the garden, but located within the business district of Seoul so surrounded by skyscrapers and one of the huge Korean palaces in town, a motley crew of survivors opened the embassy bar for more booze.

Serving Boddingtons and John Smiths (cans not on tap), the survivors consisted mainly of embassy staff who can all, it must be said, drink. We left at 12.30 and considered ourselves lucky to get out of there without too much damage being done. It looked like those remaining in the bar would feel it the following morning!

Saturday was family fun day at the British School, minus husband who had to go into the office. A nice fete atmosphere and lots of activities to keep everyone happy.

Home for tea and then out with a new group of people for a three stage evening - Thai restaurant followed by rugby match in the pub, and then, fatefully, on to a Karaoke bar until 3am.

Sunday was a barbecue lunch with friends in Song Buk Dong. Sunday night we watched Et tu mama tambien by Pedro Almodovar which was excellent, although in our condition a light american romantic comedy would have been more suitable!

Think we are making a good effort to get to know people but very tired today...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

18 Lovely children

Our eldest daughter's teacher tells me that she is a pleasure to teach - enthusiastic, hard working and actively participating in class. Unfortunately for us, by the time she gets off the bus in the afternoon she has mutated into the spawn of the devil. It is obviously taking all her reserves of energy to perform in the class room leaving less than zero for us.

I hope she gets used to the new routine soon and bucks up her ideas or there will be severe fireworks in our house! I know she is only five and has taken a lot on board lately, but her behaviour is really testing my patience and understanding. Joy joy joy.

17 Sights of Seoul

Just nipped up to our local mini-mart - the Locky Higher Martuh - aka the Lucky High Mart on account of the fact that it is at the top of an almost vertical hill. On the way, saw a lady carrying her aged mother piggy-back style to the shop, both nattering away to each other.

Halfway along Itaewon High Street with its million hand bag shops, you pass a shop called "Make yourself Fucking Lovely". Contrary to expectations it is not a sex shop, but is a small boutique selling trinkets and t-shirts. Confident name, eh?

Last Saturday we visited some people with a magnificent view from their apartment over the Han river to the office districts beyond. One sky scraper was reflecting the setting sun in all its windows like strips of brightly shining gold, and from the roof top stretched a huge high rainbow, right up into the sky, while below on the river people were waterskiing past.

16 Ladies who lunch

Went to my first coffee morning today with the British Association of Seoul ladies. Drove over with my new next door neighbour and got to see a lot of the centre of Seoul from above ground, instead of popping up from various random locations on the underground. Found out that lots of places are much closer to me here than I had ever imagined!

Driving around the city, the streets are wide and the roads are smooth. One of the main roads is huge, with a massive statue of a kind of Mongolian style warrior on a high pedestal standing high over the traffic. In the background a huge Korean palace roof is framed by high rocky mountains. A very dramatic view of the town, and a reminder of a) how ringed by mountains we are, and b) that the warrior man is probably a reflection of the fact that the North Korean army regularly practices its invasion routine to re-take the South.

Everyone likes to say that an invasion will never happen, but on the tour of the kids school the other day, we were informed that in the case of an invasion the children will be sent their school work using the school computer server which we can all log onto from wherever in the world we have fled to. Perhaps we should formulate some kind of plan B....

On to the coffee morning and a question of going through the motions of meeting new people, listing our postings, length of time abroad, the odd inquiry about spousal employment and children as we all try to pigeon hole each other and work out where everyone is coming from. On the whole, the girls were pretty up for it. One, who is moving to Bangkok next week, told how she wept with relief on a recent visit to Thailand where she walked into a supermarket and found Branston pickle and Weetabix staring at her from the shelf. Describing grocery supplies here as "dire" (which they are), she was also able to highlight some of the good sides of life here including skiing almost every Saturday of the winter. Hurrah (and who needs pickle anyway....?)

Reminded again of how transitory this life is. The BASS welcomed six newcomers and simultaneously said farewell to about five people.

Lots of bling on show - most women wore minimum one carat per ear with a few other diamond mine annual outputs on their ring fingers. Was very glad to be able to chat through the experience with down-to-earth next door neighbour on the way home. Coffee mornings are fine, but you always leave the room feeling like you have sat one of your degree papers... drained!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

15 Getting around

So far we have met one expat who speaks Korean. He has been here for five years and has had some Korean girlfriends which has helped with fluency. Apart from that we have met, between us, over a hundred people and none of them have mastered the language.

This wouldn't be so surprising if it was actually easy to get around Seoul without speaking the lingo. You can catch the underground without needing Korean as signs are bilingual. Buses are out without it, and unless you are going somewhere well known by taxi drivers you must be able to tell them where it is unless you are clutching a map with the location written in Korean script.

Since places are tricky to find, most people will get close to their destination and then phone ahead and the hosts will find a korean speaker to guide you in by taxi, or someone will come down the road to the nearest landmark or convenience store and meet you. How inconvenient is that?

There is a dual issue with directions here. The first, as already mentioned, is the language which makes finding places very tricky if you don't have it. The second factor is that Korea, although it has maps, does not have a very easily followed system for numbering and road naming. There are very few road names given en route, and buildings are numbered according to when they were built rather than where they are. As you enter some districts there are large boards which direct you, say, left for numbers 412, 27, 18, 35, and 49 and right for 1, 99, 26, 14 and the supermarket!

So have I been busily studying my Korean Made Easy handbook? No, not really, being rather way laid with looking after a five and three year old and moving house. But will I? Well, I sincerely hope so because life is going to be bloody difficult without it, since people either speak good English, or absolutely none at all.

I went to our local supermarket the other day and established that they would deliver goods to my house (by saying " Itaewon - Day-Lee-Ver-Ree?", "Neigh, neigh, Day-Lee-Ver-Ree," said the woman at the check out - I know that "neigh" means "yes" so I was confident with this answer). So I loaded my trolley with a mountain of goods and went to pay. At the end of the transaction the lady asked for my address (by pointing at a form - and I used my incredible deductive reasoning to work out what it was).

Not only had I forgotten my address in English, but I still haven't memorised the address in Korean script. I phoned home and asked Husband who also couldn't remember what it was, and since the internet had not yet been connected at home, we couldn't look up the address in my hotmail account which was the only place I had it written down.

So we had a problem. I couldn't tell them where I lived, so I drew a map (in English) and embarked on a sign language routine to try and ascertain if the delivery would be made in a van, and if so, if I could travel with the deliverer and point the way. This seemed to be a great idea and was apparently agreed by all involved, so I sat next to my bags and waited behind the checkout. After about 30 minutes everyone in the supermarket was getting a bit edgy and looking at me as if they were wondering why I was still there. There was no obivous sign of my goods being loaded into a van and so I went to sign language to the lady again - in the end I set off on foot with the assurance (I think) that they would try to deliver it before 5pm. And just after I got home, a motorbike popped up with all my shopping and my map.

Hurray for that - next time I will take the Korean address with me, or even get our trusty realtor to tell the local supermarket where we live!

14 No more blues

My last rather subdued post was written just before we moved into our new house, and since then I have to say that things have significantly looked up. In fact, I don't know what I was rabbiting on about to be honest. Our move to Korea has been the easiest we have ever made - by miles.

The new house is excellent - not posh and not swanky but incredibly homely with bathrooms that work (!), electrics that don't make our fuses blow every time we use the microwave at the same time as the tumble dryer and much more space than we have ever had.

Moving in was pretty hectic - 357 boxes delivered in about two hours and then unpacked in a day. The result of this being that an awful lot of things are now living in the wrong places and there is much sorting to be done, but in terms of being up and running, we totally are. We have a telephone line and broadband internet, cable TV in a couple more days and while there are no pictures on the walls and all the cupboards are a mess, the whole place looks and feels like a working home, and a good one at that.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

13 Sinking In

Although lots of people live much more challenging lives than me, and seem to manage without moaning about their hardships, I can't help but feel a little over whelmed at times with this move to Korea.

I have started reading autobiographical books of women who do extraordinary things, partly I think, to make me realise how soft things are for us. So far I have read Ellen McArthur's book about her Vendee Globe round-the-world solo sailing challenge (fantastic book - what a woman). I am now reading about Claire Bertschinger, a valiant nurse who has treated casualties and sickness in some of the world's most awful places and was the inspiration for the first Live Aid.

Husband thinks it is hilarious that I am reading these accounts, but I find them quite inspirational and they make me determined to get Korea licked and our situation sorted out so that I can go on and use my time productively and usefully. It feels like years since we started moving to Korea - although it is only actually about 6 months since it became an almost definite plan.

This kind of "trailing spouse" time is frustrating. Six months is a long time to be doing admin, sorting, arranging, packing and all the other nonsense that a move entails. And the aim at the end of all this upheaval? To recreate the same home situation in a different geographical location. When you look at it like that you wonder why anyone can be arsed moving at all - losing almost a year of productive time (not to mention all the work and social contacts you have in one place) to shut down something only to reopen it immediately somewhere else (with almost zero contacts and no social life!). What a wacky life...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

12 Thai truths

If there is one thing I learned from living in Thailand it is that in the face of a problem, the approach most likely to bring success is nearly always to stand calmly and smile gently at the situation and the people involved. Freaking out, shouting, threatening, begging and all the rest never work, but remaining incredibly calm and staying put can often bring results.

And this seems to hold true in Korea. Our container has now arrived from Bangkok and a team of men are standing by ready to unpack it on Friday. Today was Wednesday and this morning I went to collect the keys for our ready-to-move-in abode. It is now 6pm and I do not have the keys. The house needs to be painted and cleaned before we move in.

As the landlady chatted away to me in Korean (looking me directly in the eye which was most endearing considering I had no idea what she was saying!) and our agent translated for me, the nub of the problem was that the house was not ready but we were. Since we are paying $200 a day to stay in our wholly charmless serviced apartment, we dont want to delay too much on moving into our new pad.

For a while it seemed hopeless - the painters couldn't start until Friday at the earliest, it would take at least three days. Mrs landlady hoped I would understand that the people who just moved out had had some problems and were delayed and they havent had time to get things ready.

Our agent duly translated back to her that of course, we understood absolutely and there was no problem except for the fact that we are now paying rent and a hotel bill concurrently. Smiling away and nodding agreeably at each other the landlady suggested perhaps we might only like to paint a few crucial places. And with my face almost aching with the length of smile, our agent duly communicated to the landlady that while this would of course save time, once some parts have been painted, there would be some very obvious places which had not should we take this option.

The smiling continued for some time. We don't have the keys yet but the house will be painted tomorrow and we will move in on Friday (let's not get too hung up on the quality of the paintmanship, eh?!).

As husband pointed out, if the house had been ready, the chances are that our container would have fallen off the boat in the South China Seas, or been shored up sheltering from a typhoon for weeks on end.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

11 The Stone Rabbit

Having sent our entire Barbie (registered trademark) collection, many jigsaw puzzles and toys by air freight from Bangkok, I am delighted to report that our kids are playing almost exclusively with a small stone rabbit which their granny bought them to put in their new garden in Seoul. Weighing about a kilo I was delighted with this particular present, but it has made it intact to Seoul and the kids have made it a selection of paper foods to eat (radishes, carrots and lettuce) from a bowl inside our air conditioned serviced apartment. Lala, as the rabbit is known, is probably the world's best maintained non-pet, receiving much love, care and regular food and water.

Monday, August 07, 2006

10 Singing in the park

We went for a 5 kilometer walk to the top of the highest peak in town yesterday and stood at the foot of the Seoul Tower for a good peek out over the city. Following some onlookers' instructions, we followed the bus route to the top which meant that we walked along a busy uphill road through the park to the peak - zero contact with grass or foliage for the duration . The Yellow Bus Number 2 passed us every five minutes with various tour coaches in between so that the top was buzzing with ice cream vendors and ladies selling what look like re-heated roadkill squid (even though a squid would be doing well to be road kill).

Checking a map for the journey down meant that we enjoyed the forest more intimately and tranquilly, finding acorns and horse chestnuts and a man, standing on his own facing a brick wall and a drainage channel, singing loud chants along with his tape recorder. Whatever gets you going, I suppose!

9 Silver City

Praise Allah, Emirates airlines have granted me a silver class membership of their loyalty programme after flying 29,000 kilometers with them during July! Yippee. I now get an extra 12kgs of luggage allowance any time I fly with them (so will be able to bring the cool bag of goodies from the delicatessen back with me after all!).

Saturday, August 05, 2006

8 Saunas and Soggy Veggies

We arrived from Glasgow last night for the whole family to be together for the first time in over two months. A gruelling 26 hour journey door to door and straight into our serviced apartment which overlooks a view of the Han river and the business district of Seoul.

Kids were awake from 2.30am to 4.30am and we finally woke at 10 this morning. Straight off to see our new house which is full of packing boxes of the people moving out. Very happy with our new abode which has plenty of space for all of us and a cute garden.

Then off to our new sports club, the Seoul Club, which is a smart marble-lined club house complete with indoor and outdoor pool, a gym, squash and tennis courts and different restaurants and bars. We had a good lunch (for 50 dollars - a far cry from the costs of the British Club in Bangkok where it is rare to spend more than 20 bucks during the whole day) then went for a swim.

Afterwards we all went for our showers and entered the world of Korean personal hygiene. The shower rooms are replete with places to scrub every last scrap of skin from your body - three different temperature soaking pools, a huge sauna, rows of showers and a large sitting shower room. Here you use a small plastic stool to sit and shower and soap and scrub yourself all over. Everyone is naked, there is no concept of private changing here, but strictly single sex with children over 60 months of age banned from the opposite sex's changing area.

Members take small plastic baskets of lotions and potions to aid with their ablutions and then move into the carpeted changing area to dry their hair, moisturise everywhere and generally make sure that all is clean and dandy before venturing outside again. Not used to all this equipment it took the girls and I over 40 minutes to finish beautifying ourselves, but we were all smelling gorgeous as we emerged to find husband had been waiting for nearly half an hour!

From the Seoul Club to the Hannam Supermarket - billed as THE supermarket for expats living in Seoul. This reminded me of a schol ski trip to Bulgaria about 20 years ago when we were allowed to venture out of our hotel to dispose of our spending money in the local supermarket - at the time it only sold chocolate-coated cherries, cherry brandy and fresh cucumbers!

The impact of moving somewhere as unusual as Seoul came home as we cruised the small aisles of "expat-friendly" products (most of which appeared to come from CostCo). The cheese selection is repulsive - fake Brie, processed cheese "party" cubes and American "cheddar" imitations. Meats consisted of over-priced, old cuts of Australian imported beef and some sad packs of salami. Vegetables were wilting packs of lettuce (sold by the leaf not attached to the heart), soggy aubergines and some bruised bananas. Colgate toothpaste really is six dollars per tube.

I came to Seoul with 12 tins of Illy expresso coffee packed among my clothes, some balsamic vinegar and three pots of Marmite (essential materials for expat living!). Next time I go home, I will not pack clothes, but instead will travel with a large cool box and bring back Camembert, delicious breakfast museli mixes, smoked fish of all descriptions and even some fresh vine-grown tomatoes.

I left the not-so-super market with a head buzzing with plans to grow herbs in my laundry room, tomatoes in pots inside the living room and wondering where I can buy wheat flour to make bread. Looks like we might have to plough up our lawn and start a market garden!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

7 Thoughts after one week

So tonight I head back to the airport for one week in the UK and then to bring our kids back to their new life here. What are they going to make of this place?

At ages 5 and 3 their entire life experience has been Asian-based, and so in many ways they will likely see less weirdness than we do. The Koreans are a handsome race - strong-looking and handsome with high cheek bones, generous features and a willingness to smile and laugh heartily and often. I think the girls will be a focus for much attention from people here, but because of the respectful nature of the Koreans, I hope that they will endure less physical touching than they have had to deal with in the past from mainland Chinese in Hong Kong and the gentle Thais. And korean kids are soooo cute in their own way, that perhaps two blonde little western girls will present less of an attraction.

Already I can feel myself adapting to life here. The fashions are very different, and Koreans LOVE their complicated patterns and off-beat cuts. Assymetric tops for ladies are common, and the layered t-shirt effect is common. Lace trim and a colour palette that favours plum, yellow, turquiose green and apricot tones as well as lots of strong spots and stripes make for a colourful and interesting range of attire.

In bureaucratic terms life will likely be easy here. Everything is efficiently set up to provide minimum red tape and fuss. The subway has tickets of course, but once you have a credit card you can use that as your pass to travel eliminating the need for travel cards and another thing to remember.

When we go out at night, if we travel by car and then decide to have some beers, we can phone one of about 20 companies who will send a sober driver to our restaurant and drive us home. We tried this the other night and it was fantastic. To order this service you need to speak Korean or ask a waitress to call them for you.

Expat life is well set up with societies for everything that all have websites and responsive members to help with all newcomers questions: The Royal Asiatic Society for cultural tours, the British Women's Group for networking and the Seoul International Womens Association which includes a working women's network and charity raising activities thrtoughout the year. National societies from all over the world are thriving, websites abound with information on restaurants and bars.

Life here will be as good as we make it. If we work hard, master the language and remain permanently positive, I think we will be very happy. Let's see how I feel when I return.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

6 Beginning to settle

After a weekend of culture shock (and having to basically leave Insadong area after finding it all too weird!), Monday morning felt fine and I headed out into town to explore. Perhaps it is the jet lag lifting, but I felt much happier today to be wandering the streets of Seoul. On Sunday I had experienced a strong desire to go back and sit in our hotel room and watch english-speaking television. This was a very unusual sensation but one which hardworking hubby admitted to also feeling the previous weekend when he had watched three movies back-to-back and only ventured to the basement to buy snacks from the convenience store. People keep telling us that the Bill Murray film Lost in Translation will become our favourite film after living here for a while, and I think I will re-watch it when I am back home.

I can't remember feeling quite so foriegn in a place before. Everyone I see, each person who I watch making their way around Seoul, all the families, friends hanging out and chatting and laughing together - I feel that there is a huge distance until I could even ask them their names, let alone have any understanding of what makes them buzz. Like a vast ocean of cultural differences to cross.

Every night I dream the most wild and crazy dreams: last night I was hit by a truck taking my kids to their new schools and running late (but survived more or less intact) and then had to go and enrol in a new university as a fresher! I think this is a reaction to the changes in my life!

I have just looked back at the title I have given this blog, and realise that I havent written about settling in at all. Perhaps I should be a little more patient.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

5 First weekend in Seoul

So on Friday night we met up with some old friends (from our Brazil and Hong Kong days - hope they dont think we are stalking them!) and went out for dinner in the trendy Apgujeong area. This end of the road was quite different from our Apgujeong experience the other night - there was noone sitting on floors here and the roads were all crammed with big cars manned with drivers who were waiting outside and smoking cigarettes. Quite glitzy and posh prices. Later we went to a wildly expensive cafe for more drinks (see my other blog spot SeoulFoodGuide.blogspot.com for a review). It is all good fun, but even more expensive than Hong Kong or Singapore- the kind of town where people are rich enough to want to show it off by spending. Personally I find cash hard enough to get hold of that I do not share this desire!

Hardworking hubby and I wandered down into Rodeo Drive until we found a groovy little bar with plastic tables and loads of same-age-as-us Koreans having a laugh on a Friday night. It was good to feel that we had landed in normal land, and to see Koreans having fun around us and see that they look pretty OK and fun, actually. They are a fashionable, good looking bunch and I reckon shopping must be a popular past time. The bill in Nori People was more normal too, with beers costing just $3 instead of $15 in the cafe - ouch!

While we were there it started to rain so we were trapped into having another one for the road while we waited for the storm to pass (shame...). As we sat there with rain streaming off the front canopy, a car drove by with a guy sitting on the bonnet for a giggle.

As we left, we got chatting to a drunk fat guy outside the convenience store. He was very jolly and did the usual "where you fom?" "Scotland", "Aaaahhhhh, Scotlan, whisky ha ha ha" exchange, until he tried to say something else which just came out in Korean and basically we were all just too drunk to make it work. Never mind, plenty of time.

We rocked into our apartment at about 2am and didn't surface until the room service lady rang that bloody bell again at 10.50 and burst in - this time round I beat her to it, though, and managed to grab my dressing gown first (so no naked guest thrills/horrors for her that day)!.

4 Stuck in a blog spot

This blogging business is supposed to be so easy, but I cant work out how to put anything on my blog in any order. I also couldnt work out how to switch on my bedside light in this serviced apartment the other day, or work the washing machine or the air conditioning. Am beginning to wonder if I am actually a techno moron after all, having denied it vigorously all my life...

Friday, July 21, 2006

3 Hunting for 'Koppee'

So, Hardworking Hubby has been living her for almost six weeks but has survived on a diet of either business entertaining or convenience store goodies. His preferred Family Mart snack is a pot of instant noodles with an egg cracked in the top - YUCK. There ain't no way I am eating that kind of muck. And even more important than food is getting a good coffee first thing in the morning. In Korea it is called "Koppee" because there is no sound for "f".

Yesterday I had a long search for fresh "Koppee", but was unsuccessful. Even after cunningly stealing some extra coffee bags from under the nose of the room service girl this morning, I knew that we had to do better than that, so today I tracked down the nearest supermarket to us, which is located in the basement of the very, very high end Hyundai Department Store.

My goodness this is an expensive place to live.... last night we stopped in Itaewon area on the way back to the car and bought a small box of Kelloggs bran flakes, 6 bananas and a litre of milk and it cost 9 US dollars. Even after by-passing the banks of perfume and handbags on the way to Hyundai's food court I was prepared to be shocked. Some things are really bad. Olive oil there was US$22 a bottle, fresh koppee was not even on sale (panic), a small box of fresh tomatoes were US$9. Dear me. So I just spent 50 bucks on some fruit, splashed out on a small pot of Pesto and some pasta and then wandered into the adjacent food court trying to sniff out the dumplings.

The food court is full of about 200 different dishes which are all utterly unrecognisable (even the ingredients are so out there that I have no idea what they are - seaweed or tripe, for example, an important diffference to distinguish). I literally sniffed my way around until I got to the familiar odour of soupy noodle dumpling things and pointed at one of the congealed sample dishes. It was pretty yummy although I have decided that small dried fish stirred into anything don't really add much to the dish. Normally I wouldn't put them in, but I have made a promise to myself to be a bit more expansive in my food experimentation here and so I added a few to my soup, ate one and then removed the remaining bits with my chop sticks. Ugh, hate them.

Finished my soup, went to the poshest supermarket toilet I have ever seen which had silver tiles and self flushing loos, and on leaving the establishment, spotted a coffee place with fresh coffee beans on sale. I am now typing with a mug of freshly ground and brewed "Jazz" filter coffee at my side and I am a much happier girl, I can tell you. The coffee cost 30 dollars for one bag, but to off-set this huge outlay, they gave me a free box of dairy creamer..... nice!

2 Life among the Koreans Day Two

I woke up as a bell went off in my room. I didnt know what time it was, or if this was my wake up call, mobile phone or door bell! Totally confused then realised it was room service. Before I could say anything, she had let herself in to see me naked staggering around the room. I think she said, " Oh sorry I will come back in a minute" but cannot be sure, as it was all in a torrent of fast Korean which I am sorry to say I am far from mastering at the moment.

It was 10.50am. Late to wake up.

Found one disgusting coffee bag (who ever thought that coffee could be made in the same way as tea? They are COMPLETELY different drinks) and make the most pathetically weak cup of coffee ever. There is only one coffee bag in the apartment - not enough to get me started really.

Husband phones on my new mobile. The ring tone is set to start with a horse whinnying and then a kind of jolly country and western number. I try to re-set it but the phone seems to be in Korean and I can only get into the call register menu, seemingly no matter what button I press.

I am to meet him for lunch.

I retraced my steps of the previous night to the underground and bought a ticket to Yeoksam Dong, just two stops away. To get there I had to walk through a massive paved square full of stark sculptures, like a massive linked pair of very veiny arms set in concrete. The square is above a huge underground mall called Coex, which features a range of rank looking fast food joints at the entrance to the subway.

The trains are massive and spotless and there are clean toilets on every platform - so efficient.

Get out of the subway and find my way to Star Tower, the font of our destiny in Seoul and where Hardworking will be putting in the hours while we are here. It is pretty smart, playing Schubert in the lobby and immaculately clean. I had to wait for a few minutes and watched the Koreans going in and out. They are all very business suited, Asian style. The men wear outrageous suits - a mixture of shiny suits or crazy pinstripes, with short legged trousers so that you can see their socks. My favourite was an Elvis-style business man with huge gold-framed shades and bracelet, white jacket and chequered black and white trousers over slip on shoes with a woven leather top. His hair was thinning on top and he had a slim, lit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth for the whole time I watched him. I wonder what on earth his life is like....

The girls are all wide hipped and slim, young ones wearing pretty floral dresses and cardigans in colours like pastel green, apricot and acid yellow. Older women wear kick-ass suits that look like they are straight out of Armani (and judging by the street of shops which we passed on the way back from Apgujeong the other night, they probably are. In about 10 mins we passed two Louis Vuitton outlets, Gucci, Armani, Hugo Boss, Escada, etc etc etc - all of them basically there on one road). The whole place exudes wealth, everyone looks really together and I have only seen one mad old lady on the subway who was walking along with a transistor radio around her neck begging. I havent seen any police yet, but I wonder what happens to vagrants in this part of town - reckon they might be "removed".

We found a dumpling restaurant around the corner from Hardworking's office and sat on chairs this time (Hardworking finds it very hard to cross his legs under a low table!). Delicious dumplings in a thin mushroom soup, filled with chopped pork and garlic and onion. My mouth is watering as I write this since we now have bananas in the apartment and i havent had lunch.

Strangest breakfast I have probably ever eaten, but we went to Coffee Bean afterwards for a reassuringly good coffee (agh, relief!). They call it KOPPEE BEAN on account of there being no "f" sound in korean.

In fact i am so hungry now I am going to take my phrase book out and try to order some more of this top Korean nosh.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

1 Just arrived

It has been four days since I stepped on real grass.

Flying to Seoul was great after my wonderful upgrade to business class on not one, but both legs of my flight - what a pleasant way to travel when you are used to the total shag of cattle class.

Our plane from London to Dubai was delayed so me and this cool old barrister from Melbourne drank Moet and chatted away on the runway for two hours while the staff fannied about fixing a small light that wasnt working. Drank so much Moet actually, that I suffered from a rather nasty hangover headache all the way to the middle east... lesson - don't get too excited about business class, you sad loser!

Hardworking hubby had run out of gas on the motorway trying to drive his brand new car on the wrong side of the road from the city he doesn't yet know to the airport, so he wasn't there to meet me. I called him on his mobile as he raced along, foot on the floor. He had driven half way around South Korea trying to find a) gas and b) Incheon Airport (which is disappointingly for him nowhere near the town of Incheon - I couldn't blame him really, an easy assumption to make!). Fortunately, a nice guy helped him back onto the right road by driving through Incheon for 15 minutes leading him back to the motorway.

We cruised the 30kms back into Seoul in no time in our new, sleek, corporate mobile. Compared to our old Mitsubishi truck this car is smooth! It is also very hard to find in carparks as it is exactly the same as all the other corporate mobiles on the roads - a black executive car. Boring but free, so who cares?

We got to our serviced apartment which has a big view of Kangnam-Gu district of Seoul then headed out to find supper. Hardworking as been here for nearly 2 months so I thought he might have somewhere in mind...

We went to Apgujeoung area which he had heard was cool, and had already been there once a while ago. I think we must have come out of the subway on a funny exit because it was pretty unremarkable at first sight. We wandered around and then came across a barbecue place which looked okay and still had some residual diners in it (so we weren't breaking our rule of never eating in a restaurant with no other customers).

It was delicious. Man, Korean barbecue is good. We sat on the floor on either side of a low table which had a cool stainless steel, shiny, mini-chimney sucky thing hanging down from the ceiling above our own little grill to hoover up all the smoke from the meat cooking. Hardworking hubby managed to order some meat and the waitress brought a whole heap of condiments, salads, soups etc for us to eat together with our meat tit bits. Bloody yummy and all washed down with a small bottle of Soju ( the local tipple made with potatoes apparently, not as mad as tequila, kind of like sweet Sake) and a couple of bottles of Cash beer.

Taxi back to the apartment for one more beer, like we really needed it but having so much fun being back together after 6 weeks of almost total separation, and to sleep. So knackereed that going to bed at the equivalent of 4pm made no difference and I slept through the night. Day one in Korea complete!