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...