Winter time, and the living is easy…

My last blog post concluded with a return to South Korea and a mild incident of arson. So let’s pick up where I left off.

The weeks since our glorious return to Cheonan have been completely fire-free – perhaps surprising given the severity of Korean winter. The day after we arrived back, Cheonan was transformed into a winter wonderland – or, as Samuel L. Jackson describes the arctic in the movie Farce of the Penguins, “Mother Nature’s Frigid White Anus.” How I hate the winter.

Rhys was pleased at least, to be able to test out various bits from his collection of outdoorsy equipment – oh, to have a down jacket and merino wool base layer. I, meanwhile, was traumatized by my attempts to be outdoorsy and active when I found that walking to the gym in the below-zero temperatures WILL give you mild frostbite in embarrassing places. I have no idea why this wasn’t mentioned during any of those Russia-set montages in Rocky IV.

Still, this weather isn’t Sylvester Stallone’s fault, and it would be crazy and wrong to pretend otherwise. The snow has at least departed for now, and despite the ridiculous amount of free time on my hands now that it’s winter vacation, I’ve kept occupied and haven’t yet succumbed to winter madness or cabin fever.

One especially pleasant way to spend time during these winter weeks is with a trip to the Onyang Hot Springs Hotel. The hot springs spa there is blissful – various hot and bubbling baths, a steam room, an outdoor hot springs pool, a sauna … a great place to while away time, if you can get used to the fact that it is essentially one big naked unisex party. With strangers. That don’t speak the same language as you. It’s not too awkward though, despite how FREAKISHLY SMALL the towels are. The last time I went, some very nice ladies in the sauna told me I was pretty. It’s nice to be complimented in the nude by equally nude strangers sometimes. Thank you, Korea, for making this possible.

Anyways, let me move on, before I start to sound really creepy. Another excellent way to spend time is perusing through the underground market near Cheonan station. There’s a really nice clothes stall, where they speak pretty good English and do not tire of suggesting pretty outfits you might like to try on. Even better and cheaper is the Thrift Store (yes, its awesomeness completely justifies those capital letters). My poor sense of direction and short term memory mean that I have no idea how to direct anyone there, since I always go with people who remember the way better than I do. All I know is, nowhere else can I get a whole outfit for what I’d spend on a cab ride in England.  Nowhere else does the sales lady give out free fruit, and tea, and coffee, and scarves, for crying out loud. Nowhere else can I buy a PIMP’S outfit (a faux fur coat and trilby) for the reasonable price of 20,000 won. Of course I’ll wear it sometime. For 20,000 won, how could I not? Add to that the close proximity of the store to the best restaurant in Cheonan – Mountain Fishtail, the Indian/Nepalese restaurant whose Chicken Korma never fails to be blow my mind – and there’s really no better place to spend your time and money.

Of course, sometimes one needs a little more than the hot-tubbing and thrifting and curry-guzzling of Cheonan. For these needs, Seoul is just a short (ish) ktx ride away.

My first Seoul trip this month was with Sarah.  Kaleena was taking part in an art exhibition in Hongdae. We had a great time. Kaleena’s oil paintings were beautiful and it was inspiring to see the various Korean artists’ work on display.

Of course, a trip to Seoul cannot be without foodie indulgences. We lunched at a little Italian café whose name I can’t remember and whose food I can’t really recommend, not least of all because it was served on tables that we couldn’t really fit under. I was reminded of big family gatherings, and being made to sit at the “kids” table until I was…well. Way too old for that.

However, the “okay” lunch was more than made up for by stumbling upon Cloud 9 Cupcakes, a cute and sweet cupcake boutique around the corner from the art gallery. I LOVE cupcakes, probably because they combine two of my greatest loves: pretty things and baked goods.

More recently, Rhys and I headed up to Itaewon to check out Stand Up Seoul, a night of Western stand up comedy that happens on the first Thursday of every month at the Rocky Mountain Tavern. We started the night off at Buddha’s Belly, a beautiful Thai restaurant located just behind the Hamilton hotel. The food was delicious, especially the spring rolls. It’s a little pricey (9,000 won for a Mojito is too much for me to pay, at least, when sober) but well worth it.

The comedy night was great. The host, Brian Aylward won me over immediately with his hilarious commentary on two equally laughable topics – New Year’s fitness-related Resolutions, and Cosmopolitan magazine. Both of which, admittedly, I should really stop subscribing to.

Apparently my enthusiasm for the comedy night (or perhaps for the Singapore Slings I was drinking) did not go unnoticed. A guy called Ross, wearing an outfit that I can only describe as “creepy priest” came up to me and asked if I’d help him out when the time came for his act. It sounded simple enough – all I had to do was read from the script he gave me in a deadpan voice. Easy. I readily agreed, (somewhat foolishly) before I had really read what the script said. It turned out that Ross’s act was portraying a crazy-eyed evangelical reverend called John Tempest, and my role was to provide evidence of his ability to “save” people. Here is the script that I had to read:

“My name is Darleen, and two years ago I was a hyper-obese, lesbian, husband-molesting, socialist, paraplegic bitch. I was so hard up, I would prostitute my own daughter for a honk on an ecstasy pipe. I was out of control. But my life changed when I met you, John Tempest. You taught me to love the world, love God, and to love myself. I owe it all to you. And for $39.95…you should be crucified for prices that low!”

Classy, right?

My brief moment in the spotlight went well. The good reverend thanked me for my help, and people seemed to laugh in all the right places (whether it was ‘with’ me or ‘at’ me I couldn’t tell). All in all, an excellent night, which I ended in my usual style – first by demanding to go dancing, then polishing off an un-lady-like amount of street food, and then passing out within minutes of both. Thank you, Itaewon.

The next morning, we breakfasted on the Quiznos subs that Rhys had cleverly insisted we buy the day before and stow in our hotel fridge, and shortly after, went in search of lunch.

Usually, the only place I will happily have a midday meal in Itaewon is The Wolfhound, an Irish pub. This is because I love pubfood, and all day beakfasts, and because I get a little giddy at the prospect of getting a lunchtime buzz on. (Hey, it’s always five o’ clock somewhere). But this time, Rhys suggested checking out the little Italian place next to the Wolfhound and I’m SO glad he did. It. Was. Awesome. Firstly, free crispy, crusty home-made bread with olive and balsamic oil to dunk it in. Secondly, a big bowl of penne pasta, swimming in pesto deliciousness, sprinkled with pine nuts and hidden gems, like garlic slivers and cherry tomatoes. And finally…and this is the best part: a FREE crème brulee. The chef clearly noticed my indecision when faced with the choice between crème brulee and vanilla panacotta (it is the Sophie’s choice of dessert dilemmas) and sent over both. And I ate both. Best day ever.

After the wonderful lunch, we went in search of the Cheonggyecheon Museum. According to 10 magazine, this museum was currently housing an exhibition of Indian Mythology Art. After following the TERRIBLE directions provided by the English section of the museum’s website, we decided to head for a coffee shop to either get directions or give up and get a drink. Luckily, while we were asking the baristas for directions, a very kind Korean woman overheard us and offered to help. She made a quick call, and eventually was able to tell us exactly what to say to a cab driver to get to our destination. She even pointed it out to me on the “maps” app of my iPod touch: “Cheong Gye Moon Hwa Gwan”. Which just goes to show that the world is a better place for coffee shops, ipods and (most of all) the random acts of kindness from perfect strangers.

The exhibition was divided into two sections: The Warli mythology paintings and the Madhubani and South Indian mythology paintings. The latter were more typical of what I imagine when I think of Indian mythology art – beautifully detailed, epic and, most of all, colorful works of art. These depicted the stories of various Hindu gods and goddesses, including: Ganesh, the elephant headed god; Shiva, the Creator and Destroyer; and Kali, the goddess of death and destruction. The Warli tribe paintings, on the other hand, were much more simple. They were composed of printed shapes using paint made from rice powder. Despite their more simplistic, monochrome appearance, these paintings were still epically detailed in their telling of this tribe’s traditions.

All in all, it was an excellent trip to Seoul. The rest of the month will probably be a quieter, less eventful affair, since I recently spent most of my wages on an iPod touch and a meats-and-cheeses binge at Costco.  Nevertheless, I’ll be back with an update soon.

Oh, and one more thing. I want to end on this picture that I took of one of my students that I taught at the Sun Moon University Winter English Camp in January. Her English name is Cindy, and she wanted to show me how well she can raise one eye-brow. It makes me happy every single time I look at it.


"What I Did On My Holidays."

Tallulah Bankhead once said that “it’s the good girls that keep the diaries; bad girls never have the time.” Now, I would never classify myself as a *bad girl*. Mildly naughty? perhaps. Occasionally intoxicated? most definitely. But *bad*? Not so much. Nevertheless, like these bad girls Tallulah speaks of, I just haven’t had the time in the last few weeks to sit down and write about what’s been going on. Still, if there’s one advantage of jetlag, it’s that it gives you all these extra hours to fill (in exchange for the ability to sleep at a reasonable time). So, here then, I can start my blog, under that classic title from primary school essays: “What I did On My Holidays.”

One of the best things about working in a public school in South Korea is that, aside from a couple of weeks teaching at English camps, you get enough vacation time to take substantial holidays. So this year, my boyfriend Rhys and I decided to take advantage of the fact by going home. We were leaving the Land of the Morning Calm for two weeks in the Land of Roast Dinners, Pasties, Cheese, Chippies, Top Gear (and the list goes on…)

Home in England is just outside of a tiny town called Shrewsbury, in an even tinier village called Pontesbury. Incidentally, if anyone ever finds themselves disenchanted by the experience of living in a sleepy, boring little village like mine, I recommend a year away in South Korea. Never before have I appreciated that tiny little corner of Shropshire quite so much, or been quite so happy to see it.

We arrived on the 19th December, after a 14 hour flight and 22 hours without sleep. The jetlag seemed particularly severe this time round – I’m pretty sure that I passed out on the living room sofa, slack-jawed and snoring, nearly every time I sat down on it. In fact, I’m 100% sure based on photographic evidence: my mom has this unfortunate habit of taking photographs of anyone in the family who falls asleep in an amusing time or place. It’s the sober equivalent of drawing on unconscious drunk people, and it’s mean.

Nevertheless, it was SO NICE to be home. My room had been jazzed up since my grandmother’s visit from South Africa earlier that year (it no longer resembled Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs) and all my old books, and diaries were right there waiting for me. Most importantly though, the best part was being able to hang out with my parents, and especially with my brother. Here is possibly my favourite picture taken that holiday – it’s my attempt to document watching Twilight together, for all of the 5 minutes that he could stand it.

Christmas shopping was surprisingly painless – the only time it felt at all frenzied was during an ill-advised jaunt into Marks and Spencers in search of Stollen for my dad. (Apparently, Stollen is some kind of fruity, marzipanny, liqeury cake. I had no idea. I thought I was looking for vodka). M&S during Christmas week is TERRIFYING. The queues are longer, the little old ladies are feistier, and everyone wears this blank-yet-feverish facial expression, like they’re buying in canned goods for the Apocalype. Not a Merry Christmas time.

However, undoubtedly one of my favourite Christmas time rituals is this: Walking In The Snow To Meet Your Mates Down The Pub. Christmas time drinking just wasn’t a thing for me most of my life, since the festive season was usually spent visiting my relatives back in South Africa, so that’s my excuse for enjoying it now as much as I do. It was great to see all my old friends again. Plus, the joy of cider after so many months drinking Cass (Ass) and Hite (Shite) ? It’s like Ray Mears finding a natural fresh water source in a dire survival situation. (Apologies. I’ve been watching his dvd a lot lately).

The only thing more pleasurable than all the drinking over Christmas was all the eating. Christmas dinner was LEGENDARY. My dad cooked leg of lamb, roast chicken, curry, roasties, parsnips, carrots. I did the green beans: difficult to screw up, not a great loss if I did. (I didn’t. They taste good slightly burnt). It was ah-maz-ing. I remember quite vividly one morning, unable to sleep at 6.a.m, finding myself standing barefoot in the kitchen, nibbling on the leftover leg of lamb in the eerie half-darkness. I have never been happier, or more concerned about the direction my life was going in. I just can’t help myself when I’m in England. It’s the months and months of kimchi – 2 weeks in the Western world and I’m binging on various meats and cheeses and baked goods like there’s no tomorrow. And also, you know that song “Who ate all the pies? Who ate all the pies?!” Well, it was me. I ate all the pies. One a day for nearly a whole week. That’s not blood in my veins, its gravy. My brother says that walking in on me raiding the fridge is like startling a raccoon while it’s eating out of a trash can. A cruel but accurate analogy.

Anyways, since all my favorite parts of the holiday revolved around family and food, I have to mention one of the highlights – my dad’s fiftieth birthday. Really, this was one of the main reasons I really wanted to be home for Christmas, and it was wonderful. The whole family got all dressed up and headed for the Mytton and Mermaid, a hotel with an awesome restaurant where I once waited on tables. My dad was super-happy with his iPod, iPod case and speakers, gadget fiend that is. Although I can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t equally delighted by the toy train we bought from the $1 shop which ATTACHES TO THE CHRISTMAS TREE AND THEN RIDES AROUND IT. And also MAKES TRAIN NOISES. And even HAS A WORKING LIGHT. Anyways – the iPod is cool, too.

After Christmas and my dad’s birthday had been and gone, it was time to pack up and would head on up to Preston for a lovely reunion with Rhys and an evening of Medieval tomfoolery with his parents and their friends. See, every New Year’s eve, Rhys’s parents and their friends organise a big themed party, which includes a sit down SEVEN COURSE MEAL, and this year’s theme was medieval times. It…was…awesome. I dressed up as a medieval wench (somewhat tellingly, I already had most of the costume) and Rhys was a very fine Robin Hood. The 7 courses included game pie (again, me with the pies), wine-poached pears, those sausage-bacon thingies, and wild boar ribs.  After toasting the new year and kissing at midnight (has to be done :)) Rhys and I set off a paper lantern in the garden. It was so beautiful, a rare perfect moment – and much more smoothly done than the lantern we set off in Thailand which very nearly set fire to the hotel.

The next day, my family picked me up in Preston and after lots of chats and teas, we set off to a hotel close to the airport where we would stay before my flight the next day. It wasn’t bad as far as hotels go – we didn’t have time to try out the swimming pool or the jacuzzi, or the sauna, but there was time to repack my suitcase and eat a cumberland sausage butty, so that’s cool.

When we woke up, there was an unexpected obstacle – insanely heavy snowfall. We’d banked on being about half an hour away from the airport, but you know that in England, heavy snowfall can add two to three years to your journey time. Needless to say, I was panicking a little – but not panicking quite enough to turn down a complimentary breakfast buffet. That’s not how I roll.

Breakfast was fine at first, if a little emotional. I felt sad to be leaving my family; excited about seeing Rhys; worried about the snow; joyous about the unlimited offerings of sausage and eggs. But then…I tried to be cool, and all continental. I decided that the fry up wasn’t enough, that I needed a flaky pastry treat. I wanted a croissant, and I wanted it warm, damnit. So I pocketed some free jam, put a croissant in the bread toaster (one of those conveyor belt-type ones) and THAT’S when things started to go wrong.

In my defence, certain conveyor belt-type bread toasters can easily accommodate an average sized croissant. This was not one of them. The croissant went in … it moved … it slowed down … it ground to a halt. And then it burst into flames, with a very distinctive WHOOM! noise. I’ll never forget it. My brother Nathan said afterwards that watching the scene unfold was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen. My dad ran onto the scene when he thought I was about to poke a set of metal tongs in there to rescue the flaming pastry. (Metal tongs? they were plastic tongs! I’m not an idiot. Clearly). Fortunately, the hotel staff were really cool about it, and apparently this is something that’s happened before. Hence the manager’s very casual cry of “Darren, could you help, there’s a croissant on fire again…”

So that was the last significant act of my holiday. Arson.

And that was that. I won’t write about the time before the flight, suffice to say that I hate airport goodbyes. The only thing that makes up for them are airport hellos. I can’t wait for some more of those again.