Saturday, December 4, 2010

December

We survived the heart-busting onslaught of double Thanksgiving dinners and have coasted our way into December with no major upsets or cold weather snafus.

Now that it's December, however, it seemed like a good time to leave the cool/cold South and head to the cold/frigid North. We're going to Pennsylvania.  We're going to visit my father and pseudo-step-mother in a tiny town in the mountains where, according to Weather.com, the high tomorrow is 26 degrees and the forecast is for snow.

I spent 5 hours today using a leaf blower to try to clear Nora's parents' massive yard of leaves, and I suspect that tomorrow I'll be wielding a snow shovel.  If not, I'll certainly be wielding a coal shovel, as my father's house uses a coal furnace.  Either way, it's an amazing time we live in, when one can be subjected from one grueling cold-weather chore into a much more grueling, colder-weather chore within 24 hours.

Joyce, the pseudo-step-mother mentioned above, is a great cook and an all around great woman, so I'm looking forward to seeing her as well as my Dad.  Nora's met them both several times before, but she's never made the trip to the wintry North (or summery, for that matter), so this will be an interesting experience.

If everything goes according to plan, we'll be back in time for the end of month holidays (one can never really tell with airports and weather fronts these days).  So fingers crossed on that one.  In the meantime, wherever you are, hope you enjoy your December.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving

We spent last weekend at the Walt Disney World Resorts in Orlando, while I went to the NCTE conference.  While there I got some free books, saw Gary Paulsen, had the line to meet Gary Paulsen cut off right in front of me, and did a lot of people watching.  English teachers are a curious bunch.

We also spent two nights walking around Downtown Disney, which is surprisingly adult and interesting.  Nora designed a T-shirt, and we ate twice at Cooke's of Dublin, a fantastic fish and chips shop.

Probably the highlight of the trip was going to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, where of course they have the new addition The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  This was the only reason we paid the $80+ each to get in to Islands of Adventure, but we did manage to walk around some of the other mini-parks there, and Nora rode a few additional rides.

We went to Wizarding World on the 19th, the day the movie was released in theatres, so it was a bit packed.  It's also a bit small, and there are only 3 rides -- only 2 of which I went on.  Still, Hogsmeade and Hogwarts were really cool to walk around, and the shops were interesting.  There was a great long line for Dervish & Banges, which I checked out while Nora road the Dragon Challenge roller coaster.  It was packed with people and full of useless bric-a-brac.

The ride that took you through Hogwarts was really cool, though I did get motion sickness about halfway through.  It's part simulation with screens, and part jerky, whirly ride through darkened horrorscapes.  It was great fun until the quidditch match left me trying to keep my stomach down.  The line for the ride trails through Hogwarts, and there are several really high quality holograms of Dumbledore, Harry, Ron, and Hermione.  You also trail through several classrooms and a hall of moving paintings.

The best part, however, was the food and drinks.  We had pumpkin juice--fantastic--and butterbeer, of course--also good.  For lunch Nora had half a rotisserie chicken and I had a smoked turkey leg--hands down the best turkey I have ever eaten in my life.  The skin was crisp and slightly chewy, with a salty ham-like flavor, and the inside was moist and delicious. I still think about that turkey leg, and I don't feel bad at all for having eaten it. [For those who don't know, I very rarely eat meat of any kind, and it had been weeks since I'd eaten anything other than fish]

We've been back a few days in TN now, and will be splitting Thanksgiving between Nora's family and mine.  I haven't seen my brother for over 15 months, so I'm glad he'll be there.  It should be a good weekend.

Hope your Thanksgiving is lovely, and full of food and cheer, and relaxing in the extreme.

Until next time,

Eat well and travel safely.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Expenses for 4 weeks in Tobago (A "Yes You Can!" story)

OK, so I hear it often enough from my friends: how do you travel so much?  How can you afford it?  They think there is some great secret that I'm not sharing, or that perhaps I have a rich benefactress.  As lovely as either of those situations might be, it's really quite simple: we save, we plan carefully, and we stretch our money.

To illustrate this principle in action, I have tabulated every single penny that we spent getting to and from Tobago and that we spent while in Tobago.  Here we go:

2 round trip tickets:      $1,247.80
4 week cottage rental:     $1,000.00
4 weeks groceries:         $398.91    [Small disclaimer: we prepared most of our food at the cottage rather than eating out.  Further disclaimer: we powered through five 3-liter boxes of wine, which aren't cheap.  Thus, individual expenses may vary.]
1 week car rental:        $245.00
ATM withdrawal:           $245.84  [Disclaimer: this was for petty cash for food and souvenirs, and includes all ATM fees.]
Other expenses:           $39.48  [This includes anything not covered in the categories above.]

Total cost of trip:        $3,177.03
Per week cost:             $794.26
Per diem cost:             $113.47

If we look back at the daily cost of our trip, again remember that this is for two people.  To derive the actual daily expense per person, one need only divide by two:

Per diem per person:       $56.74

Remember, that this is the total cost per person when there are two people on the trip, but there needn't be two people for this to be affordable.  Some things, such as car rental and cottage rental, can't be split because they would cost the same either way.  So if one were to do this on one's own, renting the same cottage and same car, and all other expenses being equal, the total cost for a single traveler would be $2,201.02, or a daily cost of $78.61.   Not a high price to pay for four weeks by oneself.

But of course not all of us like being alone.  Nora and I travel together because we enjoy it.  We also have traveled with friends on occasion, and invited a few people to Tobago (they unfortunately couldn't make it).  The cabin had 2 extra beds in it, and obviously the rental car could have accommodated, so if 1 or 2 extra people had come for just one week, that per diem cost of $56.74 would be even less -- closer to $50.

Now, you may point out, that's great in theory, and $57 a day I could probably do, but you had to come up with the $3,200 for the trip.  You're right, we did have to come up with that.  But surprisingly little of it had to come out of pocket.  You see, I work for an online university teaching American Literature.  During the 4 weeks we were there, I made $2,186.37 after all taxes and withholdings.  Thus the cost of the trip to our savings was $990.66.

Now the other matter that I think prevents most people from taking such trips is time: most people just can't get four weeks away from work to take a vacation.  [Those of you in school, teaching school, or working in restaurants really have no excuses here.]  Nora and I are really blessed in this area.  As I mentioned above, I work online, so all I really need is a consistent internet connection.  Nora is going back to school for her teacher's certification, and is taking 5 classes online through her alma mater this semester as well. This enables us to have a certain amount of flexibility in time that most people might not be able to have, I admit.  Most days I woke up 2 or 3 hours before Nora, and by the time she was out of bed I had finished my work for the day and read up on several news sites.

Twice during the vacation I had to set an entire day aside for grading, but other than that it was about 2 hours of work every day.  Nora had similar constraints: most days she spent a couple hours on her classes, whereas a few times she had to set an entire day aside for tests or projects.  Working on vacation might not sound like much of a vacation, but I can assure you -- when you are sitting on a deck overlooking the ocean, watching geckos run across the boards and the occasional rain shower spread a rainbow over the sea, you don't mind your work one bit.

Of course not everyone has such leniency with their time.  But anyone can get a minimum of a week away from work if they plan far enough ahead, so the only real question is funding your trip.  After several years of watching our own expenses and traveling overseas, here are some tips that we discovered:

- cook at home.  I know this is a no-brainer, but if you really track your food expenses, you'd be surprised just how much is spent on eating out here and there.  We don't abstain from eating out entirely, but we cut back to generally once a week or so.

- get rid of your cable/satellite TV.  Not only is this an unnecessary expense (you can watch any TV show you want for free if you know where to look online), but it is also a drag on your free time.  Rather than watching TV 5 nights a week and going out to eat the other two, why not invite friends over for a potluck?  Read a book, watch a movie, play card/board games.  These are all ways Nora and I spend our evenings.  And believe me, the $50-100 most people spend monthly on TV adds up.

 - buy clothes that are meant to last; do not think you are above buying second hand clothing.  I am right now wearing a pair of pants and a long sleeve shirt that I bought my sophomore year of college (that was 7 years ago).  I have clothing that is even older.  I don't buy clothes that often, but when I do I make sure it is something that I like a lot and that I will be able to wear for many years.  We also buy clothes at second hand stores, because you can get the same quality and style for 10% of the store cost.  Not only are they already comfortable and broken in, but once you wash them you can't tell them apart from anything else in your wardrobe -- and neither can anyone else.

 - stop wasting money on electronics.  This is the hardest category for me, as I have an undying love for electronic gadgets.  I have been planning for over a decade to own a digital SLR, and don't have one yet.  I get by just fine with my point-and-shoot camera, though I do plan on finally buying an SLR within the next year.  I have decided it would be worth the expense because I would get that much use and enjoyment out of it.  However, I have set myself certain goals and conditions that must be met before I can buy it.  You'd be amazed at how much money you don't spend if you wait to buy something until after you have the money to pay for it in full. Do not buy electronics with a credit card.  Ever.

 - prioritize.  A few years ago I was saving up for a solo trip to Europe.  I came up with a total estimated cost of the trip (I knew how much the flight was, and from past trips I could reasonably guess how much money I'd spend each day).  Whenever I wanted to do something that cost money, I'd ask myself how much it would cost, and if I was willing to sacrifice a part of my trip to do it.  For example, if my friends wanted to go out to eat and then see a movie that night.  Was I willing to give up a night in Venice for that?  The answer was no, so instead I'd either just go to the movie, or meet them at their apartment after they returned. Think practically, and remember that every dollar gets you that much closer to your destination.

There are many other things that one can do to save money, and many other things that Nora and I both do, but these are the broadest and easiest to cover.  Once you take a look at your own habits and expenses, I've no doubt there are many other ways you could think of to save money as well.  Try them out.  See what you come up with.

This is my challenge to all of you reading this: Try to cut back on a few different expenses.  Set that money aside, and have the willpower not to touch it for anything.  Remember, you are investing in your future.  If you are tempted to spend it, ask yourself: is this worth sacrificing two nights on the beach?  is it worth not seeing the Louvre? do I really want to give up seeing that landmark, eating that food, hiking that trail, or being with those people?  All too often, you'll find that the answer is no.  That means you don't really need what you thought you wanted, and you can do without it.  Pretty soon, you'll be ready to go on your own trip, whether for a week, a month, or even a year.  Let us know about it when you do, and we can swap stories.

Good luck, and happy traveling.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Back from Tobago


Our last day in Tobago was about as perfect as could be.  The weather was great, with just enough of  a breeze coming off the sea to not be too hot.  The water was as clear as glass, with not a wave in sight.  And on the walk back from the beach, there was a light rain to refresh us and keep down the heat and insects.

Our first morning back in Tennessee, and the fall colors are beautiful.  There was a fog throughout Franklin that lasted after 8 a.m., which helped set the scene with an ethereal, otherworldly glow. The air was crisp and cool, the scent of autumn in the air.  Without waxing too poetic, it's days like this that make me love Tennessee the most.  It's great to be returning at this time of year.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

update from tobago

ok, so a lot has happened since the last time we wrote anything about our whereabouts and doings.  here's the short run of it:

had a great last week in seoul (complete with weathering a category three typhoon right on the coast in incheon), an amazingly unforgettable two weeks in japan, a great time in georgia for claire's wedding, and a occasionally hectic but mostly relaxing three weeks back in tennessee.

on the 14th we flew down to new orleans, where we met claire and daniel and did fun things like walk around bourbon, eat too much cajun food, and take a carriage ride.  i love new orleans, and we were sad to leave it behind.  but we had good reason:

we said goodbye to claire and daniel, got to the airport at 4:30 in the morning, and got on three different flights that eventually led us to tobago.  (the flight from trinidad to tobago is on a prop plane and lasts only about 20 minutes, but very interesting, cool, and somewhat slow.)

this is the morning of our seventh day in tobago, and i can say with only one qualification that we absolutely love it.  that one qualification is the mosquitos.  our cottage has no glass or screens on the numerous windows, and only some of those have shutters.  There is at least one doorway to the outside that has no door, and there are several feet of wall underneath the roof that are latticework and open to the outside.  this makes for a pleasant morning breeze, and cuts down some on the midday heat, but it also means mosquitos love our cottage.  and nora and i have had the misfortune throughout our lives of being adored by mosquitos more than anyone else we've ever met. so it's a banquet in here.

we sleep under mosquito netting, and keep two floor fans going on high speed all day and all night to discourage them from flying near us, but that only helps keep some of the away.  i've been wearing long sleeves, pajama pants, and socks almost continually, so nora has more mosquito bites than i do, but i've still got my fair share.

harrison ford has a house just up the street, and we've walked by a few times.  harrison, it seems, can afford real glass windows, and probably even air conditioning, so we're a little jealous but the signs on the gate of electrocution and being shot on sight have kept us from making a house call.

we are on a hill overlooking a golf course, which runs right up to the sea, and not far east of the golf course is a small beach.  we have been there several times, and never seen more than four other people there, so we consider it our beach. getting there involves a steep walk through the woods, and then across several holes of the course and hoping no balls come flying your way, and another short walk along one of the very pedestrian-unfriendly tobagoan roads, but then we are there, and it is nice. no mosquitos, very few people, clear water, nice waves, and usually not above 85 degrees.

back to the cottage: we have lots of birds and lizards and some iguanas that know our house better than we do and visit us frequently.  most of the birds are small, but once or twice a day two or three rather large birds with long tail feathers land on our porch railing and strut around, just to let us know they were here first.  they also scream at each other frequently at night, which sets the neighborhood dogs to barking, and wakes you up just enough to remember that there are probably mosquitos inside the mosquito netting that you can't see.  yesterday morning i killed nine inside the netting, three of which had had more than their share of blood.

the cottage is surrounded by palm trees, fruit trees, flowering trees, and other sorts of trees.  we wake up to birds singing usually, unless it is raining on the tin roof, which is also a pleasant way to wake up.

so far we have been to the grocery store twice -- once on the way to the cottage from the airport (our landlord, tony, is really awesome), and once again a few days later.  other than that, besides two ill-fated walks -- one ending with us being trapped in a thunderstorm, and seeking shelter in the carport of the house next to harrison ford's (we didn't want to be electrocuted or shot at his place), and the other being long, hot, scattered with chickens and dogs, and ending nowhere in particular -- besides that, we've only left the cottage to go to the beach.  it's very nice to have little to do all day (i'm teaching five classes this semester, and nora is taking five, so we still do have some work every day), and no more pressing decisions to make other than what to eat and whether or not one feels like reading in a hammock chair on the porch or reading on the beach.





so in summation, it is hot and the mosquitos are the bane of existence, but we're happy here and thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

countdown

it's our last weekend in seoul

we have two days of work left, then a hectic scramble to get everything in order before we fly to japan for a week and a half.

if all goes according to plan, we should be back in the states mid-september, with new stories to tell and hopefully a long time of rest.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

starting the countdown

so our long weekend is past, and now there's nothing between us and finishing our contract at the end of august except 4 weeks of no breaks.  still, 4 weeks is manageable.  and we have a 12 day tour of japan sandwiched in between leaving korea and returning to the states, so there's reason for hope.

about geyongju: it's awesome. don't go during the first week of august, because apparently every korean on the peninsula goes there, and it takes hours to go a dozen miles thanks to all the traffic.  apparently renting a bike is a good way to go, but there are lots of hills, and it is extremely hot in august.  beyond that, we had a fantastic time. i didn't see king munmu's tomb, but i did see several 1,400 year old buddha images carved into cliffs, and the UNESCO world heritage site of the Seokguram Grotto, which was really impressive, despite having to walk down from the grotto in the pouring rain.

there was a traditional korean play on saturday night that we watched; it was something about a woman trying to teach her husband to stop chasing after other women. it was a musical comedy, not a drama, so you shouldn't feel badly for the wife.  we had a great time at the gampo marina market as well; everyone there was thrilled to see white people, and when we ate at a crab restaurant they put us on the street to show us off to everyone walking by.  they also took pictures, but it was all in good fun. 

of course once we got back in seoul, on the subway ride home from gwhangwhamun where the bus dropped us off, we had a very unpleasant experience on the subway with some repulsive, leering indian men.  it wouldn't be the subway in seoul if we weren't made to feel extremely uncomfortable in some way, so it was sort of like a welcome home.

anyway, if you're in korea and you tire of the big city, i highly recommend gyeongju--especially if you like history.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Birthday Weekend

a quick update first: last weekend we went to the DMZ and JSA, stepped into north korea, toured the third tunnel, and had a slightly awe-inspiring time.  the signs warning of land mines everywhere were pretty sobering.  it's a spooky place, but the dozens of bird species that have made the undeveloped land home help liven it up a little bit.

now on to the good news:

monday is my birthday, and conveniently enough our private school has monday and tuesday off, so we get a four day birthday vacation.  we wanted to go somewhere in korea that was not a big city, that showed us a part of korea's history, and that had actual green growing things.  so to celebrate we are going to gyeongju.

gyeongju was the seat of the Silla dynasty, and home to dozens of kings' burial mounds, among other things. there is also a law that no tall buildings can be built here, and the city remains very small, so it is very easy to get around and there are supposed to be lots of parks and resting places -- though there is apparently very little shade and the sun can be intense, according to Juli-hee, our school manager.  there is also an incredible final resting place for king munmu: a small island off the coast is bisected by two perpendicular lines, at the crossing point of which is laid an enormous granite slab.  his remains lie underneath.  he stipulated that this be done upon his death so that he could become a dragon and protect Silla (the southern part of the korean peninula) from the Japanese.  he was pretty effective until last century.  perhaps after 1,300 years even a guardian dragon is allowed some time off.

to travel there we found a bus service that is free for all non-koreans (i wonder if they would let japanese travel for free as well?).  it was a lucky find, and we got return tickets absolutely free of charge.  we're staying in a hostel for three nights as well, in a private double room that may or may not have a bathroom, for a little under 120,000 won total.  so all in all, a pretty inexpensive long weekend away.

while in gyeongju i hope to tour the burial mounds, see king munmu's tomb, visit a nearby temple and take part in their sunday service and share food with the monks, walk along the beach, read a lot, write a little, and enjoy myself immensely. i hope you all enjoy my birthday as much as we will.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Back to Work

It's Tuesday, and we're back to the daily grind.  Yesterday was long, but not too bad.  We discovered we have a four day weekend in August which conveniently falls on my birthday, so that's something to look forward to. Initially we thought we had no more breaks until our contract ends, and the next 9 weeks were looking pretty dismal.

We've been back in Seoul for a little over 2 days now, and once again my eyes are red and I cannot wear my contacts.  Had no trouble with them the week in Hong Kong, so I know it is Seoul's air.  I like Seoul, and will miss it, but I certainly will not miss the air quality.  Give me pollen rich Tennessee anyday.

We have booked our flights for Japan the first two weeks of September, and then will be returning to the states for a month in which we will celebrate a birthday and a wedding. Then it's to Tobago for a month, and we just bought our tickets for that yesterday.  So things are looking up.

A final word on Hong Kong - our early impressions of it being a great city, a lovely place to spend time, were all correct.  We've decided we'd like to live and work there next.  So we'll see how it all pans out.  And now it's time to get ready for work.  Until next time, keep dreaming.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Hong Kong

Hello all,

Yes, we are in Hong Kong.  As I type this, it just started raining outside.  Which is not a good sign, as we had planned to go to Lantau Island today.  So we will see what comes of that.

On our first day we woke up after 3 hours of sleep to catch an airport limousine - and a good thing we left so early, too, because our terminal was quite far from check-in.  Like 40 minutes far.  But we made it, and eventually arrived in Hong Kong.  First impression: Hong Kong is not a well-planned city, at least not in the neighborhood we're lodging in, as it grew up in a time before such planning was high on the list of priorities.  But it is a very great city.  It's character is what I wish Seoul's were: quite convenient to English speaking tourists and mostly friendly; enough East to feel like you're not just in a big city, but that you're in a big Asian city, mixed with enough West so that you don't feel like a zoo animal on exhibit.  We don't get stared at here, and, aside from a Vietnamese restaurant last night, we're never treated with contempt or hostility or as though we are ignorant infants, as is so often the case in Seoul.  In short, I like Hong Kong.

Our first day we decided to take it easy, and just walked around our neighborhood. We are staying in the west part of town, across the street from the harbor.  It is a nice neighborhood, not as posh as the center, and lots of old Hong Kong character still.  Also a lot of shops selling shark fin. Literally, we saw dozens of shops in our short walk, selling hundreds of shark fins.  It's no surprise that Hong Kong residents consume half of the shark fins eaten in the world.

We had ox tongue and duck for lunch, then Indian food for dinner. 

Day two we rode the narrow, two story trams to Hong Kong park, where we took the funicular up to Victoria Peak.  The views are amazing, the ride was fun, and there are some good walks up on the peak.  Plus, you can see the homes of some billionaires up there.  You can also see a Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurant, which is odd, but occupies the highest floor of the peak tower with views over the entire city.  We bought some souvenirs up there, and a painting for ourselves.  After descending, we went back to Hong Kong Park, which is a great city park. It has a huge aviary, a conservatory, lakes, a waterfall, and a tai chi garden where early in the morning people gather to do tai chi.  We did not go early in the morning, unfortunately.  But it was still lovely, and ranks amongst my favorite downtown city parks in the world.  For dinner we ate at the aforementioned Vietnamese restaurant, where we were mostly ignored and did not feel welcome.  But that didn't faze us, as we've been living in Seoul for 9 months and have gotten used to such things.

There is one other thing I'd like to share.  When looking across the harbor from Hong Kong to Kowloon (technically it is part of the Hong Kong special administrative region, yet is on the mainland) you can see the city spreading out, backed by some impressive mountains.  Those mountain swirl with low-lying clouds, and frame an impressive natural border with China.  It is kind of mysterious, for someone who has never been to China, to see that wall of green mountains rising behind the city, and to think how close we are to the Middle Kingdom.  The wanderlust starts kicking in when you look at those mountains, and the traveler part of the brain starts releasing endorphins and adrenaline in that old familiar urge.  China calls.

Today, as mentioned above, we want to go to Lantau Island.  The Star Ferry is on our list of things to do while in Hong Kong, as is the giant seated Buddha statue (interesting movie trivia: a replica of the statue is exploded in the Van Damme movie Knock Off).  Hopefully the skies will clear soon, and we'll have more interesting details to report.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Saturday

It's Saturday, and the World Cup is finally here!

South Africa held off Mexico for a 1-1 draw, and France and Uruguay duked it out to a goalless draw as well.  So far my bracket for Group A is holding up well.  I don't want Mexico getting any wins, and I didn't want France to beat Uruguay, or the other way around.  I'm hoping for a France/Uruguay advance out of that group, leaving Mexico in the dust. 

Tonight are three great matches.  First up is South Korea v. Greece, which the Koreans should win handily but will still be great fun to watch since I'm in Korea.  Then the Argentinian match - I'm really excited to see how Maradona handles Messi and whether or not he blows it for the Argentines. Won't catch much, if any, of that match, however, because we're probably going to see our friend Jasper doing another Flirtphonic set in Hongdae.  Finally, the big match: USA v. England.  I've been excited about this matchup for months.  It begins at 3:30 a.m. in Korea, so that part is not exciting, but I'm staying up for it regardless.

In non-World Cup news, my worst student was kicked out of the academy; we had no classes Thursday and Friday, so I got a mammoth amount of writing done; and we leave in one week for Hong Kong. 

One more bit of information: my novella was accepted for publication.  You can see all 36,000 words in print in the Fall 2011 issue of Kaleidotrope.

To send you off into the weekend, here are two pictures from class: 

The first is one of my favorite students, Amy (her English name), because she's really smart and really, really cute - how many Koreans have dimples, after all?  Her schoolbag is hilarious, which is why I took the photo.  She was confused about why I was laughing.  Eventually, I drew a map of the US on the board, outlined Texas, and said basically that it means they hate everyone else and that everyone else hates them.  Which isn't what it means, but is still basically true.  Plus I'm the teacher and I can spread whatever mistruths I want to.


The second picture is from one of my other favorite students, Paul, who is terrible at English, reportedly a genius at math, and routinely stands on his chair to beat on the ceiling. He's an odd one, but I actually like him becase his misbehaving is funny. He likes to say things like "I am genius. I am handsome. I am rich-ee."  This picture is what he drew on the whiteboard between classes.  It's something like a very muscly Yoda with an attitude problem, I think.  This is even funnier because their Korean teacher came into the class just before me to yell at them for being loud, saw the board, and had no reaction to it at all.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Monday

There was such a slow transition from winter to spring, that I feel we missed most of spring and will soon be in summer.  Oh well. At least it isn't cold anymore. 

It's been a long time since we've updated, so here's the short version of what has happened:

--Week long trip to Jeju Island that was great but also cold, windy, and raining the entire time.

--Several more death threats from students; they seem to find it funny, but I'm not amused by 15 year olds holding exacto knives telling me that I will die.  Also, I have not been given a suitable explanation as to why all Korean kids carry exacto knives (I've heard something about pencil sharpeners, but that's what real pencil sharpeners are for).

--Three-day weekend for the Buddha's birthday and a trip to Busan, where our hotel (the Elysee Motel, which I highly recommend) was awesome, and of course the weather turned foul: cold, windy, rainy.

--An international report determined North Korea was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan, which led to:

--North Korea said they didn't do it, and would respond to any aggression from the South with "all-out war" which led to:

--The value of the won dropped dramatically, and we lost about $2000 in our savings in a matter of 2 weeks.  The won has been very slowly rising again, since China has called for peace between the Koreas, and Clinton--along several dozen other U.S. diplomats--arrived in China for economic talks that inevitably turned towards the North-Korea-Problem.  We've recovered about $500 in value from that huge hit, and hoping for the strenghtening of the won to continue before wiring money home.

--I threw three girls out of my class after being tired of putting up with their rudeness and hostility for 3 months.  They stayed outside, but made faces in the door of all the other classrooms for the next 45 minutes, which was unfortunate because our manager was in one of those classes observing Nathan teach.  We had a talk, and so far it worked out well for me, because the girls were given a talk to, their parents were informed, and if they keep up the bad behavior they will be expelled from the school.  I don't want to cause the school to lose money, but these were the kind of girls that if I heard they were run over by the school's bus, I would have to try hard to feel anything other than relief.

--We got a new foreign teacher.  After 9 months of teaching more classes than any other English teachers at the other campuses, we finally got a fifth English teacher to (hopefully) help balance out the load.  So far, Nora and Jasper have their schedules, and they will be teaching 18, which is less than 19, but still not a very appreciable change.

--Our friend Jasper, aka the DJ of the one-man act Flirtphonic, put on his first public show this weekend at a small bar called Vent.  It was great fun.

And now it's Monday again.  The above mentioned horrible trio of girls are today, and our manager, Julihee, will be observing the class.  I hope they act their normal selves just one more time, and then hope that Julihee kicks them out of the school as promised.  Of course, that's the best possible scenario, and I never expect that to come about.  Somehow, I'm sure I'll be told I'm not disciplining them enough, to which I will ask how we may discipline them since we can only give detention (we assign no grades, we cannot strike them, we obviously can't speak to their parents), to which I will be replied with a reiteration that I need to discipline them better. It's all very circular and completely irrational, but that's how Korean management seems to be most of the time.

Anyway, it's a bright, (kind of) sunny day (thanks to the smog, it's never actually very sunny) and, all things considered, life is pretty good.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday

It's less than a week since North Korea announced that it would no longer abide by the armistice that halted the Korean War.  Since there was never a truce signed, the North and South have technically been at war this entire time, only both parties agreed to an armistice and to cease combat operations.

This is apparently not the first time North Korea has done this; a news story from the Korea Times on 27 May 2009 reports an increase in vigilance from South Korea after the North announced an end to the armistice earlier that day as well. 

Last week's announcement is likely just a scare tactic from Pyongyang to gain more leverage in its nuclear goals, and hopefully it will amount to nothing.  But in the past few months there have been several naval encounters where North and South Korean navies have fired upon one another. 

And to top it all off, this morning there were two series of alarm signals broadcast on loudspeakers that each went on for several minutes.  Having lived in a tornado prone area in Tennessee, it sounded like an emergency weather warning; having seen enough WWII movies, it also sounded like an air raid siren. 

If my students are to be believed, tornados don't hit South Korea, or any really bad weather for that matter.  So let's hope they were just testing the system.

-----------------------------------------------------------
Update: 27 March

A South Korean naval vessel sank in the Yellow Sea today after an "underwater explosion", with 46 sailors still missing.  Around the same time, other South Korean ships fired on an "unidentified vessel" on the North Korean side of the maritime border.  No word yet on the cause of the explosion, or whether the mystery vessel was involved.  Hopefully the two events were unrelated, and the unfortunate incident with the South Korean ship will be the result of accident or error, not northern aggression.  We really don't need anything to further exacerbate the tensions between the two Koreas.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Friday

yesterday at Costco i bought the largest pizza i've ever seen, and for only 12,500 won - and to top it off, there were only 6 slices, so each one was like an entire meal unto itself.

the job, as usual, is wearing thin.  but the good news is that we have passed the halfway point of our contracts, so hopefully it's all down hill from here.

this was a 4 day work week (aren't those so much nicer than 5 day weeks?  i wonder why we don't all work 4 10-hour days.  i'd much prefer that).  it was also the start of a brand new semester.  unfortunately, we don't have another break until our vacation starting april 19, so that's a bummer.  but the vacation should be really cool.  we're flying to Jeju island, off the southern coast of Korea.  you can learn more about this awesome sub-tropical getaway, the "Hawaii of Asia," on the offical government tourism site by clicking here 

and since we're such misers with our income, we decided for once to actually splurge, and we'll be staying at the hyatt regency.  it's a beautiful hotel, right on the beach, so it should make for a nice stay.  you can see pictures of it here

lastly, because i haven't taken advantage of our Amazon Associates affiliation before, and since they've finally come to an author-friendly agreement with McMillan and i can like them again, i thought i'd put a friendly reminder here.  i will still be in korea on my birthday, so anyone who wants to get me a present, and have it waiting for me when i get home, you could do a lot worse than buying the latest book in the Wheel of Time, The Gathering Storm (Wheel of Time, Book 12) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.  just throwing that out there.

have a great weekend everyone

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Seollal Weekend

We got a three day weekend for the lunar new year celebration, Seollal, and Nora and I came out of our cave for dinner and/or drinks Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and on our own on Sunday. 

Thursday we ate at our local barbecue joint - there are some pictures a few posts below of chicken on a grill in the middle of table from last time we ate there.

Friday we went out to Kundae with some of our friends after work for dinner.  This was a new variation on 'chicken ribs' - cooked in a pan with vegetables and oil, rather than grilled on a barbecue.  But it was equally good, and afterward you order a plate of rice and seaweed and make a quick, spicy chicken-fried rice.

Here's a picture of it all going into the pan


And here is what it looked like after it was finished cooking:



Very tasty

Afterward we went to a bar in the area called Woodstock, where they have pretty much every song imaginable.  It's where we found a condom dispenser with this advertisement:



I'm not sure exactly what the message is supposed to be.
The bar was cool for other reasons as well.  Nora licked a turtle, I lost at darts, and we all got Rick Rolled
I had a video of the rick roll, but apparently YouTube has "voluntarily disabled this functionality on kr.youtube.com because of the Korean real-name verification law," so I was unable to upload it.

On Saturday night we went out for our friend's birthday in Hongdae, which is basically a hipster hangout for people with money who like mixed drinks.  OK, it's a little more than that, but I'm not a big fan of Hongdae.  Still, we had fun, and I got to have a kebab made in the back of a pickup truck.  It was advertised to me as the "best kebab in Korea" by our friend Nathan.  While I can't say that for sure, it was a really good kebab.


Finally, on Sunday we went to the national palace, Gyeongbokgung and the National Folk Museum to take a look around at some of the festivities for Lunar New Year.  We were led to believe they would be really cool, and while they were interesting, they weren't all that exciting.  I would choose to spend the Seollal celebrations in some other Asian city if I had the choice.

But we did get to see a drum troupe, which basically involves the players wearing colorful outfits with long streamers on their heads.  As they play, they dance around and twirl the streamers.  It's really cool, but then it gets kind of old after the first several songs.

Here's a shot of some of them in motion:


Afterward we travelled to Gwangwhamun, the largest plaza downtown.  For the occasion, they shut it off to traffic (which they didn't even do for the international snowboard competition held a month ago), and had traditional Korean games, including: throwing sticks at a jar; whipping spinning tops with leather straps to keep them going; slamming folded paper on the ground to get it to turn over (similar to Pogs, if you remember those); rolling metal hoops on the ground; and flying kites.

Needless to say, Koreans used to be really hard up for fun. No wonder they're all so obsessed with computer games.  But the kites were kinda cool, especially seeing dozens and dozens of them flying over downtown.



Monday, February 8, 2010

Monday

You know how sometimes you get a TV theme song stuck in your head?  You know how sometimes you are at work, bored, surfing the internet?  Here is my result for those two scenarios today, in two parts:

Part One: The Fresh Prince of Seoul

Now this is the story all about how
My life got flipped, turned upside down
I’d like to take a minute, so put your life on hold
I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Seoul
In Middle Tennessee I was born and raised
On the campus is where I spent most of my days
Chilling out, maxing, relaxing, slightly odd
Three degrees and unemployed, still hanging round the quad
When a couple of guys who were ugly and hairy
Started making trouble by the library
I got in one little fight and my mom grew cold
She said ‘you’re moving with your girlfriend to teach English in Seoul.”

I whistled for a cab, and when it came near
The window said “translation available” and there was gimbap on the mirror
My best guess was that this cab would do
So I threw caution to the winds, “Yo home to Mangu.”
I pulled up to the high rise about ten or eleven
And though it smelled like hell thought I’d make it my heaven
Looked at my kingdom, though I wasn’t yet sold
Till I tried the kimchi, became the fresh prince of Seoul.



Part Two: Ignition - Seoul Remix

Now, usually I don’t do this but
Go ahead and break em off with a little preview
Of the remix...

Now I’m not trying to be rude
But I can’t speak it just like you
The way you say the things you do
Sounds like you’re whining, baby boo
And now I’m all up in your grill
Trying to get a cheap fresh meal
I find it hard to understand
How you can give me such a deal

So ajuma give me that gimbap
And let me get some kimchi
Running her hands cross that seaweed
Making a tuna roll just for me
Watching variety shows on TV

It’s the remix to ignition
Hot and fresh from Seoul’s kitchen
Ajumas rolling those gimbaps
Got every man in here wishing
Sipping maekju and soju
I’m pretty drunk how bout you
It’s the freakin weekend
Baby I’m about to have me some fun

Now it’s like a cooking show
Except I’m sitting on the floor
There’s so much food that I don’t know
What to do except eat more
Girl you think that I don’t know
You want my pale face to up and go
I’m about to take 4,000 won
And say “annyong haseyo”

So ajuma give me that gimbap
And let me get some kimchi
Running her hands cross that seaweed
Making a tuna roll just for me
Watching variety shows on TV

It’s the remix to ignition
Hot and fresh from Seoul’s kitchen
Ajumas rolling those gimbaps
Got every man in here wishing
Sipping maekju and soju
I’m pretty drunk how bout you
It’s the freakin weekend
Baby I’m about to have me some fun

Rice wine popping
In the nore-bong later
So much food everywhere
You’d think this singing room was catered
We’ve got
Koreans to my left
Foreigners to my right
We bring em both together
We got drinking all night
Then after the nore-bong
It’s the street food vendor
And after the vendor
It’s time for the next damn bender
Yeah around about seven
You gotta clear all the clubs
And go to sleep until noon
Cause haegwons have no subs

So ajuma give me that gimbap
And let me get some kimchi
Running her hands cross that seaweed
Making a tuna roll just for me
Watching variety shows on TV

It’s the remix to ignition
Hot and fresh from Seoul’s kitchen
Ajumas rolling those gimbaps
Got every man in here wishing
Sipping maekju and soju
I’m pretty drunk how bout you
It’s the freakin weekend
Baby I’m about to have me some fun

Now we off in a cab
Rolling windows down
Annoying the cab driver
As we drive across town
Sliding round and round
Every turn in the back seat
To the remix
We just bumping the beat
 

Peace.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Saturday

Just returned from Costco.  Aside from playing bumper carts with pushy old ladies, there are a couple things of note.

First, I returned with a half a kilo of smoked squid and a whole rotisserie chicken, among other assorted things.  A good outing, in my opinion.

Second, and completely unrelated, I was reminded on my walk home of an excellent, humorous blog, Black Out Korea  Basically, in case you were not aware, Koreans love to get really really really drunk.  You often see all manner of Koreans, from men in business suits to old men with ratty hair to ajumas with their bright red lipstick, all passed out in various places in public: subways, buses, sidewalks, benches, even supermarkets.  I was reminded of this because on the 2 block walk from our apartment to Costco today I saw 3 different patches of vomit on the sidewalk.  This was remarkable only in that for a Saturday afternoon, that was a low count.

Enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

K-Pop

Korean pop, or the Korean Wave, as it is sometimes called, is not only popular in Korea, but has swept over much of Asia and even into America.  Korean pop singer Rain recently starred in the Korean film Ninja Assassin, which had a Hollywood release.

 To help understand the K-pop phenomenon, I've selected one music video from my students' favorite groups.  Be warned, the songs are pretty catchy, even if you only know the random English word or phrase that is thrown into every single song.

First, 2ne1.  They are a very popular girl group, who's hit "I Don't Care" was the number one song for Korean students back in the fall.  Saying the words I don't care in a classroom will always be followed by a round of giggles, then a rendition of the chorus by one or more students.



Next is a boy group that has torn the K-pop fans into bitter camps - those that like this group, 2PM, and those that like the other most popular boy group, Big Bang.  I'm putting this first because the song is decent, and the video is actually interesting.



The next group is huge right now, especially with the guys, as you'll see.  Girls Generation has 9 members, though apparently there are 5 that everyone likes the most, including their own publicists - an image search for the group will often show all 9 together, but occasionally you'll see shots of just 5 of them.  Sort of like with the Pussycat Dolls, the others just seem to be filler.  This video is full of choregraphed cute-ness, rapidly shifting scenes and lots of bright colors.  It's a really good indication of the M.O. for K-pop.



Up next is Big Bang, the other boy band competing for top spot on the charts and in girls' hearts.  They are led by the self-named G-dragon, who has also branched off to do some controversial solo work that shocked Seoul audiences a few weeks ago - it involved simulated sex on stage, which is an interesting choice considering most of the fans are girls ages 10-15.  Anyway, there are other Big Bang songs more popular than this one, especially a song called "Lollipop," but it is a duet with 2ne1, and I wanted to give BB their fair due on their own.



This next group, Wonder Girls, actually has seen some extra-Asian audiences, with a debut in the US recently.  This video is their music video debut in America, and probably their most popular song here in Korea.  It's an interesting video, pulling on motifs from the Jazz Age, from variety shows (which are huge in Korea), from Hollywood - from just about everywhere that has ever been successful in music.  It's a heavy handed attempt at pandering to the largest possible audience, but they actually pull it off quite well. 



SHINee is another boy band that is really popular with middle schools girls, and you'll see why below.  They use the same airbrushing, dyed hair, "arty" styles, and rapid camera movements/cuts to juxtapose with their very, very repetitive chorus and overdone choreography.  In short, they are the pinnacle of K-pop achievement.  After watching a lot of videos from a lot of bands, it becomes difficult to tell them apart - and no, I don't mean the actual performers.  The songs (lyrics and beats), the set designs, the cinematography, especially the choreography - it all is rehashed again and again, and eaten up by Korean teens.



One last group not to be forgotten: TVXQ!  They aren't as popular as other boy bands in terms of sales, but every middle school girl can tell you who they are, even who all the individual members are.  Their fan base may not be as astronomical as some others, but they are just as die-hard, if not more so. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Finally February

Here's N Seoul Tower, and no it doesn't stand for North. We went here when it was warmer- and although it looks a little ugly from the outside- the view is spectacular. We also saw it at night and there were lights all over it- gorgeous. Korean's compare this to the Eiffel Tower though, which I think is a bit of a stretch. Can't wait for it to be warm again!
Here's us before I let Ashley cut all of my hair off. Before us is a typical Korean meal that everyone shares-I'm not gonna lie, it's not my favorite thing to do.

I figured I'd go way back and show some pictures of our apartment. Now, since it's so cold, we have moved our bed into this room also. It's cozy.







Man the time is flying. In just four weeks we will be done with our second semester; which means we're almost halfway there! I can't believe it's going by so quickly. We have a break set up in April, and we're going to Jeju Island. It's supposed to be the "Hawaii of Korea." Can't wait. Our trusty Mr. Lee (or mystery as we like to call him) is setting up all the arrangements. In just two weeks is the lunar new year, which is the one the Korean people celebrate the most. We have no plans yet, but hopefully there will be celebrating. Other than that, the extreme cold has continued to damped our desire to be outside. We've been out to eat several times-Korean meat is the best. In class I'm finishing my book this week, with three weeks to go after that-uh oh! That's about all the news from me!



Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dreaming of Warmer Days

It's warming up here a little bit in Seoul, which means it's actually been above freezing during the day for a few hours at a time.  Not much, but it was enough to finally get rid of the rest of the snow.  It's not outdoor eating weather yet, but it leaves us hopeful that it will be soon.

In honor of that hope, I thought I'd put up some pictures from our first week here, back in August, when we visited Gyeongbokgung, the palace of the Joseon kings.  The original complex was built in the 14th century, but most of it was burned during several Japanese invasions over the years.  Most of the buildings you can see today were either built in the 1860s and 70s or within the last 20 years. 

Today they are trying to rebuild the palace; only about 40% of the original number of buildings are finished or under construction.  It makes the palace complex more of a tourist spot than an actual historical monument, but it's hard to find much in Korea that hasn't been burned in wars or paved over in "progress".  Only recently has the government taken a mind towards reclaiming its historical pride.

Here is a shot of the main entrance.


Here are some of the "guards" wearing traditional uniforms and fake beards and bearing traditional weapons.


This is within the outer courtyard, looking at the entrance to the inner courtyard.  The palace complex is enormous, and was once the home of thousands of nobility, retainers, and other staff.  Now it is home to tourists.


Here are some roofing tiles, because I like the lines and the intricacy.


This was the royal banquet hall, where the king and his lords would meet on the upper story.  The original was built in the early 15th century; this one was rebuilt in the 1860s


Here's to hoping the weather warms up soon, so that we can get back out and see more of this beautiful, chaotic country.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti Relief

We donated!

Think donating to Haiti can't make a difference? If only 1,000,000 each donated 10 dollars, we could bring food, water, and first aid to thousands of people who will die without it. Haiti needs your help. If you have donated any money to the relief effort copy and paste this message to your blog, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, or other social networking sites....  Spread the word!

Here are our three favorite sites to get you started:

The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund

The Red Cross

UNICEF

Here is a message from former Presidents Clinton and Bush:


.

Every single penny is a step forward. 

Thank you.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Food

We finally found a type of Korean restaurant that Nora likes: Korean barbecue.  This particular one, we've walked by several times a week since we've been here, and it's always busy.  Plus they have a play area for kids.  Not sure why that is a plus, but it's pretty cool to us.  After the success of the birthday party for Michael on Friday, we decided to finally try this place, and it was a good thing we did.


Here is our grill just after receiving the homemade wood charcoal.  They have a furnace out back where a guy makes it, and then brings it in to your table.

And here is the final product.  Soup, 'salad', two dipping sauces (soy-and-wasabi and bean curd paste), lettuce and sesame seeds to wrap it, green chili peppers, garlic, and of course, the marinated chicken.  Only 24,000 won for three people.  You can see our friend and fellow teacher, Nathan, about to eat some of the cold seaweed soup; a little vinegary, but really good, and helped cut the spice of the shredded onion grass salad topped with peanut oil and way too much red pepper sauce.  But of course the chicken was the real deal.  Nora's favorite was wrapping it in lettuce leaves with bean curd paste.  I went for dipping it in the wasabi soy sauce, and eventually worked up the muster to grill a green chili and tried some of that too.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Some Things in January



Me kicking a sign of some sort outside the restaurant. I saw other people doing it and thought I'd give it a try.

This picture really doesn't go with my post, but I think it's funny so I threw it in. This is at the World Cup Museum. Seoul hosted the World Cup in 2002, and apparently are still elated about it. Small, slightly boring museum .. BUT we got pizza. Successful trip in my book.


Some of the gang of foreign teachers-plus a few Korean guys (which explains why our bill was so small-Korean men are very giving when it comes to paying for food and drinks). Nathan is next to me with Jasper across from him, and Kory in the striped shirt. Mike is the one with his hands in the air. The food in front of us is amazing.



We finally left the apartment during Winter! It was our friend, Mike's, birthday last night. The big 3-2. We met up with the crew at a bar called Ireland Yuki. Not exactly Irish, but tons of fun! Mike was serenaded by the awesome bar tender, and we had a few drinks to go around. Then we moved on to a Korean Restaurant (not sure what the name was) where I discovered my favorite Korean food so far! Too bad I can't remember what it's called. I love the restaurants here where they give you the raw food to cook at your table. This time, the burner was a turtle. Korea is slowly growing on me, and I have to admit that I'll miss it when we have to leave.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Seoul Flash Mobs

Thanks to Chris Kammerud for showing these on his blog


This first one is great. Nora and I have been to COEX Mall several times, passing through this exact spot. And the likelihood of young Koreans gathering for a flash mob seems so low that it makes this all the more hilarious. You'll see Korean women's love for short shorts and skirts, and at the very beginning their love for holding hands as well. Two women are doing it, but more often than not it is guys that hold hands here. The best part is how it appears like an 80s movie, where everyone is a good dancer and knows the same choreographed dance moves.



And this next video is even better; a dance tribute to Michael Jackson in two different places in the city. The part to pay attention to is the girl in the panda costume. This is not at all a rarity here; many of my students have Mario zip up hoodies, or tiger paw mittens, or, yes, panda bear hoods that they all wear without even a hint of a smile. Fashion here is fun. The best part: the panda girl's face mask, because even pandas are susceptible to air born illnesses.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Winter in Seoul

First snow of the year!



Grizzly bear Ashley-Christmas Day 2009




It's unfortunate that we didn't start this blog when we began taking adventures together. As it is, we're starting in the middle of winter in Seoul, South Korea. Don't hold your breath, it's not as exciting as it sounds. Regardless, I will try to take you through a day in the life of a hagwon teacher. I begin my day around 1:30 pm when I am rudely awakened by my wonderful boyfriend. I drag myself out of bed, eat, and walk directly across the street to work, which begins at 3:00 pm. Sounds tough, huh? I usually teach around 3 hour long classes per day (Ashley has a much harder schedule than me) then go home and hang out until around 4:00 am or so. It's actually a pretty great job. There are four of us foreign teachers at Olympiad Academy. Jasper teaches elementary school with me and Nathan teaches middle school with Ashley. There are tons of other foreign teachers living in Seoul. We've been able to meet a few and like them a lot. That's really about all we do-since it's winter now we generally refrain from leaving the apartment on weekends. Below is a picture of some of my kids from last semester-aren't they adorable? Ha-you try teaching them.




Monday, January 11, 2010

First Post

It's winter here in Seoul, and last week we had the biggest snow event in the last 70 years.

What this means for teachers at hagwon (private schools) is that we only had to work a half day, which we had to make up on Saturday morning. Public schools were already recessed for winter break, but if they had been in session, it would have been a paid day off. Yet another reason to go public if you are thinking of teaching in Korea.

Having a foot of snow is also not a good time to discover the disadvantages of your only footwear options being low top Converse shoes. Especially because Seoul is very ill equipped at dealing with snow. It took old men with shovels a full week to clear all the snow from the sidewalks and streets around our apartment. The main highways are taken care of for the most part, but all other thoroughfares seem to be the responsibility of the residents or businesses.

Below is a picture from early on in the snow, when it was only a few inches, and still pretty. Later it turned into a dark gray slush or ice that stains everything it touches.



We don't have any pictures of the full snowfall, because it lost its charm very quickly and the novelty evolved into something more like disgust.