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Au no Fair!

2 Aug

My 6 week au pairing experience was drastically cut short, ending after just 10 days. If you read my first post about au pairing you would have read what a great time I was having, blissfully unaware of any apparent discomfort I was causing the family. I want to be respectful and not use the family’s real names so for the purpose of this post I’m going to give them all pseudonyms. The Daughter will be ‘Adriana’, Mother – ‘Carla’, Father – ‘Mario’, (I know some of you are bound to imagine him as Nintendo’s Mario with a thick black moustache but so be it), and the son, ‘Fabio’.

Things began taking a bad turn after just a week. A Thursday evening meal ended with me being quite teary and emotional, after being told that things were awkward and there was a ‘problem’, of which I was at the centre of. I sat at the end of the dinner table, as they spoke in vibrant Italian, their foreheads wrinkled. Their body language hinted it was something serious but of course it was completely undecipherable by me. Their expressive sounds were made intelligible, as usual, by their Father, Mario’s, translation. I can’t remember word-for-word what was said and the general dialogue was delivered somewhat fractured due to his wife’s and daughters’ continued interjections and his faltered English. The general message was along the lines of ‘the children don’t understand you, both my wife and daughter feel uncomfortable, it’s not working’.  Adriana and Carla continued to try to add to his translation.  As each bit of information was relayed in slightly broken English it delivered another slight blow to my bubble, in which I had thought everything had being going well.  It’s a little bizarre that the main issue seemed to be communication when they had deliberately sought out an English speaking au pair; it’s not as though I tricked them into thinking I spoke Italian. I couldn’t even if I had wanted to. The daughter’s English was very basic which made conversation challenging but surely that’s the point? I made gestures, drew pictures, and used Google translate to get what I needed across. She had an English textbook that we went through a couple of afternoons but I didn’t want to force her to do it if she didn’t want to, I don’t want to become the enemy. In fact, this was reiterated in the conversation when the father translated that she didn’t want to be doing a textbook like school work. I had brought children’s books with me. So far we had gone through ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ together, I drew the words and looked up translations to aid her, but she seemed exasperated as though it was too challenging. Ideally, the parents would have been understanding, ‘yes it is challenging’, but encouraging – ‘keep trying’.

Instead the Father concluded with, “How can you fix this problem?” It sounded like he was decisively directing all the blame onto me. I wasn’t sure how to answer and the table seemed to stretch out before me as though adding greater distance between ‘me’, the foreigner, and ‘them’, the family. In that moment, I felt very alone. I apologised, but for what? I wasn’t sure. I felt I had tried my best but agreed I would try harder. We had been to the park, painted, had Fifa tournaments, played ‘Guess Who’, I did English homework with Adriana, as well as getting food shopping and preparing a simple lunch. We hashed out a vague plan of how to ‘fix’ things; I was to do more activities with the children and not only talk more, but to be more determined in my approach to talk to Adriana, (i.e. be more repetitive and do whatever possible until Adriana successfully understood my attempts to make conversation). The Mother, Carla, who I had tried and failed to manage simple conversation with due to her minimal response, upon seeing me well-up, tried to comfort me with a hug. Her affection didn’t go unappreciated at the time, but in hindsight it now seems, as harsh as it might sound, a little weird, since it was she, who decided, less than four full days later, that I should leave.

The next day, I had planned to go to the small nearby park again on the advice that I should be doing more activities with the children. However, due to a misunderstanding, the daughter called her Grandparents and arranged for us to go round to play ping-pong as we had done all together, parents included, one afternoon earlier in the week. I didn’t mind of course, the Grandmother, Mother to the children’s Dad was especially nice. Her English wasn’t great but her effort and perseverance in trying to talk to me, made her extremely likable. I only wish the daughter and Mother had tried half as hard as she did. I searched my memory of Italian words so I was able to express my gratitude and tell her how kind I thought she was. It probably didn’t sound all too melodic, to say the least, but I managed to get my message across.

-On a side note, another misunderstanding led me to spending an afternoon wandering around the town of Macerata alone despite me believing she would be accompanying me. I’m independent enough to enjoy my own company a while I just hadn’t expected it. However, she did kindly drive me into town, point me in the right direction and even provided me with a guidebook. When I explained the misunderstanding to Mario, it transpired that, (roughly translated), she hadn’t wished to ‘cramp my style’. In actual fact, I had been looking forward to us going around town and even imagined us having lunch together in a cafe, as I would my own Grandma.

– Friday seemed pretty successful. The kids enjoyed playing ping-pong with their Grandad and we ate a nice lunch. On the other hand, the children’s habit of turning on the TV in the kitchen during lunch continued. It seemed like a happy distraction from having to try to engage with the stranger in the room – me. I hated being a killjoy but due to the previous night’s conversation, I suggested to the daughter that maybe we should talk instead, reminding her that her Dad had wanted us to talk more. Unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears. She half-shrugged and told me she hadn’t seen the episode before. I mentioned it to Mario when he was home from work, as I didn’t want it to lead to me feeling ganged up on again. Yet, he said it was fine, let them watch TV.  I was getting mixed messages but didn’t want to push the point. I was led to believe that I was there, primarily, to help Adrianna with her English, however after less than a week, she didn’t seem too enamoured with the idea of learning English whatsoever. When I suggested going through her English textbook again she said ‘no’. Again, I didn’t want to force her. Also, she often gave up quickly when she thought trying to explain something seemed like too much of a challenge or would take too much effort. It’s an entirely different dynamic to what I had done in Korea, I was not there to be a figure of authority like a teacher so didn’t try to be, I tried to be their friend but without conversation it was difficult.

I felt bad for the young boy, Fabio, he was full of energy and enthusiasm. I actually think I could have gotten more success teaching him the odd phrase or the lyrics to an English song than his sister, but the parent’s only wanted me to focus on the daughter’s English. They said I shouldn’t try to teach him, instead leave him to his own devices on his Playstation as he was ‘timido’, shy.  This seemed bizarre to me and entirely contradictory, as Fabio was anything but in my company, he would dance around the living room with more moves and mischief than King Louis, of Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’. He was a little cutie. I made him giggle as we had staring competitions, pulled faces at one another and I’d mess up his hair affectionately.

That’s not to say the girl wasn’t nice, she was, she just wasn’t motivated. When she explained to her Dad the following Monday that she didn’t always understand me, which I think is normal when two people of different languages are talking to one another, it was translated as though it was a fault with me, my personality. I was told I needed to be ‘more friendly’ when I don’t believe I was at all unfriendly. Mario said I needed to ‘smile more’ and that I was ‘too serious’. I was actually much more smiley than usual, but they had seemed to have taken my natural expression and odd furrowing of the brows when I was trying to decipher what was being said in Italian, as some kind of, I don’t know, anger…In fact, I specifically remember the Dad telling me I scared them. I can honestly say I never raised my voice to them once; I never even wag my finger at them.

The only telling off I gave them, if you can call it that, was when I asked them to get dressed before their Father came home for lunch. I didn’t get cross; I asked them once. Adriana bluntly replied ‘NO’.  I asked again five minutes later. I again she flatly replied ‘NO’. Leaving a little more time, (this was all whilst I was in the middle of making lunch.) Again, she replied ‘NO’. The fourth time, I went over to the Playstation and said that if they didn’t go to put their clothes on, (I was pointing at my own clothes and their pyjamas, to demonstrate what I meant), that I would turn the Playstation off. Again, Adriana replied, ‘NO’.  I didn’t want to, but I know from experience with my younger sister, that if you don’t follow-through on your threats then you rarely expect to ever garner any respect or have any co-operation from kids. I counted to five, they looked at me as though they didn’t think I would, but I did – I turned off the Playstation. Little Fabio whaled and they both stomped off to get changed. This was all a big mistake, to my surprise, Mario said I should have left them to stay in their pyjamas all day if they wished. That was a little frustrating, it made me the ‘bad guy’, the enemy.

I would describe the parents as quite lenient, very loving, but very lenient. The kids went to bed the same time as their parents and they watched kids TV until 10.30 most nights. They weren’t made to eat vegetables if they didn’t want to. I’m not criticising their parenting it just meant that the daughter knew that she only had to do what she felt like doing, and speaking in English, by the end of the first week, was NOT something she felt like doing. At least, that’s the impression she gave. Of course, as far as she and her parents were concerned, that was my fault.

Pretty much every conversation with the parents, (mainly the Dad, since he was the only one who spoke in English), about how things were going was a re-hashing of the same conversation of the first the one, on the Thursday previous, and with each conversation it made a small issue bigger. What can make an uncomfortable situation worse is talking about how uncomfortable it is. I think it’s reasonable to expect a certain level of awkwardness if you invite a stranger who doesn’t speak your own language to live with you into your home to take care of your kids, but it takes time.  Usually the awkwardness would go unmentioned. Instead it was discussed at length turning it into a much bigger issue. Mario kept bringing it up, probably out of concern – I don’t doubt that he had good intentions, but it just made things worse. I was determined to not let it get me down, I reassured him that I was happy, I hadn’t given up if they hadn’t, and that I was genuinely doing my best to make it work.

Despite me treating each day as a new day, putting their concerns out of my mind and pulling all my usual kids repertoire out of the bag: playing frisbee, football, making silly faces, singing songs, telling jokes, drawing numerous cartoons, showing them how to do origami and performing many magic tricks, (I can literally make a handkerchief disappear – what’s not to love about that?), it all went to pieces.

One day, which turned out to be my last day, I was playing volleyball with the kids on the beach at our usual spot, by the rented sun loungers when a woman from the cafe a few meters away, called the daughter’s name. It was usual for Carla or Mario to call the daughter and check in every 45 minutes or so to see how things were going. However, this time Adriana hadn’t heard her phone ringing whilst we were playing. She missed her Mother’s call. Anyway, she spoke to the Mum via the cafe phone and reassured her that everything was fine. However, when we returned to the apartment, after I set the table for lunch and the kids played FIFA on Playstation whilst we waited for their Dad to join us, things went from bad to worse. First, the Dad dived into yet another conversation about his concerns, all pretty much the same as before. Then his mobile rang. It was his wife, Carla. She crying, saying she was beside herself with worry he told me, she said she “couldn’t trust me and wanted me to leave as soon as possible”. Some painfully awkward hours later, (I hid in my room the best part of it), I was on a plane back to the sunny UK.

And so that’s it. My au pairing experience came to a sudden end. Would I au pair again? Probably not. Not because of that particular experience, every family is different and I know people who have had great au pairing experiences. However, in September I’ll be training to be a teacher. My summer holidays will be precious and I’ll have money to spend making it count. There are still so many places I want to see and things I want to do. I have four weeks left before I have to commit completely to my PGCE and write off my social life for around ten months. In the meantime, I plan to enjoy myself.

Macerata

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I’m sorry about these au pairing titles but for some reason, as cringe-worthy as they are, they really tickle me.

Oh No Pair!

2 Aug

My au pairing experience turned into a bit of a disaster. I’ve ‘ummed’ and ‘arred’ about whether or not to write a post about it. I told the Father of the family about my blog and he’d visited the page. He even thanked me for the nice things I had said about his family in my first post about au pairing. When things started falling apart, he told me he had checked to see if I had wrote about it online, which left me in two-minds about whether or not I should.

I’ve tried to be as accurate and honest as possible about the experience, but ‘at the end of the day’, (Jeremy Kyle contestants have ruined this phrase for ever!), I don’t feel I have done anything wrong. By excluding it from my blog, and leaving my previous post without an ending, it would feel to me as though I am ashamed, when in fact I have nothing to be ashamed of. I think it’s only fair to be honest about my experience.

All too often people have an online persona, especially on Facebook, which shows their life to be one amazing party or delicious Pizza Express meal to the next. I’m not saying I don’t have an online persona to some extent, (we all pick profile pictures that make us look the best etc), I just wanted to be honest in my blog and show the good and the bad. Life has moments that kick you in the metaphorical balls sometimes; its how you roll with it that counts. As it happens, I think I’ve rolled quite well. I turned being sacked and deported (excuse the hyperbole, poetic license, INNIT BIATCHES!) into a lovely family trip between my Dad’s place and my Aunties, catching up with my adorable cousins and siblings in what happened to be even better weather than I’d had in Italy. Us, English, have been uniquely treated to some amazing weather lately. I feel dead lucky to have a lovely family that picked me up, both in the metaphorical sense and literally, in the case of my auntie, from the Stansted airport. My boyfriend was ever-dependable in his support and my Mam, who I’m eternally grateful – let me know that she would have no problems bailing me out and handing me a get-out-of-jail-free-card in the form of a plane ticket if it all went pear-shaped. Luckily, the family was just-to-say reasonable enough in purchasing the flight home instead. So my next post about how it all went wrong is written and ready to post. It will be up tomorrow.

Sun in London with my Dad

Sun in London with my Dad

Oh Au pair!

5 Jul

My Mam was an Au Pair in Canada for a short time until I, a foetus at the time, rudely made my presence known. You could, on this basis, say that this is my second time experiencing life as an Au Pair. This time, roughly twenty-four years later, I am in Italy. Here’s a bit of a run-down on things:

My host family live in Macerata 25 kilometres from the mid-east coast  or half way up the calf muscle. This is day 4 of of 44 of my au pairing experience. So far I have had sole care of the children for one half-day, spent a day with the father and two children on the beach, taken part in a family ping-pong tournament, eaten out with three generations of the family (on both sides), had a brief tour of the town, watched a couple of world-cup football matches, been to the hairdressers, learnt a few very basic phrases to get by and eaten numerous nice meals. With all that and I still managed to squeeze in one or two naps, typical!

I have so much to write about already, I don’t know where to begin. So far it’s been great, I couldn’t have hoped for a nicer family. They’ve been so welcoming. The two children are gorgeous; a delightfully mischievous eight-year-old little boy and a lovely, kind girl, aged eleven. Fortunately, the father’s conversational English is very good. The mother is very friendly too.

I found my host family on a site called aupair-world.co.uk. I wish I had found the site sooner, it was brilliant. If anyone reading this is thinking about becoming an Au Pair then obviously take care choosing the right family. I read all the profiles pages of all the host families carefully and spoke to several families via Skype before deciding on this one.

I chose to come to Italy because I love Italian food – who doesn’t? It’s not too expensive to fly here/I could hop on a plane home fairly easily if anything went disastrously wrong, I have enjoyed previous visits to Italy and I don’t know…there’s just something about Italy. Even ‘Sopranos’, the popular HBO drama series of an American-Italian mobster family is so...hmm maybe ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ is a better example. Either way, the principle values of both shows are very similar actually: Family, good food, loyalty and humour. These of course, are just stereotypes, but so far they have rung true. It’s bravissimo! I’m loving it. Home-sickness is bound to hit me at some point, I miss having Lawson with me immensely, but the experience is priceless.

Huntingdon Witches and Oliver Cromwell

23 May

I’m dog-sitting for my Auntie in Huntingdon at the moment. I had a mooch around the town and took a few photos. I popped to an antique and craft sale and to the farmers market which was selling goose and ostrich eggs amongst other things. It’s only a small place, but it’s quite nice and happens to be the birth place of Oliver Cromwell. The Cromwell Museum is in the building where Cromwell went to school.

It also has a sculpture of Captain Scott, the Antarctic Explorer that was sculpted by his widow, Lady K.Scott. According to a local man I met in town, Huntingdon is also the last place to kill a ‘witch’. The witch may have been Mary Hickes and her nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth, who were condemned to death by the Assize Court and were hanged in Huntingdon on Saturday 28 July 1716. They were believed to have taken off their stockings in order to raise a rainstorm.

Also quite spooky is the legend of Hinchingbrooke House, now a school. Originally a convent, Hinchingbrooke House, is said to be haunted. The bridge over the Alconbury Brook, named Nun’s bridge, is said to be haunted by one of the nuns who once lived at the old convent. It’s said she is often accompanied by another ghost which resembles the appearance of a nurse. The myth goes that the nun had a lover, a monk who caused them to be murdered. In 1965 a married couple reported seeing the ghosts on the bridge, and again when they returned home the same night.

Other claims to fame is that between Huntingdon, Brampton and Godmanchester lies England’s biggest meadow. Well…whadda-yer-know… Here’s my pics. IMG_1667 IMG_1668 IMG_1670 IMG_1672 IMG_1674 IMG_1676 IMG_1677 IMG_1678 IMG_1681 IMG_1693 IMG_1700 IMG_1706IMG_1640IMG_1641IMG_1648IMG_1652IMG_1653IMG_1654IMG_1657IMG_1660IMG_1661IMG_1665IMG_1671

Beautiful Salzburg in Pictures

21 Apr

Last year, in September, we went to Oktoberfest in Munich. Whilst we were there we took a side-trip to Salzburg, Austria. We hadn’t done any research beforehand and when we I arrived I was blown away by how beautiful it was. We ended up staying quite a few days and taking in the sights. Here are a few photos we took whilst we were there.

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It’s The Final Countdown – reflecting on almost a year in Korea.

13 Apr

I and Lawson began our 12 months contracts as TEFL teachers on the 21st of May 2012. Now it’s almost mid April 2013 and we are not renewing our contracts, so I guess you could say that it’s the countdown to the beginning of the end, or an end, at least on this chapter of our lives, anyway. So now is a good time to reflect on my time in Korea. Did we make the right decision coming here? What have a learnt and gained from it? 

I’ve missed home more than I expected. Not the place, but the people. When I was first looked into teaching in Korea I was just incredibly excited about the whole notion of living and working abroad. It was only the last couple of weeks before leaving that it dawned on me that it was actually quite frightening. I realised how much I was going to miss everyone. I even made a specific effort not to have any kind of sad drawn-out goodbye with one of the people I knew would miss most, my Grandma, because I didn’t want to think about it. I guess I’m a ‘Grandma’s girl’ through and through.

I feel lucky enough to have lived a fairly sheltered life. Maybe even, very sheltered, but I am only beginning to realise that now. I think being away from my family and friends for such a sustained period of time has really helped me value them. Sometimes you’re too close to see…that sounds incredibly corny but I really feel like it’s true. Maybe being away has given me rose-tinted spectacles. I haven’t forgotten how they drove me crazy sometimes, (as well as I do them),  but I think being away can really renew your appreciation. I would advise everyone to do this at least once in their lives if they have the opportunity. To take time away and recharge your gratitude for your family, especially. I think that is one of the most valuable things I’ve gained from being in Korea, appreciation. Similarly, in an odd kind of way, I’m also really looking forward to being apart from my boyfriend when I return home. I’m only looking forward for some time apart purely so we can miss each other again and renew our appreciation of each other.

Despite the occasional sharp pangs of homesickness I don’t regret it at all. I’m quite proud of myself for sticking it out. I doubted my ability to commit before now. I have never stuck a job out for more than six months before this. I also think, or at least hope, that it has made me a more accepting, more tolerant person. I’ve made some lovely friends here and met the odd person who has inspired me. My intention is to take away the things I admire most about the people I’ve met and implement those things in my own life, if I can. I’ve met the odd person whose inspired me and made me question some of my stubborn opinions too. I feel inspired to push myself more challenge myself mentally – I don’t intend to be ambiguous here – I simply want to learn more. I have met a few people who I’ve felt are far more intellectually aware and knowledgeable than me. Initially,  I hated that because it made me feel dumb-struck and frankly, plain stupid. But actually, I shouldn’t resign myself to what I refer to as my ‘lazy-brain’, as though it’s a character flaw I should learn to accept; I ought to push myself. The information is out there for the taking. Until just under two years ago, I’d been in education nearly all my life and learning felt like a chore that had to be done merely for exam results, now I have free reign to learn whatever I like.

I still don’t know what I want to do. People have finally stopped asking me the age-old, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, I guess that’s because I am a ‘grown-up’. It always felt like there was a deadline when people asked me that question but now the deadlines been reached the question seems irrelevant, we are constantly growing  aren’t we? I don’t feel under pressure anymore to make any final decisions. I want to take my time and think thoughtfully and openly about any opportunities that come my way and simply enjoy myself as much as possible beyond any outside constraints, whatever they may be.

Overall, this has been a far more valuable experience than the money I’ve saved. Which is good because my savings happen to be a lot less than the delusional estimations I made before coming here! I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to do this and if anyone else has the chance I would give you my own personal recommendation to do so. This blogging malarkey has been incredibly self indulgent and cathartic at times too. When our contract is up, before finally returning home, we have planned 6-7 weeks travelling Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam so we have a lot to look forward to plus a 3 day weekend on Jeju Island. I can’t wait to have sand between my toes, a cold Thai lager in my hand and some sun of my face. When I’m doing that, and when I return home, that’s when I know it has been worth it.

Dog Meat for Dinner and dispelling myths

17 Mar

Most people who have never been to Korea, or the hermit kingdom as it was once known, know very little about it. Some people assumed when I told them I was moving to Korea that it was dangerous, poverty stricken and that they all eat dog meat. From what I have encountered from living here almost a year is that these myths are mostly false. I don’t personally find it any more dangerous than Britain and I think it’s safe for me to assume any other Western country, for that matter. Obviously, there is some political turbulence regarding North Korea but nothing that has ever affected me or anyone I know directly, and hasn’t done for a long time. There is some bitterness towards Japan and China but I know Koreans who have been holidaying in both these countries. I don’t know the intimate details of Korean people‘s finances but I’ve never seen any great signs of poverty other than the odd homeless beggar in the capital, which is usual for most cities in the UK too. As far as I know most people are living in reasonable circumstance. Most of them live in nice, privately-owned, high rise apartment blocks. Business appears to be far better off  than in Britain and doesn’t appear to be hit by the economic crash in the way that the Western world has. In contrast to my home town, with a high street almost full of redundant shop fronts business in Korea appears to be booming. There are dozens of shops and restaurants even in the small town where I’m situated. And of course, we are all familiar with Korean international companies such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai.

I was surprised to find that many of my students were repulsed by the idea of eating dog meat when I told them of my plan to sample the meat at a restaurant that particular night. One or two, on the other hand, admitted they had eaten it without knowing and some said that their parents on occasion ate it. I concluded from that that it is something that is becoming less usual than it might have been in the past. When I ask Koreans about their Korean culture regarding food they tell me Kimchi is their famous dish.  However, I’d never even heard of the spicy pickled cabbage dish until I came to Korea, although I’ve eaten at least a couple of nights every week since I’ve arrived.

For some time we have been talking about eating dog meat so I, my boyfriend, my Canadian co-worker and an American friend finally arranged a night to do it. We headed to the only dog meat selling restaurant we knew. The owner was a little taken aback by four foreigners requesting dog meat. Our American friend, Sean, requested it as he speaks decent Korean. The word for dog meat stew is actually a euphemism for healthy soup, Sean told us so when he asked for it the chef reiterated that it is in actual fact ‘dog meat’ as though to check whether it was what we actually wanted. The restaurant was just closing. Maybe it was out of curiosity that the restaurant stayed open to serve us. They perhaps wondered what four foreigners would think about their delicacy or maybe it was just the extra business. Either way we were able to eat a portion of dog meat stew each.

 

dog meat stew
It arrived in a bowl with what I think was spinach in a red sauce. The women who brought it over to us warned us that it was a little spicy. Also with the dish there was the usual side orders such as kimchi as well as a bowl of sticky rice and a spicy chilli sauce to dip the meat. My initial reaction was to smell the steam rising out of the bowl. The woman almost immediately warned me not to. As soon as I did I realised why. It stunk! It smelt of damp dog. Straight away I was transported to a time when I was out with Sophie, the pet dog my family used to have back home, I took her off her leash on the green by my home and she ran into the duck pond. After this happened she would always smell really bad. I thought this was the smell of greasy damp dog fur yet this was the smell rising from the steaming dog meat soup. It was quite hard to shake the image of my happy pet dog shaking herself off, spraying water from it’s fur and get past that awful smell yet I managed to eat several strips of dog meat from the stew. The others said they thought it tasted like turkey. I’m not a big fan of turkey but to be honest the dark meat didn’t taste bad. It tasted okay. It was quite chewy but in the sauce and chilli dip it was nice enough. I couldn’t finish it though, not with the image of my pet dog in the forefront of my mind. My boyfriend, who as it happens hates dogs, ate his own and finished mine off quite happily. We don’t have any intentions of eating it again but I’m glad we have at least tried it and had our portion of real, old style Korean cuisine.

dog meat

Cheonggyecheon Stream’s Transformation

25 Feb

Me and Lawson went to Cheonggyecheon stream a couple of weekends ago on a very chilly Lunar New Year’s Day. Even though it was bitingly cold every time I took my hands out my pockets to take a photo I didn’t want to stop. This area of Seoul is what I had imagined for a capital city and more. It had the huge sky scrapers and modern glass architecture you expect from a capital city but so far I hadn’t felt like I’d seen it in Seoul. This is entirely our fault because, until this weekend, we’d kept cautiously to the tourist areas -Itaewon and Hongdae. I say ‘more’, because as well as the modern, recently refurbished stream, and the towering glass sky scrapers, in the mist you could see beautiful green and rocky mountains in the distance. It’s quite the contrast and completely unlike any capital city I’ve visited before.

In 2005 they spent $900 million refurbishing the water edges and generally beautifying it and making it look incredibly urban. I think in the Summer they have lots of plants and greenery but with it being winter the plants were dead and the fountains were frozen. It still looked incredibly modern and cool though.

Under Gwangtonggyo bridge they had copies of photographs showing what this area looked like during the first half of the 20th century. It was incredible. It was unrecognisable, not only from what it looked like now, but so far away from how I see Korea as a whole. It is quite easy to forget, as a Westerner, how far Korea has come in such a short time. The photos showed shanty houses propped up on the waters edge on stilts. It looked third world, poverty stricken and frankly, very ugly.

I was recently talking to a Korean co-worker who was telling me that the slow-pace, relaxed life in Australia drove him crazy. He has a dual passport and has spent many years living in Oz. He loved it and wants to return, but he said he couldn’t understand how a weeks work could drag into months. I can see where he is coming from; the first word I learnt when I came to Korea is “bolly” which means ‘hurry’, and one of the first things I noticed was how fast everyone drove. Korea really does live life in the fast lane in day to day life and in general. The urban project took just two years to complete and it is completely transformed from what it used to look like.

Cheonggyecheon Stream in the 1950s

1950

And now. 

Cheesy balls or Pure Romance Atop the Highest Point in Seoul (N Seoul Tower)

16 Feb

Seoul N Tower

As the title suggests, I have a contradictory reaction to all things cheesy. Part of me thinks it’s insincere rubbish that curdles my stomach, yet a smaller part of me thinks, much to the annoyance of the other part, “but maybe it would be nice?” It’s cruel how your mind can do that. These two contrasting opinions come at logger head’s all the time; when it comes to picking films, music, what I want for Christmas… It’s a pain being a walking contradiction. It stops me from being decisive. Maybe it’s because my parents are polar opposites. Yeah, blame the parents when your in self-doubt. Ahhh…Thank god it’s not my fault! I can barely get through a sentence without contradicting myself by the end of it. Even the word ‘love’ is so allusive and Disney-like that I question what it really means. I use the word in sincerity to my boyfriend, but I also use it about Topshop Sale’s and Wendsleydale cheese. All three of which, I’m big fans of. That’s harsh, my boyfriend is of course my world, so why then does that sound so cliché as though I don’t mean it? Maybe because it’s been spoken in so many Jennifer Anniston, Reese Withaspoon-type-films that it’s lost all meaning? Possibly.

Valentine’s day is the perfect time for these two contradictions to battle it out. We were lucky enough to have a three day weekend due to Lunar New Year the weekend before Saint Valentines, so we decided to do something romantic then, rather than the specified day. In retrospect, thank goodness, because as it turned out we ended up spending Valentines in our tiny flat with a plumber unblocking our toilet. Imagine that noise, smell, and company over champagne and oysters! of course, I could get into the whole debate about whether or not Valentines is just a marketing ploy but let’s keep on track here.

So we booked a Hotel in advance, and since we had £16 ($25) worth of Agoda points, we decided to get the deluxe room with the jacuzzi bath. Oh yes, the big spenders are in town this Lunar New Year. It wasn’t strictly Valentines day but if it was, what is the cheesiest things we could do in Seoul to test these two contradictory opinions to and see which comes out on top? Well, there’s a wealth of options. (Especially, baring in mind, Korea loves couples. The shops make a killing on double deals with ‘couple clothing’ right down to ‘couple underwear’ and ‘couple rings’ all through the year. They even offer set menus for couples, couple tickets and couple set snacks at the cinema with a a large coke and popcorn to share.) In the end we decided to do the omega of cheesy things to do in Seoul by visiting N Seoul Tower. N Seoul Tower is situated on Namsan mountain.  This, so-called mountain, is 243 metres tall and the tower on top of it is 237.7 metres tall so the idea is, especially at night time, you get a romantic view of all the shimmering city lights of the city.

It’s not so cheesy that only couples do it as they are other groups but what makes it really lovey-dovey are the love locks. Adorned from metal fences forming a balcony around Seoul tower are bright gaudy padlocks with notes of love, forever cementing a couples love, or so it’s believed by the more sentimental hearted. Many were notes are attached with Korean, or other languages I can’t read, but I imagine they say something along the lines of “you are my everything”, “you mean the world to me”, “I can’t live without you” with maybe the odd K-pop boy band lyric thrown in for extra effect, and stomach curdling clichéd soppy, sickeningly, cheesy, rubbish, “but maybe it would be nice?” questions the evil little angel, (?), on my shoulder once again.

It’s rarely going to be the man who implements romance in the relationship, no matter how many times we watch ‘The Notebook’, read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or any recent films with the gorgeous Channing Tatum in. When it really comes down to it, at least I find, it’s the woman in the relationship who encourages romance because it tends to be the female who really cares about it. Men, generally speaking, are practical minded species. Maybe I’m slightly low on oestrogen levels or something then, because when I looked at the tacky padlocks costing 11,000 won, and back at the railing covered with every inch of them I just thought ‘bleeaurgh’. That was literally the sound I made in my head. Not so much a sound of hurling vomit, just nothing, just ‘meh‘ if you like. It lacked all spontaneousness and is anything but unique since the place was cluttered with the stuff. Bits of tat, like permanent locked down litter. Not only are there padlocks but people had attached key rings and phone cases too. It looked worse than the bottom of my handbag after a few months daily use, a hodgepodge of sweet wrappers, orange peel, broken pen lids, eye liner, and potato crisp crumbs galore.

I can honestly say that ‘meh’ never springs to mind when I think about my boyfriend, I don’t really feel like I need to put on a railing, tattoo on my wrist or write all over my Facebook wall how I feel about him. That’s not to say, that people who do do that, shouldn’t. Who am I tell you how to live your life? It just not me and I don’t think it’s particularly him either. We’re both fairly pragmatic kind of people. I feel confident about our relationship. But it makes me question whether I’m devoid of  romance. Does it mean my heart is made of stone?  We did intend to do the typical thing and attach a padlock along with the thousand others but it just seemed a bit daft.

In the end, we didn’t exchange cards or presents for Valentine’s, we don’t have couple rings and the idea of couple clothing recalls memories of an old, seriously uncool religious couple, who used to come to my Primary School wearing matching yellow anoraks that looked like they were wearing oversized  illuminous nappy bags. They came into school boring the students to death with stories about the bible. Sorry, to any Christians who might be reading this, but I’m blaming the story-tellers not the stories, or maybe I should say holy scripture?  (See! I’m a walking hypocrisy of opinions and not just in regards to Valentine’s day!) Instead, we enjoyed a lovely couple of days sightseeing all around Seoul and had a lovely weekend.

Anyway, as for some sort of point to all these ramblings, I will say that N Seoul Tower should be seen, by couples, groups of friends or by solo travellers because it is rather pretty up there. It can make you feel a little humble when you see how far the lights stretch out across the sky and how many people they are out there. As for the love-locks, (if I can hold it together just long enough not to hurl or shy away from some sincere emotion), they go to show that there are a lot of people who feel like they are in love. I think most of us can agree that’s a nice feeling. I hope you all had a lovely Valentines day, whether it was spent with your partner, spouse, friends or family, or even on your own, lusting after Channing Tatum or Ryan Gosling.


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Tim Burton exhibition in Seoul

3 Feb

We recently went to the very popular Tim Burton exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA), Jung-gu, Seoul. Tim Burton is the director and mastermind behind many popular feature films such as Beetle JuiceCharlie and the Chocolate FactoryThe Nightmare Before ChristmasCorpse Bride, Alice and Wonderland and many more. The exhibition, that started it’s international tour in New York in 2009, had an incredibly vast amount of Burton’s work. It had costumes from his most popular films like Batman Returns on display as well as also giving you the opportunity to watch his lesser known film pieces such as Stain Boy and Victor, which I was totally unaware of before the exhibition visit. It also had many of his paintings, drawings, posters and models of popular characters like Jack Skellington, The Pumpkin King.

What I especially liked about the exhibit was that you were able to follow his work from the very beginning. It showed short mini-films he’d made without sound, which he started making when he was 13, making it possible to follow his career from the very early stages. There was even a letter on display from the Disney headquarters in response to a young, Burton in Highschool. He’d sent some paintings for some ideas he had for a children’s story. It was basically a rejection letter but it was positive and very complimentary. The letter also said it was too similar to the Dr. Seuss range, which Burton later in life credits as inspiration along with Roald Dahl, and it encouraged him to continue and go to Art College to further his style and skill, which he did.

There was an incredible amount to see, but unfortunately we had very little time to see it. We didn’t realise before we went, but we had to wait well over an hour just to get in. We queued and paid for tickets which then allowed us to get us another ticket, which had a number on. We then had to wait for the screen to display our number. By the time our number appeared on the screen we were only able to spend a little over half hour to view the work before we had to head back to the bus station, as we’d already booked our coach back home. It was ridiculously busy too, so being able to see the work at a leisurely pace just wasn’t possible, instead you had to shuffle along with the crowd. So if your planning on going yourself, (it’s on until the 14th of April), and I’d recommend it even if your not usually a gallery goer, I’d advise that you go on a weekday if possible and be prepared for the wait.

There are many pieces and sections of the exhibition I scarcely had time to properly look at due to the short amount of time we had, yet it was still very interesting. Before my visit, I naively had no idea how much creative input Burton had into the film’s, outside of directing them. Every little initial idea was documented in the form of one of his seemingly insignificant doodles on a restaurant napkin before it progressed into drawing, a wild and colourful painting, then a story board, and eventually a film. I had recognised before that all his films had that same Burton-esque, Gothic, slightly macabre quirkiness but hadn’t realised that he was an artist and illustrator in the typical sense too.

 

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