These days.

What have we been doing “these days?” (These days is an expression that English speaking Koreans say ALL THE TIME, usually incorrectly.) These days, we have been gallivanting around South East Korea, seeing what it has to offer, and secretly (or not so secretly) counting down the days until we are home. In 13 weeks we will be leaving, but until then we have been trying our best to live in the moment and enjoy our time here. Here are some pictures of life’s recent shenanigans.

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IMG_1268A few weeks ago we went to a wedding for one of the teachers at my school.  As soon as we arrived at the wedding, I was very aware that we had no idea what we were doing.  The wedding was at the fanciest and most prestigious place in Ulsan, Lotte Hotel, and we were told that because of this we needed to give the couple $70 upon arrival as a gift to pay for our food (don’t ask questions in Korea).   We followed the signs to the wedding, and when we arrived at the top of the escalator a line of people were staring at us, and we had no idea what to do.  I panicked and called my co-teacher to come out and get us.  She obliged, laughed with us and then told us exactly what to do, god bless that women.  We then sat down at the lunch table which was in the same room that the wedding took take place.  You could eat and watch the couple get married at the same time.

This event was a clear depiction of just how different Korean culture can be.  As you can see, being at the wedding felt more like being at a show.  The couple was broadcasted over two huge screens while they were getting married on a stage and we were eating.  Also, the person who “presided” over the wedding was a high up person from the cell phone company the groom worked for.  All in all, a very interesting endeavor that included wonderful food, so we were happy.  The whole thing was very precisely timed and lasted about an hour and 15 minutes, in and out.  Totally Korean style.

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This is the Jinhae cherry blossom festival.  Every spring for about two weeks, the tree bust to life with beautiful blossoms that cover the country.  We signed up in advance to go to the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival, the supposed best place to see cherry blossoms.  We were set to go on a Sunday and the Saturday before we had a massive downpour.  Needless to say, when we got to Jinhae most of the flowers were now covering the earth instead of in the trees.  There were some trees that were salvaged though and we were grateful to see those.

This week Lacey and Matt (Davo’s sister and brother-in-law) are coming to visit us all the way from New Jersey.  We are very excited to see them and we have some fun things planed including a trip to Seoul and seeing Sigur Ros! We cannot wait! Stay tuned for our latest adventures and blog post about that!

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Spring is here!

Spring is here in Ulsan, and so is our old roommate, Corrinn!

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Spring is here!

The weather has been pretty consistently in the 60s, occasionally dipping below into the 50s or reaching up into the 70s. It even got up to 76 a few weekends back. Trees are beginning to bloom. In a few weeks, cities all over Korea will start hosting their annual cherry blossom festivals. Sara and I are signed up to go!

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Flowers blooming

We were both stoked when Corrinn emailed us and said she wanted to come visit. She flew in on Wednesday, and is staying for a week. On Saturday, we decided to trek up to Gyeongju. Located 45 minutes north of Ulsan, Gyeongju was the capital of Korea until the 900s. Seolwi (Bella), one of Sara’s friends, was an excellent tour guide. We visited Yangdong, a traditional Korean village, and Bulguksa. Yangdong was fascinating. The village looks like one would image Korea looked like 500 years ago. Despite its antiquated look, it’s entirely populated by normal Koreans living normal lives. Sure, there’s a satellite dish here and a parked car there. Otherwise, it looks like medieval Korea. Constructed in 528 Bulkguksa is a temple that was the seat of Korean Buddhism. Of all of the temples we’ve visited here in Korea, I would say it is the most beautiful. After a day of touring, Seolwi took us to her mom’s Korean restaurant for some delicious authentic food.

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Me, Sara, Seolwi and Corrinn at Bulguksa

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Lots of details on the temple roof

Saturday morning I woke up feeling a little achy and tired. It only got worse that night, so yesterday I went to the doctor. He informed me that I have the flu. Booooo! He loaded me up with drugs and told me to take it easy the next couple days. I stayed home and rested while Sara and Corrinn went on an adventure to Busan.

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Beatiful woodwork everywhere

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Bulguksa Temple

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Yeonam-dong 연암동

Since I have become a runner, I have run in every country we have visited.  I have found it is a very efficient way to explore a new area.  Running gives you the feel of being a local, while also affording you an opportunity to see much of the terrain in a short amount of time. While living in Korea and in Yeonam (our neighborhood) in particular, I have run the same streets many, many times and therefore have been able to get to know the area on a more personal level.

Yeonam-dong has been with me on beautiful runs in fantastic weather when I am elated and having the run of my life.  Yeonam-dong has been with me in the winter when I drag myself out to run, and 10 minutes feels like an eternity as I am craping up and trying to remember why I would ever do a crazy thing like run.  Where my students run after me yelling “Saera teacha” and adjuma’s (old women) look at me like I am completely insane and laugh when I pass them multiple times during a run.  Through thick and thin in my running career almost all of these moments have taken place running up and down through the grid of my neighborhood.  So, I thought it was high time that Yeonam-dong got a little blog action.   Here is the neighborhood I live, work and run in.  (Usually I play down town 😉

As you can tell people’s front doors/gates are my favorite and usually what I look at on my runs.

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My school 연암 초등학교.

My school 연암 초등학교.

Tokyo

The thing that sticks out most it my mind about Tokyo is just how immaculate it is.  According to Wikipedia Tokyo is the world’s largest “urban area” in the world and I am telling you there is no trash on its street.  Not one piece of gum, cigarette butt, loose straw, nothing.  I almost wanted to throw something on the ground just to see what would happen.  I imagined if I did someone would pop out of the wall slap me with a $300 fine and make me pick up my trash.  Or maybe I would just be stoned by the locals, who knows.  But I tell you this there is no trash in Tokyo.  And this very fact also is symbolic of the way Tokyo felt in general.  Tokyo was clean, polite, polished, and orderly.  As much as I loved it, it made me a little nervous and helped me further appreciate Japan’s more unruly and less organized neighbor, Korea.

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Wonderful use of space.

Wonderful use of space.

Our journey began when we arrived in Asakusa, Tokyo, and many locals went completely out of their way to help us navigate the small roads to find our hostel.   Our hostel [Retrometro Backpacker] was small, quaint and just what we needed.  The woman who ran the hostel was very polite, helpful, and soft spoken.  She recommended the wonderful “standing sushi” place that we ate at twice [no idea the name, but here it is on Google Maps] and showed us how to get to all the places we wanted to go on the map.  That night we set off exploring our area and were not disappointed.

Our cute little hostel.

Our cute little hostel.

Asakusa temple.

Asakusa temple.

The next morning we got up early to start sightseeing.  I mean, we only had two days so we needed to get a jump start! Davo and I went for a run, ate some breakfast, and we were off.  First we went to the Tokyo government municipal building so that we could get a great view of the city and see Mt. Fuji.  It was a little hazy so our view of Mt. Fuji was not exceptional but as Davo said, “we got to see ALL the city for free!”  And we did, it was beautiful and a great way to start out our trip.  Turns out Tokyo is pretty big!

View from the Tokyo government municipal building.

View from the Tokyo government municipal building.

After that we headed to Tokyo’s Harajuku area to check out some of the strange new fashion trends and the shrine to the Emperor.  Davo and I sat and ate some street food on a bench to take in the very high heels, bright colors, pastel colors, spiky black leather, piercings and whatever other fashions we saw.  After which we went to the shrine and had the pleasure to observe some Japanese religious practices, which actually looked much different than Korean practices.

Harajuku fashion.  Oh, my!

Harajuku fashion. Oh, my!

Shrine to the Emperor.

Shrine to the Emperor.

The rest of our evening consisted of hanging out in the area near our hostel, experiencing some authentic Japanese tempura. And drinking real beer! (Japan is known for being one of the only places in East Asia with decent beer.  Davo was very happy. )

The next day we regrettably did not go to the famous Tsukiji fish market, because it was closed for the Lunar New Year. Instead we got up and went out for sushi again, got some green tea ice cream and moseyed around our neighborhood.

Standing sushi place.  SO delicious.

Standing sushi place. SO delicious.

Fatty tuna and the holy of holies sushi wise.

Fatty tuna and the holy of holies sushi wise.

Later, we set off on a quest to find a “maido” café.  This experience was quite possibly one of the most interesting I have had in a long time.  At “maido” cafes (or maid cafes) young, attractive Japanese women dress up as maids and serve their “madams” and “masters” cute food.  You can pay to play games with them, take pictures with them, and they even draw your animal of choice with syrup on top of your coffee or drink.  What exactly is “cute” food?  You can see the pictures below.  We were not allowed to take pictures of the servers but this is the best I can do to show you what was going on here.

Maids at the Maido Cafe.

Maids at the Maido Cafe.

Cute food.

Cute food.

More cute food and a frog drawing.

More cute food and a frog drawing.

Needless to say knowing me, I was fascinated.  I love a good social situation to analyze especially one that was as foreign to me as this one.  And for those of you thinking this is some strange sexual fetish, I am sure you are partially correct. However there were also families there, and it did not feel inappropriate.   The boys were good sports about my quest to experience this fascinating social phenomenon.

That evening we saw a few more temples and said goodbye to Tokyo.  We slept at the airport because it was the only way to catch our early morning flight and not pay $300 for a cab.  And as we were leaving Tokyo we had a small mourning session.  Japan is the last new country Davo and I will visit for quite some time.  It is somewhat an end of an era for us, but now it is time to rock out our last five-and-a-half months in Korea! Stay tuned.

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Thailand: The Best Place on Earth.

I have no idea where to begin in describing our trip to Thailand.  Let me first start by saying that I love everywhere.  No really, I do.  I have never been to a place I wouldn’t go back to, and there is no country I don’t want to visit.  Some countries are higher on the list than others, but hey I’ll go anywhere.

Some of you know that when asked my favorite place in the world, my answer is always India.  However, this is a difficult thing to describe.  My reasons for loving India have a lot to do with the country itself, but also what it had to offer me at the times I have visited.  So, my love of India is not just solely about India.  Iceland is definitely top on my list, but this has more to do with raw beauty, landscape, and solitude.  Iceland quite frankly just needs a category of its own.  This brings me to Thailand.   If I were going to move anywhere in the world right now I would move to Thailand.  In fact Davo and I have decided we will move there sometime in our lives; it is just a matter of when.

So why is Thailand the greatest place on Earth?  We will start with this.  The first day we were in Bangkok Davo inquired about the book “Eat, Pray, Love.”  Neither of us have read the book, however Davo said, “doesn’t she eat in Italy, Pray in India and Love in Thailand?”  I said “I think so yea.”  To which Davo replied, “Now, my question is why wasn’t Thailand the eating place?”  I know what you are thinking right now, “No way the food is better than Italy.” I will go on record and say that I have been to Italy, and the food is not only better it is also cheaper and healthier.  GASP!!!!

The first few days that we were in Thailand we explored Bangkok.  We met some Thai people who recommended two restaurants to us, one in Bangkok and one in Chiang Mai.  The restaurant in Bangkok was a tiny little hole in the wall across from a park.  We were instructed to order “fried catfish salad” and “green eggplant salad.”  Figuring that these people knew what they were talking about, we set out on our quest to find the restaurant.  This is where our love affair with Thai salads began. Until this experience we did not know that when we had previously eaten Thai food, we were making a fatal mistake in skipping over the salad section of the menu in favor of the curries and pad thai.  Both of these salad dishes were fantastic and completely unlike anything I have ever eaten. After this experience we were on a hunt for the best food experiences possible and Thailand did not disappoint.

Deliciousness.

Deliciousness.

fried catfish salad and green eggplant salad.

Fried catfish salad and green eggplant salad.

Bangkok

Bangkok

Our eating quest continued in Chaing Mai where we continued to eat salads, pad thai, and curries galore! The second recommendation from the Thai friends came in Chaing Mai.  This restaurant was located in a temple and was quite possibly the best food we have ever had in our lives.  Again, it was the salads! This time we got avocado salad, pomelo salad, and fried banana flower salad.  I am salivating typing this right now.  And this is where we actually considered throwing up in order to make room for more eating.  I kid you not, it was THAT good. People probably thought I was crazy, but I felt it was my duty to tell every foreigner I saw to go eat there.  Ok, so you get it the food is fantastic here are more pictures.

Avacado salad that we forgot to take a picture of until we had already eaten it.

Avocado salad that we forgot to take a picture of until we had already eaten it.

Fried banana flower salad.

Fried banana flower salad.

Pomelo salad.

Pomelo salad.

The temple that the restaurant was also beautiful.

The temple at the restaurant was also beautiful.

So why else is Thailand the greatest place on earth?  For one, in order for me to love a place it has to have a certain balance of grunge and charm.  Thailand toes this balance beautifully.  It is rough enough around the edges for me to love it but also has temples that glow (literally), elephants to play with, mountains, markets to explore, and best of all style.  It is hard for me to explain what I mean by “style” but think of it this way – I want to put everything in Thailand in my house.  While we were at the market I essentially wanted to buy everything.  We haggled almost every night in our local market for different gems and have quite a few nice things to add to our home when we get home.  A little grunge and a little charm!

Style.

Style.

They love to hand lights in Chiang Mai.

They love to hang lights in Chiang Mai.

I have discussed a lot of charm now lets talk grunge.  When we decided Chaing Mai was the place we wanted to go after Bangkok, I did a little research on how we should get to this northern mountain paradise.  After internet readings and a few discussions with friends, we decided we would train to Chaing Mai in a sleeper car.  We were told we could book this the day we wanted to go, but just to be safe we went to the train station early in the morning to book tickets for our 10pm train.  When we got to the ticket counter and told the women what we wanted she told us that sleepers were all booked until next Thursday.  We asked her what she did have, and she said “sitting up with fan.”  To which I replied ok, how long is the train? The women typed into her calculator 17 and showed it to me.  It is moments like these that I am so glad I travel with Davo.  We are no-nonsense, no whining, take what you can get and be happy travelers.  So, we said sure to the “sitting up with fan” car for 17 hours, and decided to be glad that we would get to see so much of the country on our way.  We met some pretty weird travelers and might have been drinking rum and coke still at 9am the next morning on the train.

17 hours "sitting with fan."

17 hours “sitting with fan.”

A little grunge.

A little grunge.

We went to an Elephant Nature park that was an overload of joy.  Being with creatures that massive is a total rush (and we all know I like thrills).  We fed them, bathed them, and just hung out with them.  It was a place with a lot of love and a great story.  Check it out if you like 🙂  http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/

Well hello there friends!

Well hello there friends!

I know you all are jealous!

I know you all are jealous!

Overall, Thailand seemed to have it all and more.  Three dollar massages that we got almost every day, fantastic food, beautiful scenery, and beautiful people.  Every foreigner we talked to that lived there raved about being there.  I can’t help but think it is the Mecca of Asia.  Hopefully one day we will be able to visit Thailand again or maybe even live there.  But for now, I guess pictures and memories will suffice.

Wat Pho.

Wat Pho.

Gigantic reclining Buddha in  Wat Pho temple in Bangkok.

Gigantic reclining Buddha in Wat Pho temple in Bangkok.

Temple made in 700 ad.

Temple made in 700 AD.

Flower festival parade in Chiang Mai.

Flower festival parade in Chiang Mai.

Stay tuned for the Tokyo blog coming up! Maybe we should rename the blog to Davo and Sara running around the world instead of in Korea….

Philippines: Our Adventures and Misadventures

At the end of January, Sara and I got our winter break from school. What do we do with two weeks off from school? Why, go travel, of course! We decided to split our time between the Philippines and Thailand. Growing up, (for some reason… I dunno why) I always had a bunch of friends from the Philippines. It has has been one of my top destinations in the world for years, so I was super excited to go. (I’ve been to Thailand before, and it’s one of Sara’s top places, so she’ll be writing the blog for there).

(For more photos from the adventure, check out my album on Facebook).

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Filipino sunset

I’ll be honest our first 12 hours there were rough. We arrived at the airport at midnight only to discover that our debit card had expired in September. No worries, I thought, I can get a cash advance from my credit card. Even though I set up a travel notification, the ATM initially rejected it. Thinking I entered the PIN incorrectly, I tried a different PIN. Since I entered the wrong PIN, the credit card locked down. We were stuck at the airport without a single penny.

Intramuros, Manila

Intramuros, Manila

I’m willing to go on record and say that Filipinos are the most friendly people I’ve ever met. After spending 2 hours helping us troubleshoot our financial conundrum to no avail, a shuttle driver took us to our hotel for free. Another shuttle passenger who had witnessed our troubles handed us 1,000 pesos ($25). The receptionist spent an hour helping us get in touch with the credit card company. By 3 a.m. we finally got things sorted out and hunkered into bed. At 1:03 p.m. the next day, we were finally able to take out cash. Game on, Manila!

Quiapo Market

Quiapo Market

The rest of our time in the Philippines went much smoother. We spent the rest of the day exploring Manila. We checked out Quiapo market and Intramuros; we rode a few jeepneys. Everyone was so friendly. We’d ask for directions, and they’d go way out of our way to make sure we got where we wanted to go. I really enjoy exploring new cities, figuring out how to get around, navigating, and learning public transit. It can be challenging, but it’s fun for me.

Jeepney

Jeepney

In a jeepney

In a jeepney

The next day we met a guy at our hotel who lived in the town that we were headed to. We hired a driver together and headed down to Batangas via Taal and Tagaytay. Taal is a lake inside of a giant volcano crater. In the middle of the lake is an island with several other volcano craters. In one of those craters is another lake (this one literally simmering from geological activity). That lake also has an island in it. So, it’s an island in a lake in a crater in a lake in a crater on an island. How fractal! We headed up to Tagaytay, a town that overlooks the lakes and craters. We enjoyed some tasty Filipino food from a restaurant that all but hung over the edge of a cliff overlooking Taal.

Taal Volcano with a Bangka water taxi

Taal Volcano with a Bangka water taxi

Taal Volcano, the view from our restaurant in Tagaytay

Taal Volcano, the view from our restaurant in Tagaytay

After lunch we headed town to Batangas and caught a ferry to Puerto Galera, a port city on Mindoro Oriental (south of Luzon). The town is a major dive destination with a multitude of shipwrecks and coral reefs to explore. On our first full day there, we hired a bangka (boat taxi) to take us snorkeling. It was incredible. The fish were on par with what we saw in Roatan, Costa Rica two years ago. However, the variety of coral is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It ranged from neon green to iridescent blue to bright pink to nearly ultraviolet purple. We spotted a banded sea snake, which was pretty awesome (though a little unnerving).

Ferry to Sabang, Puerta Galera

Ferry to Sabang, Puerta Galera

Sadly, that excursion our first day was destined to be our last snorkel session. Despite wearing a thick layer of sunscreen, our Korean winter skin was not prepared for the tropical Filipino sun. Sara and I both got the worst sunburns we’ve had in about a decade. We opted for less solar-intensive activities for the rest of the week, including some hiking and exploring.

Sabang bay at dusk

Sabang bay at dusk

Puerto Galera was a strange little town. Apart from diving, the other major industry there is sex tourism. I’ve never seen so many creepy old men in one place in my entire life. As far as the expats there, men outnumbered women at least 5:1. It was also difficult to find any travelers our age. At night the streets were teeming with 60-year-old men walking around with 20ish Filipina women. It was weird.

Sabang sunset

Sabang sunset

We did find one interesting group of people (who Sara dubbed “the UN”). We hung out with them a couple evenings. There was a mid-30s Russian couple, a 40-something French guy, his 20-year-old Chinese girlfriend, and 40ish Saudi guy. The French guy was fluent in six languages, and spoke better Czech than me (even though he’d been there less than a year). The Saudi guy was hilarious. He had traveled to the Philippines alone so that he could to drink and smoke shisha (hookah) without any interruption from his wife and kids. Although he spoke very little English, he managed to forcefully and repeatedly invite us to join him for shisha. If he wasn’t actively smoking, he would inform us when he was going to pack another bowl, and demand we come back and join him for it.

Little pepper. Big heat.

Little pepper. Big heat.

Filipino food is reasonably tasty. They have particular skill with barbecue. Every night at the pier, there would be a dozen women under awnings barbecuing away. They would cook the meat on a grate inches above a bed of charcoal chunks, constantly fanning the coals with a grass fan. Sara and I could get all the barbecue we could eat and a beer for $6 total. Oh… and speaking of beer, I’ve decided that the Philippines has the best cheap beer in the world. Now, Sam Miguel is no Dark Lord or Rochefort, but I’ve never had dollar beer that tastes as good as SMB. (In fact, I’ve never had dollar beer that tastes at all!)

SMB, the world's tastiest $1 beer. (A little sunburned, too!)

SMB, the world’s tastiest $1 beer. (A little sunburned, too!)

Our food extravaganza didn’t stop at the BBQ tho. On our last night we made friends with a few of the locals and some travelers our age at a bar floating out in the bay. After several beers one of them shouted to the shore, “BRING THE BALUTS!” Sara and I looked at each other with dismay, steeling ourselves for what was about to occur. We were going to have baluts. (Balut is a three-day fertilized duck or chicken egg. To eat, you crack the top of the shell, suck out the juice, peel the rest of the shell away, and eat the embryo. Apparently, it’s like Filipino drunk food. Back in the States we have pretzels or peanuts. They have baluts. Ok.) It was… pretty gross. I’ll be honest, it’s not my cup of tea. But it’s a cultural experience. We had to do it.  So, baluts aren’t my favorite, but the rest of Filipino food is pretty good. We indulged on various meatsilogs (chicksilog, porksilog, mysterysilog), green and yellow mangos (the green ones… so tangy!), lumpia, chicken adobo, bangus (milkfish), etc.

Sara eating a balut

Sara eating a balut

Remains of a balut

Remains of a balut. (Can’t decide if it looks or tastes worse.)

On our last day, we hopped on a ferry and bus back to Manila. Our flight to Bangkok wasn’t until almost 10 p.m., so we killed some time in the Mall of Asia, the largest in the world. I know what you’re thinking. Davo and Sara went to the Philippines and spent time at THE MALL!?!?!! However, (according to some of my friends from the Philippines) it’s an essential cultural experience. People to hang out in the air-conned malls to escape the heat. If you’re at the Mall of Asia, you can even go ice skating on the Olympic-sized rink in the middle of the mall. We debated doing it, didn’t wanna risk breaking a wrist or elbow 3 hours before hopping on a flight to Thailand.

Mall of Asia

Mall of Asia

All in all, I’d mark the trip down as a success. The first 12 hours were rocky, but we rebounded. We got pretty sunburned, but saw some incredible coral. We at a ton of street food and didn’t get sick. We ate baluts. Final score: Philippines – 2, Hyndses – 6. Winning.

Manila sunset

Manila sunset

Manila sunset

Manila sunset

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Language Learning Adventures

One of the most effective, most basic methods of learning a language is mimicry. Babies are all about it, and it works pretty well for them. They pick up language faster than anyone else. (OK, they may have some other advantages, but whatevs.) Often if I’m in public with nothing to do, no one around, and some time to kill (such as on the bus, waiting to meet a friend, etc.), I’ll quietly repeat things I hear to practice Korean. I’ll parrot the radio, an overheard conversation, the bus stop announcer lady, whatever.

There’s a coffee shop that I stop in at nearly every morning on my walk to work. It’s a buck for an Americano. The coffee is crap, but it’s cheap, and Korea is generally lacking in quality coffee, so I don’t feel too cheated. I’ve gotten to know most of the women who work at the shop; they know me and my order. About a month ago, I noticed that they always say the same phrase every time that I leave. I’m not quite sure about the Korean, but it’s something like “taoseyo” (다오세요). They’d always say it right before I walked out the door, after they’d thanked me for my business. So I figured it was some form of a farewell. Perhaps, “See ya later,” or, “Have a good one.”

I decided to employ my stellar language learning technique, and wished them a “다오세요” back. I’m sure I butchered the pronunciation, but who cares!? For the next few weeks, I would always wish them a “다오세요” back before leaving the store. I was quite proud of myself for picking up a new phrase all by myself.

Then one evening Sara and I were having dinner with her coteachers. As we were talking something one of them said sounded familiar to this phrase. I realized to my delight that I had someone here who could probably understand my hackjob pronunciation enough to translate this mystery farewell phrase. I asked her what it meant. It took me repeating it a couple times, but she finally understood me.

“Ah!” she said. “다오세요. It means, ‘Come visit us again soon!'”

I promptly stopped using the phrase at the coffee shop.

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Merry Koristmas

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With friends for a special Christmas Eve dinner

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Stockings stuffed with goodies

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Sara looking through her stocking

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Sara’s Christmas present. Our favorite wine from home.

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Opening presents.

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What’s it gonna be?

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Sara opening presents

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Me with the brand new Smitten Kitchen cookbook! Freaking out, of course.

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Sara made some scrumptious blueberry pancakes for breakfast.

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Blueberry pancakes, pre-flop.

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Blueberry pancakes are ready!

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I made some homemade herb bread for cheese fondue later in the evening.

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Getting ready to go on a Christmas run!

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Making cheese fondue with Mancheggo, Gruyere, Blue and Mozzarella.

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Cheese fondue with our super-fancy fondue pot.

Skyping with the Hynds family

Skyping with the Hynds family

Skyping with the Peards

Skyping with the Peards

 

Christmas.

The Christmas season is upon us here in Korea. From what I can tell, Christmas in Korea is more of a “couple’s holiday” where couples give each other gifts, and cute Christmas stuff is abundant on the streets, in stores, and even in school. Although Koreans definitely celebrate Christmas, I still feel there is a certain lacking of “Christmas spirit.” I think this is mainly because Christmas is not completely embedded into every aspect of culture like it is at home. Christmas has not had time to be a historical tradition here. Families have not passed Christmas traditions down from generation to generation. We only get one day off of school (no, not even Christmas eve), and the students are not running around school with that magical Christmas sugar cookie high and thinking about all the loot they are about to receive. It is just certain lack of excitement that makes it different here.

Despite all of this I was able to make it to Lotte World a few weekends ago to get a little Christmas spirit. Lotte, from what I can tell, essentially owns Korea, and they have an amusement park that they deck out for Christmas in December. When I heard about this I was sold! So it is off to Seoul we went to go to Christmas Land (aka Lotte World)! I went with a girl friend because I knew that Davo and Christmas themed amusement parks did not seem to go together.

So, some of you have been asking how we are doing with the holidays and being so far away from family and friends, and I would say I am doing better than I expected I would be. I got to see my family over Thanksgiving, and that was wonderful. We have lots of friends over here to spend the next week with. Davo and I are actually looking forward to spending Christmas day with just the two of us and our virtual families via skype. When are we ever going to be able to pull off spending Christmas with just us two again? There will always be family, friends, and maybe even children in the future so there is no better time than now to spend Christmas with only my wonderful and loving life partner.

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A Day in the Life of Davo

Winter is finally descending on Ulsan. Before we got here, we used to hear people complain about how cold Korea is. Up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t believe them. I’ve lived in Chicago and Prague. We’ll have weeks where it doesn’t get above zero Fahrenheit. Ulsan is at the same latitude as my childhood home, Chattanooga. How cold could it really get?

What no one explained to me was that they don’t turn the heat on in a building until it’s below freezing outside.

So I’m sitting at my desk wearing long underwear, pants, a sweater and a decent jacket. I’ve got a bottle of hot water shoved under my sweater, and I’m freezing.

An empty classroom: The calm before the storm!

An empty classroom: The calm before the storm!

One upside to winter in Korea is our apartment floor. They have this invention called the “ondol” (온돌). Basically, the way they heat their houses is by pumping hot water through the floors, making it an excellent place to curl up on a cold day!

Teaching English in Korea is pretty much a dream job, especially at my school. I teach 22 classes a week. I see every kid from 7th grade once a week, and every kid from 8th grade every other week. This means I have to plan a total of 6 lessons a month. I’m also not supposed to assign any homework, nor do I create any tests or quizzes. Consequently, I don’t have to grade anything, either. My co-teachers are also responsible for helping with classroom management, so half the time I don’t even have to be the one punishing the kids.

So with my job, basically, I keep all of the fun, wonderful aspects about teaching, and can all of the annoying, frustrating parts.

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My classroom, where all the magic happens.

Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be. But my school basically leaves me alone. I’m supposed to have a co-teacher in class with me, but for about 2/3rds of my classes, they don’t show up. I’m left to fend for myself. This has it’s pros and cons. On the one hand I have the freedom to do pretty much whatever I want in the classroom. On the other hand, I’ve notice a dramatic improvement in class participation and behavior when the co-teacher actually bothers to show up.

Nevertheless, the kids are on average (with definite outliers) well-behaved. I imagine what would happen in the States if there was a middle school teacher who didn’t speak English. The class would be absolutely nuts! They’d probably eat the teacher.

I also have a lot of downtime at my job. I teach 22 hours, which leaves me 18 hours to prepare the 1 1/2 lessons that I teach each week. How do I fill this time? Well, I will mention that I can name all 196 countries in the world from memory. On a more productive front, I’ve kept of some of my freelance relationships from back home.

Outside of work, life here is sweet. Honestly, this year feels like an extended, slightly more structured vacation. I have no responsibilities outside of work, giving me tons of time to pursue leisure activities and hobbies. I’ve started exercising a good amount. Sara and I are planning on running the Chicago Marathon when we get home next year, so I’ve started training for that.

I’ve actually really (for the first time ever) started to enjoy running. I finally broke through the 5-mile ceiling that had given me trouble in the past. Now I can go farther without much difficulty, and the miles keep adding up! It’s exciting. Although, the cold weather has added another level of challenge. Running in 37 degrees is no walk in the park.

We’ve also made a point to explore and experience Korea as much as possible during this year. We rotate weekends. Every other weekend we do something explore-Korea-ish. On the off weekends we stay at home and relax or socialize. We’ve been to Seoul and Busan a couple times, the lantern festival in Jinju, and hiked several mountains in the greater Ulsan area.

The view from Muryeong San behind our house.

The view from Muryeong San behind our house. (Taken a few weeks ago.)

Now that cold weather is setting in, our explorations might slow a bit. However, we’re looking forward to our winter break at the end of January. Philippines and Thailand here we come!

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