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The Fellowship of the RingI’ve been pretty lazy when it comes to my blog lately, so it’s been a while since I finished reading this – and an even longer while since I started reading it (which is a logical necessity, when you think about it). We read The Lord of the Rings in my friend Steve’s Tolkien and the Inklings group in Seoul; it was the culmination of a year of Tolkien reading. In fact, it was most of the Tolkien reading as we read it one book at a time for our monthly meetings and the novel is divided into six books (but often published in three volumes). So this review is pretty much a year in the making – and, as I don’t have the books with me right now, it will probably end up being rather vague.

I read The Lord of the Rings first when I was a teenager, I believe – during that period of my life when I often visited Shopping City Library. I don’t have any particular memory of it though – so I actually may not have read it then at all. I did read it (again – or possibly for the first time) when I was at university in my mid-twenties. This was the time when Peter Jackson’s films were coming out; I picked up a nice boxed set with the whole thing divided into seven volumes – one for each of the books and one for the appendices. I remember being impressed by the invented world and history and the rather post-modern structure, and less than impressed by the writing style.

In particular, I remember reading the very end of the story in a gazebo next to one of the ponds at Bath Spa University and pretty much breaking down in tears at the sadness of the conclusion.

All throughout the months of reading it this time around, I wondered if it would affect me quite as much. It didn’t.

The Return of the KingOne of the great attractions and flaws of The Lord of the Rings is its simplicity. The writing is quite naïve; none of the descriptive writing is especially literary or challenging by mondern standards. The characters are generally quite two-dimensional – with the exceptions, perhaps, of Boromir and Frodo (one of whom dies a third of the way through, the other is not present on page for large portions of the rest of the novel). This makes the story seem a little less like the struggle of individual characters than a dance of paper dolls.

But, of course, Tolkien wasn’t trying to make something comparable to modern literature – he was writing a fairy tale, a myth. I remember thinking, when I read the story in the 2000s, that the childlike simplicity of the text allowed it to somehow slip through the reader’s critical defences, to operate on a more primitive level. I didn’t necessarily feel that this time – I found it more of a constant distraction.

Probably one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings is so popular is because it is not at all challenging, literarily or morally. It’s a bit like a warm, unconditional hug from a parental figure. Nature and rural life is unconditionally good and meet and beautiful; the good guys are always ultimately good – even if sometimes troubled or tempted – and all their actions turn out for the best; evil will always be defeated.

The Two TowersThe Lord of the Rings is too important and influential a book – personally and globally – for me to dismiss it. There is much that is genuinely beautiful about it. In particular, the sense of a world changing, becoming less than it once was, personified exceptionally in the age-long melancholy of the elves and their eventual passage to the West … and less exceptionally in the industrialisation of the Shire. Gandalf is a wonderful character – a wise and benevolent, yet reluctant leader, who, despite his utter trustworthiness, still has his secrets and is not a stranger to losing his temper (‘Fool of a Took!’).

The narrative structure is one of the most interesting features of the novel. The first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring is the most conventional part, but thereafter it alternates, book by book, between focussing on Frodo and Sam on the one hand and the rest of the characters on the other. This works very well for building suspense about what is happening to Sam and Frodo – especially as Aragorn, Merry, Pippin et al have no idea how their friends’ unlikely quest is proceeding. There are a couple of parts where first Merry and Pippin’s adventures and later Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli’s are glossed over in flashback (the sacking of Isengard by the Ents and the ghost army’s routing of the southern corsairs) somewhat unsatisfactorily – but that may just be because we’ve already seen these things in the films.

J R R Tolkien

There is more that could be said – and we discussed a lot of these issues and more in our book group over the months we were reading The Lord of the Rings – but I would rather this review stayed reasonably concise. In short, many of the core elements of the story are archetypally powerful and it’s a masterpiece within its own terms. In the contexts of twentieth century literature and contemporary fantasy, it’s a little lacking. I couldn’t help thinking many times what it might be like if the same story were written by a more ‘grown-up’ writer like Stephen R Donaldson, George R R Martin or R Scott Bakker (fantasy writers having an ‘R’ initial in their name is a old charter or a tradition or something). Nevertheless, I’m sure this is far from the last time I will read The Lord of the Rings.

From home to home

Given that I had some time off before I started work, I decided to fly back to Britain for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t particularly a Christmas visit – it was just a coincidence that that event fell during my work hiatus, and it seemed like the perfect time to be back with my family.

I flew with Finnair (yes – boarding my flights, I disappeared into Finnair) via Helsinki airport. Both ways, I was a little anxious about my baggage. On the way there, I hid my small backpack in my carry-on suitcase, taking it out once I’d passed through security. On the way back, I was a little concerned about the weight of my big backpack, containing, as it did, several books in addition to clothing and suchlike, but it only weighed 17kg – well under the 23 kg limit (but still a bugger to swing on to and off my back).

I also paid extra to bring my guitar (a Mexican Fender Stratocaster) in its flight case back with me to Korea; even though it was well wrapped in plastic the case suffered a little damage – the guitar is OK, though. It’s been fun playing it in the past few days, although a) I do regret not getting over to my late grandparents’ home to pick up my Metallica music books and b) it’s given me a flare-up of sciatica, for which I will try to resume my back exercises.

At Helsinki, it was rather charming to see the airport staff getting around on adult-sized push scooters.

I barely had chance to unload my backpack and share the wealth of Korean snacks I’d brought back with my family, and to have an early Christmas dinner with – amazingly – my whole family, before I headed down to Bath to spend a couple of days with my friend Alex, and then to Bristol to do likewise with my friend Lawrence and his girlfriend Yi Vei. I got them all Korean snacks, too – including the ever-popular Pepero.

Alex and I, accompanied much of the time by his friend Jason, spent pretty much all our waking hours playing Magic: The Gathering with a little Munchkin and Islands of the Azure Sea on the side. My Magic decks didn’t do very well, as Alex has recently got back into the game and has much more of the recent powerful stuff than I do – and Jason is an adept newcomer to the game.

Before catching my train to Bristol, Alex and I visited Waterstone’s, where he bought me a bunch of Magic cards and card sleeves and I bought him Star Munchkin.

Lawrence and Yi Vei took me to a burger restaurant, Atomic Burger, that was decked out in old toys and where all the burgers had the names of American icons – I got a Johnny Cash. The following day, I was supposed to take part in Lawrence’s workshop at a Buddhist centre, but I had a terrible headache from not drinking enough before bed and sleeping too long. I felt bad about dropping out, but I was far too grumpy to join in the spirit of it.

Once back in Whaley Bridge at my sister’s place I spent much of the time playing board games with her, her kids, her boyfriend, her kids’ aunt. They enjoyed my Islands of the Azure Sea game; as usual, I’d modified the rules since playing it previously, which helped to balance the gameplay. I got them Forbidden Island and Catan Junior as gifts and we enjoyed them, too. I bought Munchkin Cthulhu along with its Call of Cowthulhu expansion for myself and got to try that out.

Other plans – like blogging, working my new game idea The Hell War, reading a friend’s novel, researching MA courses in Seoul – were pretty much forgotten. As Alex and Lawrence are two of my oldest and best friends I prioritised visiting them, and that, along with Christmas, limited my ability to see other friends. Another time.

In addition to my guitar and Munchkin Cthulhu, I also brought back my Monopoly and Scrabble as well as Civilization, a board game (which predates Sid Meier’s Civilization computer game) my parents got me about ten years ago and which I’ve only ever played once (and I cut that game short when my friends decided to change the rules as we were playing). I also got Stephen R Donaldson’s recent last book in the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Last Dark, Iain (M) Banks’s last book before his death last year, The Quarry, Robert Rankin’s latest, The Chickens of Atlantis and Other Foul and Filthy Fiends, Philip Pullman’s Grim Tales, Swords & Dark Magic and Strange Dreams – both anthologies, the latter edited by Stephen Donaldson. Finally, I ordered and received a small pile of unusual dice and brought them back along with all my other dice.

Since then, I’ve played Civilization with my friend Peter and Munchkin Cthulhu with some other friends – Matthew, Erica and Jihyena – celebrated the New Year with meat, uninspiring fireworks, drink and card games and paid my rent for January, leaving me with precious little money until I get paid some time later in the month. I’ll be living on my credit card until then.

I start work on Monday and I feel pretty ambivalent about it. I’m not exactly looking forward to it, but I want to get the initial period over with and settle in as fast as possible, and also get used to getting up early every day. It seems like there are lots of documents to get used to dealing with and probably not much time during normal working hours to fill them all out. And the kids’ mums are apparently the kind that love to complain about everything. I should just try and keep my head and enjoy teaching the kids as much as possible.

I’m sure I’ll be back in a month or two to report on my progress.

Job sorted

On Monday, I had two interviews at kindergartens, one near Mia in northern Seoul and a second just round the corner from where I live. This latter seemed like the perfect location, at least, and the kindergarten seems like a very nice place. By the end of the interview, it was clear that they were happy with me and wanted me to sign a contract right away (as did the other place). I got an e-mail address from one of the foreign teachers (or ‘native teachers’ as Koreans generally refer to us) and sent her a few questions, later on. Her answers weren’t as flattering to the hagwon as the message I got before starting my last job, but it didn’t seem at all terrible; she’s been there for going on for three years.

The biggest problem I’m likely to face is ‘psycho parents’, specifically mothers – those who complain about every little thing they possibly can. At least they’ll generally only interact with the Korean staff – which sucks for them, but provides a useful buffer for native teachers. Some unpaid Saturday work seems to be part of the job, too, but only two or three times a year … or so I’ve been assured.

At the moment there are three foreigners working there, but they’re all leaving in the near future and five more – including me – will be hired. Whatever the problems, the convenience of the location will make up for a lot of them.

So, I went back on Tuesday to sign a contract and the boss and head teacher and I spent about three hours going through the contract, printing off various versions and figuring out what I had to do to get my visa transferred to my new employer. As the job is starting on the 6th of January and my E-2 visa from my previous job was due to expire on the 19th of December I had thought that I would need to transfer to the job-seeking visa, the D-10 visa, and then transfer again to my new teaching visa.

However, after another call to Immigration, the head teacher told me I should transfer my visa to a new E-2 sponsored by my new job immediately. This involved printing out a new contract for Immigration purposes that stated that I started that day. They gave me some business registration documents and I promised to go to Immigration right then.

Which I duly did and, after waiting in line for a good while – long enough for me to fill in a couple of forms, contact my old boss for her business registration number, and my landlady to clarify our address, and still hang around for a good while – I was able to hand over the documents and my passport and my Alien Registration Card and they changed my visa and my address details within five minutes or so. Free of charge, too, which I wasn’t expecting.

Unfortunately, I forgot to pick up a copy of my police subject access letter, which my employer apparently needs in order to register me with the education board. So I took care of that today, by heading back to Omokgyo Station and thence to the Immigration building, waiting for a much shorter while in the same place as before – the room for visa extensions and stuff – but, when I got to the desk, I was told I needed to go up to the seventh floor.

So up the stairs I went, found a likely looking room and went in. A young woman working at a desk near the door seemed to know exactly what I wanted before I even said anything. Sure enough, at the desk where she told me to sit was an English translation of the form I needed to fill in, with the relevant boxes highlighted and containing example information. A few minutes later, I had a copy of the police letter and my degree certificate, too.

The other thing I needed to do – my new supervisor informed me – was get a new health check. I did a search for hospitals with English-language services and found that the closest to my home is St Mary’s Catholic Hospital, so I went there to try to get the health check done. I found the English-speaking clinic, but I was told to go to a different department and was led most of the way by an older man who complained about the smog that’s apparently blown over Korea from China.

In the other building, I found a place with ‘Visa Health Checks’ or something equally apposite over the door. The young male doctor and female office worker seemed very confused by what I was asking and wanted me to come back the following week when their office manager would return. After more inquiries, they got on the phone and then eventually told me to go to a different St Mary’s Hospital, this one at Yeouido – close to the Immigration building – in the morning.

After I later updated the head teacher on my progress, she gave me a further hospital to go to – Hanaro Medical Foundation, not too far away near Seolleung Station (I used to work near there in 2010). So I’ll go and do that, hopefully, tomorrow morning.

I may have to wait a couple of weeks for the health test results to come back – which could be a problem, as I won’t be in the country in a couple of weeks. Last night I booked tickets to fly back to the UK for a fortnight from the 16th of December. It was something I had been thinking of doing during the coming summer, but with some money in the bank and a month of free time, I might as well do it now. I imagine I can have the results posted to my new kindergarten.

When I go home, I plan to take back some of my read books along with various Korean foods and maybe drinks (soju?) as gifts. And I plan to bring back more books and board games. I generally say that there’s not much that I miss about England, but I’m actually looking forward to going home again. My sister had a fake, November Christmas for me last year; it’ll be nice to spend time with family for the real thing this year. I plan to introduce my neice and nephew to my board game, Islands of the Azure Sea.

I’m not so much looking forward to leaving my cat by herself for two weeks, though. My friends who live in the neighbouring flats would be happy to feed her, but I would to find someone to stay here so she doesn’t get too lonely. It’s a difficult thing to judge: would she be more stressed by being left alone or by having a stranger move in? Fortunately, I have some good, cat-loving friends who I think would be willing to help out.

The past month or so has been one of those transitional times – but it’s been good.

My job was always a pretty low-key affair. Many hagwons for elementary and middle school children put on events for Halloween and Christmas; apart from putting all of our kids into the one room to play games and have food, there was no great to-do this October. Nevertheless, I had most of my kids skip their studies for a class or two to make Halloween decorations – even the older kids who no longer have many opportunities for fun stuff in their schooling. I even played zombie (blindfold tick) in my classroom with my all-girl class (plus one boy, Brian, who always comes at the same time as the girls but usually studies separately – when he joins the female class, I call him Briana).

Some students produced some excellent artwork, too.

Emily's Witch

Seung-ho's Death

Tony's Vampire

And then my leaving date started to draw near. I was thrown three separate parties – one with my mixed elemetary school class plus the girls, one with my high-level middle school class and one with my younger middle school class. The middle one of these classes put up balloons and bought me a fancy quattro-style cake. In the other parties, we had fried chicken on Monday and pizza on Friday. It was probably the most fuss that’s ever been made over me for leaving a job. From what they tell me, Korean kids will spontaneously organise things like this with their own money; I don’t recall that ever happening when I was at school.

Leaving Party Balloons

In addition to leaving parties at work, I had a final coffee morning meeting and a meal and drinks (and games) with a bunch of friends from both inside and outside Cheonan. It wasn’t the mega-party of my birthday, but it was good fun and it was great to see people there.

It was my hope when I was looking for a job last year to find something in Seoul, but I had hardly any offers of interviews; one recruiter told me in an e-mail that he couldn’t really do anything for me as I didn’t live in Korea. The job that I eventually took in Cheonan was actually the first offer that I had, but it seemed like a very good place to work – and thus it proved. And it got me back into the country.

I am lucky enough to have really fallen on my feet when it comes to finding somewhere to live in Seoul. My two friends, Matthew and Zach live next door to each other and the flat next door to them has been empty for a long time. As the landlord kept the door unlocked, we were able to have a look around the place together a couple of times. It’s bigger than their places, although the bathroom is much smaller, so I was concerned that it would be too expensive. But they both disagreed and were enthusiastic about the prospect of me moving in there.

I asked them to ask the landlord what the rent would be and the answer was ₩650,000 (£375) a month with a key money deposit of ₩5,000,000 (£2,900) – the same as both of my friends’ places. And that pretty much settled it. I made arrangements to pay the landlord in a couple of phases, as I wouldn’t have all the money until I got my last month’s salary and bonus, and went and signed a contract.

I asked my friend Peter if he’d help me move if I paid his expenses, but his wife pointed out that it would be pretty expensive to drive from Daegu to Cheonan and on to Seoul and all the way back again. So she suggested that her father could do it for a reasonable fee (a third of the ₩300,000 my boss said it would cost to hire a small lorry). And he did. Shortly before I moved, I’d taken a few things up to leave at Zach’s place; if I’d been more assiduous I would have taken more on different occasions. It turned out to have been a good idea, as Peter’s father-in-law’s car got filled to the roof with all my stuff. My cat sat quietly in her case on my lap on the way up.

I’ve been there a while now and am very happy with the place. Having a bedroom in addition to the main area is quite a luxury. Even though the place is not massive, it’s still pretty big – so much so that it feels a little empty. Shortly after I moved in I invited a few people over for a flat-warming party; I made vegetable bolognese and we played games until two in the morning. My only real concern about the place was the mouldy smell – which is starting to fade, or at least be hidden, now that I’m cooking there. I’ll have to make sure the mould doesn’t get any worse.

The next step, of course, is to find a job. This has been going well. I had four interviews before I left my last job, travelling up to Seoul early in the morning on the subway and heading back to Cheonan by express bus at lunchtime, of which I was offered two positions. I turned them both down; in the case of the first, I didn’t like the boss, and the second was too far to commute every day.

After a slow start where I concentrated on cleaning and unpacking and buying a few extra things that I needed from the nearby Daiso (mmm, Daiso), I got my job search back on track again last week. By the end of the week, I was starting to get invitations to interviews – and I had two seemingly successful interviews on Monday, one of which was at a kindergarten very close to where I live. Even if nothing comes of these particular jobs, it leaves me feeling pretty confident about future prospects.

The only potential fly in the ointment now is getting a D-10 visa (my E-2 visa, sponsored by my last job, expires a month after I finished working, ie, mid- to late December). This is a ‘looking-for-work’ visa, and to qualify for it, I will probably need to prove that I can support myself in the country until I get a job. I can support myself – but my money is all in my British accounts and I don’t know if that will be a problem. It seems like getting the D-10 is usually not a big deal.

And that’s my life at the moment, work-wise. 2013 was a good year. I think expectations are the surest path to disappointment and frustration, but I have pretty high hopes for 2014.

The Prague CemeteryI’ve read a few books by Eco, now – The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and now this. While I didn’t think The Prague Cemetery was as good as the first two novels in that list, it was much, much better than the third.

The premise of this book is quite daring – on several levels. Using a wide array of historically accurate sources, Eco creates a fictional character who almost single-handedly, it seems, creates the vitriolic anti-Semitism of fin de siècle Europe, which culminates in the Russian creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which then, of course, leads to the terrible events of the 1930s and 40s.

Daring, because the subject matter is so sensitive; and because Eco’s narrative pretty attributes it all to one man; and because, except for the main character, it’s all – apparently – historically accurate: all the other characters (with a couple of minor exceptions and conflations) are real historical personages, all the events really happened. Daring also, because the main character develops two personalities, whose diaries and notes form letters to each other.

(Fictional) Simone Simonini, inspired by his (real) grandfather’s anti-Semitism as expressed in a (real) letter to (the real) Abbé Barruel, embarks on a career as a dishonest notary; he becomes a cunning forger first in his native Italy (Piedmont, actually, as there was no Italy as we know it in the mid-nineteenth century) and later in his adoptive France. He gets caught up in various historical events – Garibaldi’s battles in Sicily, the Fourth French Revolution, sensational exposés of Masonic rituals – and all the while develops his plans to discredit the Jewish people by concocting a fanciful story of a group of rabbis meeting in the Prague cemetery to discuss their plans to take over the world by such dastardly means as infiltrating governments and banks, introducing freedom of speech and social reforms and promoting republicanism.

Many long stretches of the book are fascinating reconstructions of historical intrigues. The sub-plot regarding a false persona that was created through psychological trauma is very promising at the beginning, but quickly becomes little more than a foil for Simonini’s amnesiac search for his own history. The depth of his hatred for Judaism – and for Jesuits, women, Germans, the French, Italians – in fact everyone except himself – is also quite entertaining. The various guises and ploys, plots and actions that Simonini is involved with make him a very appealing anti-hero. The milieu of late nineteenth century history-making and hysteria is expertly recreated.

And when I was old enough to understand, [my grandfather] reminded me that the Jew, as well as being as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmuck, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti, is adulterous through uncontrollable lust – the result of circumcision, which makes them more erectile, with a monstrous disproportion between their dwarfish build and the thickness of their semi-mutilated protuberance.

I dreamt about Jews every night for years and years.

A few facts make the narrative drag. The join-the-dots approach to constructing a plot means that the whole thing is rather meandering and it ends very suddenly. The double-narrative (actually, it’s a triple-narrative, as there is a Narrator-with-a-capital-N, too) doesn’t quite work; the mystery as to whether the secondary personality is a figment or a real person isn’t that mysterious. And lists – throughout his work, Eco cannot resist a good list, and they do start to seem like he’s showing off his impressive erudition.

We decided that the Grand Master of the Supreme Council of Charleston bore the titles of Brother General, Sovereign Commander, Master Adept of the Grand Symbolic Lodge, Secret Master, Perfect Master, Intimate Secretary, Provost and Judge, Master Elect of the Nine, Illustrious Elect of the Fifteen, Sublime Knight Elect, Chief of the Twelve Tribes, Grand Master Architect, Scottish Grand Elect of the Sacred Visage, Perfect and Sublime Mason, Knight of the East or of the Sword, Prince of Jerusalem, Knight of the East and West, Sovereign Prince of the Rose Croix, Grand Pontiff, Venerable Master ad vitam of all Symbolic Lodges, Noachite of Prussian Knight, Grand Master of the Key, Prince of Libanus and of the Tabernacle, Knight of the Brazen Serpent, Knight Commander of the Temple, Knight of the Sun, Prince Adept, Scottish Knight of Saint Andrew, Grand Elect Knight Kadosh, Perfect Initiate, Grand Inspector Inquisitor, Clear and Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret, Thirty-Three, Most Powerful Sovereign Commander General Grand Master Conservator of the Sacred Palladium, Sovereign Pontiff of Universal Freemasonry.

Umberto Eco

This was an entertaining and fascinating read, but it felt a little hampered by being tied to a range of historical events – albeit important and interesting historical events. So while this wasn’t my favourite Eco novel, it has restored my faith in him after the navel-gazing-fest of Queen Loana. I’m ready to read one of his other books, now – maybe Baudolino.

Notes from a Small IslandI got this book from an American guy I used to work with in Nowon in Seoul, back in 2009. I’ve noticed from one of the Facebook groups that he now also lives in Cheonan. It’s a small almost-island, I suppose.

In this book, Bill Bryson travels around Great Britain over seven weeks, using public transport (or his own feet), staying in modest hotels and wandering around the towns and cities he visits. It starts in Dover, where he recreates the moment a couple of decades earlier when he first arrived in England from France and ended up staying, marrying and having a family. The whole premise of the book was trigger by his imminent (at the time of writing – Notes from a Small Island is nearly twenty years old) move back to the States.

It’s a very entertaining book. Not only does it function as a travelogue, describing the various places and sights as well as his various modes of transport, but it has elements of memoir and polemic. Bryson talks about his first job in the UK, where he met his future wife; when he reaches Yorkshire he even takes a break from travelling to spend a night or two at home. He also rages against the various ugly buildings that have been inflicted on Britain’s High Streets and against the difficulties of journeying on bus and train networks that refuse to provide logical transfer options.

Highlights of his tour include, walking between seaside towns on the south coast, taking mountain train rides in Wales (or was it the Pennines?), visiting a wonderfully preserved Roman mosaic in a forest, only to be told by a reader (this later edition informs us) that it was a Victorian reconstruction, driving to John o’ Groats, watching one of the first IMAX films at what was then the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television and is now the National Media Museum.

And there’s plenty of observations about the British character, from the strange mix of the ancient, the old and the modern, the insular mentality – the bureaucratic to the individual – to endless debates about the best way to drive somewhere, being called ‘love’ or ‘mate’ by everyone, politeness and our genius for queuing.

CPRE Bill Bryson - Hamsphire-  South Downs - 3.jpg

Along the way, Bryson reveals his own occasional lack of politeness. He shouts at a hotel manager who’d locked him out one night and retired; the next morning, Bryson offers a miserable apology and the manager receives it with phlegmatic cheer. One particular low-point – where Bryson loses a few points in the Good Human Being stakes – is when he has a go at a McDonalds worker for asking if he wanted an apple pie with his McBreakfast – and continues to lay into him despite the lad calmly repeating that it’s just part of his McJob.

But this lapse doesn’t really detract from the fact that Notes from a Small Island is an engaging book full of laugh-out-loud moments and interesting musings on Britain and Britishness.

A couple of weeks ago was the Korean harvest festival called Chuseok – a three-day holiday that, this year, fell on a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, thus creating a five-day weekend. In addition, my delayed summer holiday followed on immediately, giving me twelve consecutive days of non-work.

On Wednesday, I held a coffee morning here in Cheonan, which got a pretty good turn-out. I was given a late birthday present of some chocolate cake/pie, which was very tasty. Afterwards, three of us set out on a quest to locate a cat café in Cheonan – in which we eventually succeeded.

The following day, Chuseok Day itself, I headed up to Seoul and met a group of friends for a walk around Gyeongbokgung – the main royal palace. It was busier than I’d expected and pretty warm, but we had a good time looking at the fantastic architecture, posing for photos and browsing the exhibits in the Folk Museum. After that, we had food and drink in a Bukchon café and played card games. I’d told people I wanted to see a film in the evening, but that didn’t pan out; those of us still remaining had dinner at a cheap Korean restaurant in Insadong before heading home.

Gyeongbokgung

Actually, I headed to Zach’s home, as I’d invited another group of friends to a day of gaming in Sinsa on Friday. We only actually played two games. The first was a Burning Wheel one-shot run by Peter – which, somewhat surprisingly, turned out to actually be a one-shot which is to say, we finished it on the day).

Our disparate group of characters were supposed to retrieve an Elixir of Life from a dragon’s hoard to give to a dying princess. Most of us had ulterior motives. The game ended with the prince drinking the elixir himself (thus becoming immortal) and escaping with a magic sword of truth and killing one of the last surviving characters causing the victim to come back as a ghost and haunt him. Our cheer at this happy conclusion caused the coffee shop staff to ask us to be quiet. After dinner we played my game Islands of the Azure Sea, which I’d just updated. I’m starting to think a maximum of eight players is rather too many.

I had a wedding to go to on Saturday, then, on Sunday, I met Natasha – an Englishwoman I and my ex-girlfriend met while volunteering on a farm in Iceland, and who was visiting Korea for a couple of weeks – and Alisha a friend from the Tolkien reading group. We headed back to my place so Natasha could drop off her bag, and they peered at my cat in her hiding place. Then we went up to Sinbu-dong, the city centre area, and spent an hour at the cat café (which is called The Cat) that I’d previously located. Jocelyn joined us while we were there.

The café is divided into two areas, a larger area with the entrance and counter and so on, and then a smaller, but still reasonably big, area partitioned off with a large window running the length of one side and glass sliding doors on another side. Before going in here – which is where the cats hang out – you have to change your footwear for cheap rubber sandals and clean your hands with disinfectant, as well as putting your possessions in a locker.

The Cat Café

When I was there the first time, the owner told me he had eighteen cats. They include a Maine coon, a Scottish fold, an American curl, a sphynx or two, some oriental shorthairs, a couple of munchkins and others. The cats – apart from the munchkins – are all very friendly and seem quite happy. The Maine coon has its back shaved, for some reason, and one or two cats with long fur look like they could do with a bath – I’m not sure if their greasy fur indicates an illness or the fact that they get petted a lot by people with sweaty hands. There was one big cat – an Abyssinian, I think – that gave all of us a hug.

After the cat café, we went to the Arario Gallery – which I’d never been to in my ten months in Cheonan. I got Alisha and Jocelyn to pose next to a couple of Anthony Gormley sculptures. The current exhibition was by a Korean artist called CI Kim and included an interesting range of media, from found art washed up on a beach to big plastic triangles to paintings of children holding emotive signs.

Buddha Statue

We went for coffee downstairs in the Coffee Bean. Jocelyn left us, but Eve joined us, and after a bit we met Mike and Tera and their friend Brandon for a trip to Taejosan, a nearby mountain, home to Gakwonsa, a Buddhist temple with a big Buddha sculpture. After looking around the temple, we had dinner at a vegetarian buffet restaurant. Then we (minus Alisha, who had to return home) headed back to Mike and Tera’s for a game of Cards Against Humanity.

On Monday, Natasha and I started carrying out our plan to head down to Busan and see some of the south coast. We got to the KTX station in Cheonan nice and early and therefore arrived in Busan nice and early. We hadn’t identified anywhere specific to stay, but we decided on Haeundae because there are plenty of hotels, motels and suchlike around there. Our plan was to ask at a few places and see what was reasonable in terms of price. In the event, we checked out a small pension first and at ₩50,000 for a room for the two of us it seemed OK and our search came to an end. We probably could have found some where nicer, but it was par for the course for Korean pensions.

Mermaid Statue

We walked up an down the beach. It was sunny and breezy and a big embankment of sand had been built for the forthcoming Busan International Film Festival festivities. The purpose of this wall, we could only guess at. We had a burger for lunch at a fancy-ish burger place – best burger ever, according to Natasha – then walked around the coast towards Gwangan. We took pictures of the mermaid statue and the fourteenth century (or earlier) Hae Un Dae carving in the rock, walked around the APEC conference building, craned our necks at the blue skyscrapers and tried to find the Busan Museum of Art. When we finally located it, it was closed – it was Monday. We had a coffee at a Twosome Place (no, really – it’s one of the many coffee shop chains in Korea) and played cards.

APEC House and Gwangan Bridge

Then we took the subway and walked to Busan Museum – also closed. So we walked up the hill to the Cultural Centre, finding a friendly cat on the way. Natasha marvelled at the chandeliers in the concert hall lobby and we watched some musicians have their photo taken on the plaza outside. We went back to Gwangalli and had seafood for dinner, watched the lights on the bridge and a lightshow projected on the rain from a jet of water.

Gwangalli Beach

The next morning, we spent an hour on the subway to the Intercity Bus Terminal, an hour on a coach to Gohyeon – the main city, it seems, on Geoje Island – then well over an hour on a bus out to Haegeumgang. Actually, the driver dropped us off at a nearby village – even though the route information said the bus terminated a Haegeumgang – and we had to wait for another bus for another ten minute ride.

As we hadn’t really researched exactly where we wanted to go, I asked a ticket clerk at the bus station in Gohyeon what was a good beach to visit and she recommended Haegeumgang and told us which bus to take. Haegeumgang is a picturesque, rocky island and it has no beach – so I may have used a word that translates more accurately as ‘coast’. We didn’t take a ferry around the island, but, after a lunch of more seafood, we walked up a nearby hill to a view platform with great views in most directions. When I tried to reach the actually summit, I found it to be closed with a padlocked, barbed wire-encircled door.

Haegeumgang

After missing two buses, we took a taxi back to Gohyeon (₩17,000) and a coach back to Busan, then subwayed to the Museum of Art – which was open. The museum was pretty massive, but its spaciousness made it seem like there wasn’t that much stuff in it. We wandered around all the galleries, admiring, in particular, a collection of works about Korean-Japanese relations, such as the painting of two dogs biting each other, a series of woodcuts telling the story of a Japanese-run mine and a huge mural of corpses and Buddha statues based on the Gwangju massacre.

We headed back to the pension for a shower, had dinner at the burger place and met Jessica for an all too brief chat.

The next day, we headed back to the Bus Terminal, with all our bags this time, and caught a coach to Suncheon. Once we’d checked in to a hotel – Hotel BMW, ₩35,000 for a room – we caught a bus out to Suncheon Bay Ecological Park – the site of Korea’s biggest wetland.

Suncheon Bay Ecological Park

We dutifully walked around the museum first, reading and forgetting various bits of information about wetlands, then looked for something to eat in the ‘cafeteria’ and the ‘convenience store’. Rather inconveniently, as we were both hungry, they had nothing more than small pastries and crisps. After eating a packet of crisps each (actually, mine was a dried tofu snack), we started walking through the wetlands on jetty-like walkways, taking pictures of the massive fields of reeds and the occasional heron, crab and bunch of mudskippers.

Suncheon Bay Ecological Park 2

On the far side of the reed fields, we walked up the familiarly named Yongsan, a forested hill with an observation platform looking out over the bay. I took lots of photos of the view, including distant hills and islands and the circular reed beds on the coast. Natasha was particularly taken with the maroon-ish colour of some of the vegetation.

After a convenience store lunch and a brief encounter with a couple of Mormon girls (one Korean, one from Salt Lake City), we headed back into town and then out again to Seonamsa on another pretty long bus ride. We walked around this Buddhist temple at dusk as the monks were performing some sort of ceremony. This began with monks taking turns to perform epic drum solos on a giant drum in the entrance building (on the ground floor of which was a shop, the attendant of which harassed Natasha as she looked around). Then the monks gathered in one of the halls for chanting and praying. It was nice and peaceful; there were a few other tourists around, but not many.

Buddhist Drumming

The following day – Thursday – was our last day together and we decided to check out Yeosu Expo – the site of a world exposition last year. I was a little confused about what was going on there because there was also a garden expo in the area, but that turned out to be in Suncheon. Yeosu is close to Suncheon, but is a separate town. Yeosu Expo is also a terminus of a KTX line, so it seemed like a good place to head back home from.

Yeosu Expo

Unfortunately, there was really nothing going on at Yeosu Expo – there was some sort of ‘character festival’ for kindergarteners and the nearby aquarium seemed to be open for business. Most of the exhibition halls were closed and empty and the whole place seemed a bit sad and dilapidated for something that is only a year old. We had a strange French toast-croque-monsieur thing and a drink in a café on the site and played some cards then caught our train home. It was a regular train rather than KTX – four hours to Cheonan, five to Seoul – as it was at the most convenient time.

It was great to spend time with Natasha and quite satisfying to use my minimal expertise to show her around. It was also good to finally have my summer week off work, even though it was a pretty tiring round of early starts and long bus and train rides. It was also a little weird to consider that Natasha is a link to my ex-girlfriend and that our lives are pretty close, but completely divorced from each other. But it’s only loneliness that makes me dwell on this, I suppose. But Natasha was great company – it was lovely to spend time with someone as good-natured as her; her being British was a bonus, too.

Natasha and Sean

Although there was lots of moving around, this short, concentrated burst of travelling works quite well, I think. Busan is a great place to spend a couple of days on holiday, and there are lots of places on the south coast that would be worth exploring; the little that we saw was very pleasant – even Yeosu Expo had a certain charm. The experience makes me want to explore more of the country – just not necessarily by myself.

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