Archive for March, 2009

Lovely Girls Contest

The title of this post is, of course, a reference to an episode of Father Ted – ‘Rock a Hula Ted’ – that I’ve recently re-watched (‘Of course – they all have lovely bottoms.’).

On Friday night, straight after work, I went to taekwondo for my half lesson with I Sabeomnim. By the time we’d finished our short training session the dojang was pretty much deserted. I tried once again to persuade her to let me give her English classes. Once again, she professed her interest, but said she was very busy. She also told me, however, that she was studying by herself. I asked her what exactly she was looking at and she said, ‘Bulbs.’ ‘Bulbs?’ ‘Yes, uh, vulbs.’ She meant ‘verbs’. She also said she was planning to maybe go to America in a couple of years’ time.

She also invited me to go to a camp for the taekwondo students next weekend and be a ghost with her. I agreed, of course, but I have my doubts about the latter part of the deal.

On Saturday, I went to meet Lucy, or Lucia, or Ji-hyeon – I prefer the latter, although she was introduced to me as the former – a friend of our colleague Ally or Yu-jeong. I’d asked a few of my Korean colleagues about finding someone for a language exchange – someone to teach me Korean while I taught them English. I was bracing myself for failure in this enterprise, but Yu-jeong – the flame-haired Valkyrie – came through with Lucy’s phone number.

I gave Yu-jeong a small present. It was pretty paltry, I suppose, but I’d been collecting cards from Starbucks offering free drinks. Most of them were extra shots, but I had one for a tall Americano. Last week, distributed them amongst the Korean teachers, and I gave Ally my sole ‘second prize’ card.

Anywho, I met Ji-hyeon at Sinchon (pronounced ‘Shin-chon’) for lunch on Saturday. I thought I might be late, but it turned out that she was. She offered to cover lunch because of this, but I didn’t let that happen. I’d been to the area once before – although it’s right next to Hongdae, which I’ve been to a few times – when I went out with the foreign teacher from Ansan shortly before I finished my previous job; I remember visiting a Burger King in the early hours of the morning. Lucy and I went to an Italian restaurant, where she had some seafood pasta that she didn’t like much; I had a rice croquette in a rich tomato sauce – mine was really good.

We talked for a while about what we wanted from this language exchange. Lucy tried speaking Korean to me, but it was aju eoryeowoyo (very difficult). She took my level two textbook to study to come up with excercises for me. I suggested she write essays for me. Her English is very good – better than your average Korean English teacher – so I’m apprehensive of how to go about ‘teaching’ her. She’s currently in Italy at a book fair, buying books for education publisher she works for. We’re meeting again next weekend – although I’ve just realised there might be a clash in my schedule (see below).

She’s 30 years old, I think, which is about 32 in Korean terms (for instance, I’m both 32 and 34). She’s also very good-looking – as many Korean women are. We went for a walk after lunch, to Ewha Women’s University. The campus is pretty interesting. It’s completely open to the public, and seems just like a normal park. There’s a kind of manmade gorge running through a shallow hill; this is all paved, and there are steps at the uphill end. The sides of the gorge are all fronted with glass and house various university faculties. As this is a women’s university, I couldn’t help thinking that the overall design is rather vaginal.

On the following day, Sunday (just in case you didn’t know that Sunday follows Saturday), I went down to an area called Ttukseom to ride bicycles with Habiba, the woman I met on the DMZ trip, and some of her colleagues.

I thought I was going to be just about on time, but I was late. The reason being that there’s a Ttukseom Station and a Ttukseom Resort Station; I’m familiar with the latter because it’s on the subway line I use for going to Gangnam and roleplaying – I just assumed that it was that stop we were meeting at when I was given my instructions. I rang Habiba to inform her there wasn’t an exit 8 at this station – but, of course, I was at the wrong stop.

Anyway, once I arrived I met Habiba and one of her colleagues, an American chap, the Korean girlfriend of another of her colleagues, and her school director, a Korean woman of about 40. We walked to Seoul Sup – Seoul Forest – which didn’t really seem to be a forest, just a big park. Once there, we met the director’s husband, their two daughters and their two friends.

Bike hire turned out to be ₩3,000 per hour – about £1.50. The bikes themselves were nothing special – bog standard 21-speed mountain bikes with several gears not working (my bike only went up to 14th gear). There were also ladies’ bikes for the ladies; Habiba got one of these and then had to swap it for something more manly because it didn’t handle so well.

We rode round the park for a bit, then paid for more time and took our cycles down to the river (which was possibly against the rules). The Han River – or Hangang – is a lot broader than the Thames (in central London, anyway) and much of both banks is lined with parkland and cycle paths. It’s a very pleasant place to go for a walk or, in last Saturday’s case, a ride.

I stuck with Habiba most of the time, but I chatted a little with the others. Habiba and I got separated from the others for a time and we rode our bikes to a rubble-strewn dead end and got off to look over the water for a while.

When we got back to the cycle hire place in the park there was some waiting around as other members of the party made their way back. The director’s family left us and there was talk about going for a meal. When we returned to Ttukseom Station (not Ttukseom Resort Station) I took my leave and headed back up to Nowon, having run out of things to say for the time being. Later in the evening I went to see Gran Torino, which was very good.

I like Habiba a lot, and I guess she likes me. I have to reason these things out as my insecurities regarding women are little short of crippling. She must like me – she invited me to go paintballing with her next weekend, and I invited her to come and see a film with me tonight. Both invitations were accepted. By the time I post this, that date will already have happened; I’ll try and write it up tomorrow.

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Zoned out, part three

I eventually got up at around 8:30 on Sunday morning – breakfast was supposed to be served between 8 and 9am. Bo, John and Rosie were still asleep (as far as I could tell).

I took my bag into the living room and gently tapped on the bathroom door. No response. The handle didn’t give when I tried so I waited for a while, thinking I might have knocked a little too gently. After a few minutes I reasoned that there was probably no one in there and I’d simply turned the handle the wrong way – the intuitive way. And so it was. While taking a shower I failed to set my towel down far enough away from the wide-spray shower head. It ended up being partially soaked.

Bo emerged from the bedroom once I’d finished in the bathroom and we headed over to get some breakfast. This turned out to be toast with fried eggs, jam or peanut butter (although why anyone would want to consume that shit in a jar is beyond me). I went back to the toasting table for some more toast and found there to be no bread – so I took a loaf out of a box of miscellaneous foods. I think this annoyed the tour guide – he was trying to get breakfast finished.

After breakfast there was some free time – tandem bicycles had been provided for people to go exploring. Bo and I walked over to the scene of the previous night’s ‘bravery game’ – the cenotaph on Baengmagoji. We were followed by Habiba and her friend. The I stopped to take a few photos of birds and icy fields, and we followed them the rest of the way.


I took a good few shots of the memorial – it’s a pretty huge thing, and, like the observatory from Saturday, it’s all grey stone and sharp edges. The weather wasn’t as good as it had been, but as Bo and I were up at the cenotaph and nosing around the tiny museum it wasn’t too bad. After a while we descended the hill to take part in another game.

Baengmagoji Cenotaph

The itinerary had informed us we would be doing some mine clearing. We’d joked that this was a ploy by the Korean government to use expendable foreigners for this dangerous task. On a more serious note we were hoping this might provide an insight into how mines are dealt with. In the event, we were split into groups of eight, each person working individually with a radio that was supposed to pick up a bleep from a small transmitter hidden somewhere on the hill.


This wasn’t nearly as much fun as it could have been – principally because the radios Bo and I ended up with didn’t appear to pick up anything other than ‘khhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’. We’re too old for that sort of thing, anyway. I fiddled with my dial and found a station playing classical music.

We stuck around to take more photos – including the brightly coloured (in a typically Korean way) bell pavilion – and take in the view. The weather drew in – by the time we left it was spitting.


When we returned to the guesthouse we still had a little time to kill before the coach left, so Botond and I took one of the tandems for a ride. I had us stop so I could take a few shots of the village. As happened so often during the trip, we were just about the last people to board the bus.

Our next and final stop on the tour was Jiktang Pokpo – Jiktang Waterfall. The tour guide described this as the Korean Niagara Falls. Partly seriously, partly ironically as it turned out. The comment didn’t really do Jiktang Pokpo justice – Niagara Falls is such a stupendous spectacle that Jiktang looks pathetic in comparison.

Actually, Jiktang Waterfall is a very pleasant site. Like Niagara Falls, Jiktang Pokpo is created by a kind of natural weir – the river is split by a fault into two distinct levels. These falls are maybe ten feet high, compared to Niagara’s 50 metres, or whatever it is. The Hantan River was fairly broad at this point, and also fairly shallow – especially above the waterfall. There were plenty of pebbles, boulders and rocks of all sizes strewn around.

Jiktang Pokpo

I took plenty of photographs and coincidentally (possibly) shadowed Habiba as she took her own snaps. We talked a little as we made our way round, over the river by a simple concrete bridge just upstream of the falls and down the road to meet the coach again. Downriver, ahead of us at this point, was a red bridge stretched across the river gorge. On the side of the bridge facing us was a structure of maybe three storeys with a platform at the top – a bungee jumping platform. Unfortunately, it isn’t open at this time of year.

Bungee Jumping Bridge

And we headed back to Seoul. At the rest stop close to Cheorwon Habiba and I chatted again. She gave me her card and invited me to go bike riding with her the following weekend – which activity I’ve just done, in fact.

All told I took nearly 550 photos – too many, probably – and I’m currently working on sorting through them and editing the best ones for my flickr page. Click on the thumbnails on the right to have a look at the ones I’ve done so far.

A good weekend, in summary. I think a trip to the DMZ is a pretty much mandatory for any foreigner living in Korea. Going on such a tour means that you don’t have to do much organising – and there could be more than usual with this location. There’s also not a huge amount to do up there, although Cheorwon appears to have a few more tourist attractions that we didn’t visit. As a result, this tour didn’t feel as hectic as the Jeju tour.

My next two priorities for Korean travel are Gyeongju and Busan; Ulleungdo (an island off the east coast) could also be an idea. My friend Paul has also invited me to join him somewhere in southeast Asia this summer – his time on the peninsula is at an end (or will be by June) so he wants to go travelling.

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Dr Manhattan/Jon Osterman to megalomaniac genius Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt; Watchmen.

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Rorschach in prison, being restrained after having dumped boiling oil on an attacker’s face; Watchmen.

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Sheldon, on The Big Bang Theory, season 2, episode 18. The conversation continues:

Penny: Who’s Radiohead?

[Sheldon’s face goes strange for a long moment.]

Sheldon: I have a working knowledge of the important things in the universe.

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Zoned out, part two

Guesthouse and Habiba by the Dead Fire

The guest house the party stayed at was more imposing than its size warranted simply because there were no other buildings near it – it would have been dwarfed in Seoul. In the main hall on the ground floor there were a number of tables and chairs laid out and, towards the kitchen end, was a freestanding stove – when we arrived the air inside was heavy with the smell of woodsmoke.


Most of the group (of about thirty) were to stay in the guest house, but two groups of five were to stay with families in the village. One group of five friends volunteered immediately. I suggested to Botond that we also go for the homestay option – it would probably be quieter. I could easily imagine drunken foreigners murdering sleep in the small hours. The organiser wanted us to find three more people, but we didn’t know who to ask. Eventually a couple stepped forward and the four of us were taken by a Korean man to his house.

The couple were John and Rosie, American and English respectively. We walked with the Korean into the village of Odaemi. I asked him later (in Korean – he didn’t have any English) how many people lived there; answer: 500. All the land around was flat, quilted with small fields of rice stubble. The village clustered around the road running through it. It appeared to have a couple of convenience stores, a couple of churches (perhaps more) and a school. About half the houses were bungalows, as was our host’s house.


The houses themselves all seemed quite new and well-kept. The gardens and streets were another matter, though. The space around most of the houses was filled with rubble, furniture, general rubbish. Koreans don’t seem to be big gardeners. Across the sidestreet from our home a labrador was tied up near the remains of some giant spools.


Inside, the house was much the same as a city apartment. It was nice and quite and kept at a good temperature. The four of us dropped off our bags in the spare room and sat for a while on the sofa, watching some popular Korean TV programme that looks pretty awful. The man of the house, and his young brother, were very quiet. Bo and I tried making conversation in Korean – Bo with a little more success than me.

After that we went back to the hall to have dinner – a mediocre bulgogi supplemented with some rather nicer fish. In front of the guest house, the Korean staff started a bonfire – with copious amounts of some flammable liquid. A truck was parked nearby with a flatbed full of wood. As night fell we were taken to a nearby hill, Baengmagoji (which means ‘White Horse Hill’ because, apparently, it looks like a horse lying down); the itinerary for Saturday night reads ‘Let’s do bravely game together’. This was supposed to be ‘bravery game’ – and in the event it consisted of walking up the hill, albeit in the dark and singly.

The bravery aspect came from a rather pathetic attempt at headology. The hill and the nearby land was the scene of fierce fighting in the Korean War, and thousands of men lost their lives there. The tour guide told us that their spirits still haunted the area. At the crest of the hill there was a huge cenotaph, and a little beyond that a bell and an observation platform – although none of this was lighted. From the latter we could see the lights of the hilltop guard stations, but little else.

Back at the guest house the bonfire had settled in and people began to set fire to marshmallows on the end of twigs. I helped myself to handful of marshmallows, but I didn’t bother trying to roast them. The wind was pretty strong – standing downwind of the fire wasn’t a good idea – and the night air was frigid. The trick of standing next to the fire was to find a sweet spot where the fierce heat counterbalanced the iciness of the night. And also to try to prevent anyone from coming and standing in front of you and stealing your warmth. This happened to me a few times.

Young Bonfire

I spoke to a Korean American woman for a few minutes over dinner. Although Bo was sitting next to me, we’d been chatting throughout the day and I felt chatted out, so we didn’t talk much on Saturday night. Around the bonfire people talked and joked, as people do in these situations. I just stared into the embers. It wasn’t at all late – after dark but hours before midnight – and was well before my habitual bedtime (about 3 or 4am) and I wasn’t tired.

As time went on, more people went inside to get out of the cold and drink. A voice next to me said something along the lines of, ‘Hi, what’s your name?’ A couple of seconds later I realised it was directed at me. The voice belonged to Habiba, a Canadian American woman. We talked for a long while. She told me she grew up in a Sufi spiritualist community in the States, though now she regards Montréal as her home (one of her parents is Canadian, one American, so she has dual citizenship). She’s a fan of Father Ted. Later on I helped her and another guy carry wood from the truck to the fire.

Towards midnight we were told to stop adding wood to the fire. At midnight we started burying the fire to put it out, but the younger tour guide told us to leave it. John and Rosie had gone back to our homestay a couple of hours previously, so I was a bit nervous about heading back so late. When Bo and I got there, the man was watching TV. We went to bed.

John and Rosie were in the double bed, and Bo and my bedding was set up next to each other. In order to preserve our manliness, Bo volunteered to move to the other wall near the door. However, later in the night he moved back next to me as it was too cold. The floor was heated, and, sleeping in clothes, I didn’t find the temperature too bad – although it was still a little on the chilly side. I slept intermittently, but at least I slept.

Stay tuned for Sunday’s adventures in ‘Zoned out, part three’.

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Jack Bauer, on 24, Day 7, episode 14.

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Zoned out, part one

This weekend I went to a village called Odaemi which is close to the border with North Korea. It’s something like five kilometres from the Demilitarized Zone (which I usually remember to refer to as the Dee-Em-Zed) and is actually within the Civilian Controlled Zone that borders the border. So to speak.

The weekend started bright and early on Saturday morning. I knocked on Travis’s door on the next floor down from me at around 7:40. He answered, slightly distressingly, in his underpants and explained that he was feeling sick and wasn’t going to come. Even though he’d promised to pay ₩99,000 for the trip. I said I hoped he felt better soon and went off to meet Botond at Nowon Station.

From oop north in Nowon we had a longish subway ride down to the Express Bus Terminal, sahf o’ the river. Here we gave our names to the young guy (his name may, in fact, have been Young – I can’t remember) from Adventure Korea. Adventure Korea is the same company that ran the trip to Jeju that I went on in November. The young guy was the selfsame young guy who represented the company on that trip and who flew back with me to Seoul on the slightly earlier flight.

The bus turned up around 9:30 and left about ten minutes later carrying its load of oeguks. The drive to our destination, an area called Cheorwon in northwest Gangwon-do (the province that occupies the northeast corner of the country), only took a couple of hours. In purely geophysical terms the area is very similar to Seoul – it’s all a mix of flood plains and low mountains. Of course, this part of the country is a lot less developed than the capital – it’s countryside, in fact.

As we passed into the Controlled Zone, we stopped at a checkpoint where a soldier came aboard and checked us out. Although there were a number of troops at various such checkpoints, the military presence was by no means overwhelming. The soldiers generally seemed quite relaxed and would wave as we passed.

At the tail-end of winter, as we are now, everything was very bare and grey; except for all the pine trees on the hills there was very little greenery. The fields were all filled with neat rows of stubble. The evidence of civilisation is nowhere near as picturesque as Britain – it’s all breezeblock walls, telephone lines and colourful signs. Still a nice change from the Big Smoke, though.

The first stop on our itinerary was Goseokjeong War Museum. The museum itself wasn’t much to talk about. It contained a number of North Korean artefacts – ordinary items like money, stamps, toys, liquor bottles, clothes. All the information panels were in Korean. In front of the museum were a number of examples of wartime matériel – a tank, an APC, an artillery piece, a few planes.


Behind the museum ran a river where the actual Goseokjeong was located. This pavilion overlooks a very scenic gorge with a huge rock sitting in the middle of the water. Also nearby was a funfair; it seemed somehow incongruous.


Our second stop was Infiltration Tunnel Number Two. North Korea is believed (so our guides told us) to have dug as many as twenty tunnels beneath the mountains in order get a jump on the South in the event of a war. Obviously, they wouldn’t have finished the tunnels until they were needed, so South Korean engineers discovered the four known ones by drilling. The actual tunnel wasn’t much to talk about, although one ought to be impressed by the feat of engineering. We walked down the jag-sided passage for a few hundred yards, banging our hatted heads on the undulating ceiling every now and then, until we reached a wide area (complete with seating), where a couple of model soldiers and one real trooper guarded a gate to the further tunnel. Apparently the tunnel could hold 30,000 men. We had been instructed not to take photos inside, and, because I’m a good boy, I didn’t. Though I did take a snatch of video.


After that we were ferried to Cheorwon Peace Observatory just a short distance from the now-legendary DMZ. The observatory building was typically Korean: very new, all sharp-edged grey stone and shiny steel railings and, to be honest, quite soulless. The weather on Saturday was crystal clear so we could see hills and mountains poking out of the flat lands well into the North. There were guardposts on most of the hills, belonging to one side or another; just visible winding through the countryside was the modest fence marking the edge of the DMZ.


The interior of the observatory consisted of a small museum with various displays on the DMZ and the battles around Cheorwon all with good English translations; and an auditorium of maybe two hundred seats facing the windows to the North. Suspended from the ceiling were several video screens which played us a short (really short: only a couple of minutes) film about the area. This began with the opening of bars of the main theme from Back to the Future and then the background music to the voiceover was some awful sinister music like something from a bad eighties horror film. Dead classy.

We had been told that, once again, photos were verboten – at least of the North. However, while we were there, there was no one enforcing this rule – no soldiers – and so it was open season. Although the sky was impeccably blue, the wind was strong and sharp as a surgeon’s tool box. I froze my fingers off getting a number of panoramic shots and zoom shots of guard posts.


The next stop on the trip was Woljeongni Station – apparently the last stop on its line going north. The main point of interest here was the Iron Horse – a rusted, collapsed hulk of a train full of bullet holes.


Also at the site was a nature museum – the DMZ area is an important temporary home for migratory birds. The museum building had an overwhelming rubbery, gluey smell of newness. Many of the stuffed animals were badly, erm, taxidermed – there were lots of squishy heads and scruffy plumage. My favourite part was a map with lots of arrows emanating from Korea each with a bird silhouette next to it; it seemed to imply that all the birds of east Asia and Oceania come from Korea.


Our final stop of the day before reaching our accommodation at Odaemi was the ruin of the North Korean Labour Party Building. Cheorwon was controlled by the North for five years and this building was the scene of torture and executions. Today it’s just a hollow shell – it reminded me a lot of the British Residency building in Lucknow, actually. We walked around it and took photos. I had my first coffee of the day from a vending machine outside a convenience store – both of these things are ubiquitous in Korea.


Then we went to the guest house in Odaemi Village where we (or most of us) would be staying the night – it was tastefully modelled on the Labour Party Building. I’ll write up the rest of the trip soon.

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God to Satan in Old Harry’s Game, series 7, episode 4.

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The new term

We started our new term at work last week. It’s been fairly stressful.

There’s all the paperwork that had to be sorted out. Vocabulary lists for the novels being studied by the elementary students; syllabuses for all classes (the foreign teachers were responsible for the speaking class syllabuses); grade sheets for recorded homework; getting used to the timetable. We also had a new teacher start with us, an American woman called Sandy – that wasn’t stressful as such, but we needed to advise her on how things ought to be done.

Getting the syllabuses and vocabularies done wasn’t too much of a hassle. I did most of the former myself, and even the books that don’t easily break down into ten units aren’t all that tricky to do. I tried to make the homework as specific as possible, balancing it with the amount of work done in class. I knew that one or two textbooks, though, would be difficult to complete more than a couple of pages per class, so my homework for that one was ‘Finish classwork’. I don’t take those classes, but I’m sure the students weren’t too impressed. I don’t think my colleague Travis put in as much thought. I have one book with long units (and therefore difficult to finish in one 45 minute class) where the syllabus he made has just one page of homework per class.

The most stressful part is getting all the pieces of paper ready for the classes. On each classes very first lesson each teacher has to hand out a range of sheets: the overall syllabus, a timetable, that class’s syllabus, the students’ new books. Then the students should glue, tape or staple their papers into their folders and books. Some classes have addition pieces of paper – vocabulary lists and ‘mini-tests’. The second speaking class of the week for the elementary students also requires the handing out of green tape grade sheets. Of course, I forgot to get enough for some of my first SP2 classes – and then the green paper ran out.

There was one moment where I’d put students into groups to work on a sheet of questions I’d made up for the SP2 class and one girl was sitting on her chair in the middle of the aisle up the centre of the class. As she was sitting right on the edge of her chair and I needed to leave the classroom to make photocopies and I didn’t have much time I decided not to get her to move out of the way, but instead just stepped on her chair and headed out. She wasn’t too happy about this, but the main embarrassment was that the father of one of my students was right outside the classroom with a book that his daughter had forgotten.

And then there are the large middle school classes. These are the really soul-destroying ones. The smaller middle school classes with students who don’t say anything aren’t too bad – frustrating, but also quite relaxing in a way. I don’t like the classes with a large percentage of boys who won’t shut the fuck up. I’m going to start giving detentions early on this term I think. We also have a new piece of paper in the registers which is to be used to make notes on problem students. I’ve not really looked at this so far, but I should.

The highlight of last week’s schedule was probably the extra speaking class on Wednesday with L6 students. The L6 classes (with maybe eleven year old students – they’re in the middle of elementary school) were some of my favourites last semester – and I had a lot of them. This term I have none – except for this special, double-length Wednesday class. I was asked to choose a book for the class a couple of weeks ago – and it’s turned out well so far. My students (mostly, if not all students I had in the previous term) had to brainstorm ideas for things to include in a spacecraft that might be received by aliens – a Voyager II, basically; then, in a second discussion, they had to pare this list down to five items. One group said they would send one of themselves, Betty, along with food and water, air, and a cellphone so she could call home.

I work till ten on Fridays so that’s conflicting with my taekwondo classes. I had no taekwondo last Friday (although I did get hold of my blue belt on Wednesday). Master Lee did say she would stay behind later on Fridays to teach me, but she was meeting friends last week. We sent a few text messages back and forth on Thursday to see if I could come at a different time, but nothing came of that.

That was last week. This week has been less stressful (although I’ve only taught Monday’s classes so far). Well, except for marking the dictation homework for listening comprehension classes – it’s the first time we’ve been required to do that and, having done it twice last night, I’m still not sure I quite understand what’s required.

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