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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

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.

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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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Today, instead of working from two to nine-thirty, I got up early and joined the majority of my students on a trip to a water park near Cheonan. I arrived at the meeting point at a nearby bus stop and found no one there. So I waited a bit and some of the kids walked past, so I followed them to the big red coach that was waiting a few metres away.

The bus was far too big for our needs. It could have seated the better part of fifty passengers, but had about two dozen people including the boss, the Korean teacher and me. The drive took less than half an hour.

Once at Tedin Water Park, we lined up for a bit – well, the kids did; I hung about to one side – and a member of staff gave everyone a device that looked like a young girl’s watch. It was the locker ‘key’. Inside, we deposited our footwear in a small locker, then entered the changing rooms. As there was a gaggle of children – not all of them ours, it seemed – in front of my main locker I decided to just sit and wait.

Eventually, I was changed and had covered myself in sunscreen and was ready to go outside. We were all given life jackets; I didn’t put mine on, but eventually relented and wore it. Many of the kids – and visitors – seemed overdressed. Most people seemed to wear at least a T-shirt in addition to their swimming costume – perhaps a lightweight hoodie, too. There were a few young women who walked around in bikinis only, but their dryness and lack of life jackets indicated that they had no interest in going into the water.

Tedin Waterpark

I felt kind of miserable for the first part of the morning. There were too many people and I felt like a fish out of water, not really knowing what to do. I went off by myself for a bit and found a quiet area to look over the park. Then I decided I should get over it and decided to find some of our children.

I was rescued from my funk by some of the elementary school girls, who grabbed me and pulled me to this feature that consisted of a channel that looped around much of the outer part of the facility. There were hundreds of big inflatable rings being used or floating freely. Close to the entrance, there was a section where huge gush of water thundered into the channel and propelled everyone forwards a few metres.

I wasn’t allowed entry at first because I didn’t have a hat, but one of the girls gave me hers and she put up her hood. Like the life jackets, it seemed like a strange, overly protective measure, but the thousands of people who must pass through every day are probably capable of shedding a fair amount of hair.

Tedin Waterpark 2

It turned out to be quite fun. The girls escorted me to a big wave pool, which wasn’t quite as exciting, but at least afforded a tiny bit more space in which to actually swim a few metres. There was a big ride called the Tsunami, but it seemed to have a really long queue, so no one wanted to go on that (the elementary kids were probably too young, anyway). We did go one slide. The chute was covered so you shot down in complete blackness apart from the start and the end. The joins in the chute bumped my shoulder blades in an almost painful way.

Lunch was bizarrely early at about 11:10. We seemed to have an assigned time as well as assigned seating in a cafeteria that was separate from the food court. The food was a bit prison-ish: a white plastic tray with modest amounts of rice, bulgogi, kimchi and (for some reason) corn, plus a bowl of watery but tasty soup with those beige spongy things that I’m not sure I know the name for. It wasn’t exactly filling, but I suppose swimming on a full stomach is not so pleasant.

At lunch, my boss let me know that she wanted me to make a decision about whether I would sign on for another year or leave in November by Monday.

The afternoon progressed much as the morning had – except that there were twice as many people. I retrieved my own hat from my locker (and reapplied sunblock). As the younger kids couldn’t go into the deeper parts of the wave pool, I kept losing them when I came out. If I’d stuck with them, I might have had more fun, or at least kept busy, but whenever I was on my own I was at a loose end.

Eventually, I decided I’d had enough and went and showered and changed. I noticed in the mirror that I was a little pink where my skin had been exposed to the sun. The backs of my feet and hands and arms had a very mild sting of sunburn, but they seem OK now. I came back out into the water park area wearing my jeans, T-shirt and backpack, but barefoot. I was about in time to meet up with everyone as they got ready to leave.

So the day wasn’t terrible – I had some fun and the kids certainly seemed to enjoy themselves (all but one older boy who told me towards the end that he was angry because he’d been given responsibility for looking after the youngsters). I’d never been to one of these places before. It hadn’t really been a priority. I’m not sure that I’d ever want to return to a water park – not unless it was on a weekday outside of holiday season and I was with someone who would encourage my playful side.

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At the weekend, I went on my first group trip in a while – to Jindo, primarily. Jindo is an island off the south coast of Korea where, twice a year, the tide lowers to reveal a land pass to a much smaller island. The second part of the trip involved going to a butterfly festival.

After returning to Korea, I had a period of going on lots of trips (well, a few, anyway), but in the last couple months I haven’t attended many – or any. I’ve been concentrating on spending time with the people I’ve met and haven’t felt the need to meet new people. I still don’t really, but I saw that one of my new friends had signed up for this trip, so I did, too; she later told me she wasn’t going to go. It was also the longest trip I’ve been on since I’ve been back in the country – a full weekend.

I got the first bus out of Cheonan on Saturday morning – six o’clock. It should have arrived at the terminal a short distance from the meeting point at about seven, but there was a crash on the motorway that made me a little late. As soon as I boarded the second coach, the organiser, Harry, gave me a microphone and wanted me to introduce myself. I said, ‘I’m Sean. I’m from the UK. Sorry I’m late.’ Fortunately for my self-esteem, I wasn’t the last person arriving, so we didn’t actually set off until eight.

It was a long ride down to the south-west corner of the country. I sat next to a Korean guy who had lived in the States for a long time and we chatted about Korea and Korean. We stopped for lunch in Mokpo – where Harry announced to our smaller lunch group that they should all go to my birthday party. We made another stop to cross Jindo bridge on foot; the bridge is actually two very similar bridges side by side. The bridges had statues of Yi Sun-sin (pronounced ‘ee soon sheen’) – the Korean equivalent of Nelson or Raleigh; he fought against the Japanese invasion in the sixteenth century.

Yi Sun-sin Statue on Jindo Bridge

The continuing ride from the bridge to the beach we were visiting seemed inordinately long, but we eventually got there. On this leg, most of us put on the cheap rubber and plastic waders we’d bought from a man at the bridge; mine – and most people’s – were bright green. We walked to the festival site, where Harry bought tickets, and made our way towards the seasonal causeway that we’d come all this way to see. We were early, so there was lots of milling around, photograph-taking and so on. I didn’t have much cash, so I didn’t buy anything, although there were stalls selling food and drink. The group pretty much dissolved at this stage.

We all got together again as the tide continued to go down and stretches of the land pass were revealed; some people started making the crossing early through what looked like a couple of feet of water. We clambered over the rocks on the coast and on to the pebbly seabed and followed the crowds heading across the sea towards a small island in the distance. It didn’t look that far away, but the information I’ve read says that the land pass is nearly three kilometres long.

Jindo Land Pass

Having agglomerated into a single group once more to commence the crossing, we quickly dissipated into smaller clusters. I talked to a Moroccan woman on the way over and back about life and work. We bumped into one of my other new friends, Erica (we’d been in contact about meeting while we were there, but it didn’t look like we would actually make it happen. I saw a couple of other people I’d met on trips – it seemed like every foreigner-friendly tour/Meetup group was there in force; the expats almost outnumbered the Koreans). We didn’t actually make it all the way to the smaller island; our group leader told us we had to start heading back; a coast guard ship started sounding a loud horn and men in a dinghy blew their whistles at us.

Captain Maybe in Shallow Water

The walk back was a little bit frantic. The tidal flow evidently crosses the the causeway instead of being parallel to it, so water was rushing from left to right as we headed back to the main island, at depths of up to a foot – maybe more.

We stayed at a pension near the bridge(s) overnight. In the morning, as most people were breakfasting, I took a short walk across the road to the park by the giant statue of Yi Sun-sin that faces Jindo Bridge.

Yi Sun-sin Statue

We packed up and boarded the coach and headed back to Mokpo. An American woman sat next to me and we talked about fantasy books; she kindly gave me a couple of ibuprofen for my headache. In Mokpo, we had a short hike up a mountain close to the middle of the city called Yudalsan. On the way down, I talked to a different American woman who was also into fantasy and who had lived in Manchester (the British one) for several years. We found a cash machine, went to a coffee shop where we met another member of our group – a Canadian guy – and took our coffees back to the bus.

Mokpo

Then it was off to the butterfly festival at Hampyeong Expo Park. The weather was bright and warm and the place was full of flowers so the atmosphere was cheerful and friendly. It was a very family-friendly place; there various places to buy ice cream and toys and there were giant fibreglass models of insects. Out among fields of oil seed rape there were pools and rice paddies where you could try your hand at catching fish, planting rice or operating a waterwheel.

Lifting Water

The side of a nearby small mountain had a huge flowerbed in the shape of a butterfly. The butterfly hall was a little less impressive than similar places I’ve visited in the Philippines and Malaysia – at least in terms of the species it contained: I only made out two kinds of butterfly – white ones and black and white ones. It also had some live giant beetle grubs that you could pick up.

Butterfly

I tagged along with a few people; later, it looked like we’d get a group together to have lunch, but it didn’t really happen. I ended up having some rather expensive (₩8,000) chicken tandoori from an Indian food stall (which, for some reason, had a large picture of the Hagia Sofia at the back); then I got a kebab from the Turkish stand (which also had a Hagia Sofia picture).

Hampyeong Expo Park

Then we all got back on the coach and we headed back home. Well, nearly all; both the Korean man and the American woman (and her friend) that I’d sat next to left at this point to go their own way. I chatted to a Frenchman on the way back – he’s in the country working on RAM, apparently.

I had told Harry that I’d like to be dropped off near Cheonan, but, as I had no idea how I’d get from the service station to the city and my boss couldn’t give me any advice, I changed my mind and headed up to Seoul, where I met Zach and Matthew for dinner and a game of Munchkin. I’m pretty sure I got the last possible coach back to Cheonan on Sunday night.

All in all it was a very good, if exhausting, weekend. I met some very nice people that I’d like to keep in touch with, but, given the often fluid nature of friendships in Korea, I’m not sure if we will. One or two of them might come to my birthday this weekend.

Having stayed up all night on Friday, I came to the event tired and the length and quality of sleep that I was able to get wasn’t great. I think this showed on Sunday, as my desire to socialise dwindled and I was happy to be alone with my thoughts and the view out of the window as we returned to Seoul. I’m not sure I want to do another overnight trip again soon, but another day trip would be good.

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The last few weekends have been a bit of a whirlwind of socialising for me. Which is pretty strange, given that I’m not only shy, but a shy introvert. I guess I’m finally discovering my inner extrovert. He’s been a shy chap most of my life. Someone once described that part of my personality as a monkey in a cave – every now and then he’d come out for a bit then duck back inside and hide.

Since my end of year holiday, I’ve:

been to see Life of Pi with a book group,

attended a Tolkien and the Inklings appreciation group,

attended the Life of Pi meeting with said book club,

been on a hike out near Chuncheon,

held two coffee mornings in Cheonan,

gone on a weekend ski trip to Yongpyeong – venue of next year’s Winter Olympics,

attended a Toastmasters event

and gone to a Father Ted-themed night out (with my black shirt and a homemade dog collar).

Add to that a good sprinkling of gaming and the faintest hint of romance (well – I met someone and we seemed to have a good rapport, but nothing further developed), and January has been a full month (actually, the latter couple of items on the list occurred in February). I’ve also met a bunch of new people. However, with my full weekends and full weekdays, I haven’t had much opportunity to write about all this stuff.

One of my new friends from New Year’s Eve invited me to a Tolkien and the Inklings group. I extended this invitation to my gaming friends; one of them suggested I should scope the group out first and report back on the number of weirdos in attendance; I countered that any of attending wouldn’t necessarily reduce the weirdo ratio. Although the meeting went on a bit long, it was pretty interesting. The organiser had prepared materials and talked about Owen Barfield and some of the philosophical underpinnings of the Inklings’ work. There’ll be another meeting in a couple of weeks.

As I have barely met anyone in Cheonan yet, I followed the example of my friend Peter, a resident of Daegu, and started a coffee morning group for Cheonan people. On the first such event, one person turned up, a woman I’d met at a small dinner event a couple of weeks earlier. We had a perfectly nice time chatting about work and life and stuff. I held the second one on Wednesday – more about that later.

The Mug

I went on a hike near Chuncheon in Gangwondo, which involved my taking the subway from Ssangyong in Cheonan to Sanbong in Seoul (about two and a half hours) then meeting the hiking group and heading east for another hour or more, still on the subway system. I hadn’t got much sleep and didn’t get much on the train, so I was pretty miserable by the time we started hiking, but a few conversations got my social brain in gear and I met some nice people.

Hikers

One of whom I went on a ski trip to Yongpyeong with (along her friends and a bus load of other foreigners). The skiing was good fun and, by the end of the evening session, I was fairly zipping down an intermediate slope time after time (while my fingers were getting terribly cold inside my gloves – when I went inside to warm up, they really hurt for a couple of minutes). I met more nice people.

Yongpyeong

One of whom invited me to Tedfest the following weekend – which was quite a modest affair in a bar out in Incheon, but the organisers put on various Father Ted-themed events, such as a Lovely Girls competition. I met further nice people, including – uniquely, in my experience in Korea – a Scouser. We got drunk.

I just had a great attendance at my second coffee morning event – seven people besides me. The conversation went pretty well, by an large; there were some slightly awkward lulls in the conversation, but they were fleeting and few. I didn’t really make a great effort to lead the conversation and it mostly took care of itself. At one point, one person suggested everyone say what their hobbies and interests were – which was a good idea, and one I may adopt and adapt for future meetings.

So now I’m going on a return trip to Chuncheon to pick strawberries on Saturday and I’m ‘hosting’ a ‘watching Die Hard 5’ event on Monday – which is a holiday here in Korea (Seollal – lunar new year – is actually a three day holiday, but because the other two days (actually, only the middle day is Seollal) fall on a Saturday and Sunday, they don’t count).

Life seems decidedly not too shabby at the moment. It’s actually become a bit of a mission for me to do all this stuff and develop as a human being. Maybe, one day, I’ll become the confident, charismatic leader of men I’ve always dreamed of being. Until then, I’m just me.

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… another year, that is.

Having met Mary the day before, we’d made plans and I duly went to meet her at Ewha Women’s University, where she’s a student. We went to a cat café – the first time I’d been to one, which is pretty astonishing, given how much I love cats. We were the only customers there until four schoolgirls came in later. There were about fifteen cats in the moderately sized café, perhaps more, of lots of breeds – longhairs with and without squishy faces, some tabbies, including something like an ocicat, and a calm, assertive pair of Siamese or similar cats that sat on our table and let us adore them. I’m not really up on cat breeds, so I can only guess at their types.

Idae Cat Café

The place looked very clean, but was a little smelly. The cats were mostly friendly and inquisitive, but some of them evidently didn’t like some of their fellow inmates. We got coffees for ourselves and a tiny cup of treats for the cats and mused on the kind of life the cats must have and must’ve had in the past.

Afterwards, Mary took me a museum on the nearby campus that contained lots of hanbok – traditional clothing – and furniture. We walked down the trench that is the main architectural feature of the university – as a building, it’s appropriately uterine rather than phallic – and had a look, and lunch, inside.

Ewha Women's University

For much of the day, we’d been expecting Matthew to join us, but he turned out to be excessively busy with work. We even went to see a film (One Day; annoyingly will-they-won’t-they-ish at first, but it grew on me somewhat; Anne Hathaway was especially lovely as the freckly, bespectacled, northern British protagonist) to wait for him. He turned up as we were having dinner and we had drinks together afterwards.

The following day, I played Magic and a new (to me) game called Zombies!!! with Eric. I’ve not hung out with him that much, but he’s a very nice chap and it was good to chat with him.

The next day, I went on a hike near Anyang – for which I’d especially bought crampons the day before from one of a series of outdoors gear shops I’d seen lots of times when I lived in Cheongdam. The crampons worked extremely well; having slipped and slid on packed snow the last time I’d gone for a hike, the grip provided made me feel especially stable.

The hike was organised by a couple of groups: Indigo Hill and the unfortunately named SHITY – Sunday Hikers Interested in Trekking Yet-again. It lasted over five hours and the weather was very cold and very sunny. The snow wasn’t very thick on the ground, but thick enough to beatify the landscape in that way that only snow can; it clung to the limbs of pine trees in lumpy lines.

Mountain Near Anyang

Afterwards, we went for a meal of chicken stew with lots of side dishes. The leaders of the group were very friendly – as, indeed, were all the hikers. There was an American guy who could apparently teach you anything – scuba diving, skiing, salsa dancing (but this latter only if you were of the opposite gender). I exchanged numbers with a few people. Later, a smaller group of us went to a singing room or noraebang in the nearby city, where I gave a rather unsteady rendition of ‘The Day That Never Comes’ by Metallica (and rather better performances of ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘Strange Kind of Woman’). A cute hiker with not much English and the unusual name of Ok (pronounced something like ‘oak’) dragged me to my feet to dance.

The next day, New Year’s Eve, I met one of the hikers I exchanged details with the previous day for coffee. After meeting her, I headed straight over to Gangnam for the first stage of the New Year’s Eve event I’d signed up for on Meetup.com. This consisted of dinner at one of the chains of western-ish-style buffet restaurants that are popular in Korea – Ashley’s. The food was mediocre at best, but there was a limitless supply of four wines (which I mostly liked, so they were probably crap, too). I said hello to various people and exchanged introductions, sat with three American girls for dinner and we were joined by a Korean and a South African couple.

Afterwards, we had to take the subway across the city to Hongdae for the other part of the package – Club Mansion. There’s really nothing mansion-like about this place, but it’s one of the more exclusive places, apparently costing ₩20,000 to get in. I danced with a couple of women that I liked; had a brief and fairly innocent romantic moment with one, but, alas, I don’t think anything will develop between me and any of the three women I met that day.

I did quite get into the dancing – which is surprising. Shocking, even. The very idea of dancing usually fills me with a vague sense of humiliation. But with five glasses of wine and a few beers in my belly as well as no one around that I knew (and therefore no expectations on me to behave in the way that I expect them to expect me to behave), I was able to enjoy the time in the way that one is supposed to enjoy it. Mary also turned up at the club (which is how I know how much it cost), but we didn’t spend much time together.

Later, I hung out at the Hongdae Tom N Toms, waiting for the subway to open, with a young guy I’d met in the group of people I’d tagged along with. He fell asleep as we sat at a table and I was deeply engrossed in my smart phone – and pretty sleepy myself. When I woke him up to leave, he didn’t have his phone – the upshot being that it had almost certainly been stolen. Someone might almost literally have snatched it from under my nose as it sat on the table. The fact that my own phone may have been taken from someone in similar circumstances made me feel extra crappy – although not nearly as crappy as my New Year’s acquaintance.

That morning, I got back to Zach’s place at maybe seven o’clock. I woke up at 10:30 and decided not to try to sleep more. Matthew and I played Magic later in the day and I headed back to Cheonan in the evening.

The following day, I met three people at an Indian restaurant near Cheonan Station for dinner. The food was great – I had a buttery chicken curry (can’t remember exactly what kind) – and the three women (Americans) were nice and friendly (as, too, was the chatty guy (American) who didn’t join us, but hung around for a while after he’d finished his own, separate meal). They’d all travelled varying distances for the meal – which someone had suggested on a Facebook group – and, with my hours of 2:00 to 9:30 and my determination to do lots of social stuff in Seoul and Daegu at weekends, I’m unlikely to see them again soon.

At some point in the day or two after the, dare I say, euphoria of New Year’s Eve, I had a kind of emotional crash. A small one. I don’t often spontaneously cry – by which I mean, not without reason, but without a trigger – but this was one of those times. I was feeling lonely and pitiful and kind of stupid. To some degree, I became someone else on New Year’s Eve and I was expecting him to be more successful at flirtation and romance than I’ve ever been. Naïve of me to think that kind of thing is ever easy.

Still, the year is yet young, and, in just a few days from now, I will have money to spare for trips and events and suchlike and we will see what happens.

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On Thursday I went for a walk up to Cheonan Station and found a foreign foods shop that I’d read about on the internet. Not as big as the ones in Itaewon, but it had various Thai sauces, Indian curry powders and Western deodorants that I might take advantage of in the future. With not much money in my wallet, I didn’t buy anything. I headed over to the railway station and got a couple of maps from the little tourist information office. Then I walked towards home, found a Daiso shop and got myself a cheap set of kitchen knives.

A little later, I was picked up from my flat by one of the hagwon’s older students – a favourite of the director. He took me to a pretty big hospital, Cheonan Chungmu Hospital (in front of which stands a statue of Yu Gwan-sun, a protester against Japanese occupation in the early twentieth century), where I had my medical test. He took me around to the various departments and translated for me. I had a pretty bad headache, having gone to bed straight after work without drinking anything; I didn’t want to take any pills just in case it compromised my drugs test (despite the fact that my doctor had said it was impossible). I discovered that I had a couple of small cavities and that my vision was now 15/15. Presumably, these defects, in addition to my colour-blindness, won’t prevent me staying in my job.

The student paid for the test with the director’s credit card. It was ₩104,000, which is about ₩20,000 more expensive than the price for one of the previous tests I had. The director is going to deduct this from my pay, which I’m a bit disappointed about, but it’s not such a big deal that I’m going to be bothered about it. She said (I think – she put in a bit of strange way) that should would give me the money if I signed a second contract – although that’s a pretty long way down the line.

The result comes back next Thursday. The day after, we’ll go to Immigration to get me my Alien Registration Card.

I thought I might go to a café on Friday morning and do some writing, but I discovered I’d left my backpack at work overnight. With nothing practical to carry my computer in, I decided to go for a walk. I headed in the opposite direction from the city centre towards the nearby smaller city of Asan.

I passed over a distinctive circular bridge – there’s a ring-shaped walkway suspended over a big junction with ramps and lifts on each corner. I’ve seen similar footbridge in Japan, but never in Korea before. I had brought my camera with me this time, so I took a few photos.

A bit further on, I found a new department store, the Galleria – where the mother of the boy who took me to the hospital works; as he has no more school work to do, he helps her there. It was 9 – 9:30, so too early for the shops inside to be open – so I didn’t go in. Instead, I carried on a bit further and had a look inside the KTX (bullet train) station, Cheonan-Asan. The track is elevated for quite a long stretch, built on top of some monumental, multi-level arches. Inside, it’s full of huge, tubular metal supports. Impressive, if you like that kind of thing – and I rather do.

The area around the station and the Galleria is pretty dead. There’s a Lotte Mart nearby, with associated shops, something called E-Mart Traders, some big apartment buildings and an area of new, small buildings that’s very reminiscent of the ghost town-like new development close to where I worked in Bundang. The area seems very symptomatic of the Korean enthusiasm for development. They seem to believe strongly in the idea that, if you build it, they will come.

I had some kimbap at the station and headed back home. Then headed out again immediately for another walk – in the other direction, this time. My aim was to scout out more ways of walking into the centre and to locate the Korea Exchange Bank, at which I will open an account once I’m able (KEB apparently has good a good set-up for transfering money to foreign accounts). I found, along with a big market along a street characteristically covered with a big, arched roof. I kept walking, passed an Indian restaurant that I’ll have to eat at some time and found myself at Cheonan Station.

I went home, got some indifferent and over-priced pizza for lunch, went to work, finished said pizza for dinner, completed work and returned home again. The weekend followed.

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