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The last couple of weekends have been pretty busy and fun.

The weekend before last, I came up to Seoul, my small backpack heavy with my box of Magic cards and a few bits of clothing and toiletries – and my computer, which I probably didn’t really need. I’ve recently joined a bunch of groups on Meetup and my first order of business was to attend my first event with one of them. It was a beginners’ life drawing class at a studio in Itaewon. The instructor had us practise a few different drawing techniques – initially with one of the attendees with whom he was evidently familiar because the model was late, and then with a model once she arrived.

Three Life-drawing Sketches

It was interesting work, quite challenging – especially having not had much practice at sketching for a long time, other than the occasional map for a game or story. I think I did reasonably well, though. The model was a white, North American woman – she resembled a blond Natalie Portman. Most of the attendees were women too; I chatted to a few on the way out and back to the subway station, but the atmosphere in the class was quiet so I felt pretty self-conscious about talking to anyone in there. The one woman I did talk to in the class seemed quite uncomfortable.

Afterwards, I met those sterling gentlemen, Matthew and Zach. We had dinner together and I dropped my things at Zach’s place (which is conveniently nextdoor to Matt’s place; I knocked on their doors simultaneously) where I stayed the night. Later in the evening, Zach and I went to Hongdae where he had a gig to play with Damnear David, a David Bowie cover singer. Also on the bill was a Queen cover band, Queen Machine – which I really quite enjoyed.

The following day, the three of us went to Wangsimni to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which we all agreed was very good, although it did have some silly bits like the hero not leaving home for the first hour of the film and Galadriel teleporting to avoid scuffing or tripping up over her long skirts.

We also played lots of Magic: The Gathering. Zach and I did, at any rate – Matthew had other duties that called him away.

During the week, I made a bunch of paper snowflakes with my students to decorate my class a little. There has been quite a bit of real snow of late and the weather has been very cold occasionally – making my classroom unpleasantly chilly; the single heater is not really up to the task of heating the whole room.

Paper Snowflakes

I also got my Alien Registration Card and set up a bank account with KEB – Korea Exchange Bank. Actually, I set up two accounts (no, I didn’t – the bank clerk did it for me); one is a regular current account, into which I’ll be paid, and the other automatically transfers any money put into it to my UK bank account. Once I got paid, I transferred some money into the second account; I’ve just checked and it has arrived in my British account. Now I can pay off the credit card debt I’ve built up in my first month back in Korea. Unfortunately, the advances on my salary that I’ve been given mean that I probably won’t have enough cash to see out this next month, so I’m going to have to withdraw more money on my credit card.

I had to go back to the hospital where I got my health check done. I went initially to an internal medicine clinic I’d noticed in order to get a week’s worth of my colitis medication. The doctor – a rather uninspiringly nervous and boyish middle-aged man – told me he couldn’t prescribe it but gave me a note to take to the hospital. Having seen one of the specialists at the hospital, I made my way down one of the staircases and passed this very pretty nurse who’d tested my sight and given me my sealed envelope with the results a couple of weeks afterwards. She had been very nice, trying to speak English and (kind of) remembering my name. She stopped to say hello and prove that she remembered my name again (with only a little prompting from me). I asked her hers.

I had to return once more to the hospital to get another copy of the health check statement – the last one had been for the Immigration Office; this one was for the police, with whom I was supposed to be registered. I was able to ask for Ji-yeong by name and she prepared another envelope for me.

There was a weird episode towards the end of the week when Julie, my boss, put it to me that she didn’t want to sign me up for the (legally required) national health insurance and pension schemes and instead wanted to get something private. Or maybe that wasn’t exactly what she was saying, but because of something the recruiter had told her she didn’t seem keen.

I’m very aware that Americans and Canadians can get the pension contributions back when they leave the country, but Britons can’t. This is because of differing reciprocal arrangements between governments; Koreans working in the UK also can’t get a refund of National Insurance contributions. Apparently, the recruiter had told her that she wouldn’t need to pay into the national system for a British employee and that had been a factor in her choosing me over someone else. After asking various people and reading about it, I told her I wanted to pay into the national systems – so that’s apparently what I’m now doing.

I say apparently because after getting confirmation that I was signed up from Julie, I went back to internal medicine clinic, the hospital and the pharmacy and got partial refunds on my payments because I was now retroactively covered. I’ve since been back to the hospital and pharmacy and my consultation and medication were a lot more expensive than I was expecting.

This past weekend was one of Magic and Burning Wheel gaming. Zach, Matthew and I played MTG on Saturday. That other sterling gentleman, Peter, met me on Sunday and we played more Magic, then Zach joined us and we got started on a roleplaying game run by Peter. I played a fisherman exiled from his village and Zach played a cleric with the character trait Overbearing Loony; we were united by a desire to stop colonists interfering with local culture – or at least with an old temple. It was a very promising game and seemed to go off on a tangent quite quickly – or maybe it was all planned. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue the story soon.

The first thing I did on Saturday was head up to Itaewon to see a man about a phone. I was expecting a North American, but it turned out to be an Indian or Pakistani guy. I started to feel a bit suspicious, but checked the instinct. The phone he offered me was white instead of the black one shown in the photo on Craigslist. I bought it anyway – I’m far too polite to have refused. I came to the conclusion later that the phone was almost certainly stolen. The man didn’t have any idea how to change a setting I e-mailed him about later; the phone is a little bit scuffed on the back, while this chap provided brand new recharging and data cables; he spoke near-perfect English, but he changed the phone from Korean to English right in front of me.

Anyway, it works and I’ve been to the SK Telecom centre to get a new USIM card for it – thus registering an account with SK as well as getting an actual phone number. The clerk opened it up and typed some numbers from inside the phone into her computer. I can only assume that if someone had reported it stolen, some alert would have come up at this point. Maybe it was second-hand after all.

The really disappointing thing about the phone was that it was white and not black. Nevertheless, I’ve got a pretty fancy 4G smart phone with a big screen and I’m starting to get used to how it works and alter things to my taste.

Monday was the last day of teaching for me this year. I had one class with a four-year-old boy, then the next class was an amalgam of many of the elementary school kids and we watched Brave on my laptop. A couple of hours later, the middle- and high- schoolers did the same, but I had to leave halfway through to take a class with one of the girls; then I had one more class with one of the older boys and I was done. The kids will be back on Wednesday, but I have my contractual five days of holiday.

Today, Tuesday, I spent doing not very much – washing clothes, walking around the city, blogging. I had pepperoni pizza for dinner with chocolates and beer and Misfits and the Simpsons.

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A couple of weeks ago – on my first weekend back in Korea – I went up to Seoul on the subway. Quite impressively, Line 1 of the Seoul subway system comes all the way down to Cheonan and beyond. My journey up to central/north-eastern Seoul took two and a half hours.

I met a couple of friends for a few, too-brief minutes to pick up a box of things I’d left with them. I packed all the stuff into my small suitcase and left the box behind. I realised I’d forgotten to bring with me a box of chocolates I’d bought in the UK for them.

Afterwards, I headed to Apgujeong and to the HSBC bank (which stands, I’ve recently learnt, for Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation; I never knew that, but it explains the Chinese imagery in their adverts) to use my credit card to get some money; Korean banks don’t generally work with foreign cards, in my experience.

Back in Cheonan, I did more shopping for household items – especially kitchenware. On Sunday, I cooked my first meal in my new home – spaghetti bolognese … actually, specifically vegetable bolognese with fusilli tricolore. I’ve been cooking a fair amount since then – mostly vegetable curry and vegetable bolognese.

Yesterday, I got my first bread, cheese and eggs and had a lunch of fried egg on toast with Philadelphia, green olives and extra hot sauce. It was so good, I had the same again today. Need more bread, now.

Last weekend, I travelled to Daegu on the train and spent the weekend with Peter. On the Saturday, he was having a get-together, for which he made lentil soup and a Chinese aubergine dish. One of his other guests made chocolate cookies – in front of an audience. Later we watched a film (Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that I became certain that I’d seen at the cinema when I lived in London; I didn’t recognise any specific scenes or actors, but it was nevertheless strikingly familiar.

Later, the cookie-maker led us in a joyfully politically incorrect game called Cards Against Humanity. Later still, that same gentleman took us to a bar in Daegu. The following day, Peter and I played Magic: The Gathering and, in the evening, he rushed me back to the station, where I was just in time to catch the 20:01 train.

I’ve been writing every weekday morning/lunchtime. I haven’t found a perfect place to write yet, though. The two branches of Starbucks in/near Shinsegae are too far away (I could go by bus, but it’s money I don’t need to spend); Ssangyong Library was far too quiet when I went there (it didn’t help that a man came and sat too close to me when he had practically a whole, quite large room full of empty seats to choose from); the Tom N Toms had lame coffee and loud music and overlooked a main street that filled up with students (by which I mean that young, Korean women are distractingly attractive); I thought the Caffe Pascucci at Ssangyong Station was pretty good on my first day, but, subsequently, the music got louder and more intrusive (even when I had my earplugs in and my headphones on to block out sound); I was excited to find a Starbucks in the E-Mart in Ssangyong yesterday, but today I found that the only power points appear to be built into a table in the middle of the café, and it was also extremely cold.

I hope to find the least worst place to write soon.

The only weekday I haven’t spent my pre-work hours writing recently was last Friday, when my boss met me at the hospital, where I picked up my medical report, and took me to the immigration office to apply for my Alien Registration Card. She paid for the taxi trip, but I had to pay for the immigration stamp (₩10,000). I can return to pick it up on or after the 14th of December – next Friday. Hopefully, very shortly after that, I’ll have a bank account and health insurance.

Work is going quite well; pretty chilly, though.

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I started writing again today. Proper writing – working on the short story I’d been writing back in February, before my extra-Korean adventures started. I only got a bit less than 400 words down, but it’s better than nothing, but my log shows that no one day’s worth of work made it into four figures, and in twelve sessions the word count is up to 8,000. I also read the story. As a first draft, it’s not that bad, but there are plenty of places where it can be improved.

I just need to ensure that I get into a good writing routine.

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New Year’s Eve saw Habiba and me meet some friends at British-style pub in Itaewon for dinner – most of us had fish and chips (I also had one beer). We then repaired to a cocktail bar for a couple of quite tasty drinks – a Green Fantasy and a Chocolate Martini, for me. And finally, we headed to a party at someone’s home nearby. Whilst there I had one shot of something fruity, two or three cups of wine and a few of beer.

My roleplaying buddy Matthew joined us towards midnight – and he discovered an area of of common interest with the host Moira – international peace and development. I chatted to a trio of Canadian guys – one who could pass for Korean, but is actually Vietnamese and Chinese (but Canadian) and his white visiting friends.

At midnight, we counted down and were happy.

On the way home I started feeling what I like to think of as ‘nauseous’ – although some authorities state that the correct adjective is ‘nauseated’. When we got out of the taxi, I was sick into a drain. I slept well enough, but in the morning I felt wretched. During the course of the day, I vomited maybe another seven times – usually with nothing coming up other than a bit of thick, orangey stomach juice. Habiba and I just watched TV all day; eventually, I started to feel better and managed to eat a good meal for dinner (one of Habiba’s soups).

The previous day, before meeting for dinner, I’d gone to Itaewon early and spent a bit of money at What the Book. I bought – finally – the tenth and last book in Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Crippled God. I’m a bit wary of reading it, as the series has declined since the early books – or at least, my interest in it has declined. I also got an issue each of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Realms of Fantasy. I did some writing, too.

If I have a New Year’s Resolution, it’s to concentrate on creative writing again. It’s a project that I’ve neglected over the past year in favour of working on my roleplaying game and running a campaign. The RPG has been a challenging project, and one that I feel I’ve struggled to do justice to – although it’s also been lots of fun. It’s with a certain amount of relief that I’ve decided – once the current scene and its aftermath have been played through – to stop running the game. I’m going to suggest a weekly gaming night of Scrabble, Munchkin and whatever other things people want to play – maybe even a different RPG. I’ll only be able to participate in this for a few weeks until Habiba and I leave the country at the end of February.

The time that I’ll save not working on the game will be ploughed into working on stories. The last time I was writing, I was working on a piece about hunting fairy-like creatures. I will return to that, but right now I’m working on a new one. And when I say ‘right now’, I mean it almost literally: I paused work on it here at the local Starbucks because I was feeling tired and I thought writing this blog post would wake me up. The coffee has probably helped, too.

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It’s been a depressing kind of a week. Having finally started work on the text of my novel the previous week – the novel that everyone keeps asking me about and that barely exists – this week the going has been hard and slow.

I’ve been trying to spend a fair amount of time on it; Monday and Tuesday are pretty much write-offs in terms of novel work, however – on Monday I have a blog post to research and write, while on Tuesday I have a roleplaying game to prepare for. Then the rest of the week I was plagued by a lack of sleep, which saw me getting up at progressively later and later times, cutting my writing time short.

Then when I did try to write, it didn’t flow at like it had on the second day (when I got a couple of thousand words down). On Wednesday I tried to rewrite the scene that I’d started, and got bogged down in the details of the logic of my protrayal of the characters – basically, I changed how they reacted and then had to incorporate the new with the old without completely redoing everything. I still got a thousand words done that day.

Then I spent a chunk of time drawing maps of a keep because I couldn’t visualise the characters’ walk through it. Useful work, I suppose, now that it’s done, but it takes up time and it’s pretty superfluous to the end product. Then I worried about not knowing what the characters were going to do in the immediate future.

By the time I finally felt a little happier about progressing on Friday, my daily output had dwindled to less than 600 words. That said, I started pretty late on Friday and had homework to do in advance of my Korean class.

The Korean class has been distinctly less than marvelous, too. The teacher spends most of the time talking – and very quickly – and doesn’t provide many opportunities for the students to speak. Still it was my last class with her for the time being – after a test on Friday, I progressed the next level.

Another thing that’s been bothering me has been pain in my left hip and in my left shoulder. Also, inability to sleep. These things seem to be reciprocal: sleeping on my side has probably given me a sore shoulder, which now makes it harder for me to sleep. I imagine my writing also factors into the equation: my experience this past week has left me feeling like I have no imagination and barely have the ability to string words into sentences (even my ability to have a conversation seems to be dwindling away). And if I can’t even make a go of writing, what the hell am I supposed to do with my life?

On the plus side, I started reading Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself and it’s shaping up to be pretty good.

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I’m now coming to the end of my course of steroids for my colitis and things are well on bowel front. I’m back to full health – one bowel movement per day, no more bowel pain, probably back up to normal weight (although I haven’t weighed myself lately). In fact, my belly is getting a bit round – not from fat, just from food inside it, I suppose. The steroids have probably given me a bad bout of acne on my face, neck and especially scalp – which is beginning to clear up now, as well.

I had a mild cold all the time I was in America with Habiba, and I’ve only just got over it. For a while towards the end, it seemed to have cause my ears to get blocked – not so much as with water, but as the effect caused by the change in pressure when going up or down in an aeroplane. That’s cleared up now.

One side effect of the trip to the States is that I’ve had a flare-up of sciatica, due to carring heavy backpacks a lot and not keeping up with my core muscle exercises. I’m going back to the gym now (at Habiba’s insistence) and hopefully lots of crunches and the like will help. I just spent half an hour or so playing my guitar (something I don’t do very often, sadly); it made the pain in my left hip/buttock/upper thigh area worse.

Summer is fast approaching, unfortunately. Summer is too hot – and far too humid. It’s already pretty warm (and it’s been raining a lot the past week, which is a little unusual for Korea for this time of year).

The increasing warmth brings increased levels of sweat. When I went back to Britain the year before last I brought back half a dozen Lynx Africa deodorant sticks. I finished the last one a while ago, and I won’t be getting Lynx again (or Axe as it’s called in the rest of the world): the aluminium content causes staining – a lot of my tops have white stains on the underams. I’ve been using Old Spice lately, but it doesn’t work as well as Lynx – by the latter part of the day I end up being a bit whiffy, even if I haven’t been doing anything strenuous.

After some research, I’ve shaved my armpits (again – I tried that for a while back in 2006 or 7) and have started using white vinegar. That wouldn’t seem to the be best idea to reduce bad smells, but it seems to work well. The idea is that the vinegar changes the ph level of the skin, preventing the bacteria that cause odour from doing whatever it is they do.

I’m happy to be back home – it means I can get back to work on my various projects (there still doesn’t seem to be time enough to do justice to all of them). I’ve been continuing to prepare the ground for my novel (actually, it’s a trilogy, as far as I can tell) – and have now started writing the first chapter (again).

My blog (Elements of Fantasy) has been taking up all my writing time on Monday. On Mondays, my aim is to produce an analysis of one aspect of fantasy. There are various reasons for this. It’s good practice to write to a deadline. It’s also a form of autodidacticism – writing about this subject involves a lot of research, and the more I learn about fantasy, the better I can write it. It also seems to be a good idea to have an online presence that is more than just a diary (like this blog) to support my career as a writer (this comes from reading Kristen Lamb’s blog on the social media for writers).

I’m also running my roleplaying game. The first adventure is pretty much over, but now I may have given the player characters too much wealth and too much knowledge. However, this could work well if I can use this to catapult them into the main campaign story (which is still pretty nebulous at the moment). I also have a deadline motivating me to get the main story underway – if I get a job later in the year, as I plan, I will have much less time for writing, and running the game will have to go (I’ve already neglected my short story work for lack of time).

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My last post about life was pretty depressing, but there was at least a hint of hope towards the end. I’ve now been taking steroids for my ulcerative colitis flare-up for a little over two weeks, and the improvement, while it’s been slow, is also marked. I’m still getting the bowel pains, but much less frequently and at a much lower intensity. Bathroom trips are required only about four times a day.

Most importantly, perhaps, I’m eating again and have the energy to pretty much function normally. I’m still a bit weak, though: walking up steps is harder than it used to be, my knees feel ancient if I squat or kneel and my voice is quiet(er than usual).

I have steroid pills for another four weeks, slowly tapering off in quantity; the previous fortnight I was taking eight a day, this week it’s seven, next week, six, and so on. The doctor recommended not having a colonoscopy at the moment, as sticking a camera up your guts can aggravate symptoms (I’m paraphrasing).

If, after this current prescription runs out, things are still abnormal, he suggested a sigmoidoscopy (which is a colonoscopy of only the last part of the large intestine). He also gave the names of a probiotic treatment – VSL#3 – and an immune suppressant – infliximab – to look into as promising additional UC treatments.

Habiba and I passed our two-year milestone a week ago. Celebrations were muted because of my health – and hers, for that matter; she’s been sick with a bad cold – but we had a nice day, buying a shelving unit for our kitchen area, walking along the Han River Park and disagreeing fundamentally about philosophy and the nature of the world.

However, this latter interlude concluded with the exchange: me: ‘Would you still love me if I stayed a rationalist atheist for the rest of my life?’ she: ‘It’ll be tiring, but, yes, I suppose so.’ That was possibly the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me and it made me feel a swell of happiness and love for Habiba.

Last week – having started it a couple of months earlier – I felt able to resume running my roleplaying game using the 2d6-based system I’ve designed. Although the system is a little on the complex side, it’s been working fairly well so far – better than one might expect for the inaugural run of a homebrew system.

I’m constantly changing it as we go along, though. I’m particularly proud of the magic system – but at first it turned out to be overly powerful as well as uneven. In about the third session, one character, with the aid of a couple of other casters, managed to resurrect three dead villagers. That’s no longer possible – at least until the character gains the very expensive Healing Magic Perfection feat.

The world and story are also of my own making, and things are progressing well – although I have only the vaguest idea where things are headed as yet.

I’ve started work on finding a new job, probably for September, which means going through the whole rigmarole of getting a subject access check from the police, getting it notarised and apostilled – possibly getting a copy of my degree similarly authenticated (I already have some copies from 2006 that I never used) – getting more sealed transcripts of my degree results, transferring money to my sister so she can coordinate all that, getting it all sent back to me in Korea, actually finding a job and finally making a visa run to another country to pick up my visa. Tedious. I also need to get out of the country briefly by the 7th of May when my current tourist visa runs out.

In the meantime, I need to get back on track with my writing. I’ve had some Critters feedback, recently, on the last story I finished – I’ve been so lacking in energy that for a long time I didn’t even read or respond to the e-mails. Most of the comments have been constructive, and even positive; the problems that have been highlighted make sense, and there are some I need to think hard about how to fix, but I don’t think they’re irremediable.

And then there’s my novel. I feel that there’s still a lot of work to be done before I can even begin on the actual text. Before I got sick, I was coming up with ideas for characters, plot points and world-building; none of which has solidified into something I’m 100% satisfied with.

I started going to a free Korean class provided by the Korean Foundation Cultural Center near City Hall in February. It was hard work. The teacher didn’t make too many concessions to the students’ lack of ability, practice or confidence (there were about half a dozen of us). However, I was able to pick what was being taught and passed the test at the end of the month easily. Then I was sick for a month.

Last week I went back for the next level and found my self part of a much larger class (maybe twelve or more people); the teacher this time went much more slowly – too slowly, even – and, by the end of two hours, we’d covered a fair amount of material. I even learnt a Korean idiom – dwaeji ggumeul gguda – to dream a pig dream. If Koreans have a pig dream, they should go out and buy a lottery ticket because it’s considered good luck financially.

The other day, I permitted Habiba to give me a haircut. I’d already shaved ealier in the day, removing a couple of months’ worth of bushy, homeless-person beard growth. My hair was getting a bit floppy, a bit mulletty in the back – and, with spring here and my health returning, I thought it was time for a change. Habiba had been pestering me to either get it cut or to let her do it for a while. She literally rolled on the floor in joy when I gave her the news.

She set to with her scissors for about an hour, periodically stepping back to look at my shrinking barnet in worry. Apparently, she hadn’t been doing a very good job. When I suggested she try using a comb, she said, Oh, yeah – that’s what they do. It got better after that, but in order to even things up she needed to take off a lot more hair. The result is pretty much a crewcut – perhaps the shortest haircut I’ve ever had. I’m quite happy with it, actually – it makes me look younger and it’s totally practical.

A week before we moved into our new place in Cheongdam-dong, we received a cat from one of Habiba’s colleagues who was leaving the country. Billie is a brown tabby with white paws and breast. After lots of changes in her life – moving to our old place, moving to our new place, putting up with lots of furniture rearrangement – she’s settled into her new life and seems happy.

Unfortunately, Habiba is convinced that Billie doesn’t like her. The cat, on the other hand, is quite attached to me – she’ll curl up in my lap and sleep at my feet at night. She also likes to dash about randomly and leap up the bathroom doorpost. We finally have a use for the fish-and-feathers-on-a-string-on-a-stick cat toy we bought in Thailand over a year ago.

In short, then, normal service is resuming. About time, too.

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