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Posts Tagged ‘cats’

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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It’s been over a month now since I turned 37. Life is going well in many respects – but it’s also pretty tiring.

I think it’s fair to say that my birthday celebrations were a great success. About twenty people came to the meal at a British-style fish and chips place in Sinchon in Seoul called Battered Soul. The menu wasn’t very diverse – the was little choice outside fish and chips – but they had plenty of beer and most people were satisfied with what they got (one American friend was somewhat disappointed by the fish cakes – she had never had them before). I got Guinness-battered cod and chips – along with a pint of Guinness.

After that, we headed off to Hongdae, where we went for drinks at a hookah bar (my sister had been rather confused when I told her this via Skype; my default pronunciation of ‘hookah’ is the same as ‘hooker’); after that, we went to Luxury Noraebang – a fancy karaoke place; and after that, those remaining went to a bar/club for another drink or two and dancing.

It was a long and tiring but very satisfying night. I’m very grateful to all those who came out with me – most of whom were friends that I’ve made since I returned to Korea in November. I think it’s a mark of how much I’ve developed as a person, even in just the last seven months, that so many people chose to celebrate with me.

And, although I’m not going on as many tour group trips as I did in my first few months back in the country, I’m continuing to meet new people. There have been several birthdays in the last six or seven weeks, and I’ve met new people at all of them – even my own; and there are more birthdays in the coming few weeks. I’m also continuing with my coffee mornings – I met several new people just yesterday – and I’ve attended a local language exchange group a couple of times. In Seoul, the meetings of the Tolkien discussion group are going well, and we’ll be talking about The Hobbit soon (stayed up far too late last night reading it – the hot weather is not conducive to sleep).

Finally, I’m organising little events of my own to try to bring some of my acquaintances together and develop those tentative relationships into more solid friendships. I got a few people together recently to see the new Star Trek film – an action-packed disappointment, by the way – and I will be getting some people together to go to a rose festival and modern art exhibition at Seoul Grand Park on Saturday.

I’ve been stepping up my efforts to learn Korean and, to this end, I’ve started attending classes twice a week. My teacher is a Korean woman who takes various lessons in the living room of her apartment near to where I live. She is very sweet and very patient – which latter quality is essential for teaching me, as my brain hates being forced to communicate in an alien tongue. I’m slowly getting there, though. I feel more comfortable speaking Korean with my Seoul-based language exchange partner – but she’s always off travelling the world, so I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like.

My cat, Acalia, is really starting to act like a real pet – as is her duty, of course. It’s been a slow process, but she has continually built up her confidence and her liking for me has grown and grown. Whereas previously, I’d come home and not see her, and she hardly ever made a sound, these days, she is generally keen to get attention. I always find her lying on the bed when I come back home. When I enter the living room, she hurriedly gets off the bed – she’s still quite skittish – but then she follows me around and meows continuously, though not annoyingly, until I spend some time petting her.

She still doesn’t like being picked up for more than a couple of seconds and, when I move to pet her, she will sometimes either avoid me or duck her head as if she’s afraid of being struck. But she purrs very readily once I start stroking her and she enjoys the attention. She also like to chase stringy things. I made a toy out of a pizza box ribbon and the handle of a spatula (the rubber head of which I use as a cat fur-remover) and it never fails to rouse her interest.

If I offer her a finger to sniff, she always bites it – which I have mixed feelings about. It’s cute, but it’s also a bad habit that I should maybe try to wean her off. She also has very watery eyes – a feature of her breed (exotic shorthair), apparently. It wouldn’t be too bad if her eyes were merely watery, but the liquid that gathers around her eyes is pretty gunky. She leaves spots of dried, brown fluid all over the place. I clean her eyes with damp kitchen towel, which, naturally, she doesn’t like, but she doesn’t fight against it too much.

I also made her a bed out of a big cardboard box that contained my new fan. The bed has an open compartment and a closed compartment. I cut my old bathmat in half to carpet each side of it, and I made an arch strut for the covered side so it doesn’t collapse when she sits on the top – or jumps on to it, as it’s right under the window.

Work is going well. I’m taking advantage of the relaxed regime to do some more creative but English-related things with my classes. For instance, in the past week or so, I’ve had many of my kids making wordsearches and crosswords. Now that I’m more than halfway through my contract and near halfway through the calendar year, I’m starting to think about what I will do in the next six months or so. Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a good while, and I pretty much know what my plan is; I’m just starting to worry more about what exactly to do. The downside of keeping busy at weekends is that I don’t have much time to dedicate to the thought and research needed for this planning. That’s something I should schedule for the coming weeks – before it’s too late.

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Acalia

I have a new cat. Her name is Acalia.

Acalia 2

The circumstances of acquiring her were a bit complicated, but, cutting a long story short, I’m officially fostering her until a permanent home becomes available for her in May. However, it’s entirely possible that I might keep her permanently – or at least for the foreseeable future.

I picked her up one Monday night from a Canadian woman in Cheonan and took her home. As soon as I opened her carrying case, she jumped out and dashed under the bed, where she pretty much stayed for a week. I’m sure she came out when I left my flat, and I often heard and saw her moving around when I went to bed; she ate and drank and used her litter tray without any problems.

I’m not entirely sure what breed she is, but she has long-ish blue (ie, grey) fur, bronzey eyes, two small, wispy tufts on her points of her ears and a curly tail. And she’s a squishy faced cat – by which I mean that she has no protruding snout, but rather her face is completely flat.

Acalia 3

Gradually – very gradually – she started coming out of hiding when I sat still for a while by my computer – but she would dart back under the bed if I stood up. She’s slowly getting used to me standing up and moving around; she now doesn’t always run away if I walk by her – especially if she’s under my clothes horse and can’t see my upper body.

A friend of mine suggested that I get her some cat treats to encourage her out of her shell – and, the first time I offered them to her, she came closer to me than she’d voluntarily come before. A few days ago, I crawled towards her on my belly, reached out my hand after having tossed her some treats and she gave my fingers a sniff. A couple of days later, I fed her some tinned cat food and she let me stroke her as she ate – although she was very nervous; I suppose her hunger outweighed her fear.

She still shies away from me whenever I reach for her and she still flees if I walk towards her, though. The process of her getting used to me is a long and slow one, but progress is continual. She’s now becoming more interested in what I’m doing; when I woke up this morning, she was sitting in the middle of the room looking at me; last night, when I was washing dishes, she was peering round the kitchen door at me.

Acalia 4

She’s very well behaved. I haven’t noticed her scratching things other than the scratching board I got with her. She climbs up on one of my cabinets while I’m out – when I come back home, some of the bits and pieces I keep there are on the floor. She’ll ruck up my bedsheet and move my bath mat. I fished a couple of missing pencils out from under the wardrobe. The laundry rack that shelters her from my gaze also seems to be a tempting vantage point to her; several times I’ve come in and an item will be disarranged exactly as if a small animal had tried to stand on it.

She’s quiet, too. Once every few days – usually after using the litter tray – she’ll give a single, loud, plaintive miaow. Other than that, she doesn’t make any noise.

In the first week or so, I started to dislike Acalia. What on Earth is the use of a pet that you never see? I was also a little disappointed that she was a squishy-faced breed, as I think they’re kind of ugly. But she’s grown on me. I like greeting her as I come home and she peers anxiously at me – usually from the bed. I encourage her not to run away when I enter the room – generally in vain.

I’m very hopeful that Acalia’s acclimatisation will continue. I’ll have her eating out of my hand … eventually.

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While, of course, we wouldn’t have travelled to Turkey without expecting it to be nice to some degree, we were pleasantly surprised by the country. It’s quite unlike any other country I’ve been to; it has a pretty unique mixture of European and Middle Eastern culture and climate.

Coming from a city like Seoul that is dominated by its modern office and apartment buildings along with a few pine-covered mountains, Istanbul was a great contrast. The thing you notice most about the city, especially the touristy Sultanahmet area, which is where we stayed, is the mosques. They tend to sit on top of the hills, minarets arrowing into the sky, each looking much like the Hagia Sophia. Periodically, the call to prayer goes out from all of them, echoes bouncing back and forth across the city. There’s an undeniable beauty to the spiralling songs, but the whole idea of everyone stopping what they’re doing five times a day to worship some mythical being is the mark of totalitarianism.

On a happier note, Istanbul was also remarkable for the number of cats. It was like visiting Ulthar. Every café and restaurant seems to have a suprisingly well kempt stray lazing by the doorway. Mostly, they seemed clean and healthy – and friendly, too. We petted quite a few and they readily lifted their heads for a scratch. One of the friendliest cats I encountered was at the ruins of Ephesus. It was a pretty small white and ginger bitch who purred enthusiastically as she rubbed up against me. I didn’t pet her, however, as her ears were horribly infected, red and swollen, the tips nothing but scab. She didn’t seem to be in any discomfort, though.

Having had a less than totally pleasant time in India, I’m always on my guard when it comes to being approached by strangers when in foreign lands. Our experience in Turkey, however, was quite benign. People wanted to sell their services, but they left you alone if you said No, thanks. One man approached us as we got off the bus in Selçuk and I was automatically suspicious, but he turned out to be very helpful, offering us information about buses and taxis and then pointing us towards our hostel’s meeting point when we told him what we were doing.

As you might expect from its East-meets-West status, Turkey has both western- and eastern-style toilets. The sitting toilets have a little spout thing that sticks out from the back of the bowl rim and doesn’t appear to do anything. Many toilets also have the ability for the user to customise the amount of flush. For instance, some toilets have a kind of double-sided button on top of the cistern; you push one side down to flush and you push the other side down to stop it.

We had our share of Turkish coffees while we were there, too. It’s very bitter, thick stuff served in a little espresso-style cup. You need sugar or syrup in it to make it palatable. The last third or quarter of the cup is a gritty sludge that it’s inadvisable to drink; if you stir the coffee, you mix that sludge in with the rest of the drink. Tea was likewise served strong and black in little urn-shaped glass cups. We like our capuccinos, but they tended to be pretty mediocre in Turkey.

On the subject of food, my overriding impression is that Turks like their bread. Coming from South Korean, where the bread tends to be sweet and crappy and many people literally confuse cake with bread, the amount of good bread on offer was a pleasant change. Habiba was ecstatic about our hostel breakfast in Istanbul – a buffet of green and black olives, feta cheese, tomato, cucumber, egg and thick slices of crusty, rabbit-shaped bread. Rabbit-shaped because each loaf was cut down one side of the top before it finished baking.

Many meals would come with a basket full of such bread. Most of the meals we had were very good. They tended to be somewhat saucy and oily and pretty mild. After red pepper-heavy South Korean cuisine and our own spicy cooking, a lot of the meals seemed quite bland. A couple of highlights were bruch at a place in Istanbul called Van Kahvatlı that had lots of bread and cheese, and in Selçuk, we went to a restaurant called Wallabies where I had a chicken curry that was mild, but tasty.

Overall, we were very happy to have visited to Turkey. Looking around the shops and stalls in places like the Grand Bazaar, you realise you could come here just to buy beautiful things with which to fill your home. I limited myself to one cat ornament. We only went to two town, and it seems like we could have visited a dozen places and been just as impressed with each one. Another time, maybe.

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As you probably know, Habiba and I are leaving Korea in just three weeks. One of our priorities in planning our departure has been finding someone to take our cat, Billie. We adopted Billie from Habiba’s friend JP when he left Korea a year ago and she’s been a great companion for us … well, for me – Habiba didn’t always see eye to eye with her. Latterly, though Habiba and Billie have been quite close.

Billie is as quirky as any cat. She loves to be chased – something that evolved out of her propensity to randomly start zooming around our apartment. Once we started make a game out of it, making sudden movments to set her off, she calmed down a bit, became a little less spontaneously crazy. She was never particularly into toys: you have to work hard to get her to play with the fish on a string toy, balls and other small rolling things don’t interest her at all. The laser pointer Habiba got was another matter, though. She chased after the red dot pretty unfailingly, spinning round in circles trying to bash it with her paws, or jumping up the wall. She loves to lick plastic bags.

I put a posting on the Animal Rescue Korea website more than a month ago and we had a response from a prospective owner who seemed quite promising. She stopped communicating with us just as we were about to meet her, though, and nothing came of it. I had a few other message that didn’t come to anything.

Then on Friday, a guy called Trevor sent me a message – a few messages, in fact. I spoke to him on Saturday and he seemed very enthusiastic about adopting Billie. We arranged for him to visit us on Sunday. When he arrived he seemed like a great guy, very into cats and conscientious about being a good owner. He befriended me on Facebook while we were talking and promised to give us updates on Billie. Billie came out and investigated him and seemed quite comfortable. And we agreed that he should take her with him the same day.

So we gave him all our cat accoutrements then retrieved Billie from her hiding place under the bed, said our goodbyes, put her in her travelling case and let her new owner take her away.

I held Habiba for a little bit after we shut the door, feeling a little sad. Then I started crying. We’re going to miss her. But we think she’s going to a good home and an owner who will look after her for many years.

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The twenty-third of January was New Year’s Day in the lunar calendar – known to most people in the West as Chinese New Year. Well: Chinese, Korean – same thing, right? In Korea the holiday is called Seollal and consists of the day itself, the day before and the day after. While Christmas and solar New Year’s (aka Real New Year’s) are also public holidays in Korea, they’re not really special events. Seollal and the late summer harvest festival of Chuseok are the times when Koreans return to their families for food, ancestor worship, games and gifts.

This year’s Seollal fell on a Monday, which resulted in a four-day weekend (no worker-friendly days off in lieu in Korea). The day before – Sunday (in case you don’t know the order of days in a week) Habiba and I met our friend Graeme and his friend Dylan. We went to a tourist information centre near City Hall where we played some of the traditional games that always crop up at the two big holidays.

One of these was yutnori, a game that involves throwing up four stick that are flat on one side and rounded on the other; depending on the number of flat sides up (or down, depending on your point of view) you can move one of two counters around a board a certain number of spaces; if you land on the opposing team’s counter you can send it back to the start. Habiba and Graeme won.

We threw arrow-like sticks into urns and Korean hacksack was also there. Then we dressed up in traditional dress – they just went over our normal clothes. The usual hanbok was available, but we boys all chose royal and noble costumes.

After that we walked past the entrance to the Gyeongbok Palace and walked around Bukchon, an area with lots of coffee shops and shops selling crafts, nicknacks and jewellery, as well as old-fashioned, single-storey Korean houses (hanok). We had coffee and played cards.

While walking around this area, we saw a cat lying on its side on someone’s doorstep. We realised that the cat was sick. It was breathing with difficulty, foaming at the mouth a bit and it periodically spasmed. It wasn’t blinking at all and obviously had no strength to get up. A couple of young Korean guys had also stopped and they got on the phone and got in touch with some sort of animal centre. One of them found a bit of newspaper and plastic sacking to cover the cat with to try to keep it warm. We waited there for maybe forty-five minutes in total.

We didn’t know what had happened to it. We speculated that maybe it had eaten some poison or that it had been hit by a car and was suffering from shock or even that it had rabies. Habiba was quite emotional and my voice caught when I talked about some of my family’s cats that had been affected by poison. The van that took the cat away belonged to an organisation called Karma.

After that, we headed to Insadong, where the street of souvenir and craft shops is. It also has lots of restaurants and we met another couple of people, Jacky and Chris, for dinner. We shared two big pots of soup – heated at the table on portable burners – one of dalkdoritang or spicy chicken soup, another of beef, mushroom and Korean dumplings. And we got drunk on lots of bottles of makkeolli.

It wasn’t a late night, though, and we took the bus home. Habiba cried a bit again and wondered out loud why the innocent should suffer. I didn’t really say anything, as the honest answer to that is, basically, that shit happens. Nature is full of danger and disease and death, but we humans tend to forget this because of the comfortable world we’ve built for ourselves. I had appendicitis last year, a condition that, if I’d lived in an early time, probably would have killed me and that would have been perfectly in keeping with the natural order. In simple biological terms, humans become fertile in their early teens, so a lifespan of thirty-odd years gives people enough time to raise a couple of children (the lucky ones that survive) to maturity before dying – their evolutionary purpose fulfilled.

Still, it’s not pleasant to see a fellow mammal suffering (yes, mammal – remember that just a couple of weeks ago we were happy to hook fish out of a river and let them suffocate in the air). One of the things that distinguishes humans from other animals is not our empathy or compassion – it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to say that other animals possess these things – but the breadth of our empathy and compassion. Animals (cute, furry ones, at any rate) seem to occupy a place in our minds that is evolutionarily reserved for children.

But enough of such pretentious and, indeed, portentous rambling. Overall, this Lunar New Year’s Eve was pleasant – and if not pleasant, then at least it stimulated the emotions and the mind.

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