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Posts Tagged ‘food’

… 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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The first official day of my holiday, Wednesday the 26th, passed uneventfully. I did a bit of writing, picked up the rest of my medicine, discovered I somehow wasn’t covered by national health insurance, contacted my boss then heard from her that someone at the government had made a mistake and it should be sorted out by the next day. Later, I dropped some shirts at a dry cleaners for ironing, got a haircut, went to a kimbap place for dinner – where I met Namy, my other colleague; she’s off to America for a month soon, so she was with her replacement, a young Korean guy who used to be a student at the hagwon. They were both on their dinner break – the guy is evidently replacing me, too, while I’m off.

Afterwards, I watched Sucker Punch – which was better than I thought it was going to be. A little, anyway. It was completely silly – a mish-mash of computer game cut-scenes linked by a non-sensical escape plot framed within a deceptive melodrama. It worked, though; it was visually spectacular and perfectly well acted. I particularly liked the fantasy-within-a-fantasy structure and the denouement was pretty bold. I could have done without the pretentious voiceovers at the beginning and end.

I had a fairly early start the next day. I packed my suitcase for five days in Seoul, picked up my shirts, packed one, and headed off to the railway station.

I got off at Yeongdeungpo in western Seoul, where I met Helena, a very sweet woman I worked with when I worked in Gangnam. She drove us to a Homeplus, where we had shabu-shabu for lunch (shabu-shabu is a kind of soup that cooks on a hob on your table; this particular place was buffet-style, so you picked your own ingredients to go in the watery stock: bean sprouts, bak choi, spring onions, beef, baby octopuses, prawns etc; the man on the till when we left told us it was a Mongolian dish, though Helena said it’s common all over east Asia and Wikipedia says it’s Japanese but originally from China). We talked about our lives in the past few years; she told me what she knew of the other people we worked with. She seems very happy and know has her own cottage industry making leather wallets, passport cases and suchlike.

Afterwards, I headed to Sinsa and to Zach’s place. Zach’s out of the country, visiting friends and family in the States, but he very kindly agreed to let me stay there while I was up in Seoul. I retrieved the key from its super secret hiding place and let myself in. I got on the internet and signed up for a New Year’s Eve party; then I went to the KEB handily located just across the main road to transfer funds pay for it.

As I was thinking of what to do next, I remembered my friend Ji-hyeon. I’d sent her a couple of e-mails telling her I was due back in the country, but had had no reply. I searched my mails for a phone number for her and texted a message to it. A minute later she called and we arranged to meet an hour later. Fortuitously enough, she has recently started working in Sinsa, so she came straight from work to meet me for a coffee (well, she had hot chocolate).

The last time I saw her was at her wedding. She sent me an e-mail earlier in the year telling me she was pregnant; she now has a four-month-old baby boy. She showed me a video, and he’s a happy, bonny baby – they usually are. We caught up on each other’s lives, but we had barely an hour together as she wanted to get home to her son and husband.

I ate dinner then headed to Hongdae to meet Mary. I don’t know Mary so well, having only really met her a few times, but she’s a lovely person, so when she texted me in response to my Facebook message about my new phone number I was glad to arrange to meet her. We had a quite serious and occasionally gruesome conversation over a couple of drinks in a couple of bars. And we made arrangements to meet again today with Matthew for a Mary-led tour of Ewha Women’s University, where she’s a student.

And that’s what I’ll be doing very soon. This holiday is turning out to be extremely packed with social events and socialsing: seeing my three friends yesterday, meeting Mary and Matthew today, gaming tomorrow, hiking with a group on Sunday, New Year’s Eve party on Monday, dinner with some Cheonan people on Wednesday (I’ll finally get to meet some Cheonanites! (besides those I work with)). So much social interaction is quite unlike me, but, being stuck down in Cheonan and working the hours that I work, I feel that I have to take advantage of all such opportunities I can.

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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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Last week, after less than a week of waiting, I got my visa issuance number from my recruiter. The next step was to submit my application to the Korean embassy in London. I decided that I would go down to hand it in in person. This would allow the staff to see it first and let me know if there was any problem (for instance, I wasn’t sure whether I should also hand over my old passport with my previous visas in it) – and I would be able to see friends while I was there. I considered staying down in London so I could pick my passport up when it was ready, but it seemed likely that it would take the full five working days or longer to process (a British friend from Korea advised me that that was likely – he’d received his only shortly before he was due to leave the country) and London is expensive.

On Tuesday night, I stayed up to watch the BBC coverage of the US presidential election (elections to Congress weren’t covered in much detail). Americans got it right again – making up for electing George W Bush twice. Given that various Tea Party Republicans were voted out and liberal policies approved in referenda, I wonder whether Mitt Romney might have done a lot better if he’d been allowed to present himself as the moderate he supposedly really is. I eventually went to bed at 7am, meeting my sister and her kids on the way as they got up. I was able to rise again at the not unreasonable hour of midday.

The following night, I was in bed at about midnight and up again at five o’clock in order to get a 6:35 train to Manchester and an 8 o’clock coach to London (the outbound trip cost just £9 with National Express and the return £12.50 – which somehow managed to add up to £29.50 along with insurance, booking fee and so on).

The Korean embassy is on Buckingham Gate, just off Victoria and a short walk from Victoria Coach Station. The coach arrived at 13:20, so I got lunch from the Subway at the shopping mall adjacent to the railway station and arrived at the embassy just after 2pm, when they re-opened after lunch. The woman on duty at one of the windows inside told me assertively that the visa section was closed. I suggested to her that I could just hand my documents in, but that was unacceptable. As soon as I had this conversation, I realised that I’d been in exactly this situation some years ago, probably in 2008.

It wasn’t a problem though – except that my passport would be returned to me that little bit later and it would make planning my flight out that little bit trickier – I had time before my return coach in the morning to come back. I turned my thoughts to getting to my hostel down in the Isle of Dogs – the south-pointing peninsula bounded by a big loop of the Thames that is the location of Canary Wharf; it’s geographical feature that’s been familiar for many years because of the title sequence of EastEnders. I realised I’d forgotten to bring either of my Oyster cards with me, so, reasoning that I had plenty of time, I decided to walk.

I thought it might take a couple of hours – it took three. I got there a little after five o’clock, having walked along the north bank of the Thames for various parts of the way (and taken a few pictures of the attractively cloudy sky), and was starting to worry about meeting my friends on time (although we hadn’t actually set a time).

The Great Eastern Bestplace Inn turned out to be quite a pleasant place – very pubby downstairs, clean and whitewashed upstairs. Better still, my bed was £11.99 – half price. The shower, on the other hand was terrible: weak and uncertain in temperature.

I got the DLR and Tube back up to our rendezvous point in the general vicinity of Leicester Square. Drew met me as I was reading and drinking tea at McDonalds. We headed out shortly towards the big Odeon cinema, which has been our meeting place on more than one occasion – then headed back because Colin had gone to McDonalds looking for us.

Colin always has the information on where to eat, so we allowed him to guide us to an Indian restaurant. My Goa murg and mushroom rice was very tasty, but – shockingly – I couldn’t finish because I was getting a bit full. The meal came to around £55 for the three of us. Afterwards, we went to a Costa for coffee and more chit-chat. I introduced Drew and Colin to the pleasures of the Korean flower cards game, Go-Stop – or a simplified version thereof.

Then it was time to say goodbye for another lengthy period and we headed to our respective homes.

In the morning, I checked out of the hostel after a complementary breakfast of cornflakes, bread and jam and tea. Well – I left, anyway. There were no keys, only door codes, and I’d already paid, so there was no actual checking out to do. There was no one on the reception desk, so I couldn’t even tell them, ‘I’m checking out now.’

I returned to the embassy shortly before 10 o’clock. I went to the passport window, where there was a young woman on duty (not the same woman as the day before) and, before the word ‘Hello’ had barely passed my lips, she snapped, ‘Visa window open at ten o’clock. Take a ticket and wait over there.’

There was one other person ahead of me – a courier, judging by his high-visibility jacket. Once the visa window opened and this guy had finished he handed me the next number ticket (he must have taken two by mistake) and I handed my stuff over to the young Korean chap manning the counter. When I asked, he indicated I didn’t need to submit my old passport. There was a moment of humour when he passed me my yellow plectrum that had got stuck inside my passport when it had been in my pocket. He looked over my documents, I paid £80, got a receipt and that was that. I didn’t actually ask again (I’d already spoken to someone on the phone two or three days earlier) how long it would take, but a notice on the window made it clear I should expect it to be five working days (to which I added another day for it to be posted).

Afterwards, I made my way to a nearby Starbucks, got a coffee and on the internet, realised at nearly eleven that I had a coach to catch in half an hour, so off I went.

I outlined my progress to my recruiter in an e-mail, but as it was pretty much already the weekend, I didn’t hear anything back and haven’t so far. The worst thing that’ll happen is that they’ll book me a flight and I’ll be forced to miss it because I don’t have my passport, then I’ll arrive in Korea later and the school will have to get someone to cover any class time I miss.

We’ll see what happens next weekend.

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I think Habiba was feeling a little down on the coach to Bath: she wanted to spend more time in London and was understandably feeling awkward about being on my turf, hanging out with my friends. I called Alex to let him know that we were arriving. I saw him out of the window of the coach crossing the road away from the new bus station; I had to call him again to find out where he was. He looked quite different to how I remember him – his hair is nearly as long as mine used to be. I remember once suggesting he grow his hair long; he said No emphatically, explaining that all the shampoo would cost too much.

Alex paid for a taxi to take us up to his place – his mum’s place, I suppose. We had tea and chatted with them both, then it was back down to the city centre for a spot of sightseeing. Alex, with typical exuberance and generosity, insisted on taking us to a traditional sweet shop to buy various sweets of the traditional kind for Habiba to try, and to a Fudge Kitchen shop to get a pretty expensive box of fudge – all paid for by Alex.

We had a look inside the abbey – the first time I’d been in there, despite having lived in the city for three years. Then we wandered across Pulteney Bridge, peering into the shops that line its length, and to the labyrinth on the other side of the river. I decided to cheat by just walking to the middle.

To accompany the sweets and fudge, we bought Cornish Bakehouse pasties – the best pasties ever – and cookies from Ben’s Cookies and ate them in Victoria Square. After that we took a look at the Royal Crescent and the Circus then headed back to Alex’s. Alex’s grandparents were on a visit from Spain, so we took the opportunity to show Habiba what a good old-fashioned fish and chip dinner looked like.

The following day, leaving most of our stuff at Alex’s, we took the train to Bristol to spend a night with Lawrence. When we arrived, the weather was pretty crappy; we walked around Castle Park in the rain, up to the cathedral in the rain and off to meet Lawrence and his girlfriend Yivei in the rain. We went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner and had a pretty good selection of dishes to share. Yivei is Malaysian Chinese, but she’s lived in the UK for a long time. She seemed like a lovely person and I’m really happy for Lawrence.

The next day, we went for a long walk with Lawrence around Bristol. We went along Gloucester Road to the city centre looking for Banksy and others’ graffiti, explored the docks area a little and had lunch at St Nicholas’s Market; I dropped into the secondhand bookshop there, where, a few years ago, I’d bought the first of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, The Shadow of the Torturer – they had one of the other three books, but not the direct sequel. Habiba went to the South African stall and bought various comestibles. Our city tour culminated in a fruitless search for a good place to see the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

We headed back to Bath for a final night with Alex. Alex and I indulged in a night of Magic: The Gathering, while Habiba was on her computer. Around midday the following day, my dad and mum arrived to pick us up to visit my grandmother in Highcliffe down on the south coast.

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The train to Paris was fast – it only took 80 minutes, just about long enough for us to get settled in and watch the first episode of the new season of Game of Thrones. At Gare du Nord, we waited about half an hour in line to buy some tickets for the Metro then made our way down to the home of our next host.

Pierre was the latest in a growing line of great hosts. As soon as we arrived, he treated us to a lunch of salad and home-made pizza. He was a friendly, gentle guy with a great collection of fantasy and sf, lots of Japanese stuff and board games including both English and French versions of A Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica.

We didn’t do much for the rest of the day – except in the evening, when we went to meet Habiba’s friend from university, Andy. He turned out to be a sweet, talkative guy with a flamboyant dress sense; he told us a lot about the art world. We had dinner at a small, pub-ish restaurant; they had burgers; I had one of the French meals Pierre had recommended earlier (he didn’t have too many recommendations as he prefers Asian cuisine): duck confit with potatoes. It was very tasty – salty and crispy round the edges.

The following day, Pierre took us on a walking tour of Paris. We started at a Roman amphitheatre, went on to the Panthéon, where various personages from French history are interred, through Luxembourg Gardens, site of the French Senate, on to Notre Dame, stopping for lunch at another small restaurant (I had poached eggs in chive sauce for a starter and steak for my main course; Habiba had a prawn salad and lamb kebab; Pierre outdid us by having bone marrow on toast and steak tartare (ie, raw minced beef, which he mixed with a raw egg yolk and and various condiments)).

After lunch we went into Notre Dame, visited the nearby Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, had fancy ice cream, walked along the Seine a little way, passing Pont Neuf, into the Louvre courtyard – site of the famous glass pyramid – into the nearest part of the Tuileries, the long park in line with the Champs Elysées – the Arc de Triomphe was visible in the distance – by the Palais Garnier – the opera house – to the Moulin Rouge theatre and the nearby area of sex shops, and to Montmartre, where we went into the Church of St Pierre (no relation; Pierre explained that the name – Pierre, or Peter – was related to the fact that the church was on a hill, St Peter being the ‘rock’, the name thus related to words like petrify) and finally to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica.

This latter is fantastically beautiful inside, especially above the altar, where there’s an enormous gold and blue mosaic of Jesus. You’re not allowed to take photos inside, but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone – there were even plenty of flashes going off. I got told off by an African woman after I took my last shot.

The following day, Habiba and I went to the Arc de Triomphe, walked down the Champs Elysées and finally reached the Eiffel Tower. We waited in line for some time – not that long: we elected to go up the stairs to the deuxiemme étage rather than take the ascenseur. At the second level, we took the other lift up to the top. From there the view was pretty breathtaking. It’s astonishing to think that a building over a hundred years old still dominates the skyline in central Paris. The city lay low and flat below us; the only rivals to the tower were Sacré-Coeur on its hill and the business district way off in the distance.

On the way down, I was possibly nearly pickpocketed by a little boy with his female relatives – they looked to be Roma. He was darting about in the crowd, probably just playing, but at one point he had his hands on my back pockets. When we were down and out we realised that Habiba was going to be late for her eight o’clock date with Andy – she got there late, but successfully hooked up with him.

I headed back to Pierre’s where I met a couple of his friends, Bertrand and Agnes (pronounced ‘Ann-yes’) – the latter of whom bore more than a passing resemblance to Angelina Jolie – and we played A Game of Thrones late into the night. The game proved to be like a smaller scale but more complicated version of Risk.

On our final day, we didn’t do too much sightseeing; I had promised to go to the Louvre, but going to bed at about 3 am argued against it. We did have a little dinner party in the evening with both Pierre and Andy, though. The following day, we headed to the not-too-distant Gare de Lyon to embark on a very long journey to Venice.

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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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